Norman Geras chose to mark 9/11 by writing on “eleven themes” that have marked the time since that day. All of them are the opinions of anti-war people that he’s taken against. “Fancy being able to swallow some significant proportion of th[es]e,” he marvelled, “And still digest your food”. I’d have passed on but I kept being directed back towards the post by his ideological compatriots, who joined him in tutting at the people who could hold such gross or false opinions. He’d shown “how our thinking has changed for the worse,” Nick Cohen said as John Rentoul, Martin Bright, David Aaronovitch and others offered spirited huzzahs.
What of these “bad, stupid ideas”, then? At least one of them I’d defend. Number three holds…
That you can’t wage war on an abstract noun – a claim which, if it had any force, would rule out a war against fascism, or a campaign for political honesty.
So it would. And, indeed, it would be right to. While the Allies fought against the depraved regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, fascistic states under Franco and Peron were left alone. As for “a campaign for political honesty” – it sounds more futile than a campaign for better afternoon TV. Abstract nouns can be poor guides to practical realities.
Yet my problem isn’t that the ideas Geras lists are all defensible: some are foolish; others nasty. My problem is that many of them are, well, trivial. Take number 5…
That ‘we marched but they didn’t listen’ – as if when you march, those who disagree with you are obliged to change their minds; as if government in a parliamentary democracy is by mass demo.
Well, yes, it’s a poor argument and worth commenting on but as far as I’m aware there have been no adverse consequences of the belief that states should act according to marches. Number 6 is even odder…
Future historians will doubtless look back on the claim that anti-war voices were silenced and lament the extraordinary damage it inflicted on the poor, beleagured patience of Observer columnists and Professors emeriti.
What’s the beef, one might ask. Do our observations have to be of great consequence? Absolutely not: I’ve written on short-sleeved dress shirts and eating grasshoppers. Yet context and tone matter. Geras’ post appears to be framed not just as if it’s a collection of thoughts but an authoritative statement on the past eleven years; a sober, damning assessment of the failures therein. Nick Cohen says it outright: it sums up “how our thinking has changed for the worse”. Our? I presume he hasn’t lumped himself among the people who’ve held these ideas. Its point, as I read it, is to show how everybody else’s thinking has changed for the worst.
So, here’s my problem. These men backed the Iraq war. They still growl about peoples’ failure to represent their motives accurately; to adhere to their conceptions of international law; to give logically precise reasons for why it should never have happened. They seem energised, in fact, by everything about the war except its consequences. Can’t they find a word to say about the bad ideas that ensured that it took place, and in the manner that it did? How about the popular idea that Saddam could be removed and the nation returned to order without overmuch violence? A hundred Iraqi sons, fathers, daughters, mothers and siblings died in bomb blasts on Sunday. Did they think to note the opinion that a stable democratic government could be established? The nation’s vice-president has just been sentenced to death after being found guilty of masterminding death squads. Did they consider observing the notion that liberalism would arise from the ashes of the country? It’s being reported that Iraqi policemen are leading witch hunts against homosexuals.
Who knows – but they weren’t included. No ideas, in fact, that have actually contributed to peoples’ deaths were included. My point, I stress, is not that I expect these guys to prostrate themselves and shed tears of contrition. I’ve believed enough dumb things that I’d be in no place to judge them. Rather, it’s to lament the fact that our discourse becomes so introverted that we waste reserves of time and passion on subjects of little human relevance while people in countries where “blog” might sound like a new form of landmine quietly die. Our earnestness and energy is not, in many cases, produced by events but applied to them when it befits our whims and prejudices and this often means they’re disprortionate their urgency in terms of physical and spiritual costs. It wouldn’t be as depressing if this was admitted to but it’s often elided as part of our efforts to convince ourselves that our arguments matter. This seems rather inhuman.
Anyway, I’ll grant that there’s a certain irony to writing that at the end of a post on Internet-based wrongness but, then, I never claimed to transcend the phenomenon and, besides, even in the gravest of situations one has to scratch an itch.