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Justified and Ancient

(posted here for various reasons of convenience. Also the Crooked Timber comments policy is to avoid pointless flamewars about Middle East politics whereas the D^2D comments policy is “kick out the jams, mofos”. I don’t even always delete blatant comment spam because it makes the site look more popular).

Brad DeLong and Jeff Weintraub are trying to have a civilised debate over whether The Left are treacherously undermining our war effort by accident or on purpose. Sorry, guys, include me out of the “civil and measured” part of this. Not so long ago I was talking in the context of George Galloway about the kind of rhetoric that comes close to being the sort of thing that a decent Millian liberal would want to see banned; well, in my book raising dolchstosslegende is right up there too. Jeff Weintraub appears to be explicitly saying that in his view, many people on the liberal Left in America in the 1950s were actually partisans of the Stalinist cause, that naming, shaming, ostracising and blacklisting them was the right thing to do and that we ought to do the same thing today with people who might be sympathisers of The Terrorists. He is a professional philosopher so no doubt he will be able to come up with a watertight explanation of why this isn’t McCarthyism, but I for one won’t be buying it. So forgive me my gentle readers if the essay below tends toward playing political dirty pool; I feel that when someone is claiming that there is a fifth column of decadent liberals within our midst, the governing rules are not so much Marquess of Queensbury as WWF Hardcore.

So anyway. Brad ‘n’ Jeff are all on about the distinction between “explaining” terrorist atrocities and “justifying” them, with Mr Weintraub claiming, (on the basis of what look to me to be very flimsy interpretations of partial quotes taken out of context from Normblog) that a very substantial proportion of antiwar liberals who claim to be doing the former are actually being dishonest because they really mean the latter.

This is one hell of a claim to make. Let’s be clear about this; he’s not just deciding to abandon the normal convention that when we’re having a political argument with someone, we do them the courtesy of assuming good faith. That would be bad enough, but the fact of the matter is that this isn’t just one of your Internet games. Under currently proposed UK legislation, “justifying terrorist violence” is “unacceptable behaviour” which could get you deported if you’re an immigrant. It’s clearly not far off being a criminal offence in the UK, so throwing around accusations of “justifying terrorism” is not at all the sort of thing that anyone can shrug off lightly.

So it’s not something that ought to be discussed with hypothetical examples and stipulations. Instead, let’s take a case where it is agreed by all that some people are engaged in the business of “explaining” while others are “justifying” and see what we can learn about the distinction. I’m sure there are many such cases, but here’s one that occurred to me.

You see, there is this country called Israel, and it has an army called the Israel Defense Forces. And from time to time, the Israel Defence Forces do things which, taken as single actions on their own, would look to be very bad indeed. Things like shooting children for throwing rocks. Or like bulldozing people’s houses because a family member committed a crime somewhere else. But when they do these things, they do them for reasons.

Now there are basically three points of view that people take toward the controversial activities of the IDF. Some people regard them as “wholly inexcusable” and deny that there is any explanation, excuse or justification possible for them. I think that people who say that are being intentionally blind to the facts. Some people, like me, believe that what they’re doing is basically morally unacceptable, but that it hardly takes place in a vacuum, that they are for the most part reacting to a situation not wholly of their own making and who knows, maybe if it was me and my countrymen getting blown up by suicide bombers, maybe I’d be a lot more sympathetic to what they do. And then finally, there are plenty of people, not me, who think that the IDF are justified in acting as they do, that the Palestinians have brought their troubles on themselves and that bulldozing houses and shooting kids with rocks can be the right thing to do if you are acting in national self-defence.

[there will now be a short pause during which everyone who was composing a sentence in which they accuse me of claiming that there is moral equivalence between the Iraqi insurgents and the IDF, may quietly fuck off]

I think we have here something that throws quite a lot of light on the distinction between “justifying” and “explaining” things. What Jeff Weintraub apparently believes is that in the case of Iraq, there are a lot of people who are claiming to have the sort of views about the Iraqi insurgents that I have about the IDF’s use of bulldozers, but who actually have the sort of views that the proprietors of Little Green Footballs have about the IDF’s use of bulldozers.

A somewhat unfair and tendentious analogy? Well yes, but it wasn’t me that started it. In any case, we can take this a bit further. One thing that we know about The Left is that one of its favourite activities is pointless infighting over minor details of analysis. Certainly, in the context of Israel, whenever I make a remark which expresses my own point of view explaining the excesses of the IDF, it is not difficult to start a vehement argument with people who think I ought to be moving further in the direction justifying them, or further in the direction of unequivocally condemning them. This is because, on the left, there are plenty of representatives of all three points of view on this issue.

On Iraq �? Not so much. The argument is entirely between “explain” and “unequivocally condemn”. You will search far and wide (you will find something in the end, but it will not be an easy search) to find examples of one person on the liberal left excoriating someone else on the liberal left for not giving the Iraqi insurgents enough of the benefit of the doubt.

Now this might be because there is a massive, Left-wide tacit agreement to all keep shtum so that we can get away with our clever deception. But the problem with asserting this is that it is visibly ridiculous. The Left has never been able to sustain a united front on any issue in the past and has always succumbed to the narcissism of minor differences of emphasis. A much more plausible explanation is that there is no criticism of mainstream “explanation” of the insurgency from the point of view of people who give the insurgents more credit, because there are (to a rounding error) no such people.

In other words, my contention is that the fact that the question of active apologism for the Iraqi insurgency isn’t a topic of vicious internecine fighting among the mainstream liberal left (in the way that active apologism for Palestinian terrorists is), this is decent evidence that there is next to no genuine apologism for the Iraqi insurgency on the liberal left. Stab-in-the-back, how are ya.

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