Rudimentree P'lit'cal Theeyree


Which values, if any, matter to societies? Nowadays we talk of our ideals like the airiest of evangelicals might speak of their’s – the ones who’ve been to Greenbelt but never read the darn Bible. Hartosh Singh Bal writes on one of them, pluralism, at 3QuarksDaily, and considers the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

…from an Indian context, it is because Islam and Christianity cherish different values that it is possible to argue for the mockery of Christian religious figures and argue against the same freedom when exercised against Islamic religious figures.

This is not meant to even remotely justify the response to the cartoons or the satire. It is only to suggest that there are certain ideals which will be in contradiction. A tolerant plural society and an absolute freedom of expression cannot be simultaneously achieved. Even more problematically, the European way of thinking fails to understand the need to make distinctions based on differing group values that lie at the heart of any diverse society. To make rules that impose the same constraints and allow the same freedoms for various religious groups is to avoid facing up to the fact they are different to begin with.

Bal is correct that freedom of expression is hard to align with a pluralistic society. Religious and cultural sensitivities are often so acute that if they’re offended – as is nigh-on inevitable where people are allowed to question and even mock whatever values they desire – there’s likely to be conflict. Bal’s assumption, though, is that this means the freedom of expression must be compromised so we can sustain pluralism.

Well, I guess this makes sense in India, where pluralism has been a fact of life for centuries and freedom of expression is a relatively new development. For much of Europe, though, the freedom of expression has developed over many centuries and it’s pluralism that – to the extent that it exists now, at least – is a new phenomenon. Why should we prioritise the latter value, the virtues of which have yet to be established, over one that’s helped give rise to much of what’s great about our world – all the products of the freedom to adopt and question beliefs, tastes and practices? The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t, and besides there is another model of pluralism that allows people to live according to their sensibilities insofar as they allow their fellow man to live according to their own.

Still, even if we accept the conflict of ideals we can’t deny that it often leads to conflicts of, wellweapons. But, again, is this a reason to compromise ideals of free expression or pluralism? Well, I don’t see why the peaceful and tolerant should be obliged to change their ways to accomodate the violent and authoritarian. Here’s the thing: if this meeting of ideals is a cause for violence or compromise to the irrational and doctrinaire it’s hardly a virtue. Thus, pluralism is a value worth defending only when people within it are prepared to live by their own sensibilities without contesting someone else’s freedom to do the same. If this is impossible it shouldn’t be advanced.

Still, in establishing the limits of pluralism we’re forced to recognise the limits of liberalism. Free expression has been prized because, for one thing, it supposedly allows different viewpoints to conflict but then arrive at mutually satisfying conclusions. Admitting that you’re forced to defend it from ideas, by excluding some ideas, thus admits its ineffectiveness. I guess societies can’t be founded on theory alone.

Our raisins come from the US, which bombs more countries than I’ve been to; our dates are from Egypt, where minorities are persecuted; our coffee was grown atop the mountains of Columbia, where trade unionists are systematically butchered; our hummus is from Morocco, where free speech is limited; my coat is from Syria, where Assad guns down hundreds; my jeans are from Bangladesh, where freedom is minimal; our television is from China, which requires no introduction. Hell, I live in England, the government of which helped to invade and devastate a country.

All of which is to say that boycotting nations would be a futile moral statement. “I refuse to be associated with your crimes,” I’d howl, before associating myself with a bunch of other felons. (Whether I should reinvigorate my efforts to avoid foreign imports per se is another question.)

I’m also leery of bracketing people along with their state. Sure, I see the logic: the civilians profit from the crimes of their governors. But unless there’s a direct association it seems awfully vague. After all, most of us are better off for some unjust system or another. I profit from capitalism which exploits the labour of millions – should I be spurned? And, besides, the finest way of curbing the iniquities of a state is, as far as I’m aware, revolution from beneath it. If people see (a) a state trying to provide for them and (b) a world that rejects them who are they more likely to identify themselves with? It seems liable to provoke tribalism and resentment rather than abate it.

There are specific cases where boycotts may be justified. Shopping at Nestlé, for example, would leave a bitter taste. And not just because food’s disgusting.

Paul Berman devotes much of this essay on the “Arab Spring” to his favourite subject: the faults of intellectuals – unnamed, always unnamed – who criticise his view that terrorism can be rooted in its actors’ Islamic views. Funnily enough, writers to his left spend a lot of time griping about people who criticise the view that terrorism can be rooted in the woes of people on the wrong end of Western imperialism. Is this so complicated? They’re both true! Ideas of jihad against the kufr have inspired people, yes, but invasions, bombing and the like have been a great recruitment tool: they make others think, “Perhaps these “kufr” types are as bad as they’re cracked up to be”. Of course, this poses other, far more complicated problems – which ideas these are and how widely they’ve been disseminated; which actions provoke such a response – but if people are unwilling to accept that much I’m inclined to think they’re looking for a fight.

Still, Berman has – right up to his wearisome attempt to coax Obama into starting more, entirely ambiguous, conflict in the Middle East – the germ of a point: that people split between highlighting material and ideological conditions underlying people’s deeds. But, again, I’m not entirely sure what the problem is: it’s a false dichotomy. (I’ll admit a prejudice I hope I’ve restrained – whenever intellectual speak about the power of ideas it makes them sound like pharmacists lauding anti-depressants. I know that’s unfair.) The power of ideas lies in their ability to meet people’s desires and answer their frustrations; these can be material – so, revolutionary ideas flourish among starving folk – or, for want of a better term, spiritual – so, people hunger for identity; belonging; purpose. These factors determine the kinds of ideas people will be receptive to.  If you want to promote or oppose beliefs, then, you’re obliged to meet the greatest desires of the most people. To that extent, depressingly, one of the greatest talents that an intellectual can have is in marketing.

I’d like to dissent from, er – dissent. No, forget that. Let me start again. What I mean is that I’d like to isolate forms of dissent that serve oppressive causes; counterproductive modes of opposition. For example, there’s a fallacy that’s suckered people, me included, since the dawn of time (or should that be “whine”?). I’d like to term it, for want of a latin phrase, the fallacy of honourable opposition. It states…

If X is bad and Y opposes X, Y is good.

It is, in other words, a formal (well, earnest) version of, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

The claim, of course, defies the facts that (a) something can be opposed for different reasons, good and bad, and (b) one’s opposition to something doesn’t encompass the entirety of one’s ambitions.

There are two patterns of thought that underly the fallacy. The first is a misguidedly manichean view of the world, where everything and everyone divides between what’s “good” and “evil”. Thus, a jingoistic Yank can roar, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”, while a revolutionary can proclaim, “A barricade has only two sides”.

The second (often related) error is the projection of one’s ideals onto others. So, if one opposes X for reasons A, B and C, one assumes that Y opposes it on similar grounds. This has marked the words of interventionists – some of whom have felt the U.S. government stands for freedom, democracy and pony – Western observers of the “Arab Spring” – some of whom seemed to think the most authoritarian of Islamists are carrying the flag for liberty – and the clutch of would-revolutionaries who’ve convinced themselves that arson, looting and assaults in London represent some kind of fight for justice.

A depressing fact related to the point about the “Arab Spring” is that the oppressed needn’t recognise their oppression. Ultimately, there’s little one can do for them. It’s not an objective quality that you can demonstrate to someone – it has to be felt. And if you’ve ever sat next to a kid listening to Justin Bieber you’ll know perceptions of suffering aren’t universal.

As the enormity of horror in Stalin’s Republic became clear, communists reacted in different ways. Some upheld the creed; others claimed he’d deviated from it; others bit their tongues, took their leave and slipped into obscurity. Others still were far more vocal in renunciating it. Koestler, Gide, Dos Passos and others wrote impassioned anti-communist tracts; casting off the partisan and ideological garbs they’d once eagerly donned and doing their level best to shred them.

An interesting thing about some of these “mea culpa“-memoirists, though, is that the habits that distinguished their radicalism seemed to endure when they embraced the liberal West. The verve with which they’d once endorsed the Marxists and denounced their critics was transferred to vigorous support for Western policies and attacks on their opponents. Their thoughts may have changed but the irrational thought processes that had inspired and affirmed them still directed their opinions.

I’ve quoted this study of what I like to think of as “convert’s syndrome” before: Luke Wright’s Ode to Cigarettes, on his attempt to give up smoking, and subsequent addiction to bragging about his supposed achievement…

The obsession grew

I’m on twenty sanctimonious brags a day

I’m nipping out at lunchtime to shout at strangers in the street

“Oi – cancer boy! I’m better than you! Eight fucking weeks!”

It’s a feature of the louder converts’ rhetoric that they’ll be fierce in denouncing the beliefs they’d previously held. (Without, in some cases, owning up to how proud they’d once been to endorse them.) This, I presume, serves the double purpose of assuaging their own shame and averting others’ suspicions. Often – as with a few commies cum conservatives – guilt, insecurity or the enduring need to place themselves within a tribe – to have a fully formed worldview – will lead them to embrace whatever seems to be the opposite of the opinions they’d cleaved to.

Converts, then, are thinkers who should be treated with scepticism. Yes, there may be joy in heaven over sinners that repent but unless you can peer into a new disciple’s souls I’d keep the champagne on ice until they’ve proved themselves. Yet, there’s never been a better time to be a convert. Reformed Islamic nutjobs are fêted as pinnacles of moderation; treated with such credulity that it’s not unheard of for people to fabricate their “fanatical” pasts. Disaffected leftists and conservatives are always irritating old friends and delighting new comrades. How I Learnt to Loathe the Liberals has been penned so many times, in so many different forms, you could type a few words – say, “Chomsky”, “principles” and “postmodernism” – into a database and generate one of your own.

Thing is, changing your opinions can be a wise and (inasmuch as anything a privileged would-be intellectual can do is “courageous”) courageous move. After all, we’re inclined to stick with the beliefs we’ve always held – and disinclined from advertising our blunders – and it can lose you friends and leave you feeling darn disoriented. A converts might also have an insight into the beliefs they’d held; an understanding of what leads somebody to adopt them, and how they might be convinced to alter their opinions.

On the other hand, none of this might be applicable. Some could change their minds in the same sense that a rodent might evacuate a doomed craft. Others may be biased towards flaunting their independence from the herds they’d once drifted with (see the rise of the e’er more conformist contrarians). Others, however pure their intentions, might be stricken with convert’s syndrome. In fact, the idea that you need have an insight into a belief or attitude because you used to hold it seems naive. You might, of course, but it ignores our tremendous natural skills in the art of revisionism. If you’ve ever recounted an achievement that despite being mundane in reality becomes an event of staggering magnitude in your reconstruction – or, indeed, a crippling humiliation that becomes a trifling annoyance – you’ll be aware of the selective accounting of our memory banks.

Me, I’ve been a convert many times. “I like your blog, Ben,” said a friend who’d somehow crossed the border between real life and blogging, “But you always seem to post on how you’ve been wrong.” This was terribly unfair. And, yet, absolutely true. I’ve been wrong on everything from war to religion to the merits of Tim Bresnan. Wrong in such a fiercely obnoxious manner that the only prescription I can be entirely sure I won’t regret – well, aside from, “Don’t watch The Hangover Part II” – is stir a measure of humility into your beliefs.

I’d like to put this obnoxious indecision down to youth. This sounds like a poor excuse – if someone dismissed me on the same grounds they’d be subjected to a verbal beatdown of Klitschkoian proportions – but the impressionability, shrillness and presumption that have marked all such episodes are features of youth. That, however, doesn’t mean they won’t be features of old age. And it raises the point that while it might be admirable to change one’s views occasionally, if you’re wrong too many times people might justly wonder why you’re worth listening to at all. That’s especially true of people who are paid to bloviate. You wouldn’t call a plumber who was known for botching repairs. Why some commentators hold down jobs after so many errors is beyond me.

To note that someone manifests the deeds or features they decry – or, in other words, that the pot’s calling the kettle black – is a fallacy inasmuch as it needn’t reflect the power of their argument. Still, plodding through Simon Heffer’s column on why “lefties” aren’t funny one can’t help but think, “This bloke wouldn’t know humour if it slapped him round the chops with a twenty pound fish.” Realising that Heffer’s definition of “lefty” – anyone who’s to the left of Simon Heffer, I believe – would include myself I thought I’d fend off fallacies and grapple with his theories of my joylessness…

For generations our humour was based on the quirks of foreigners, something the Left regards as making us racists.

Really? Hm – I’m running through from Wilde to Wodehouse to the Goons, Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python and I can’t help feeling Heffer’s either being dishonest or has yet to see a comic outside of Jim Davidson. (He believes “the Left” have smeared Davidson, by the way; long after the ageing jokesmith granted that his work had been obnoxious.) Sure, some British comedy was – and is – based on cultural differences – some of it incisive and amusing, some boorish and dull – but it’s insulting to Englishmen to say that’s all it was. Our comedy was far more rich and interesting than that.

The idea that being “left” or “right” wing makes you humourless is evidently false. Amusing conservatives? Waugh, Amis, Levin, Wolfe, O’Rourke. Funny leftists? Shaw, Parker, Vonnegut and Hicks. Few perspectives are so narrow that they blind one to the great absurdities of life, the universe and everything. And, besides, people “in” politics don’t always think politically. Otherwise they’d be so depressed they’d kill themselves or so earnest that somebody would do it for them.

There are tendencies in politics that dull one’s humour. Tribalism, the urge to defend one’s “side” and strike at its opponents, is a recipe for tedium as its products are exclusive or ingratiating; partial, spurious and smug. More like advertisements, in other words, than entertainment. This is why a party broadcast is inevitably as amusing as a swift knee to the groin (which at least provokes a noise that’s something like a laugh). Ideology can stifle humour as the adherent begins to see the world through the filter of its premises. This restricts and skews perspectives and, in many cases, lumbers them with great big fallacies that block their view of the truth.

With this in mind it’s no surprise that our favourite comedians have transcended parties or creeds. (That’s a flowery way of saying they didn’t really care.) Wodehouse, Milligan and Cook – or, in the States, Thurber and Perelman. What should be noted, though, is that those guys were pure comedians; people who, with some exceptions, merely wanted to be funny.

There’s a trend for comics nowadays to crack wise on political and cultural affairs but act as if they don’t have an opinion themselves. No, they’re above it all; serenely passing judgement. Well, that’s bollocks. When comedians – or any commentators – act as if they’re nonpartisan their judgements tend to rest on prejudices they’ve assumed are truths. (10 O’Clock Live, for example, oozed so much self-satisfied social democracy it felt like open mic night at the Fabian Society.)  Some even idealise their supposed moderation: claiming that as all “sides” are foolish the truth must lie between them. How boring! They’ve made a virtue out of not rocking the boat.

I’d prefer that people held opinions – tried to convince me that the other views are strange. Sure, they risk becoming serious (or seriously dull – anyone who’s watched Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce dissect their own obsessions will know they could be tedious now and then) but it’s far more interesting and the thought and passion they’ve invested in their jokes are like a whetstone to the blade of their satire.

It’s also worth remembering that our humour aids us in avoiding the obscurantist excesses of belief and tribalism. Having a sense of the absurd helps one to spot absurd claims. The bullshit detector is an unreliable device and no substitute for rational inquiry but, still – it helps to weed out shady types deserving of examination. That’s not merely true of fact claims – “France causes cancer”, “An Israeli ate my goldfish” – it applies to rhetoric. Fiery hyperbole and bogus sentiment are thwarted by the twin stewards of emotion: humour and scepticism. Its most invaluable purpose, naturally, is in keeping us amused. Human affairs would be quite staggeringly miserable otherwise.

It strikes me that by the age of twenty I’ve professed to being a Christian, an atheist and an agnostic; a socialist and a liberal; a feminist, an absurdist, an interventionist, a Stalinist…Okay, the last one isn’t true – as yet – but this is still pretension on the scale of the monarchal matrimonials. I thought more about supporting Bolton F.C. than championing some of these ideas.

Let’s picture a more reasonable soul of twenty winters – someone who’s aligned themselves with just a few philosophies. A Christian Marxist, say, with a line in existential thought. They’d have had to cram a huge amount of knowledge of the universe, the human being and its societies into their tender mind. (As, indeed, would atheistic liberal feminists; agnostic conservative greens; pagan Stalinist post-structuralists…). Yes, one could appreciate The Bible, Das Kapital and Kierkegaard before reaching the age at which you could get pissed in the U.S-of-A but, still, the ease with which the adolescent – or, indeed, adult – professes to have been converted to complex and controversial doctrines suggests that a lot of of us are not dreadfully rational about adopting creeds. Far from being the pinnacle of hard research and contemplation they’re endeared to us by our environments, their visceral appeal and, of course, how much allegiance offers to our ego and emotions.

This is somewhat unavoidable and sometimes innocent but it throws up problems. Once we’ve aligned ourselves with credos and the tribes that represent them we’ve shut our minds – if, perhaps, left them ajar – to all the data and ideas that belie their principles. Biases can wedge their precepts deep inside your consciousness – to the point where they’re not judgements that reality has implied but a part of your identity you’re forced to justify. This is a spanner in the works of contemplation but fits our society: where you don’t form a perspective but take a side; where debate isn’t Socratic so much as a sport. One where passions are exhausted in absurd competition but, unlike the more productive sports like darts or snooker, no one wins the bloody game.

If we did nothing but meander in the dimness of our doubt we’d get nowhere as a species. But you don’t need to accept a whole philosophy before advancing a principle or wrestling with a concept. Exploring or pursuing a classically “left-wing” idea, for example, needn’t mean adopting and aligning oneself with socialism any more than young chemistry students need declare themselves positivists. And if a philosophy illuminates some aspect – let alone all – of our predicament it has to be an idea of significance and should be treated with the seriousness that it deserves. Endorsing it, in other words, is meaningful. It shouldn’t a feature of one’s character – to be brandished like the colours of one’s football team.

The image of liberals as being starry-eyed and out of touch is a cliche, of course. Then again, the notion of conservatives as grumpy and austere is a cliche as well and – by God – it’s sometimes correct. So, I hope you won’t think I’m being a partisan prig in say that Madeleine Bunting’s latest column on the value of “nostalgia” is so out of touch it’s in a whole new dimension. “Nostalgia has to be recognised as legitimate,” she writes, without naming a single thing that one might be nostalgic for. Last week she was telling us that “diversity is something to enjoy, celebrate [and] benefit from“. Well, no it’s not. Some forms of diversity are valuable, yes – others can be horrible. Shall we take a jaunt down to the former Yugoslavia and lecture them on how splendid “diversity” is? If nothing else they’d be united in whooping our ass.

The trouble with some liberals is that they idealise abstractions – diversity, equality, human rights – without much awareness of their real-world implications. Values that don’t reflect human experience are useless; prizing them without being mindful of their enactment is like offering directions for a route you’ve never followed. This gets cringeworthy when they’re appropriating the supposed values of others. Like a 50-year-old trying to get down wit’ da kids.

Stephen Walt discovers that the history of regime change should lead us to not merely err on the side of caution but to make for it post-haste…

A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) “has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945.” Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

There are some things that every generation’s had to fail at. It’s like the eternal boyhood dream of being a footballer. Sure, it’s enormously unlikely to succeed, but it’s not impossible and it’d be a glorious thing! Well, it’s like a schoolboy trying to be a footballer and snapping a few thousand legs, perhaps.

So, my opinion on Libya is still that I don’t have a firm opinion. Much to Hitchens’s chagrin we citizens are impotent spectators and for now I shall remain a quiet one. My emotions won’t be stirred by people who insist “we” are obliged to intervene, however, if they make no reference to the facts of an intervention. They brandish the U.N.’s “responsibility to protect”, which strikes me as one of the oddest misnomers since this “international law” thing that no one seems to care about.

This is the third principle of the RtoP doctrine…

If a State is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are not working, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, then more coercively, and as a last resort, with military force.

But that’s not an RtoP, it’s an RtoIntervene! To protect someone is to defend their welfare: if you leave them worse off than they’d have been otherwise you’ve not protected them at all. Let’s assume that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens (arguable but, well – assume it!). If a maniac has barricaded themself in a house with a stock of arms and a clutch of hostages tha po’lice would be compelled to act in the interests of those victims. This could mean not intervening, as, of course, the maniac could flip and lose their inhibitions for serial killing. By the same token the “international community” may not be able to wade into a conflict without worsening the disaster it’s provoked.

If a responsibility to protect means anything the actions it inspires would have to be of real value. Inasmuch as it’s a deontological principle it has to follow from a precondition of utility. Or, put simpler, that something is fucking horrible is not a case for intervention. That something is fucking horrible and can be made less horrible – now that‘s a better argument. (Though, as I’ve been saying, if you’re not at the wheel of a state you can’t just think of which course you’d like to embark upon but which it’s liable to take.)

What about Libya, then? Again, I don’t feel fit to judge. Try every other blog on the frickin’ internet.

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