Friday, August 27, 2010

Why not just give the crazies what they want? Isn't that being "realistic"?

On Thursday Greg Sargent's daily political-news-roundup blog for the Washington Post (Plum Line) contained the following item about the Cordoba House/Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" affair. It hit the nail on the head.
* Convoluted argument of the day: New York's governor says the stabbing of the Muslim cabbie shows we need to move Cordoba House.

Ben Smith sums up: "The argument here: The mosque must be moved because its opponents are crazed, violent bigots who need to be appeased."
I agree, of course, that this kind of argument is foolish and pernicious--even when it's advanced by well-meaning people who just want to avoid the possibility of violence and other troubles. (Also gratuitously insulting to people who oppose the Cordoba House/Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" initiative, not all of whom are simply bigots and/or political demagogues cynically exploiting that bigotry--though of course there are plenty of those.)

=> However, it's worth adding that arguments with precisely this logic are commonly made in debates about how Islamist terrorists (and their possible supporters, sympathizers, and enablers) might be provoked by US (or British) foreign policy, the Danish cartoon wars, the Salman Rushdie affair, and the like. Why not just avoid provoking or offending them by doing what they want? In those cases, the people making these arguments often think of themselves as "progressive" (or sometimes they're self-styled foreign-policy "realists," though nowadays those two categories overlap more than they used to). It would be all too easy to multiply examples, but here is one especially stupid pseudo-sophisticated examplar that comes to mind (which got a surprising amount of thoughtlessly favorable comment, but was effectively eviscerated here). Such arguments are equally foolish and pernicious.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, my point here is not to continue the interminable but mostly unhelpful polemical games in which partisans of various camps try to score debating points by accusing each other of hypocrisy and inconsistency on these matters. As it happens, those accusations are often deserved, on all sides. But the solution is for everyone to recognize and avoid the seductive but fallacious and potentially dangerous logic that produces morally, politically, and intellectually stupid arguments of this sort.

=> On this point I'd like to quote the very intelligent left-liberal blogger "Hilzoy" (who has unfortunately retired from blogging, unless she resumed without my noticing).

Back in 2009, in the context of debates about anti-abortion terrorism by Christian-right extremists, Hilzoy took on various arguments suggesting or implying that while this violence was certainly deplorable, the sense of frustration behind it was in some sense understandable. (In using the word "understandable" here, I'm borrowing a formulation often used nowadays by British apologists for anti-semitism, terrorism against Israeli civilians, and so on). Hilzoy took the position that the morally appropriate and politically sensible response to terrorism is not simply to capitulate by doing what the terrorists and their supporters and sympathizers demand. On the contrary, it's a good idea, whenever possible, to send a clear message "that terrorism doesn't work" (or, to put it another way, "Terror Should Not Pay").

Hilzoy summed things up with this scornful remark:
Because, as we all know, giving terrorists what they want is the surest way to prevent more terrorism.
It seems to me that this formulation nicely captures the central issues. Either you think, as Hilzoy was implying, that this kind of argument is transparently foolish and pernicious ... or you think that it's sensible and realistic. Or, perhaps, you think it depends on circumstances. Or maybe, in effect, you find such arguments abhorrent and idiotic when they come from ideological sources you dislike, but sensible and humane when they come from sources with which you sympathize.

Think about it.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

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