Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Left behind

Over in England, columnist Nick Cohen has left the Left, following in the weaving footsteps of Christopher Hitchens. He writes with that peculiarly British mixture of stylishness and smugness that is taken for wit and wisdom these days by far too many of the culturati.

But I shouldn't be so dismissive, because, in fairness, Cohen has put his finger on a fundamental moral problem, one that may not, in the final analysis, be fully resolvable. Applying an overly-simplistic (and selective) "right vs. wrong" moral code to a world in which every decision has myriad positive and negative consequences is a very dark glass with which to view current events. Moreover, imposing such a code has led to unspeakably terrible consequences.

Those who strive in one way or another to implement social justice, who embrace a vision of egalitarianism, peace, inclusiveness, and unity-in-diversity, have not done overly well when it comes to constructing the machinery to do so. And that's because, in my humble opinion, it's not a matter of building machinery. Such efforts are doomed to fail. What we need, rather, is infrastructure, both literally and metaphorically.

But I'm running ahead of myself.

Let's have a closer look at Cohen's apostasy (since he uses religious metaphors, so shall I), as outlined in a recent article. "[What] a large part of the mainstream liberal-left don't and won't confront is that they have become the fellow travellers of the psychopathic far-right," he says. He introduces his point-man W.H. Auden, a fine poet whose odyssey into Christianity, like that of T.S. Eliot, marks a classic reaction to modernism. In latter days, Auden did wring his hands a lot, and with good reason.

The excesses, no, the bloody mega-crimes of Stalinism, as it turned out, were not the products of feverishly creative former-day Jamie Glazovs and George Jonases. They were real. Unimaginably real. By the time Khrushchev made his famous and self-serving speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, the fat was already in the fire. Hungary followed in a matter of months, with an exodus from the Communist Party and its entourage; then we had to wait a few more years for Czechoslovakia and the sudden end to the Prague Spring in 1968 (my personal tipping-point, if you want to know).

But it then became too easy to accuse the Left of complicity, a tactic that continues unabated today, and which turns on a fundamental misconception. Certainly, the people on the Left, like people anywhere in the political universe, can harness themselves too securely to visions to see what's going on. No political stripe has a monopoly on naïveté and illogic. (No religious stripe, either: I recall a former companion's Catholic schoolbook, and an exercise question that leapt out at me: "What was the Inquisition? Defend it.")

It is wrong, though, to be overly self-assured in these matters. Margaret Thatcher served tea to the butcher of Santiago not all that long ago. The US had propped up frightful regimes, and indeed has installed quite a few of them, including the aforesaid butcher. When I see all the hand-wringing about Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, for example, I remember when one was cynically used by the US against that Great Satan, Iran, and the other coalesced from remnants of a US-financed anti-Soviet mujahideen.

But this is wide of the point I am attempting to make. There is, on all sides, a kind of tactical moralism that is brought out when needed to savage political opponents, and which bears no relation to morality per se. When the less-literate portion of the Left ran around many years back calling anyone to the right of Tommy Douglas a "fascist," and when people here in the blogosphere insist that Ed Broadbent is a Communist ally of Islamism (I kid you not) and millionaire businessman Paul Martin is a "socialist," one has to realize before it's too late that a verbal fog has descended, one so thick that the analytical equivalent of cutting blades and oxygen tanks is urgently called for. The aim of such tags is to shame, not to describe. It's hyperbole, in other words, but some, far too many, come to believe that it's factual.

I'm with Cohen when he writes: "The least attractive characteristic of the middle-class left - one shared with the Thatcherites - is its refusal to accept that its opponents are sincere." It's a characteristic of many, in fact, who hold strongly to their beliefs. It has tactical value, too, since it makes those charged with insincerity defensive, divagating from the topic at hand. Those accusing others of political insincerity are all too often insincere in doing so.

But he loses me when he makes the very sort of claim that he criticizes. Putting words in our mouths, he writes:

It is presumptuous and oppressive to suggest that other cultures want the liberties we take for granted, their argument runs. So it may be, but believe that and the upshot is that democracy, feminism and human rights become good for whites but not for browns and brown-skinned people who contradict you are the tools of the neo-conservatives.


[W]hen confronted with a movement of contemporary imperialism - Islamism wants an empire from the Philippines to Gibraltar - and which is tyrannical, homophobic, misogynist, racist and homicidal to boot, [the Left feels] it is valid because it is against Western culture. It expresses its feelings in a regrettably brutal manner perhaps, but that can't hide its authenticity.

I admit that I find myself wondering about Cohen’s political motives when I read frankly bizarre stuff like this:

Why is it right to support a free market in sexual relationships but oppose free-market economics, for instance?

But I’ll do him the honour of believing he is sincere, if at times incomprehensible. What he evidently lacks, however, is the ability to understand that the world of Realpolitik is not a moral world, and that we must salvage what morality we can as we navigate it. I'm not here arguing for cynicism, although simplistic universal moral schemes arouse my suspicion: instead, I'm advocating for realism.

Suppose one is confronted by the geopolitical reality that a dictator is behaving harshly to his subjects. While his country is technologically advanced and largely secular, any whisper of opposition is treated with outrageous cruelty. The moral issue is, in a nutshell, What to do? If you have the power, do you invade, replace him, and set up your very culture-bound notion of proper governance--at the cost of tens of thousands of lives? Do you impose sanctions, killing a huge number of children in the process, and then claim that it's "worth it?" Do you practise "constructive engagement," whatever that is? Do you weigh the moral odds, as it were, rather than making easy moral equivalency arguments or dismissing morality altogether? Do you perhaps question the motives of those poised to invade, noticing that there appears to be a convenient and selective set of morals brought into play whenever the US has far more concrete geopolitical objectives?

All of this should ideally go into the mix of a serious political--and moral--debate on the solution of difficult problems affecting human rights. But it rarely does. Instead, two levels of argument, moral and realist, become inextricably confused. Just examine the fatuous arguments against the notion of root causes: somehow, looking for reasons is equated to looking for justification.

I've never held with “tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner,” myself. That bespeaks a moral flabbiness, if not the abandonment of the very notion of morality itself. But I'm entirely in agreement with “tout comprendre,” or at least as much as possible. I prefer explanations to metaphysics. My morality comes into play when I've understood the situation well enough to make a judgment, trying to avoid simplistic binary thinking, because there aren't just white hats and black hats contending out there, much as some would like it to be otherwise.

Speaking of binary thinking, here's Cohen again:

But arguments have their own dynamic. If you start by refusing to look Baathism or Islamism in the face, the logic of blaming everything on Tony Blair and George W Bush pushes you into making ever more excuses for the extreme right.

Excuses? What excuses? Strawmen vs. strongmen, black versus white, evil versus good. In the very same article, Cohen says:

The reason why one million people marched through London without one mounting a platform to express solidarity with the victims of fascism was that it never occurred to them that there were people in Iraq who shared their values.

He just can't seem to decide what form of duplicity grips us. Here we are, making excuses for the Ba'athist regime one moment, and merely lacking moral imagination the next. Perhaps neither is true. Just perhaps we did the calculations, asked out loud where the WMDs were (the original excuse, you will remember, for going into Iraq--the human rights concerns took centre stage only when the WMDs could not be found, and it's not a little cynical to plead for retroactive moral justification now).

Maybe we asked ourselves and others whether casting around for Iraqi players to enact a version of the first US Continental Congress was really going to solve the problem of governance in Iraq for all time. Not because Iraqis are incapable of yearning for liberty and human rights, but because a foreign model, imposed by war and occupation, might prove worse than the disease it was meant to cure. Thus far, 25,000 dead civilians and a ramped-up civil war may prove that our analysis was not that far off.

So now we find ourselves in a deepening global quagmire, and the best Cohen can come up with is:

Even if people think that the Iraq war has made Britain a bigger target, they are still confronted with a fascistic cult of murder and self-murder which allows no compromise.

One cult, no compromise, attack first, and sleep uneasily. Not the vision of the future that appeals to me, and certainly not the one shared by the Left. We dare to remain optimistic; our vision of the future is more than boots stamping on the human face forever, either in the name of Allah or in the name of "anti-terrorism."

Second-last word to Cohen:

Indeed, it is impossible to imagine what a serious left-wing candidate [for the leadership of the British Labour Party] would look like and what his or her programme might be.

If I might suggest: someone who combines a strong moral vision with a realistic view of the world, and finds Bush's world-view somewhat cramped quarters in which to take up residence. Someone who will not lie to the people to protect oil and geopolitical positioning.

Back to my earlier comments about machinery and infrastructure. If a Left programme is to rise from the ashes of our astounding failures, it will only do so through a different kind of thinking. We can no more build a Utopia-making machine than we can be planet-managers, trying to run the vast and complex mechanism of the environment ourselves. Rather, in both cases (and it's really only one case) we should avoid doing harm, while striving to create the conditions within which the vast potential of humanity can be realized, and the precise and complex balances of nature can be preserved.

Nothing less than a new mental and social infrastructure is required. If we believe in a greener and more egalitarian future, we can't order it into being, with rules and central planning. People will build it for themselves, given half a chance: the Left strategy must be to find out precisely how that opportunity can best be created.

So, for Labour Party leader? Someone with a programme, but not a blueprint; with a government that encourages, not directs, that decentralizes decision-making so that decisions actually fit the circumstances, that encourages community without homogenization, and values over rules. And, finally, someone who means what s/he says, and says what s/he means: a better world is possible, there is an alternative, and let's get to work on the plan, folks, the sooner the better, "before the whole sh*thouse goes up in flames."

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