Friday, March 25, 2005

Dancing in a ring (a response to a query posed by Norm Geras)

In a recent post, Norman Geras wrote:

And yet it is almost de rigeur amongst people of liberal and left outlook, today, to use as representative of what we should fear in the way of a possible return of the horrors of Nazism, not the many actual ruthless and life-devouring regimes we have known in recent decades, but... George Bush, or America, or some other Western instance or combination. Why? One answer I would give to this is that I don't know. I've been trying to understand it since September 11 2001 and on some level failing. Yes, you can say knee-jerk this, that and the other, and in its own way it is right to say so. But, more deeply, the failure involved in these de rigeur responses, the failure to give due weight and proportion to moral and political realities which matter more than just about anything else matters, is hard to comprehend.

In that one-word sentence, "Why?" and its answer, "I don't know," lie an enormity of wonder, a perplexity many of us share.

Why do so many "of liberal and left outlook" focus on Bush's supposed crimes, making the Nazi comparison at the drop of a metaphor, and ignoring the far more terrible tyrants around the world for whom the Hitlerian analogy would be more apt? Why indeed have many on the left functioned as apologists for Saddam Hussein, a man whose downfall they should be applauding? When they said they were against tyranny, didn't they mean what they said?

I don't pretend to have a definitive answer. But I do have a response.

First, I offer this quote from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.

We all want to dance in a ring, to a certain extent. It's wonderful to be part of a coherent movement, a whole that makes sense, joined with others working for the same goal and sharing the same beliefs. But there's a price to pay when something challenges the tenets of that movement. When that happens, there are two kinds of people: those who change their ideas to fit the new facts, even if it means leaving the fold, and those who distort and twist the facts and logic to maintain the circle dance.

Now, you might say that leftists didn't have to compromise their beliefs to have applauded the downfall of Saddam Hussein and to have realized that he and his regime were worse (and far more Nazi-like) than George Bush. Indeed, there are many leftists who have consistently said these very things. But there are others---and their numbers are not small--who have not, or who have done it with so much "throat-clearing," as Chris Hitchens calls it, that their statements become virtually meaningless.

What is the difference between these two types of people? I think it has to do with the extent of their devotion to the circle dance, and the hierarchy of their belief system. The former group--what Norm Geras calls "principled leftists"--truly do believe what they say about hating tyrants and tyranny, and this is one of their highest values. They apply it irrespective of where the tyranny originates. But the second group, the terrorist and Saddam apologists, the relentless Bush=Hitler accusers, are quite different. It seems that they feel that their membership in the circle of the left requires them to elevate one particular guiding principle above all else, and that is this: in any power struggle between members of a third-world country and a developed Western country (especially the most powerful of all, the United States), the third-world country is always right.

Once learned, this very simple and reductionist principle makes the world easy to understand, and dictates all further responses. If one believes this principle, then oppression and tyranny can go in one direction only, and all evidence to the contrary must be ignored, suppressed, or twisted by sophistry into something almost unrecognizable. But once that price is paid, one can go on dancing in the old circle.

In the quote with which I began this essay, Norm Geras refers to "the failure to give due weight and proportion to moral and political realities which matter more than just about anything else matters." I think the key phrase is "which matter more than just about anything else matters." To those intent on dancing the circle dance above all else, the priorities are different. Apparently, other things matter more.

I don't think this phenomenon is limited to the left. I've watched some on the right do the same sort of thing (although the details and issues are quite different): ignore evidence or twist logic to make sure they come to a preordained conclusion that fits into previous theories. And on the right there are also those brave ones who leave the circle and dance outside the ring.

12 Comments:

At 11:49 AM, March 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a test

 
At 12:54 PM, March 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tnanks for this fine meditation on the extraordinary political extremism that has overcome so many in recent years (not just since 9-11 - the anti-globalization violence of the late 90s and the hysteria over the 2000 Florida elections seem to have been precursors). To watch a friend, an ebulliant standard-model-liberal suburban soccer mom turn into a raging fanatic Bush-hater - now that's a truly frightening experience.

 
At 1:04 PM, March 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for the test and for the anonymity, I am unable to complete the registration process due to screen configuration.I read Norms reductionism article in Dissent, reacted poorly to what I felt was an unfair attack and sent him a regrettably abrasive comment.He now,quite understandably, does not desire any further correspondence, but I check out his site fascinated at this liberal pro-war sentiment I had no idea existed.This has led me to pro-war socialist sites, Iraqi bloggers, US soldier blogs (all new to me) and now to your site via Norms attention to it.As a socialist involved in the peace movement (it is my habit to list contradictions, anti-war/ peace being #1)for over thirty five years I admit to mixed feelings as I marched in D.C. in the huge rallys both leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq.Despite the easy generalization(indeed, reduction)that anti-war slogans did not include anti-Saadam sentiment there was in fact a great deal of internal ideological wrestling going on.Many of us marching during the phase of intensive bombing,cluster bombs,smart bombs striking wedding parties, depleted uranium,shock and awe,were as alarmed at military tacticsand lack of concern for civilian safety as we were disgusted at the lies of the administration used to justify their actions.As a marxist I knew we should be marching in support of all oppressed people,including those in our own nation, rather than this bourgeois-democratic analysis of blood for oil etc.But this is yet another contradiction when trying to build solidarity in an advanced capitalism.I saw 9/11 not as an epiphaninal event but as another in a long line of spectacular spectacles (the broadcast of nuclear tests on Bikini, the fall of the wall, images with terrible impact).Terror was the property of the state (your own hero, Winston Churchill said"I do not understand this squemishness about the use of gas.. I am strongly in favor of using poisened gas against uncivilized tribes(recalcitrant Arabs) to spread a lively terror")
The young Iraqi blogger said"at least now I have hope" Are you able to encourage that hope? If your patient wakes up and says thankyou doctor, I no longer feel that terrible pain,will you tell him that is because you have removed both his legs at the hip? Perhaps we are all dancing in a ring and as Adorno so aptly put it" we are all free to dance and enjoy ourselves...but freedom to choose an ideology, since ideology always reflects economic coercion,everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same". One in seven Iraqis participated in the oppression, was an informer etc..collaberated in some way,it was not the power of one evil man as much as we would like to reduce it to such. Iam not casting stones, but it is tose "mind -forged manacles" I truly fear and the new manacles your new friend Bush wishes to introduce. No more secret police, now the policeman will be in your head.No more mass graves, now the graves will be those buried by capital, and terror and your new freedom.
Will you support a new Platt amendment ,the US (maybe Israel)may exercise the right to interfere for the preservation of Iraqi independence? To maintain bases? Norm dismisses the leftist obsession with imperialism as reductionist.So how will they not be a colony? I do not wish to dance in this ring, nor on this dance floor at all.

 
At 3:35 PM, March 25, 2005, Anonymous Bill Barnes said...

Version available at smallprecautions:

Liberal Hawks and the Fight Against Fascism
A Reply To Norm Geras' Critique of the Left on Iraq
("The Reductions of the Left," Dissent, Winter 2005)
Bill Barnes

(This is a compilation, revision and rearrangement of my side of a series of email exchanges with Norm Geras over the week of Feb 7, 2005)

 
At 5:40 PM, March 25, 2005, Blogger Bryan J Weitzel said...

Anonymous #2,

You said: "Many of us marching during the phase of intensive bombing,cluster bombs,smart bombs striking wedding parties, depleted uranium,shock and awe,were as alarmed at military tacticsand lack of concern for civilian safety as we were disgusted at the lies of the administration used to justify their actions."

I just want to point out a few facts:

1) World War I had 13 million civilian deaths.
2) 80,000 Japanese were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945.
3) The Nazis killed six million Jews
4) Millions of Chinese died at the hands of the Japanese.
5) The Khmer Rouge killed two million people.
6) 800,000 civilians died in the systematic slaughter of men, women, and children in the Rwanda Civil War in 1994.

and finally...

7) Since March 1, 2003 there have been between 9,883 and 12,258 civilian deaths from all causes including coalition military action, insurgent violence, and disease.

Admittedly, the conflict in Iraq is not of the scale that some of the other wars have been, so let's compare it to Vietnam.

According to an official release by the Hanoi government dated 4 April 1995, there were 4,000,000 civilian deaths during the war from 1954 to 1975 split about evenly between north and south. That's more than 521 per day.

In Iraq, since March 1, 2003, civilian casualties average out to less than 17 per day. And keep in mind that the US doesn't use car bombs.

You also said: "No more secret police, now the policeman will be in your head.No more mass graves, now the graves will be those buried by capital, and terror and your new freedom."

What in the hell are you talking about? Don't wish for freedom because capitalism is bad?

For such a long post you sure didn't say much that was very meaningful.

 
At 6:23 PM, March 25, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

Hi Neo-neo, your blog looks fine! (Ever visit mine at Liberty Dad?)

The Left is today composed of "anti-Vietnam War" protesters, and their progeny.
In Vietnam, the US was fighting evil communism (and doing a lousy job, and using an immoral draft).

The Left wanted the US to leave; the US left. The evil commies murdered and murdered by the thousands and hundreds of thousands -- murdered civilians who were, basically, no longer resisting nor being supplied with equipment.

The Left, perhaps yourself and many, many friends, has steadfastly refused to honestly accept their support fot the victory of evil communism. Their denial has become morally corrupting--the only evil they can conceive of is the evil Hitler fascism. So that's what they call anybody who disagrees.


(Oh, and the other evil is the Spanish Inquisition ... no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, our cheif weapon is surprise, and fear, ...)

 
At 12:30 PM, March 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian, Are you really arguing relative morality as it relates to historical examples? That body count is in some way determinate in terms of justice? Even if your figures were accurate, which they are not,is there some way they relate to Stalin or Ghengis Khan I just don't get? My point was if ones motive for invasion was to free a people would a viable tactic be to soften up your target through intensive bombing? How would a regime of sanctions which resulted in the death of tens of thousands of children benefit the cause of liberation? How would it fit into your scheme of numerical moral relativity? My point about freedom and capitalism was a bit oscure, sorry,but as a socialist I believe capitalism to be a totalitarian system (hence,not free)in that totalitarian is not only a terroristic political coordination of society,but a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. Not to equate this with the brutality of Baathist fascism but simply to question the system which we intend to impose on Iraqi society. The "police in the head" is also a little obscure but it has to do with his same system of "molecular, integral,invisible control"(Debord) of the modern state.As for anonymous #1's ant-globalization violence, I believe you underestimate the state/ corporate violence at which the protest is directed.Not to condone any violence, but yesterday over three hundred thousand people died of causes related to malnutrition worldwide.They are "violent" deaths.

 
At 9:02 PM, March 26, 2005, Anonymous Lexy said...

Fantastic post. I know liberals who can't express enough disgust with Bush and the U.S... these same people are then strangely silent on the abuses of Saddam, the slaughter in Sudan, and the abuses of the UN. There is indeed a sort of willful ignorance going on, expressed perfectly in the "circle dance" metaphor you discussed.

 
At 10:13 AM, March 29, 2005, Blogger Bryan J Weitzel said...

Anonymous,

You said: "Brian, Are you really arguing relative morality as it relates to historical examples? That body count is in some way determinate in terms of justice?"

No, I am not saying that because we are killing fewer civilians we are more moral. But I was pointing out that you were wrong when you said that our military had a "lack of concern for civilian safety". That is a flat out lie. Our military has more concern for civilian safety than any military in the history of war. They have avoided bombing legitimate military targets for the simple reason that it was deemed too dangerous for civilians in the area. They delayed entering mosques until the Iraqi security forces were trained and ready to do it so that our "infidel" soldiers wouldn't "defile" their "holy" firebase.

You said: "Even if your figures were accurate, which they are not"

Actually, my numbers are right on the mark. The Iraqi civilian casualties are based on various sources but one of the most reliable I've found is the left-wing http://www.iraqbodycount.net/ which has been very consistent in the manner in which they count "casualties". Their figures include 7350 deaths prior to March 1st, as well as those killed by the opposition. I was not able to reliably sort the data to differentiate between causes, so I left them comingled.

The figures for other conflicts are in the historical record.

"My point was if ones motive for invasion was to free a people would a viable tactic be to soften up your target through intensive bombing? How would a regime of sanctions which resulted in the death of tens of thousands of children benefit the cause of liberation?"

If you are going to have an invasion, then yes, you should bomb first. We bombed the crap out of France before D-day. We tried sanctions hoping to avoid an invasion. Perhaps we should have just attacked Iraq in 1991, but after liberating Kuwait we thought the mission was done. We were wrong. Sorry. Or perhaps you are suggesting that we shouldn't have gone there in the first place, in which case Kuwait and perhaps all of Arabia would now belong to Saddam.

You said: "My point about freedom and capitalism was a bit oscure, sorry,but as a socialist I believe capitalism to be a totalitarian system (hence,not free)in that totalitarian is not only a terroristic political coordination of society,but a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests."

Actually, all of your definitions of "totalitarian" are wrong. Totalitarian systems are centralized control. While much of capitalism is over-regulated it is far from centralized control. Perhaps you are correct as I have often thought that my "need" for a new Harley was being manipulated, but then again, maybe you are so enamoured of the socialist Utopian ideal that you have never been able to see that once your socialist society is actually begun it never lives up to that ideal. I'm sure that somebody waiting in the bread line during a Moscow winter felt like he was in heaven, or perhaps the Chinese peasant boy who won't be able to find a wife in 20 years because of the 4:1 gender imbalance, or the millions of North Koreans who starved to death during the famine.

 
At 10:16 AM, March 29, 2005, Blogger Bryan J Weitzel said...

Anonymous,

I do have one correction to make. My cutoff date for the Iraqi civilian casualties is off by two months... It should have been May 1, 2003 NOT March 1, 2003.

Sorry for the error.

I have double checked all other figures and they are correct.

 
At 9:38 AM, October 01, 2005, Anonymous Jundi said...

It's amazing how many people 'run to mummy' when you talk about Halabja, and al-Anfal, and say that 'Churchill wanted to gas the Kurds too'.
It's worth noting here that whatever Winston said (and he did come out with some crap at times), the British did not use chemical weapons against rebel Iraqis during the 1920s.

 
At 11:29 AM, October 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been trying to find a way to deal with my circle dancing friends for some time now. Some of them are literally very into circle dancing and ideologically related activities. Others are into conspiracy theory - like Bush caused the Tsunami with a mini nuke, and brought the Twin Towers down and so forth. I have been coming to the same conclusion - it is twisting everything to fit the ideology no matter what. Circle dancer: "War never works." Me: "What about WW2?" Circle dancer: "Oh, that's different." My good friend the conspiracy theorist (and that is said without irony) seems to be prefer the most outlandish ideas to seeing that sometimes his belief system is failing to explain what is happening. I think what is important is that the denial is pretty extreme in both of the above cases. I do denial too, but stop myself fairly quickly when I catch myself - the problem here is the extent of the denial. Terminal denial as opposed to - well - say situational denial. Part of it may be Stockholm syndrome- particularly when you see so many who are emotionally on the side of the enemy - regardless of how loudly they clear their throat. I also sense that a lot of it is simply defending a received collective worldview that has not been critically examined. I mean what is taught in schools and colleges and what might be termed the liberal consensus since WW2 - and I say that knowingly as someone who grew up a card carrying member of the Eastern Intellectual Establishment. Bush so obviously and unattractively contradicts that world view that he is reflexively and totally rejected rather than just selectively rejected where his views are sharply divergent. Lgude

 

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