Saturday, December 22, 2007

Blair Derangement Syndrome - An example from A.C. Grayling

Here in the US we have had to contend for a decade and a half with the peculiar phenomenon of Clinton Derangement Syndrome--a pervasive, almost obsessive hatred of Bill & Hillary Clinton that seems to have infected large numbers of people toward the right side of the political spectrum (and not only them). That's not to deny that people might have good reasons to disagree with either or both of the Clintons, or even dislike them. But in a great many cases the intensity of this hatred is not just irrational but, I must confess, inexplicable. Of course, the fact that CDS is irrational and often outright delusional (here is one especially ludicrous recent example) does not prevent it from beng a significant social fact that has had a real impact on US politics and may do so again.

Over in Great Britain, the equivalent phenomenon among wide swathes of the intelligentsia and sectors of the educated middle classes more generally is Blair Derangement Syndrome. Again, there are serious reasons why people might disagree with Blair's policies and his political style or even condemn them--and let me re-emphasize that point, so no one can claim that I am unaware of it or trying to ignore it. But in many cases these feelings about Blair go beyond serious moral and political criticism and slide over into the realm of pervasive, all-consuming, obsessional, and even hysterical hostility. (Anyone who thinks my adjectives are exaggerated probably hasn't been following journalism and public discourse in Britain very closely for the past several years. And I should add that a few of my own friends, otherwise quite admirable and intelligent people, suffer from BDS in clinically extreme fashion. I am too kind to quote examples even anonymously.)

There are some interesting parallels to the Republican Clinton-hatred of the 1990s here. As Blair survived one scandal and attack after another that were supposed to finish him off, the impotent fury of Blair-haters only increased and became even wilder as they kept asking each new time, with ever-growing frustration and disbelief, "How the hell did he get away with that??!!"

One sign of BDS is the irresistible urge to slip some bit of Blair-bashing into discussions of every conceivable topic, with little or no regard for relevance, plausibility, or simple accuracy. This phenomenon is now so pervasive that it would be tiresome to start listing examples--it's become so routine that I suspect some people do it almost automatically--but I was just alerted to an interesting example by Norman Geras.

This comes from a column by the British philosopher A.C. Grayling in the Guardian's on-line "Comment is Free" blog. The main thrust of this piece is an attack on religion in general and on discussion of religion by politicians in particular, along with a criticism of anyone who fails to reject and condemn religion strongly enough. Grayling is a religious non-believer (as I am) and a harsh and thoroughgoing opponent of religion who would like to see it go away (which I was once myself, for a period in my teens, though my attitude toward religion has--rightly or wrongly--become more complex and ambivalent over the years and in some respects even sympathetic, partly for reasons I learned from such thinkers as Durkheim & Weber). Not beating around the bush, Grayling describes religion in sweeping and straightforward terms as "belief in fairies and allied irrationalities," moves straight on to Torquemada and the Inquisition, and dismisses agnosticism as a contemptible and cowardly evasion of the self-evident validity of atheism. ("Agnosticism is a rubbish position: the prior probability that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden is not 50%; it is 0% - and so for all supernaturalistic beliefs.") OK so far--agree or disagree, these are serious and important positions that deserve to be debated publicly.

But Grayling, having disposed of Torquemada, has to toss in a Blair-bashing remark,too. Now, it is true (and well known) that Blair is a believing Christian--and so is Gordon Brown, as it happens--though, given the norms of British politics, Blair doesn't go on and on about his religion in public the way too many US politicians do. But attacking Blair for that is not enough for Grayling, who can't resist going over the edge where Blair is concerned:
I think it is considerably more serious to say, "I believe in God and he told me to go to war in Iraq", which is what a soon-to-be-Catholic recent prime minister of somewhere practically said (as, even more practically, did his born-again big friend across the water).
In fact, Blair never said anything remotely like this, explicitly or "practically." Even the Observer article that Grayling cites to support this bit of sloganeering, after reporting that this charge has been made against Blair, immediately explains that "[t]his was a distortion of carefully phrased remarks" by Blair that didn't actually say that at all.

Grayling is a philosopher of the analytical school, so most of the time he is presumably committed to making arguments with clarity, precision, accuracy, and careful attention to logical connections. When it comes to Tony Blair, however, casual smears and sloppy sloganeering--which includes repeating slurs you have heard at second-hand without even bothering to read the sources you cite with any care--is more than good enough. Such are the symptoms of Blair Derangement Syndrome.

=> On the substantive question of the 2003 Iraq war, Norm cuts through to the key point:
All the wise souls, so many liberals amongst them, who wilfully misconstrue what Blair has said on this score reveal only their own failure [or simple incapacity--JW] to accept that there might have been reasons on the other side from the one they took. That is one measure of their liberalism.
Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub