The Democratiya Interviews

The online magazine Democratiya was set up by writers and academics in 2005 as a reaction to the status-quo left consensus that dominated liberal thought from the provincial dinner party to the pages of the British Guardian. From its founding statement:

When over eight million Iraqis voted in democratic elections in January 2005, at polling stations guarded by American and other foreign troops, emerging to dance for joy, their purple fingers aloft, only for Britain’s leading liberal newspaper to sneer that the election was ‘at best irrelevant’ it was clear that something had gone terribly awry. When Iraq’s heroic free trade unionists were called ‘collaborators’ and ‘quislings’, while their torturers and murderers were hailed as a ‘liberation movement’ one could hear the rattling of loose political and moral bearings.

For three years the magazine has provided a home for dissident and internationalist comment, and Global Politics After 9/11 collects ten interviews with academics from Britain, the US, Egypt and Iran. The purpose of these discussions and of the magazine is to make a positive contribution to foreign policy that goes beyond opposing whatever George W Bush does.

Despite this wide spectrum of opinion, there is a danger in magazine anthologies that the debate will slide into a mutual backslapping. This is a trap for all small intellectual groups that Global Politics skilfully avoids. Alan Johnson, Democratiya’s founder and the book’s interlocutor, isn’t afraid to ask hard questions and to challenge long-held beliefs.

Nor is this volume a chorus of acquiescence to the policies of British and American governments. Many of the interviewees are antiwar (I’m pointing this out because support for or opposition to the war is now a moral litmus test for the reactionary left). David Held, of the London School of Economics, slams what he aptly terms ‘market fundamentalism’; government-held dogma of purely capitalist solutions that condemns millions to starvation and disease. Paul Berman, considered to be the godfather of the ‘cruise-missile left,’ discusses Bush’s proposed appointment of Cold War criminal John Negroponte to the UN:

As a Central America reporter for the 1980s, I remembered his role as Ambassador to Honduras at the time the death squads were appearing… Excuse me, but I made some of these points earlier and a lot more loudly than some of my critics ever did. Thank God for the internet – it preserves everything.

It’s a fine answer to those who portray liberals as naive dreamers who think that America has been an unadulterated force for good since the 1940s.

Berman’s critique is trashed later in the collection by Joshua Muravchik, who is an actual, real-life neoconservative. At a time when ‘neocon’ is defined as ‘a person who deviates in any way from the antiwar/Seumas Milne/Noam Chomsky line on Iraq, Iran and religion,’ it is brave and necessary to include him, purely for the sake of perspective. As Johnson says, the label is ‘an obstacle to grown-up political debate.’

Another obstacle is identified by Iraqi writer and dissident Kanan Makiya in the book’s best interview. The dialogue opens with a fascinating look at Makiya’s background and travels (when are we going to get a full biography of this man?) The son of an architect, Makiya was lauded by the radical left for his book Republic of Fear, an exposé of the horrors of Saddam’s regime (at that point funded and supported by the West). In 1992 Makiya wrote Cruelty and Silence, which featured case studies exploring the impact of Ba’ath repression on individuals, spliced with servile apologia from Arab intellectuals towards the Hussein regime. Cruelty and Silence, Makiya says, was about ‘putting cruelty first’:

I pit the words of Arab and Western intellectuals of my generation, many of the left, against all these Iraqi words about violence and cruelty. The point was between these two sets of words there was a chasm. The intellectuals offered rhetoric about ‘nationalism,’ ‘Imperialism,’ ‘the Crusades,’ and so on. The focus of the book was about the rhetoric that the war had generated among intellectuals and the chasm between that rhetoric and the reality. Between those two realities – the words of the intellectuals and the words of the victims – there was a yawning gap.

Naturally, the status-quo left dropped him like a stone. Edward Said called the book ‘scurrilous,’ and ‘revolting, based as it was on cowardly innuendo and false interpretation.’ Makiya was expelled like a dinner-party guest who had lit up a cigarette at the table.

The metaphor is apposite when we think about the changes in left politics. From Makiya’s interview:

Look back at the Spanish Civil War and think of the brigades of volunteers who went to fight. Think of George Orwell. That’s the spirit of the traditional left. The language of human rights comes naturally to it as an extension of its internationalism and its universalism… Increasingly, by the 1980s, that is no longer the case… the internationalist concern with those universals human beings have in common declined in importance.

The left has lost its active spirit. It is now a purely social tradition based around shared opinions, taboos, reference points and in-jokes. Asking the conformist left of today to leave the dinner party and actually do something about oppression just seems laughable, which is why Makiya is derided as a foolish idealist. The result is that, in Makiya’s words, ‘any form of intervention began to be seen as immoral,’ and that efforts to draw attention to the repression of Middle Eastern people are seen as at best irrelevant and at worst propaganda for imperialism.

I’ll give an example. Back in January the British literary critic Stephen Mitchelmore criticised other bloggers for drawing attention to the censorship of Iranian novelists and publishers. ‘While I’m sure not one literary blogger I’ve mentioned backs the threats of violence made by the US administration,’ he conceded, ‘the willingness to promote this story uncritically has unwelcome consequences. It has already become a discussion point: ‘Should we bomb Iran?’ etc.’ The fact that you can be against both war on Iran and censorship in Iran had not seemed to occur to him.

It’s an example of what Johnson calls ‘the non-aggression pact that existed between the anti-Western left and the mainstream left’; the unwillingness to criticise one’s own side, however stupid and corrupt its actions, because you fear that the slightest dissent will provide ammunition to the enemy. From George Orwell’s essay ‘Through a Glass, Rosily’:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding or abetting B… Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise, or at least criticise ‘constructively,’ which in practice always means favourably.

Democratiya calls for a total abandonment of this paranoid self-censorship. It’s a call that should be heeded, for self-examination is the beginning of renewal. If its counsel is followed, then one day the left may be able to look itself in the mirror, and to sleep at night.

Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews, ed. Alan Johnson, The Foreign Policy Centre, 2008

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