Quod Erat Demonstrandum

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.

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16 Responses to Quod Erat Demonstrandum

  1. back40 says:

    “The Eustonites and war advocates . . .”

    It isn’t clear that you understand that The Eustonites are a mixed group, not all warrriors. Though I am not moved by their efforts, I do find it hopeful that such a mixed group exists and can get past their differences to their shared views, and still maintain their differences.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s why I said, “The Eustonites and war advocates”.

    But the Euston signatories seem to me to want to maintain a united front at the cost of foregoing serious criticism of each other.

  3. withywindle says:

    “Has Geras never read a thing that Judt has written? He’s not exactly an enthusiast for the left.”

    I’ve just finished reading *Postwar*, and it’s curiously split. He is rather acerbic about the left up to about 1980–and then, especially as regards Thatcher, he adopts the talking points of the same left that he savages up until that point. (Take this as a general impression, not a page by page critique.) Now, it’s possible that he has a consistent position that leads to this division–but I do think it betrays an unwillingness to carry his critique of the left up to the present day. The Judt who narrates history of the 1950s and the Judt who pontificates on current events are not entirely in synch.

    Also, trying to replace the idea that America entirely determined Europe’s destiny since 1945, I think he goes too far in underplaying its role.

    As usual, I disagree very largely with your politics, but it hardly seems worth rehashing that again.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure, he’s got contradictions, but the point is, the guy is hardly a poster child for the left or for liberals. Again, I think this is where Judt is right to complain of a move to binarism: from where the Eustonites are sitting, all who are not inside their tent, even when they may have much in common with the foundational arguments that the Euston Manifesto claims as its own, require no nuanced attention: they are the unwashed. So it doesn’t matter to Geras what Judt has written or said in the past, the intellectual trail that led him to write his article. Geras doesn’t feel the need to figure out where he and Judt may overlap, or share an interest, or anything else. Lump him and leave him.

  5. withywindle says:

    Let’s see … Tony Judt accuses pro-war American liberals of simple binarism, Norm Geras accuses Judt of the same, and you think Geras is also guilty of the same. I’m tempted to say that you’re all right … or all wrong … but doubtless that would be simplistic of me.

    I must say, the weakest of Judt’s sentences is this one: “self-deluding foreigners [former dissidents from Eastern Europe] readily mistake the US president’s myopic rigidity for their own moral rectitude.” It would seem to me that Judt ought to be wary of any argument that requires him to use the phrase “self-deluding”; and that if the dissidents’ moral rectitude is admirable, than he ought to take seriously their perceptions of an equivalence between their rectitude and the President’s. They may be wrong–but there is something deeply unpleasant about calling them “self-deluding.” Indeed, it reminds of the phraseology of those 1950s Marxists he skewers so well.

  6. ben wolfson says:

    Might you not mean “demonstrandum”?

  7. akotsko says:

    I like it how Tim has it — “what has been demonstrated.” The entire point of the post is that the Eustonians refuse to open any point for debate.

    (If it was a mistake and I’m offering plausible cover, then he owes me a favor. And believe me, I will cash in.)

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    It is what I might mean, so I might need to fix it.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Withywindle, if I were setting out to try and reply to someone who accuses me of binarism, I think the last thing to do would be to say, “Oh, you’re the one who is being a binarist. And you’re just like all people I’ve criticized…hey look! it’s the Hizbolleft!!!!”

    So why not say instead, “Ok, Tony Judt is coming from an interestingly contradictory place in general [details], but I’d admit that there are some contradictions and fault lines in the arguments I’ve been trying to sustain too [details].” Geras is, in my reading, considerably more sincere about trying not to demonize the anti-war opposition, far more than someone like Chrisopher Hitchens, but he still can’t bring himself to put any of the driving propositions of his views into the space of debatable jeopardy, or make any of the basic gestures that accompany open dialogue between intellectual and political peers. One of the first things would be to just say, “Look, for the time being, let’s stop talking about George Galloway and the usual suspects every single time I want to talk about critics of the war”. Intentionally or not, this has the effect of reducing all opposition to a single point on a grid.

    I know, I know, you’re going to say that I’m doing the same to Geras. I expect he’ll probably do so shortly himself. But I’ve spent four years here trying to avoid that: disaggregating various arguments, understanding the underpinnings of the neoconservative/democratic revolutionary argument and distinguishing it from the people who were or are on the left, and so on. But equally importantly, there’s just a sociological difference: the opposition to the war is not a single movement, intellectually or politically, whereas the support for the war is a relatively coherent, tightly-woven group of intellectuals and policy-makers who have bound themselves to each other against a rising sea of critics. There’s an asymmetry from the outset. If you’re prowar and you want to get serious about debating your views, you’ve got some pretty divergent choices of people and constituencies whom you can convene a dialogue with. And, as I noted here, you’re defending a policy which exists, to which you have hitched (so to speak) your star, and for which you bear some measure of responsibility. It’s empirically and politically legitimate for me to treat intellectual advocacy for the war as relatively unified, relatively coherent, relatively interwoven. The reverse is not so.

  10. hestal says:

    Former Senator John Danforth has just published a book in which he asserts that the Republican Party has been taken over by the Religious Right. He makes several points about how this is not the role of religion and such mixing is to be avoided.

    He was interviewed on the Al Franken Show yesterday and said that the good folks, especially religious folks, have to be the ones to reconcile everybody and bring a stop to the rancor. He said that the good folks in both major parties had to move to the center and concentrate on agreements. But, he really did not mean it.

    Franken asked him if he blamed the current administration for most of the current nastiness. Danforth said that the Dems were equally to blame because their party had been taken over by extremists as well. Franken said that the Dems don’t have a religious agenda as a de facto party platform. Danforth said that the Dems have an equivalent agenda demanded by the teachers’ union, labor unions in general, and trial lawyers.

    Franken said that Danforth missed a chance to move to the center when he sponsored Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, adding that Thomas was certainly one of the most conservative members of the Court. Danforth ducked. He said that a current liberal member (male) of the Court personally said to him, Danforth, “Thank you for Clarence Thomas.” He added that the Justice said that Thomas is a valuable, dedicated member. Franken asked for a name, and Danforth refused.

    There were a few more exchanges of a similar nature and they ran out of time. I offer all this to say that this is as close to a conversation as we are going to get for years to come.

  11. Gary Farber says:

    Your attempt to link to Geras on Dershowitz on torture only goes to the archive for every single post he made in the month of July, Tim; you might want to link to the specific post, instead.

  12. ben wolfson says:

    Kotsko: “quod erat demonstratum” would be “what had been demonstrated”, wouldn’t it, with “what has been demonstrated” being “quod est demonstratum”?

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, Gary.

  14. akotsko says:

    Ben, Yes — if you want to get nit-picky about it.

  15. I think I missed something along the way: There may be a “social compact” which prevents the Eustonites from criticising each other, but I sure didn’t read it in the text (or the secondary “American” manifesto). Maybe you’re referring primarily to the “founders” not to us signatories in general? I’m really unclear on this point….

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s not in the manifesto. But I do think it’s in the general discourse of most of the signatories. Much has been made out of the fact that some of the signatories are opponents of the war and some are proponents of it, but then both groups act as if they’re in agreement on some general critique of all non-signatories who oppose the war, as if somehow the rest of the opposition to the war is complicit with illiberal Islamism or totalitarianism. As a consequence, the discourse of those within the Euston group is typically about us v. them. The whole Manifesto is drawn up more like a laundry list of specific prior positions than a foundational set of philosophical commitments, which allows that tailoring of “us” and “them”.

    I’d also say that most, though not all, of the very small number of Euston signatories who oppose the war downplay their opposition, or fail to follow through on some of its implications, particularly when it comes to thinking about who or what is putting liberalism in the greatest jeopardy at this historical juncture. From the outside, that appears to me like a “social contract” to avoid intramural argument even when philosophically that argument seems to be both required and imperative. Or to avoid resetting the manifestistas’ priority list so that the White House becomes at least one of the major targets of the group’s critique, if not the major target, and so on.

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