Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Chris Rea and Tony Blair, Munich and Pre-Emptive War, and Some Other Stuff

Not that I hate all MOR, or indeed everything about New Labour, but there is, as Backword Dave points out here, something quite appropriate about a major New Labour figure having been responsible for a load of MOR-ish tripe in the 1980s. The pandering, the refusal to see beyond existing preferences, the acceptance and even moralising of the status quo, of the all too common sense, the sense of the blindly satisfied or gratuituously aggreived: these don't just seem to be superficial similarities but approach the status of deep conceptual linkages. Once the history of popular music, initially in part a revolt against all these things, is added to the somewhat self-fulfilling myth of the Labour Party as a moral crusade, a pleasingly romantic, if doubtlessly misleading, narrative of corrupted ideals could perhaps even be constructed. That would probably be taking felicitious serendipities a little far though. However appealing the idea that the same kind of causal explanation be applied across the board might be, that more or less exactly the same kind of thing keeps happening over and over again, it doesn't really do justice to the complexity of the world.

Thinking of the idea that the same thing keeps happening, that despite having been warned, we do fail to learn the lessons of history and are consequently doomed to repeat them, I feel that not enough has been said about the reasonably common trope, repeated here, of equating resistance to neo-conservative demands for pre-emptive action against their enemy of the moment to Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich, or indeed the appeasement of the later thirties more generally. The point of this rhetorical move is to damn anyone who opposed the war in Iraq, or generally has quibbles about a doctrine of pre-emptive war, as morally equivalent to the Guilty Men. Since it has become a piece of conventional wisdom - which I won't question - that appeasement was wrong, it's fairly effective. Unfortunately, it's pretty much bullsh*t.

This is because, for very good two reasons, the analogy doesn't work. The first is that Chamberlain broke treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia at Munich, just as the Anschluss and the remilitarisation of the Rhineland were forbidden under Versailles, so there was a perfectly good case under the conventional just war theory neo-conservatives seek to overturn against appeasement. The second is that at least in the case of Munich, a war at the time would have been better than the war which was later launched: Czechoslovakia would have had Soviet support, probably could have defended itself, and in giving up the Skoda arms factories, contributed significantly to the German war machine, none of which was true of Poland. It remains to be shown that there were no better wars to be fought than the invasion of Iraq. Of course, opposing the second of these reasons effectively argues appeasement was the right course of action, that in this case a war delayed was the best outcome, since it denies that, consequentially, going to war over the Sudetenland was better than going to war over Poland.

This may seem like an odd thing to get exercised about, and in some ways it is. However, it's one of those things that gets repeated enough that it, like the judgement of appeasement, becomes a form of conventional wisdom and unquestionable. For example, there was an article in a recent edition of Philosophy and Public Affairs, one of the most prominent journals in Anglo-American political philosophy, repeated without questioning the claim that a war at Munich would have been pre-emptive, which is simply historically inaccurate. Particularly when the falsehood is obviously morally and emotionally manipulative, it seems to me best to attempt to squash these things as early as possible.

In other news, I am too lazy to attempt decent inter-item links, Daniel Davies' pieces at Comment is Free have been excellent, Matthew Yglesias confesses to something I think is either a lot less or a lot more absurd than he does and William Gibson rates V for Vendetta.

Updated for various stylistic infelicities on 30/03/06.


My fist of flounce said...

Mr Jubb,
I would have emailed but you have none displayed. Given your undoubted philisophical prowess, I'd be most interested to hear your thoughts on this Bertrand Russell quote I've just had my attention drawn to. I hope you find it interesting.

Rob Jubb said...

Firstly, you can call me Rob. There's that great line in the Simpsons where Homer, pleased but also slightly disquieted at having been treated politely, says something like 'he called me 'sir', and then didn't say 'I'm going to have to ask you to leave''. Likewise, I don't think anyone has ever called me Mr Jubb without wanting to sell me something, so Rob is fine.

On the Russell thing, I'm rather more ambivalent about the value of nationalism, perhaps particularly during (just) wars: it strikes me as a plausible historical claim that a relatively strong sense of British nationalism was of no little use in opposing Hitler, for example. As for the idea that it is somehow especially shameful to slander someone in defence of one's life, this seems totally bizarre: gratuituous slander is surely much worse than slander directed at some legitimate end. The causal debunking of knowledge is also dubious: it's fairly clear that the manner in which I acquire a belief has more or less no bearing on the wholly separate matter of its truth. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Russell had got a little bit hysterical about this.

The best Bertrand Russell quote I've come across I think is him on the Romantic poets (paraphrased, unfortunately, since I can't find the original):

"Shakespeare's King Lear contains all the doctrines of Romanticism. However, Shakespeare put them in the mouth of a Fool, wandering mad on the moors."

Of course, if Russell intends this as a critique, he has got Shakespeare all wrong: Fools and the mad tend to speak the unvarnished truth in his plays, and mad Fools even more so.