Saturday, April 26, 2003

Back from the trenches
Almost two months since I've posted here, I know -- aside from work, the onset of war kept me busy doing other things, among them flailing away on Stand Down. Now, the time has arrived to come up for air... at least until the next war drive begins.

One of the more depressing things about war is that, often, arguments over it can put you at odds with people you admire. Such was the case for me with Mark Rosenfelder, a.k.a. "Zompist," one of the most single-minded world-builders I've ever seen on the Web, and also one of the best-read and clearest-thinking folks from any profession I know. Certainly more so, than, say, certain high-profile WebPundits I could name.

It therefore came as a surprise to me, although perhaps it shouldn't have, that under the deluge of war propaganda, certain curious memes had made their way into Mark's discourse. His recent rant on the topic (which bears traces of the latest political thread on the Zompist board) repeats some of the most surprising of these.

For example:

"Liberals and lefties had better watch out: the neocons have turned the table on us. Twenty years ago, it was consie doctrine that "authoritarian" regimes were necessary for reasons of realpolitik; it was laughable idealism to seriously believe in democracy and human rights, and they could see no difference between Ted Kennedy and Stalin. Now the neocons are talking about democracy washing over the Islamic world, and many leftists find themselves muttering about how Iraq is not ready for democracy and how Bush's human rights record is worse than Hussein's."

It is, of course, false that opposition and support of the war can be boiled down to "left" and "right" positions (Chris Hitchens, mentioned in the same rant, is at least nominally still a leftist) -- but whatever the realities, it's not too surprising that that myth should remain potent. The left would in many ways still like to think of itself as the soul of American oppositional politics, while the antiwwar right is still -- to a large extent -- deeply uneasy at finding itself on the same side of the fence as Those Damned Hippies. The two tendencies show encouraging signs of learning from and about each other, and trying to move beyond the ancient barricades of stereotype, but there's still a long way to go. (Somewhere in that mix are the libertarians, whose assessment by Mark is mostly agreeable to me, although I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that, contra early indicators in the 90s, some of them really are serious about the civil rights-oriented parts of their agenda.)

No, what's more curious about that paragraph is that Mark appears to think there is something new about the neocon "liberation" rationale -- as though "defending" democracy had not been one of the canonical excuses for numerous American interventions and allegiances (whether or not they involved democracy) since at least Wilson's day. (George Kennan was railing against overuse of "democratization" as a rationale for foreign policy in 1948; defense of "democracy" was invoked too many times to count in favour of opportunistic US-backed thugs during the Cold War; Bush the Elder, in 1981, toasted Ferdinand Marcos with the words "We love your adherence to democratic principle, and to the democratic processes.") That rationale was usually cynical, of course, and undercut by "he may be a bastard but he's our bastard"-style realities -- but the use of this rationale, as well as its very probable cynicism, strikes me as one of the most canonically conservative of the neocon tendencies on Iraq.

This has also contributed to a very traditional leftist position (though not only a leftist position) that democracy must be rooted in populism rather than externally imposed-- jiving with a very traditional leftist anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. So, from that standpoint, there is little rhetorically new in the situation as "left" and "right" on either side of the war fence go -- and claim that there is seems a little bizarre coming from someone who is usually historically aware enough to catch such contradictions.

Even more bizarre is the claim that "many leftists find themselves muttering . . . how Bush's human rights record is worse than Saddam Hussein's." Maybe leftists in Chicago are a different breed? I move in pretty ultra-left circles from time to time, subscribe to an activist listserv that runs from centre to pretty much as far left as it gets, and regularly read a variety of antiwar and self-identified leftist sites and rages -- and I know of no-one who claimed this, even among the most virulently anti-Bush outlets on the Web. Noam Chomsky has never claimed this. Indeed, if anything the canonical leftist position has been to emphasize that the US was connected with Saddam when he was at his horrible worst.

So, where on earth could this claim be coming from?

Well, maybe Mark is basing this on some unverifiable private conversation, but it looks a lot to me like the torturous logic of a kind of pseudo-McCarthyite confessional politics is at work here -- a suspicion, I'll admit, born partly of Mark's quoting a Salon article employing just such logic on his board. This is the logic wherein someone who fails to ritually condemn the enemy of the day in any sentence in which they criticize a President is ipso facto a traitor who is rooting for the enemy (or at minimum, a delusional who thinks the enemy is better than his own government).

If you ask me, this is the key political achievement of the neocons. Would Mark ever accept an insinuation that the critical timeline of American interventions in Latin America that appears on his website is ipso facto proof that he thinks America has a worse HR record than the Soviet Union? The answer is probably no. Yet he sees nothing a teensy bit off in levelling an almost identical charge at contemporary leftists who oppose a programme of aggressive, ummm, "liberation." In this instance he seems to have internalized, without noticing it, a mode of argumentation disturbingly reminiscient of neocon attack dogs like David Horowitz.

I'm starting to think of this as an intellectual affliction of North America's liberal left -- the disease, we might say, of False Compromise, wherein commentators are often so intent on seeming fair, detached and impartial, on providing some kind of face-saving boost to their opponent in the name of intellectual honesty, that they are actually reduced to repeating intellectually dishonest arguments from one side or another as a rhetorical tactic. Arguments which, in other contexts, they would normally reject out of hand.

Another affliction, especially for "liberal hawks" -- or, in Mark's case, "liberals-who-would-like-all-the-war-criticism-to-now-go-away-please": the illusion that a war being waged by neocons will actually be the war you want to be waged: "let's hold the neocons to their word: let's insist on real democracy in Iraq," says Mark. An admirable goal, and one I happen to absolutely agree with, but it makes one wonder what political leverage Mark actually imagines he has to get the neocons on this page. Does he believe that liberals have more pull with the Bush Administration than, say, people like this?