Thursday, September 25, 2003

Juan Cole on the War in Iraq (2003)

Two statements by Juan Cole, plus an exchange between a friend and myself.  —Jeff Weintraub

Juan Cole - "Informed Comment"
September 1, 2003

Joshua Micah Marshall notes in his Talking Points Memo for Monday that John Kerry has been accused of "waffling" on Iraq because he supported the war but has criticized the outcome. Marshall points out that an evolving position shows a flexibility that might be preferable to Bush's rigidity. I also sympathize with Kerry, because I declined to oppose the war. I felt that a) Saddam was a genocidal monster, and getting rid of him would benefit the Iraqis, and b) the 'dual containment' of Iraq and Iran as a policy was a fatal dead end that had just put the US in the position of denying needed medicine to Iraqi children (actually Saddam manipulated the system to rob the children and give to the Baath officials, but the US got blamed). Even the 'no-fly' zone for the Kurds probably couldn't have been kept up indefinitely, and if the US ever withdrew, Saddam would have massacred the Kurds all over again.

But I disagreed almost completely with the *way* the war was carried out:

1) The weapons of mass destruction issue was over-hyped; we all knew we were in no imminent danger from Iraq.
2) The manufacturing of links between Saddam and al-Qaeda was painful to watch, because so obviously false.
3) The spiteful unilateralism that cast aside old allies and the UN Security Council left the US isolated and wholly responsible for Iraq, which no one country could hope to run and rebuild on its own.
4) The small military force Rumsfeld sent into the country and the unconcern with post-war security created a security disaster that is still with us.

The war could have been waged without doing any of these, much less all of them. At that point where Bush tossed aside the Security Council, he lost much of my support. It was tepid in the first place; I wasn't exactly for the war, I was just unable to bring myself to march [against it because I knew doing so would de facto keep Saddam in power].*

Well, maybe if I were in politics I'd get shot down for this complex position, too. It would be a shame if Kerry loses on these grounds. I'm not sure it matters, though. I fear we may have gotten to the point in this country where a northerner Democrat can't win a presidential election, anyway. It has been 40 years, after all.

* Helena Cobban took umbrage at my saying originally "march to keep Saddam in power" because she felt it was a slur against anti-war protesters, implying that that was their goal. I wasn't, however, talking about other people; I was talking about my own ethical stance. I knew for a fact that Saddam was not going to be overthrown by internal forces and that he was committing virtual genocide against people like the Marsh Arabs. For me, marching against the war would have been done in knowledge that it would result in Saddam staying in power. She wants me to apologize. I'm always glad to apologize. I don't see what it costs you to say you are sorry about hurting someone's feelings inadvertently. But I didn't mean, in my own mind, what she read me to mean, in the first place. I think an anti-war position was ethically defensible; it just wasn't the position I was comfortable with. I think it mattered, too, whether you actually knew and interacted with Iraqi Shiites and Kurds very much.

September 3, 2003

Helena Cobban has more comments today on my posting about the build up to the Iraq war. As far as I can tell, the difference between us is that I am not a complete pacifist. I prefer peace, and think every effort should be made to maintain it. But I also do believe in collective security (remember that I am an idiosyncratic Baha'i). So I think the UN Security Council has the authority to authorize military intervention in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan. The UNSC has a clear duty to authorize such intervention where a state has committed aggression on another. I personally think it also ought to intervene to stop ongoing or incipient genocides of the sort Saddam was waging against the Marsh Arabs. Saddam was a serial aggressor on a mass scale inside and outside his country, and probably responsible for hundreds of thousands murdered. He was in material breach of large numbers of UNSC resolutions. I think the Iraq war could have been justified on grounds of international law, and if the US had gotten a Security Council Resolution I would have actively supported the endeavor. I don't think the war was essentially wrong; I think it was procedurally wrong. And, the unilateralism that undermined the moral authority of the US in Iraq also left it bereft of needed international resources for establishing security and for rebuilding. It is turning into a disaster because it wasn't done right. For the record, I lived in Beirut off and on between fall of 1975 and spring of 1979, and saw lots of death and destruction, and have a fair idea what war is. I don't like it. For one thing, mortar shells going off nearby make you nervous and give you a headache even when they don't maim or kill you. But war isn't always unjustified or always a bad thing in the big picture. D-Day was a blessing for the people of Europe, and for the world.


=> X wrote:

It is all well and fine to support the war but not the way it was conducted, but this is not how politics work. The support for such a political action is not an abstract proposition. Everybody can design their ideal scenario, but this is not what politics is about. For me it is about real decisions taken by real people regarding questions in which other real people are involved. To support the war means to support the war not as it could have been led but as it is, led by the people who are in charge, here the bushies, knowing their policies, limitations and biases. This is why I was against the war and so far nothing has given me ground to change my mind. best, X

=> I responded:

I agree. That's why I supported the war, as clearly the least bad solution from among the realistically available alternatives, and so far nothing has given me any grounds to change my mind—quite the contrary.

I can respect Cole's ambivalence, which is complex and intelligent, and many of the dilemmas he highlights are quite real. But in the end, on an issue like this, one has to make a decision one way or another. For Cole to say that he "declined to oppose the war" is not really a fully adequate position. From my perspective, what's crucial is that Cole recognizes that military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime was necessary and justified, and there were no good realistic alternatives. (And the reasons he gives for arriving at these conclusions are quite concrete, not abstract. As you know, I think the case was even stronger than he acknowledges, but much of what he says is on-target.). That's the bottom line.

(And to repeat a point I've already made several times: It's not enough to say that a certain course of action has unfortunate consequences, actual and potential. One also has to weigh those against the likely consequences of the realistically available alternatives. In my mind, it's no contest ... though I'm aware that a decade from now I—and you—might possibly have cause to reconsider this judgment in retrospect.)

Jeff Weintraub

[Update & P.S.  Some of my retrospective considerations from 2013:
 Some partial, preliminary, & unfashionable thoughts toward re-assessing the 2003 Iraq war – Did anything go right, and what were the alternatives? ]

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Some thoughts on anti-Zionism & anti-semitism

[Update: April 2006]  For anyone who might be interested, here are some of my thoughts on the relationship (and interplay) between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism--a relationship which I think is quite complex, and quite fascinating from the perspective of the historical sociology of culture and political ideology. What I mean by “anti-Zionism” in this context is not “intellectual disagreement with Zionism” (which has long ceased to be its central meaning, any more than “anti-semitism” really meant “disagreement with semitism”), but rather systematic bias and hostility against Israel and Israelis and people who support Israel's right to exist, shading off into obsessive hatred and demonization that is often accompanied by far-fetched conspiracy theories about real or imaginary "Zionists". This is a pervasive phenomenon of the past half-century, and unfortunately it shows no signs of fading away.

Anti-Zionists and their defenders, among others, argue that anti-Zionism is not necessarily the same as anti-semitism. They are correct. True, their reasons for making this argument are often self-serving, misleading, and/or insincere; they sometimes overlook or try to obscure the fact that, in practice, there often are significant links between the two, and that genuine anti-semites may simply use "Zionists" or "international Zionism" as a transparent code word for "Jews"; and they rarely try to seriously confront the peculiar (and pernicious) character of contemporary "anti-Zionism" itself. But fundamentally, I have long thought that for the sake of moral and intellectual clarity it is important to recognize, and even insist, that there is a significant analytical distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, and that simply equating the two is wrong and misleading (though it's also important to pay attention to all the ways that they often are closely intertwined in real life).

My motivation for doing this is not to excuse, whitewash, or exonerate anti-Zionists. On the contrary, one reason that simply equating anti-semitism with anti-Zionism is not a good idea, aside from the confusions and blind spots this can cause, is precisely that doing so often lets anti-Zionists off the hook too easily. When they are confronted with their bias against (or hysterical demonization of) Israel and Israelis, they try to change the subject to whether or not they're anti-semitic (which, sometimes, they're not). The point is that anti-Zionism is itself dangerous and morally despicable—even if it’s peddled by Jews (which does happen) or by people who claim their best friends are Jews.

One of the distinctive features of our era is that, over the past half-century or so, anti-Zionism has emerged as an important and complex ideological formation in its own right, which is not always a direct product or expression of anti-semitism. Indeed, it sometimes happens that anti-Zionism helps promote anti-semitism almost as much as the other way around. Insisting on the analytical distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is not a way of denying that there are ever connections between the two. It is an essential basis for understanding those connections and their dynamics—which are often complex and subtle (though at other times crude and direct).

Some of my thoughts on these matters are conveyed the two e-mail messages below, which I sent to friends of mine (one non-Jewish European and one Jewish American) during 2002 & 2003. (I've deleted their names, from privacy considerations.)

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

[This first message was part of an exchange with a non-Jewish European political sociologist, whom I will call X, in November 2003. Part of the background to our discussion was an article in the Guardian, "Anti-semitism: Our dulled nerve” (9/18/03). –JW]

[X] On the issue of anti-semitism I must admit to being skeptical about media reports. To put it another way: I believe indeed that there is a strong Anti-Israeli sentiment in Europe, which I share (that is, with respect to its governments). I know there is anti-semitism in the world, especially in Arab countries. I do not think that within Europe or in the US anti-semitism is more widespread than other sorts of ethnic prejudice. At least, one would have to be careful about differentiating between countries.

[JW] True.

[X] This brings me to my last point: In the West there is a great deal of prejudice. Its main victims, however, are not Jews but, rather, people whose skin color spans the brown to black spectrum. This includes indeed many Jews, but mostly it includes Mexicans, Arabs, Gypsies, Turcs, Africans in general, Indians, etc...

[JW] Yes and no. I agree that, on the whole, there seems to be a lot more popular prejudice against Arabs, Africans, Muslims, and so on in western Europe than against Jews. And, by all accounts, the great majority of actual physical attacks against Jewish targets in Europe seem to be carried out by young men from Muslim "immigrant" minorities and/or left- and right-wing sectarian loonies. In some parts of the world, as you note, there has been a startling upsurge in blatant and toxic anti-semitism reminiscent of the 1890s or 1930s (and this has been pervasive in the Arab world for some time). But from everything I know, this is not what's happening in western Europe.
The main problem in western Europe has been an increasing tendency to tolerate, excuse, "explain," or whitewash anti-semitism, and even to blame the victims more than the perpetrators. One of the after-effects of WWII and the Holocaust was that, to a historically unprecedented extent, open expressions of anti-semitism ceased to be "respectable" or acceptable, particularly in educated and "enlightened" strata, and such expressions were generally condemned. All this has been visibly eroding lately in western Europe. Blatant expressions of anti-semitism in other parts of the world, in international forums, and by local Muslims and radicals are increasingly tolerated, ignored, or even defended as "understandable" (e.g., the Jews bring it on themselves, after all, by defending Israel, or by making the US invade Iraq, or whatever); and various forms of disguised or "genteel" anti-semitism are becoming more respectable. Much of the time, of course, these go together with, or are disguised by, anti-Zionism (by which I mean not criticism of Israel or the policies of its government, which I engage in myself, but one-sided and hysterical demonization of Israel, which has become distressingly common in many sectors of European public opinion, including "educated" and "progressive" public opinion).

(If you think I'm exaggerating, do you recall the enormous outrage about the wholly imaginary "massacre" and "genocide" in Jenin in the spring of 2002? These fantasies were not confined to radical demagogues and lunatic-fringe websites. I read them in newspapers like the Guardian and Le Monde.) [See, e.g., here and here and here.]

But it's important to add that anti-semitism and anti-Zionism do NOT always, or necessarily, go together. Which brings me to your next point.

[X] And let's not turn anti-Israeli sentiment into antisemitic attitudes. I think it is wrong. It is also wrong to think that underlying anti-Israel attitudes are antisemitic attitudes. It may be so among some groups but I doubt it is the case with the majority of the population.

[JW] I very much agree--though I would draw different conclusions from the ones you imply. I don't see that we necessarily have to choose between condemning different forms of racism & bigotry, but it's true that we need to keep a sense of proportion. I also agree very strongly that it's a mistake to simply equate "anti-Israel sentiment" with "anti-semitic attitudes." Doing this confuses the issues in a number of ways.

In fact, for decades I have argued strongly and explicitly that it's very important to distinguish analytically between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, and NOT to automatically equate them. (In some cases, clearly, "anti-Zionism" really IS just a euphemism for anti-semitism ... just as the term "anti-semitism" was originally invented by the anti-semites themselves as a "modern" and "scientific" label for Jew-hatred ... but often it's not.) On the other hand, it's also important to distinguish between criticism of Israel & its policies, which can be perfectly legitimate, and anti-Zionism (by which, again, I don't mean "disagreement with Zionism" or any criticism of Israel, but systematic bias against Israel, shading off into hysterical and paranoid demonization, in a strikingly close ANALOGY to the kind of political anti-semitism that emerged in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, and has since been exported to the rest of the world).

Equating anti-semitism with anti-Zionism is wrong and misleading, not just on factual grounds, but also because it lets anti-Zionists off the hook too easily. Actually, the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism over the past half-century has been extremely complex and shifting. Anti-Zionism has been one of the most remarkable and significant ideological formations of our era, and it still awaits an adequate and systematic analysis. (For example, doesn't it strike you as interesting that, unless I am mistaken, precisely one country in the whole world has ever had its national movement condemned as inherently racist by the United Nations? Or that when Jacobo Timerman was being tortured by Argentine fascist soldiers during the military dictatorship, they believed that he was part of an Israeli plot to seize Patagonia? Or that an EU poll just found that European respondents, incredibly, named Israel as the #1 threat to world peace? Or that Ariel Sharon is a lot more hated in western Europe than Saddam Hussein?) Often anti-Zionism has roots that are independent of anti-semitism; and it is not uncommon for anti-Zionism to lead to anti-semitism as much, or even more, than the other way around. (This happened, for example, in certain tendencies within the German New Left in the 1970s and 1980s--which had the psychological bonus that they could stop feeling guilty about the Jews.)

To avoid any easy misunderstanding: I am not saying that all criticism of Israel, even harsh criticism, is necessarily equivalent to anti-Zionism (just as not all criticism of Idi Amin, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Louis Farrakhan is necessarily an expression of anti-black racism). And, in fact, it is very important not to dismiss all serious, reasonable, and/or correct criticism of Israel by dismissing it as anti-Zionist bigotry. But anti-Zionism is a real and important phenomenon, and (in my humble opinion) it is a dangerous and morally despicable phenomenon in its own right--even when it is not combined with a more generalized anti-semitism ... and even, for that matter, when it is promoted (or excused) by Jews.

(Thus, I feel no contradiction at all in criticizing the lunatic and immoral policies of the Sharon government and criticizing anti-Zionism, whether in its blatant or more "genteel" forms. In fact, I feel very strongly that someone who criticizes one of them without criticizing the other has no moral or intellectual credibility. And the same is true for rabid anti-Zionists who, when confronted, try to change the subject and deny that they're anti-semitic. That's too easy. As far as I'm concerned, even if they're not anti-semites--sometimes they are, sometimes they're not--they're still wrong and ought to be ashamed of themselves.)

In the real world, as I said, the interconnections between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism are very complex. They are often more or less independent, though it is increasingly the case that the former promotes and/or excuses the latter.

This is a very big subject, which would require a book to explore adequately ... but just to convey some of my thoughts on the matter, you might be interested in looking at the message below, in which I responded to another friend who, I thought, had been too ready to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-semitism. (Although his intention was not to downplay the odiousness of anti-Zionism, as your remarks implied, but the opposite.)

=> More on this later.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Just in passing, with respect to one other point you made:
[X] Probably, like with any other minority, prejudice increases with group presence.

[JW] Actually, not always. This often holds true, but with some interesting complications. Historically, one of the most intriguing features of anti-semitic ideology is that it can often flourish quite strongly even where there are very few Jews--or even in the absence of Jews. For example, at the time that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, Jews had been legally barred from living in England for several centuries (in fact, between the time of the Crusades and 1492, we were expelled from almost all of western Europe, except for the Netherlands, parts of Italy and a few other pockets). And how many Jews do you suppose live in Malaysia now? Almost none, but for decades Prime Minister Mahathir has been fond of anti-semitic outbursts that draw directly on themes from "classical" European political anti-semitism, and he also likes to distribute copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (For that matter, in the 1920s and 1930s less than 2% of the German population was Jewish.) For various reasons, we have always been disproportionately "conspicuous" in the imagination of some societies (and, during the past half-century, that has become true of Israel, too).

[The following is an exchange with a Jewish American friend, referred to here as Y. –JW]

Date: Sat, 02 Nov 2002 13:59:18 0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: Y
Subject: anti-semitism & anti-Zionism
I was going to make the point that this kind of anti-Zionism is just a respectable form of anti-Semitism...but in Jewish terms it doesn't really matter because Jewish law teaches that people should be judged by their actions and not their thoughts.
[JW] I understand what you're saying here, and to some extent I'm sympathetic to it. Along the same lines, I think Larry Summers's recent formulation--that some actions can be anti-semitic in effect, even if they're not consciously anti-semitic in intention--is essentially correct. Furthermore, it's obvious that in many cases "anti-Zionism" (by which I mean, not disagreement with Zionism, but systematic bias against Israel, shading off into obsessive hatred and demonization) is simply a euphemism, front, and/or excuse for straightforward anti-semitism (ranging from genteel to rabid). And one shouldn't be shy about pointing this out, when this is what's going on.

But the relationship between anti-semitism and "anti-Zionism" is often more complicated than that--ideologically, morally, and politically--and I believe that keeping the analytical distinction in mind is important for the sake of both moral and intellectual clarity. Contemporary "anti-Zionism" is to some degree a distinct phenomenon with independent roots--which, in our era, sometimes promotes anti-semitism as much as the other way around--and I have long believed that it's important to recognize this fact explicitly. This is not in order to excuse or whitewash anti-Zionists. On the contrary, I think it's important precisely to avoid giving them the opportunity to take an easy way out, by changing the subject to anti-semitism when the immorality of their rabid anti-Zionism is pointed out.

In fact, discussions of anti-Zionism often get too easily sidetracked into arguments about whether anti-Zionism = anti-semitism. Well, often it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it doesn’t, so what? This is not at all the only moral question involved, and most of the time this kind of discussion is often just a red herring. It needs to be made clear that "anti-Zionism" (which, again, in the real world means something different from "disagreement with Zionism," just as "anti-semitism" never meant "disagreement with semitism") is morally despicable in its own right. Failing to insist on this just makes life easier for anti-Zionists (and anti-semites).

(Furthermore, it goes without saying that criticism of Israeli policies, or of Israel more generally, doesn't necessarily or logically = anti-Zionism. But so what? Very often, in practical reality, it does amount to anti-Zionism.)

=> But the reasons for recognizing the analytical distinction between anti-semitism and "anti-Zionism" (which is precisely the starting-point for analyzing the complex interrelationships between them) go beyond questions of moral and political polemics. Facing up to this complexity is also important for understanding the historical, cultural, and political dynamics of the problem and figuring out how to confront its dangers in practical terms.

Let me put this in a historical-sociological framework. I have been struck for decades by the remarkable analogies between two of the most potent and far-ranging international ideological currents of the past century and a half: (a) the strain of political anti-semitism developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the term "anti-semitism" was, of course, invented by the anti-semites themselves, as a way of re-defining the object of Jew-hatred) and (b) the world-wide "anti-Zionist" movement of the second half of the 20th century. Part of this parallel is the set of analogies between the symbolic roles played (a) by the Jews in "classic" political anti-semitism (e.g., the power, influence, and threat of the Jews was wildly inflated for the sake of demonizing them, while they were in fact simultaneously a small and vulnerable target, which made them useful scapegoats for larger, more threatening, and/or more abstract and impersonal threats) and (b) the symbolic role of Israel (and "Zionism") in the ideological structure of contemporary anti Zionism.

(To repeat myself, this is a different matter from the more usual discussions about whether "anti-Zionism" is simply an expression of, or euphemism for, anti-semitism. Often it is, and let me reiterate that I don't want to deny that for a moment; but the relationship is often more complex than that. In our epoch, in fact, I think that "anti Zionism" often leads to anti semitism as much as the other way around. A historical sociologist several centuries from now, who's trying to make sense of the political and ideological pathologies of our era, should be struck by the symbolic, ideological, and socio-political ANALOGIES between these two ideological formations.)*

In some important ways, the political "anti-semitism" that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not, fundamentally, just "about" the Jews; instead, the Jews were used as a symbolic focus for a whole range of grievances and anxieties about modernity--capitalism, socialism, urbanism, industrialism, secularism, sexual emancipation, decadence, and so on--which had the additional advantage that anti-semitism could be used as an ideological bridge between movements and constituencies with very different, even contradictory, concerns. This demonization of the Jews was, among other things, one symptom and symbolic expression of a larger civilizational crisis.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of parallels to contemporary "anti-Zionism." In the Arab world, for example, the obsessive demonization of Israel (and the use of Israel as an iconic symbol for imperialism, colonialism, western domination, and the misery and impotence of Arab societies) is one symbolic expression of a larger civilizational crisis. There are millions of Arabs (as well as sympathizers elsewhere) who sincerely believe that Israel and "Zionism" are somehow the source of their problems (not just the problems of the Palestinians, but of their problems); but, of course, this world-view is delusional. Instead, the fact that Israel is defined as the central problem, both within the Arab world and in so much western discussion, is itself a problem and also, as I just noted, a symptom of some larger problems.

(As I'm sure you know, the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel memorably described left-wing anti-semitism as "the socialism of fools." As Paul Berman pointed out a few decades ago, during the 1970s and 1980s left-wing anti-Zionism increasingly emerged as "the anti-imperialism of fools." Now we're seeing a resurgence of all that.)

However, even though political anti-semitism had more to do with the anti-semites than with the Jews, it did succeed in largely destroying the European Jews in the process. Likewise, the Arab obsession with, and demonization of, Israel (along with the larger "anti-Zionist" movement of which if forms a part) is not, in the end, mostly about Israel. But in the long run, it's quite possible--indeed, I'm afraid I think it's more likely than not--that it will help bring about the destruction of Israel (without, in the process, solving any of the real problems of Arab and Islamic societies).

I've thought more than once of writing something about this subject, but after 1989 I was lulled into a false sense of security or complacency, since the situation seemed to be improving in a number of ways. On the level of world politics, "anti-Zionism" was one key symbolic cement of the three-way coalition between the Soviet bloc, the Arab world, and the rest of the so-called Third World (particularly, but not exclusively, in Africa). With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the whole international Communist movement, among other developments, many of the foundations for anti-Zionism outside the Arab world seemed to have collapsed as well (symbolized by the repeal of the UN's infamous Zionism-is-racism resolution). And the period of the alleged "peace process" brought an enormous boost in international acceptance of the legitimacy of Israel's existence. So I thought that the virulence and political significance of "anti-Zionism" had drastically decreased. During the past two years, it has become clear that the disease was simply in remission, and that it's now starting to return in force (and, here again, there are analogies to the historical rhythms of the older political anti-semitism).

=> More on all this another time ...

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

(* Incidentally ... this analogy, and its significance, was first brought home to me by reading an article by Ruth Wisse back in the early 1980s. She didn't frame the problem in precisely this way, but some essential insights were there, and when I pondered them a bit, a lot of things that I had been puzzling over since the mid-1970s suddenly fell into place. Unfortunately, Wisse's analyses are always spoiled to some extent by the Likudnik political conclusions she draws from them--which strike me as wrong and pernicious--but there's always a lot in them that's penetrating and illuminating.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Two Years of Gibberish" (Prospect)

These reflections by the British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft are usefully thought-provoking and worth pondering both by people who opposed the Iraq war (like Wheatcroft) and by people who supported it (like me).

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. Just to avoid any possible misunderstanding, the fact that I recommend this piece doesn't mean that I agree completely with everything Wheatcroft says here--though I do think that a lot of it is very much on target, and even where I might not fully agree with Wheatcroft's conclusions I do think he raises important questions.)

Prospect (UK)
September 2003
Issue #90

Two Years of Gibberish

The garbled utterances of the left after 9/11 merely flattered the arguments of warmongers.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

When the hijacked aircraft hit the World Trade Centre two years ago, more than just two buildings and 3,000 lives were lost: amid the rubble of ground zero, many illusions also smouldered. At the time, it seemed as though 11th September might prove to be a great event with small consequences, a horror without meaning or serious effects.

Two years on, it looks more like a small event with great consequences. To say "small" is not to minimise the outrage and the suffering: every death is a sorrow, and grief is not quantifiable. All the same, buildings are destroyed by fire every day, and thousands are killed in accidents. Three thousand dead is no more than the losses in London on one of the worst nights of the Blitz, and that itself was trivial compared to the great burnings in Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo. Three thousand Americans are killed in road accidents every month, not to mention the scores of thousands of Americans killed annually by guns, in murder or suicide.

But 11th September truly was different. The historian Tony Judt may well have been right when he wrote that, from his New York office window that morning, he had seen the 21st century begin. The political and military consequences of 11th September have already been drastic; not so much the direct effect of the campaign in Afghanistan as the indirect but far more important war in Iraq, of which the consequences are as yet unforseeable but certainly huge.

More than all that, 11th September was a day when consciousness changed. To look back at the responses which the murder evoked from the literary and political intelligentsia is to see something more than many clever and famous people making fools of themselves (enjoyable though that is). Here was a turning point. The mass murder in New York came just over four years after the death of Princess Diana. Writing here about that event, I said that the beatification of Diana by some alleged radicals demonstrated more vividly then anything since the fall of the Berlin wall the final bankruptcy of a large part of the progressive tradition 200 years after 1789. What was said and written after "9/11" might have been the formal declaration of that bankruptcy.

Any event as shocking as this was difficult to respond to perceptively or even sensibly. "Perhaps one of the most upsetting aspects of post-bombing America is the fatuousness of our response," Thomas Laqueur wrote in the London Review of Books, little knowing how much truer his words would be made by his fellow contributors. Maybe there was nothing useful to say, but then writers and performers seldom follow the advice that if you can’t think of anything sensible to say, keep quiet. Silence would have surely been better than the cloud of exotic prose which rose like fumes from the wreckage, as sundry scribblers did their best to justify Karl Kraus’s saying that a journalist is someone who has nothing to say but who knows how to say it. A comparatively harmless case was Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker recording that "On the morning of the day they did it, the city was as beautiful as it had ever been. Central park had never seemed so gleaming and luxuriant…" and so on until the unlikely insight that what he found some way from ground zero was "almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella." Even as good a newspaperman and historian as Neal Ascherson felt he had to flex his literary muscles: "Manhattan that morning was a diagram, a blue bar chart with columns which were tall or not so tall. A silver cursor passed across the screen and clicked silently on the tallest column, which turned red and black and presently vanished. This is how we delete you…"

But it was writers-with-a-W who really excelled, doing their best to confute Shelley’s grandiose proposition that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. That idea always looked dubious—in practice writers are all too often sillier and nastier in their politics than anyone else—and one or two writers were wise enough to recognise this in September 2001. Bret Easton Ellis said that he was too depressed to make phrases, and Philip Roth refused public comment. If only there had been more like them.

When asked to contribute to "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War," George Orwell replied in more than usually intemperate terms: "Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish… I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender…" But he had a point, and his biographer DJ Taylor recently declined to contribute to a collection of "Authors Take Sides on Iraq" on similar grounds if with less verbal violence, recognising that nothing he could say was going to make the smallest difference, and wondering why a writer has any duty to be "engaged." It would after all be odd to see a book called "Stockbrokers Take Sides on Iraq" or "Bus Drivers…" and any such collections from literary ladies and gentlemen ought to be prefaced with a warning: an alarmingly high proportion of the eminent writers of the past century veered towards the totalitarian heresies of left or right, attracted by communism or—in the case of rather more great writers, as it happens—by fascism.

This might not be accidental. Imaginative writers are distinguished not by a sweeter character (too often very much not), greater intellectual honesty, or even deeper intelligence, but—apart from the gift of expression which is their stock in trade—a way of looking at the world which is interesting because it is exaggerated or distorted. After an event like 11th September, such expressive gifts might be more hindrance than help; some things are best said simply rather than dressed up in look-at-me prose. Arundhati Roy claimed that it is "the writers, the poets, the artists, the singers, the filmmakers who can make the connections, who can find ways of bringing [the event] into the realm of common understanding"; the evidence suggested the opposite.

One writer after another used the horror as grist for verbal display, and thereby excruciatingly illustrated what Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic called the limits of literariness. Sometimes this went beyond parody. "Touch me," besought Jeanette Winterson. "Kiss me. Remind me what I am. Remind me that this life is the one we make together… The immensity of this event can only be mirrored in the immensity of what we are." Martin Amis didn’t ask to be kissed, but instead portrayed the lethal aircraft "sharking in" amid "world hum" to produce "the apotheosis of the postmodern era," not to say "the worldflash of a coming future," before concluding a little disappointingly that he felt "species shame."

And when the fine writers turned to positive prescriptions, the result was more alarming still. Alice Walker, the African-American novelist, had some advice about Bin Laden: "What would happen to his cool armour if he could be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done? What would happen to him if he could be brought to understand the preciousness of the lives he has destroyed? I firmly believe the only punishment that works is love."

Other great creative minds didn’t think that all you need is love. The septuagenarian composer Karlheinz Stockhausen praised the imagination of the attack on the World Trade Centre and the precision of its execution as "the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos." (My own reaction to that was a personal decision that I would never again listen to a bar of Stockhausen’s music. Sometimes one has to take a stand.) But most were less exotic, and took a remarkably predictable line, with the Nobel-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo putting it in unusually lurid terms: "The great speculators wallow in an economy that every year kills tens of millions of people with poverty—so what is 20,000 dead in New York? Regardless of who carried out the massacre, this violence is the legitimate daughter of the culture of violence, hunger and inhumane exploitation."

Which is to say, "Butwhatabout…?" One after another, literary luminaries and academic pundits felt unable to condemn the killing, express sympathy, and leave it at that. They had to say, "Butwhatabout" US imperialism, what about globalisation, what about Palestine? Rana Kabbani’s reaction was to howl that "All must kowtow to the Pentagon and the almighty dollar, or be blown to smithereens," and she described the murder of thousands of ordinary New Yorkers as "a painful lesson that Americans have had to learn."

Once an armed response by the US had begun, "Butwhatabout" turned into moral equivalence, or "we are all guilty," or tu quoque. The veteran critic and novelist John Berger (yes, still with us) called the mass murder in New York "the direct result of trying to impose everywhere the new world economic order (the abstract, soaring, groundless market) which insists that man’s supreme task is to make profit," and he added that the American war in Afghanistan was an "act of terror against the people of the world."

One step further on from "We are all guilty" was "We ourselves are the truly guilty ones." Two Englishwomen set a high standard here. Mary Beard, Cambridge don and classics editor of the TLS, could not repress "the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming" (not very tactfully, as far as the bereaved of New York were concerned, one might have thought). And Rosie Boycott, who has edited two national newspapers, thought that "the west should take the blame for pushing people in third world countries to the end of their tether." (Do you "push" anyone to the end of a tether? And anyway, Osama bin Laden might bring to mind what a friend of Philip Toynbee said when that well-worn phrase was used about Toynbee: "I didn’t think Philip had a tether.")

At its most extreme, "they had it coming" was used to blame the Americans in general, and even those in the World Trade Centre, for electing the wrong kind of president. "American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants," the New Statesman said in a memorable leader. "Well, yes and no… Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favour of a different order. If the US often seems a greedy and overweening power, that is partly because its people have willed it. They preferred George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader."

Actually, the 3,000 dead in New York must have included people who did vote for Nader, and more who voted for Gore. That was recognised, in a peculiarly foolish way, by the egregious Michael Moore (a stupid white man if ever there was): "Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes’ destination of California—these were places that voted against Bush!" Presumably the terrorist murders were wrong in liberal Manhattan, but would have been all right if al Qaeda had attacked Phoenix or Atlanta. Or perhaps terrorists should find means of attack which distinguish between good and bad, killing the Republicans but sparing anyone who voted for an environmentally-correct candidate.

Even Tony Blair, in his extravagant and slightly weird speech at the Labour conference in 2001 following the attacks, said that we should by all means "understand the causes of terror," while adding that no causes could justify what had been done. What he forgot to say was that, in the case of 11th September, the usual prattle about the root causes of terror was not just morally repellent, it was quite simply wrong. It was particularly wrong when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was repetitiously invoked. If the Palestinian people have a just cause, it is far more likely to be harmed than helped by barbarous murder in New York. Anyway, Bin Laden couldn’t care less about the Palestinians, although he does authentically hate "the Jews." He listed Palestine among his grievances, but these also included the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which is what mattered most to him, and "Al-Andalus." Is the medieval reconquista of Spain a root cause of violence? If so, and if the loss of the Iberian peninsula by the House of Islam more than 500 years ago is a legitimate grievance, it will be a tricky wrong to right.

"Root causes" were made more absurd still by what we soon learned about the hijackers. One of the more lucid contributions to the LRB was from Tariq Ali, who actually knows something about the Islamic world. He pointed out that the killers "were not bearded illiterates from the mountain villages of Afghanistan. They were educated, middle-class professionals from Egypt and the Hijaz province of Saudi Arabia." Just so: this was no cry of rage from the wretched of the earth, and the hijackers weren’t radicals or secular nationalists. They were bloodthirsty religious maniacs, who wanted to rule the whole world in the spirit of the Taleban.

Two years later, the sorriest consequence of all this has become much clearer. Because the critics of the Bush administration and Blair government made themselves so ridiculous in the aftermath of 11th September, the proper case against the Iraq war was subsequently much weakened. Sane critics of Bush and Blair must have been embarrassed by the sheer emptiness of the Voices for Peace, one of the instant books which came out in autumn 2001, in which Mark Steel, Ronan Bennett, Annie Lennox ("I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it"), George Monbiot ("Let’s make this the era of collateral repair"), Anita Roddick ("We must shift from a private greed to a public good") and other usual or unusual suspects were rounded up, along with Adrian Mitchell (yes, also still with us), who rather lamely reprinted his old favourite "Tell me lies about Vietnam," which must have taken a few wrinklies back to the 1960s.

These unthinking "radicals" provoked more than just amusement mixed with irritation—they induced a sense of despair. They simply had nothing to say—as they showed when they were asked for more practical advice. If Alice Walker’s suggestion that Bin Laden should be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done was one of the most remarkable entries in this whole sottisier, it wasn’t much different in kind from the fatuities on offer elsewhere. Paul Foot led the way by telling Bush, "first, cut off your aid to the state of Israel." This was like saying, first, conquer the law of gravity, or, first, fly to Venus.

Other pundits came close to admitting defeat. "There is no real solution," John Mortimer sighed, and Jon Snow added limply that "There has to be a complete re-evaluation of how the world ticks." Tom Paulin did have a pragmatic answer—"I’m in favour of the symbolic notion of dropping food parcels into Afghanistan"—and Bruce Kent suggested that the al Qaeda leaders should be tried in absentia: "I would even go as far as combing through their bank accounts."

A crucial distinction was hereby discarded. An invasion of Afghanistan was, arguably, morally justifiable, militarily feasible, and in any case politically inevitable. No American president who had failed to respond with physical force could have remained in office. If the attacks had been carried out by an identifiable state, no one but a pure pacifist would have denied that the US had a casus belli. If there had been an equivalent casus belli in the case of Iraq then that war would have been very different. There wasn’t, of course: the Bush and Blair regimes had to cook up a false case for a war which had been decided upon years ago, which some of the bright sparks in the Washington administration had been publicly advocating for six years, and for which 11th September provided less a reason than a pretext. But saying that the Iraq war was and remains legally and morally unjustifiable would have been much more cogent if it hadn’t been for the earlier fatheaded "voices for peace," whose unintended effect was to make almost any case for war seem more plausible.

Two years on, one further lesson not easily seen at the time—not on the day we all watched the aircraft sharking in, the falling bodies, the crumpling towers, nor in the weeks afterwards when our clerisy gave such an egregious performance—emerges more clearly. The liberal left has forgotten the grammar of pacificism: not absolute rejection of violence but liberal noninterventionism, the noble doctrines of Cobden and Bright. Plenty of the self-styled "dissenters" of two years ago evidently followed a new doctrine. Armed force may be justified, but not if it in any way coincides with British or American national interest. This is almost the opposite of what Bright advocated: armed violence should be restricted to the basic defence of the nation; otherwise although one may have sympathy with suffering peoples across the globe, "it is not my business to make my country the knight-errant of the human race." It was because the left had forgotten Bright’s dictum that Tony Blair was able to wrong-foot his party over Iraq.

A clue to this sorry performance may be found in the relationship between the literary-academic left in the west—or "what’s left of the left"—and militant Islam. On the face of it they should be opposite magnetic poles. So they once were. The Enlightenment knew what to say about religions, all of them: "Écrasez l’infame!" In the 19th century, the progressive party believed that one of the reasons for European superiority over the benighted regions of Asia and Africa was the conquest of superstition.

Today, credulous doting on Islam is not just an expression of western self-hatred. On the face of it, Islam and the western left have nothing in common at all. But they do, in fact, something profoundly important. They share the common experience of defeat. Islamic terrorism is not a function of success but of failure. As a culture and society, Islam enjoyed a glorious golden age between the 8th and 12th centuries, but it has been in decline for many centuries past, some would say since the first fall of Baghdad.

As the 20th century ended, it saw another great defeat. Marxism-Leninism long predeceased Soviet Russia; even democratic socialism has conceded victory to the competitive free market. There was, and is, a distinction between the practical and intellectual left. In the 1930s, the "practical" left on either side of the Atlantic weren’t much interested in communism, but got on with making the New Deal, or preparing the Labour party to win a decisive election. It was the intellectual left, or part of it, which lost its heart to Stalin. But if those Stalinoids were nasty enough when they explained away the Moscow trials, they weren’t silly, and they could plausibly believe that history was on their side. To re-read that catalogue of nonsense from two years ago is to realise that their descendants simply aren’t serious any longer. If the old Leninist left was buried politically in the rubble of the Berlin wall, the literary-academic intelligentsia disappeared morally in the ashes of ground zero.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of "Le Tour" (Simon & Schuster), a centennial history of the Tour de France