Norm Geras complains about Tony Judt’s complaint about liberal supporters of the war in Iraq.
And in so doing, does a pretty fair job of underscoring Judt’s analysis. Geras’ reply is a short, concise greatest hits parade of the argumentative style of the “decents”. The anger at the perception that the pro-war advocates have not been viewed as sincere, well-meaning and argumentatively substantive. The deflection of a criticism by saying, “Our critics have the same problem”. A lot of “I know you are, but what am I”. And then, quick as lightning, a return to the author’s favorite demons–in this case, the left that supports Hizbollah, in other cases it’ll be Ward Churchill or Katha Pollitt or whomever, with the implication that because the critic of the pro-war liberals failed to ritually denounce the left that the pro-war people hate, the critic must himself or herself be part of that left.
I have bent over backwards myself since 9/11 to try and acknowledge those parts of the argument of the “decents” that I find legitimate. In fact, I’ve shared some of the those claims. I think lots of liberal critics of the war have done so, have criticized many of the same intellectual and political traditions that the “decents” obssess over.
But you can’t dance with someone who stays sitting on the sidelines, arms crossed.
To have a conversation about the war, pro-war liberals and “democratic revolutionaries” aka neoconservatives are going to have to agree to put certain things into the space of debatability. I’m not saying it’s a precondition that they have to agree with their critics, but they do have to preemptively agree on the legitimacy of certain arguments, both philosophical and empirical. They do have to agree that some things about the war are ambiguous, uncertain, confusing, without easy resolution, and not just as a disclaimer preceding a statement that will then thumpingly insist that those same issues are unambiguous, crystal-clear, easily resolved if only the critics of the war will stop committing treason.
And yes, I think the supporters of the war need a massive infusion of gravitas and regret. They need to set some standards for success and failure in war and occupation, to accept responsibility for both conceptual and empirical error, to come clean about history and hubris. They need to rewrite their “Euston manifesto” so that it sets obligations and burdens upon their own position, so that it directs their energies to wherever the greatest threats to their own declared ethical and political foundation might be greatest, regardless of where that threat might emanate from.
The Eustonites and war advocates drape themselves in the holiest of shrouds, complimenting their own fearlessness, but when someone on “their side” trespasses greviously against some of their own alleged beliefs, there is a great hubbub as all eyes are averted, or a great rush to engage in a snipe hunt against some usual suspect. I’ll give Norm Geras credit that this past summer, he took the time to criticize Alan Dershowitz’ defense of torture, but that’s a rare kind of gesture coming from the strongest proponents of the war. For someone whose blogging has been very extensively focused on the war and the Middle East, and has never missed an opportunity to rebuke someone on the left for associations with human rights violators, Geras has had nothing to say in the past month about the current conflict within the Republican Party in the U.S. over the issue of torture, secret trials, and the like. He tries harder to be fair than many of his Eustonite colleagues, but there’s something in the basic position that makes all who hold it take back every proferred concession. They hold all criticism hostage: until the critics acknowledge, en masse, that the war supporters were both sincere and prudential in their initial advocacy of the war, that their philosophical positions are largely beyond challenge, that there is no choice even now but to endorse the American occupation and support the policies of the Bush Administration, and that the first and final enemy is the Old New Left that they were of and now abjure, they can’t concede any error, failure or flaw in their own arguments. Of course, should the critics concede all those things, why then their respect for us will be admirably forthcoming.
Pot, kettle, black is just not going to cut it at this point, not the least because the pro-war advocates are defending an existing policy: the burden is on them, the intellectual and moral responsibility for what is as opposed to what might have been. I’m pretty tired of the ritualistic response that I must first deal with the beam in my own eye and suchlike, because first off, I’ve done that, Judt’s done it (has Geras never read a thing that Judt has written? He’s not exactly an enthusiast for the left), lots of critics of the war have done it. If Geras and others want to refute the charge that they’re crudely binaristic in their thinking, they’re going to have to start joining people of good will in the intellectual spaces where there are difficult questions and uncertain problems that will be respected as difficult and uncertain. No more, “Ah, so if you are not in favor of using military occupation to remove a totalitarian ruler, you are by definition a supporter of totalitarianism” and so on.