Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Liberal Hawks

Things fare ill, both materially and spiritually, for that cluster of writers we call the interventionist left -- or, less charitably, the "liberal hawks." They first formed ranks in 2003 at the start of the invasion of Iraq; they had their brief apotheosis at the signing of the Euston Manifesto in 2006; and they mostly fizzled out when the moral consequences of the War on Terror became increasingly visible to the world and difficult to bear.

They were wrong from the start, to the extent they really lived up to their "hawk" designation; but they did have their moments in the early days when they nonetheless seemed, grudgingly, to "have a point." They were an eruption, a spasm, and like most such things they had their origin in energies that had in fact been unduly repressed and misdirected by an older, more relativistic Left, and that therefore manifested themselves in destructive forms when they did break through the resistance. One didn't like the Eustoners, that is to say, but one felt at times that the old leftist warhorses had some responsibility for their creation. The whole movement had a certain enfant terrible quality; it was upstarts like Nick Cohen and the then-unreconstructed Johann Hari against the old farts like Noam Chomsky and Terry Eagleton, who had been saying the same things for far too long.

But boy, has that moment passed. Liberal hawkism is now itself entirely the domain of the old farts, still riding the same worn-out hobby horses. Several things led to this eventuality: the increasing awareness on the part of educated people of the true complexities of sectarian politics in the Middle East, the massive destruction of human life in the Iraq War, the ever-accumulating evidence that The War on Terror was not going to be fought, and maybe could not be fought in the form the hawks wanted, without torturing people and disappearing them and imprisoning them indefinitely. The idea that the hawkish leftists were the only ones "consistently" applying Left principles came to seem less and less coherent, let alone plausible. The liberal hawks seemed to fall silent.

Or maybe we just stopped listening. A couple recent events have served to remind me that some of them are still at it, and I just haven't been paying enough mind. The turmoil at The New Republic, for instance, recalled to my attention that there are still pages in our periodical literature given over to Paul Berman and Leon Wieseltier-- I just happen not to read them. The change in management at The New Republic that led to Wieseltier's resignation and that of others may have been deplorable. The new leadership's effort to dumb down the magazine's content and corporatize its structure is probably as laughably misguided as the critics portray it. But this still does not keep me from feeling a twinge of Schadenfreude at the whole display. From what little I read now of the last of the liberal hawks, including Paul Berman's thoughts on the end of The New Republic as we knew it, I am struck all over again by that peculiar style of humorless faux-profundity, that portentous and therefore self-undermining "literariness," that seems to define the TNR crowd. These writers aptly confirm that the sure conviction of the perpetual weightiness of one's opinions, is a good indicator of one's real airheadedness.

And then there is this incredibly strange article by Michael Walzer that appeared recently in Dissent. If I knew what to make of it or how to explain its existence, I'd tell you. You must read it to learn exactly what I mean when I say that it surpasses the descriptors "tired," "redundant," and "full of recycled ideas." The same charge could after all be leveled against most other writings in this genre. What I'm trying to convey here is that even in the realm of over-laundered thinking, this stuff has triply or quadruply been through the wash. We have echoes of echoes of other people's echoes here. Nearly all the article's talking points date from more than half a decade ago. Its cast of characters were all most active and talked about ten years ago, and have been little heard from since. Walzer divides them from one another along the most predictable moral lines for this type of writing. We have Hardt and Negri (Bad); we have Nick Cohen (Good). We have Slavoj Zizek (Bad) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Good -- her affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute being purely the fault of a left that didn't do enough to court her). We have Edward Said (Bad) and Paul Berman (Good). 

Walzer, as you may already have guessed, thinks that the Left ought to do more to resist Islamic fundamentalism than it does currently. He's probably right, if trite, so far. But he wants more than a mere willingness on the Left to voice honest and thoroughgoing criticism of Islamism as a deadly, repressive, and totalistic ideology (such criticism would not actually be all that hard to find on the Left, these days, thereby undermining Walzer's argument). Walzer also wants war. He notes with sadness that "[T]here is no chance of recruiting an international brigade of leftist fighters," to take on ISIS and Boko Haram and similar groups: 
"so there is no point thinking about where we might send them. Leftists will have to support (though many won’t) military efforts specifically aimed at stopping the massacre of infidels and heretics. After that, I am more inclined to consider a policy focused on the containment of Islamism rather than a war (or a series of wars) to destroy it."
This is the same Michael Walzer whose Just and Unjust Wars still appears on virtually every syllabus of every college course on the ethics of military intervention. This is the same Michael Walzer who wrote his famous tome on just war theory after participating in the movement against what he regarded as a quintessentially unjust war, the war in Vietnam. True, he is mentioned unfavorably in Tony Judt's essay on "Bush's 'useful idiots,'" for remarks on Israel, and he and Judt butted heads about that same issue elsewhere; but Walzer's liberalism always seemed to me to outweigh his hawkery, compared to certain other writers. I certainly never thought of him in the same category as the blood-thirsty Eustoners, and he was not a signatory of their Manifesto.

Yet here he is, bemoaning the absence of recruits for his "international brigade of leftist fighters" and talking about "containment," all in terms and with references so dated I had continually to scroll back up to the byline to make sure this wasn't simply a reprint of an essay from years ago. I consider Walzer to be a writer with a complex and subtle mind, well capable of nuance, yet here he is displaying the worst case of Hedgehog syndrome I've seen in years. This is very much an essay that has only "one big idea" at a time, as Berlin would say.

I don't want to unmask myself as the whippersnapper I am by saying "That's so 2007," as if that was such a long time ago. But a great deal has in fact transpired in the world since that year, much of it things that need to be incorporated into any intelligent analysis of this subject. Perhaps the most striking omission from Walzer's essay is the total absence of any recognition of the fact that Islamic fundamentalism is inwardly divided against itself -- that it can take on different forms that are mutually antagonistic. Even if one was inclined to favor Walzer's interventionist approach, which I am not, one still then has to ask where exactly we should start. He seems to have IS in mind as a target. But what about the fundamentalist Shiite militias that are combatting the Islamic State -- while committing atrocities against Sunni civilians? Does Walzer think Iran and al-Qaeda get along with each other across the sectarian divide, simply because both are Islamic fundamentalists? How about Saudi Arabia? The regime is not often labeled fundamentalist, due to its support for Western governments, but that hasn't prevented it from beheading people and flogging internal dissidents and enforcing the strictest kind of Sharia law. Should our Leftist brigade smuggle themselves across the Saudi border and start planting bombs on military train lines there too?

Surely, for that matter, Walzer does not think that the Islamists are the only source of human rights abuses in the Middle East. It's not at all clear to me, for one, that the secular Assad is a lesser evil than the Islamist IS. And it was a secular military regime, let us recall, which seized autocratic power in Egypt from the hands of a freely elected (if not entirely uncorrupt) Islamist government. The 800 innocent people whom this regime killed in cold blood in Rab'a Square in April, 2013 ("the largest massacre of protesters in recent history—the most deadly since at least China’s repression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989" (Kenneth Roth))  were mostly supporters of an Islamist party, the deposed Muslim Brotherhood. 

It was explicable in 2007, if still not quite excusable, that a highly intelligent and well-educated person might not understand all of this -- might not be fully aware of the fact that there is not some one party of "liberal democracy" to identify with in the Middle East, opposed to one monolithic fundamentalist oppressor. It is incredibly strange to see it still in 2015, when the complexities of Middle Eastern sectarian politics have been so much more widely publicized and discussed. 

I don't see an obvious opening for our supposed leftist brigade in the current map of the Middle East. I really don't see that our leftist brigade would remain "leftist" for very long, at least not in the romanticized and idealized form that Walzer seems to envision. Little corrupts as surely as the systematic exercise of violence in conflict.

Walzer could have made the bulk of his own argument without the call to arms, however. And if he had done so, most of the piece would have been basically right, but redundant. Walzer argues with the notion -- ostensibly widespread on the Left-- that Islamic fundamentalism is a response on the part of the world's poor to the displacements of international capitalism, a movement of the "oppressed" against "imperialism." Walzer is right: such a position is indeed not defensible, given what we know about the social composition of these movements, the psychological profile of people who join totalistic movements, and the history of the way various other totalistic, fascist, and extremist movements have tended to form in history. Yet I can't think of a time in at all recent memory that I have seen someone on the Left (or otherwise) propound this notion. Walzer's examples of people doing so all derive, tellingly, from a 2007 essay (I'm telling you -- that is the year at which the mental frame of reference for this article has been arrested, for unknown reasons), and from the 2008 words of Slavoj Zizek. Here, again, Walzer has a point that is true in a very limited way. If Zizek stands for the views of everyone on the Left these days, then truly we are lost: "our faith has been vain, and we of all men are most to be pitied," as Paul would say. But of course, he does not stand for everyone on the left, and neither does anyone else. 

Walzer really needs to cultivate two fine arts that will save him great emotional pain in the world of polemical writing: that of non-identification, and of non-surprise. There was a time in my intellectual life when I still identified with every "left" opinion, and felt myself to be somehow personally implicated if someone on the Left said something that displayed particular confusion or moral cowardice. It has been so long since I felt this way, however, that I can scarcely recall how it worked psychologically. The "Left" contains people of such fundamentally divergent interests, ideals, cultural values, and aspirations, that any attempt to identify one's own person with every other representative of it can only result in divided consciousness and split personality, or else a futile hope (seemingly displayed by Walzer) that one's polemics will somehow reunite the sides around what one regards as the true historic kernel of the Left.

Which brings us to the art of non-surprise. Because there is no such kernel now -- and there never has been one, so this fact should not surprise us. Arguments of the type Walzer is making seem always to display a bitter feeling of loss -- as if there had been some time in the past of Edenic harmony on the Left-- an age of unadulterated and shared moral purpose from which we have fallen through a current infatuation with cultural relativism. Yet when did these conditions of unity ostensibly obtain? Paging through history, I see no evidence of them. The Left has never for any period been united consistently behind a defense of the human rights of all persons. It is not even correct to say, by most definitions of the boundaries of the Left, that everyone within those boundaries has shared an "Enlightenment" set of values. Proudhon and Marx had dramatically different ideas from one another about women's social and political equality. George Bernard Shaw, despite being a leading Fabian, threw his support behind Mussolini's dictatorship in its early stages, believing it would unmask the corruptions of parliamentary democracy (he later switched enthusiasms to Stalin, and liked to dwell with particular relish on the terroristic actions of the OGPU, which he greatly admired). Thomas Carlyle -- held up still as an early socialist -- was an enthusiast for racial slavery and for a return to feudal serfdom. 

Being "Left" has meant at various times in history embracing "rationality," and embracing pure instinctual feeling, including the instinct toward violence (Sorel). It has meant supporting "liberty," and embracing some of the most systematically repressive political regimes ever in existence. Leftists have fought for "equality," and also "because we've got too much equality / and it would be fun to upset the apple-cart/ and see which way the apples would go a-rolling," as D.H. Lawrence once recommended in half-earnestness. 

Being perpetually surprised by the fact that the Left displays moral partiality, moral blindness, moral cowardice, and just plain evil (as will any other political ideology if it reaches enough hands), will soon test the limits of the heart's capacity to absorb shock. It is as ill-advised as feeling oneself implicated in the words and actions of all other leftists, simply by virtue of their being leftists.

For the non-hedgehogs, for the people who have more than "one big idea" at a time, it is still possible to avoid the worst sins of Walzer's opponents without following him to the end of his argument. We can step around the moral traps of Walzer's (partially imagined) adversaries, without having to enlist in wars that are likely to kill a lot of innocent people and empower a lot of destructive political forces. 

Perhaps any sane view of these subjects can only take a "Yes, but," form. Yes, we should be willing to criticize Islam as a system of ideas; but we ought to be genuinely careful (as Walzer himself emphasizes) not to do so in a way that will feed into the very real evil of anti-Muslim prejudice, hatred, and violence (an evil whose reality events this week must have confirmed for us, if it ever needed confirming). Yes, the Islamic State is utterly deplorable; but so are most of the entities fighting it. 

What Walzer sees himself as asking of the rest of the Left, of course, is likewise a willingness to think both sides-- he is asking for a level of sophistication beyond the knee-jerk belief that any force that opposes Western governments must by definition be composed of noble "anti-imperialists." He would view himself no doubt as making a "Yes, but," analysis of the sort I commend. His would go like this: "Western power is often used to pursue horrifically violent ends; but in certain extremes it is better to employ it rather than risk the victory of truly nihilistic and destructive agencies in its place. There are a lot worse actors out there than Western governments, in short." 

In these abstract terms, Walzer's argument is not necessarily invalid. Yet there is another layer of sophistication still. We need another "but," so we perhaps end with a "yes, but, but..." and on indefinitely.

The further qualification I have in mind is the simple fact that to go to war, even one waged against genuinely atrocious foes, and with initially limited goals, is to assert a power of life and death over other people. It opens, then, a pretty dark cavity of potential, into which a great deal else can rush in. How much should we trust our government, our fellow "leftist brigade," ourselves, with such absolute power of life and limb?  Are we so pure of heart that when we obtain power of life and death over others, we exercise it with justice? Exactly what in our history should indicate that this is so? Perhaps, as I've argued before, the massive atrocities carried out by IS should not confirm for us just the deadly nature of that group's ideology-- it should remind us of the human potential for cruelty that exists within us as well, and which might easily manifest itself even in a war we wage with at first "limited" goals.

Walzer plainly thinks that any military intervention he is recommending should be limited, though he chafes against even these restraints. He writes that following the implementation of a policy of limited intervention:
"[...] I am more inclined to consider a policy focused on the containment of Islamism rather than a war (or a series of wars) to destroy it. This is a fever that will have to burn itself out. But there is a deep difficulty with this view: many people will suffer in the burning, and leftists ignore that suffering at our moral peril."
In reading this article through the first time, my eyes had begun to glaze and my mind to melt at this point-- it was a late night, and I felt that I had thoroughly "got," by this point, what Walzer was trying to say. In this mental condition, I stalled for a second at the line: "many people will suffer in the burning." Before I placed it in context, I thought for an instant that Walzer was referring to the people who might die in U.S. bombing campaigns, which tend to involve a lot of "burning." I thought he was referring to the people who might die through a military victory by Assad, whose aircraft have already dumped endless incendiary material in the form of "barrel bombs" onto the civilians below them, resulting in the gravest losses of human life in any conflict in the world today. I thought he had in mind the Sunni people who have been or might yet be massacred by Shiite militias and death squads fighting IS.

Walzer seems to fear that the non-interventionist Left is unconcerned with the fate of IS's many victims, as that militant group moves increasingly toward ethnic cleansing, as it perpetrates its sectarian atrocities and its savagery against minorities and its self-publicized murders. There may be truth behind these fears, in the case of some small number of leftwing writers.

Yet a crucial distinction still lies in the fact that you and I do not control what IS does; we do have some immediate say over what our governments do. There would seem to be a much greater burden of proof, then, on the people who want us by our own direct actions to inject further violence into a situation, by dropping bombs and shipping arms, to show that they have appreciated fully the extent of human suffering that may come as a result. It may be the terrible truth that "many people will suffer," in either scenario. But we can choose whether or not to be the authors of that suffering.

By saying this, am I simply prioritizing my own "clean hands," over the possibility of eventual justice for all? Is this a perversely thoroughgoing kind of Kantianism, that pays no mind to overall consequences? That's not how I understand it. My hope rather is that, if enough of us, enough times, refuse ourselves to be the authors of atrocity, in our various societies, this itself will prove the best means of limiting the overall violence and injustice in our world. It's a distant hope. It's a hope that can offer only more slow-acting gains in place of the immediate ones military intervention grandly promises (and seldom delivers). But it may still be the best hope, for all that, if we wish to live in a less atrocious world.

No comments:

Post a Comment