Desolation Row

Have things changed, or did we (I, you, they) get them wrong in the first place? It can be hard to tell, sometimes. Or perhaps I mean always. It can be hard to sort out misunderstanding from wishful thinking, confirmation bias from overcorrection, too much suspicion from not enough suspicion, too much suspicion of X from not enough suspicion of Y – and so on.

From Open Democracy:

Some of my friends and relatives tell me I’ve changed – that my politics aren’t as “leftwing” as they used to be during the anti-nuclear movement in Britain back in the 1980s. In a way, they are right. My core politics haven’t changed, but it seems to me that the world has changed so dramatically – traditional alliances and reference points have become unreliable, the ground rules of the power game have so shifted – I’d be a fool not to incorporate these changes into my analytical framework.

Maybe. Maybe, maybe. Or maybe we (I, they, you) were (at least partly) wrong about some of those alliances and reference points and ground rules all along. Or maybe not. It can be very hard to tell. Which means it can be very hard to tell just what is ‘leftwing’ anyway. It’s getting to be a very slippery eel, that ‘leftwing’ attribute.

Unlike my compatriot Christopher Hitchens, however, whose break with erstwhile comrades on the left over foreign policy has resulted in a wholesale swing rightward, I still hope that my rethinking of some foreign policy questions can be incorporated into a vibrant progressive movement. Indeed, I’d argue that a strong defence of pluralistic, democratic societies needs to be an essential, perhaps a defining, component of any genuinely progressive politics in today’s world.

There’s an example of that eel right there. That ‘wholesale swing rightward’ is highly disputable (and disputed). Just for one thing, I would venture to say that Hitchens also hopes that his ‘rethinking of some foreign policy questions can be incorporated into a vibrant progressive movement,’ and he certainly would argue that a strong defence of pluralistic, democratic societies needs to be an essential component of any genuinely progressive politics – so the ‘unlike’ bit is not altogether clear. A distinction without a difference.

But the basic point is unexceptionable.

Yet reading the voices of much of the self-proclaimed “left” in the London papers in the aftermath of the bombings, I was struck by how ossified many of them have become, how analyses crafted at the height of the cold war have lingered as paltry interpretive frameworks for political fissures bearing little if anything in common with that “twilight conflict.”…They assume that groups like al-Qaida are almost entirely reactive, responding to western policies and actions, rather than being pro-active creatures with a virulent homegrown agenda, one not just of defence but of conquest, destruction of rivals, and, ultimately and at its most megalomaniacal, absolute subjugation…Moreover, many of those who reflexively blame the west do not honestly hold up a mirror to the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, and the racism and sexism and anti-semitism that is rife in many parts of it. If bigotry were indeed the exclusive preserve of the west, their arguments would have greater moral force. But given the fundamentalist prejudices that are so much a part of bin Ladenism, the cry of western racism is a long way from being a case-closer.

Well there’s an understatement. A bit of litotes, as a commenter usefully reminded me the other day when I was groping for an antonym for hyperbole. A bit of hyperbolic understatement, that is – ‘If bigotry were indeed the exclusive preserve of the west, their arguments would have greater moral force.’ Yes, they certainly would! But boy is that ever not the case. Nothing in that whole capacious box of human cruelty, brutality, exploitation, oppression – racism, sexism, nationalism, ethnicism, religionism, megoodyoubadism – none of that is the exclusive preserve of the west, in fact it flourishes in gangrenous proliferating bottomlessly malevolent ways in many pockets of the non-west.

Indeed, what al-Qaida apparently hates most about “the west” are its best points: the pluralism, the rationalism, individual liberty, the emancipation of women, the openness and social dynamism that represent the strongest legacy of the Enlightenment…It is because bin Ladenism is waging war against the liberal ideal that much of the activist left’s response to 11 September 2001 and the London attacks is woefully, catastrophically inadequate. For we, as progressives, need to uphold the values of pluralism, rationalism, scepticism, women’s rights, and individual liberty and oppose ideologies and movements whose foundations rest on theocracy, obscurantism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and nostalgia for a lost empire.

Yes. We do.

Pamela Bone also makes that point.

”A move back towards the left for you?” a regular correspondent emailed, in response to a recent column. “I never left the left. The left left me,” I replied. “The left I thought I was part of didn’t make common cause with fascists.”

Therefore placation is not an option.

Of course we are all for peace, aren’t we? It’s certainly the easiest moral position to take. The problem is that sometimes things are just not that easy. And I am yet to hear a satisfactory explanation from the anti-war left as to what should done to stop mass murder when diplomacy has been exhausted and sanctions have failed. What should be done about Darfur?

What should have been done about Rwanda? Kosovo? Bosnia? Peace is good, war is bad – but sometimes peace is not the best good and war is not the worst bad. Sometimes peace is not peace but desolation, as Tacitus pointed out a long time ago. I’ve quoted this before, I think, but I’ll do it again, because it’s good. ‘Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.’ Where they make a wilderness and call it peace. By the same token, submission is not peace, it’s submission.

In the 1930s, people of the left went from around the world to fight fascism in Spain. The left didn’t argue then that fascists needed to be “understood” and placated. Today’s terrorists will be placated only when they have achieved their declared aim: a worldwide, Taliban-style Islamic state…I am not part of that left who seem to believe democracy is OK for Swedes but not for Arabs.

No. Nor am I (nor are you, we, they).

Hitchens also makes the point.

Never make the mistake of asking for rationality here. And never underestimate the power of theocratic propaganda. The fanatics look at the population of Bali and its foreign visitors and they see a load of Hindus selling drinks – often involving the presence of unchaperoned girls – to a load of Christians. That in itself is excuse enough for mayhem. They also see local Muslims following syncretic and tolerant forms of Islam, and they yearn to redeem them from this heresy and persuade them of the pure, desert-based truths of Salafism and Wahhabism…So, what did Indonesia do to deserve this, or bring it on itself? How will the slaughter in Bali improve the lot of the Palestinians? Those who look for the connection will be doomed to ask increasingly stupid questions and to be content with increasingly wicked answers.

Stupid questions and wicked answers – let’s not. Let’s at least try not to.

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