Thursday, February 4, 2010


Norm has been thinking rather a lot recently about the UK public discussion about the war in Iraq. In a nutshell, there's a large and influential group of people for whom the wrongness and illegality of the war are the starting point of any discussion; all that remains thereafter is to condemn or praise people or actions according to their relationship to the fundamental truth. Today's installment:

There were, of course, certain facts of the matter about the war, certain unambiguous truths, as there are about more or less anything. But the justificatory arguments on both sides appealed to a range, not only of facts, not only of projections of the likely consequences of one or another course of action, but also to moral and political principles - concerning the general justifications for war, the application of international law to this case, the force of international law, the demands of solidarity in the face of tyranny, the proper circumstances of humanitarian intervention - that do not map neatly on to any simple story about the occurrence of an act of adultery or theft or political kidnapping. But never mind all that, hey. The truth is just as we declare it to be. That has been the arrogance of anti-war groupthink in the last few years. In the mouth of any liberal it is a precious victory handed to the partisans of the one and only Party Line.

I don't mean to be gratuitously insulting but Macintyre's column belongs in the pages of the Guardian.

Eventually the whole thing becomes very depressing. There's a whole class of Brits, apparently, who have lost the ability to think, or even to recognize the right of others to do so. If you don't see things our way, you must be deranged. Worse: evil. (Merely deranged is to be pitied; there's no pity in this discussion).

There's a noticeable overlap, of course, between the educated British elites who have surrendered their cognitive abilities for the fuzzy warm feeling of righteousness on Iraq, and the educated British elites who have surrendered their cognitive abilities for the warm fuzzy feeling of moral superiority regarding the Jews as actors in history.


This Is Hell said...

Doesn't all of this smack of a new form of what cannibal kingdoms and tinpot tyrants do anyway? Once they're in power they seek out and destroy the last ruler and all his cronies so they can never rise up and cause problems again. In the US, since Bill Clinton, and down to the state level, more and more elections are being 'revised' by impeachments, trials, scandals and anything anyone can get their hands on to reverse or rewrite or punish what's gone on before. Therefore there are three possible outcomes to governance today: 1) permanent anarchy, 2) timid caretaker governments that do nothing, and 3) Presidents for life.

Pick one.

Anonymous said...

Ben MacIntyre has a book to promote and while at it he, like all the others when in that mode, makes weak arguments as long as they somehow allow him to hint teasingly at his book.

Lee Ratner said...

I don't think its really that simple. For more than a few very important issues, reaching a compromise is not really possible and it has to be either/or. The death penalty is a classic example of this. You either have a death penalty for certain crimes or you don't. To the pro-death penalty side, the death penalty seems a natural punishment for horrendous crimes. The anti-death penalty side things that the death penalty is wrong for variety of reasons. Both sides view the other side at best as being horribly misguided if not evil because of the seriousness of the issue and the either/or nature of the issue.

Abortion and a whole lot of other issues are similar. In the UK, the Iraq War is currently an issue like the above and in America healthcare reform occupies a similar place. When you have an issue that is very serious and is really only capable of an either/or solution than it is natural for one side to view the other as deranged or evil.

How do you feel about anti-Zionists? Do you believe that it is possible for their to be legitimate anti-Zionism or do you believe that all anti-Zionists are deranged and/or evil?

Yaacov said...

Lee -

I don't think we're saying the same things. You're noting that some issues cannot be resolved by finding a middle ground. I agree. Some indeed can't.

I'm saying that on some issues, people lose their ability to think; they parrot the talking point of their side, and deride the other side for being stupid. This has little to do with who is right and who is wrong, and lots to do with intellectual ability and integrity. The ability to understand that your opponant has viable positions even if you disagree - that's what I was castigating here (following Norman Geras).

I hope I don't do the same to Israel's enemies. Perhaps sometimes I slip into it, but as a general statement, I do my best to try to decipher what's going on with them, and for that I have to start from the position that they're using their intellect to interpret a reality. They often seem to me very wrong, willfully wrong, even maliciously wrong - but I don't think they're stupid.

Up to a degree, I even think that listening to them can be instructive to us, and to our benefit. Of course we shouldn't do what the Guardian would like us to do, namely disappear as a political entity. But we can certainly glean the occasional insight into mistakes we've made by listening to them. This is certainly the case with the NIF.

Lee Ratner said...

Okay, I see your point now. This was the entire rational behind the Fairness Doctrine, which made mainstream media less partisan before Reagan got rid of it.

Still, I think groupthink and the fact that some issues are incapable of being resolved by compromise go hand in hand. When compromise is not possible, it is very tempting to view the other side as being deranged and/or evil or at least stupid. Sometimes you might even be right.