Sunday, September 24, 2006

Paying Attention

Norm Geras, attempting to defend the Decent Left against Tony Judt's recent LRB piece attacking them, picks out this as the core of Judt's attack:

the habit of casting every political choice in binary moral terms

Geras then goes on to accuse Judt of being intolerant because he's unwilling to see that reasonable people might disagree over the invasion of Iraq and various other military interventions. This obviously implies precisely the kind of fault Judt accuses the Decent Left of: the reason he is intolerant is that he is casting all of these political choices in binary moral terms, because he, and those like him, refuse to believe that a reasonable person could only take one side in these disputes.

This response, obviously, doesn't really address Judt's argument, and doesn't even really adequately lay a charge of hypocrisy. Notice that Judt isn't saying there's anything wrong with casting individual political choices in binary moral terms: the critique is that every political choice is cast in binary moral terms. This is sensible, because there are political choices which ought, in all realistic situations, to be understood in certain binary moral terms: to torture or not to torture, for example. What the idea of every political choice being cast in binary moral terms suggests is an inattentiveness to the moral complexity of the world. After all, it would display a lack of moral sense to insist that most decisions about marginal tax rates and their effects on incentives ought to be understood through the lens of a discourse on Nazism. To do so wouldn't have paid sufficient attention to the various sources of moral costs and benefits, most of which have more or less nothing to do with Nazism, which properly impact on such a decision: it would be morally blind.

It strikes me that that is a perfectly respectable critique of the Decent Left: in its rush to see everything through the prism of democracy promotion and suchlike, it ignores a whole host of other costs and benefits which ought to be considered in cases of intervention, as well as the manifest shortcomings of those whom it expects to act as its agents, so, when it formulates the terms on which the decision is to be taken, they don't take into account all these other costs and benefits, or the problems of implementation. It's not so much that the Decent Left sees things in binary moral terms then, but that they see them in the wrong moral terms full-stop: anyone who trusts George Bush and his coterie of plutocrats to successfully run a democratising occupation and so was liable to cast the invasion of Iraq in the binary moral terms of for or against democracy clearly hadn't been paying enough attention to a number of things, not least how George Bush got where he is in the first place.


Simon said...

And yet, stop as you read Judt's article to ask what the reference point is, what the set of arguments, against which he finds all these people guilty. Set of arguments: none.

This strikes me as straightforwardly incorrect: surely the set of arguments - or rather, the single argument - he is criticising is the tendency of the aforesaid 'liberal intellectuals' to view the "war on terror" in Cold War-like terms, and to see themselves as the new Cold War liberals - and, just as their Cold War Liberal predecessors were able to shake off their support for the Vietnam disaster by redoubling their commitment to vigorous prosecution of the Cold War, so the new Decent Interventionist Liberals see their support for the Iraq fiasco as a minor, well-intentioned blip in the context of the broader struggle against Islamist terrorism, in which their anti-Iraq opponents are woefully unserious.

Geras, AFAICT, has not repented his support for Iraq, but as Judt points out, a number of the cited liberal intellectuals have, but for reasons of 'failures of execution' rather than principle. It appears this is what Judt is attacking above all else; that their polarised worldview has blinded them to the political differences between them and the Bush Republicans whose foreign policy strategy they broadly support, but which has barely anything to do with any definition of liberalism. In doing so, they betray the liberal cause they still claim to stand for.

Rob Jubb said...

I suppose Geras might reply to that that hardly addresses the central point of the controversy, since it relies on a premise he and others explicitly do not accept, that it was a bad idea to invade Iraq. But that reply would of course ignore the fact that you'd have to be mad or totally uninterested in human wellbeing to think it was a good idea to invade Iraq now, so I think Judt's got Geras pretty much nailed.

Anonymous said...

you'd have to be mad or totally uninterested in human wellbeing to think it was a good idea to invade Iraq now

I don't think Geras is interested in arguing from the facts now. He defends his continuing support for the invasion *in 2003* on the basis that it was impossible to predict that it would go tits up in the way it has. Of course plenty of people argued in 2003 that that is exactly what would happen, and Geras and his co-thinkers responded at that time that there was no evidence for such pessimism and that it was based purely on subjective dislike of the Bush administration.

Presumably they would still argue this, and assert that any coincidence between the predictions of opponents of the war and what actually happened was just that and no more. There can be no arguing with such a position, as it is defined so as to ensure its own truth.

Chris Y

dearieme said...

"George Bush and his coterie of plutocrats ": but Clinton's first cabinet was substantially richer than W's, or so I've seen stated and, apparently, widely accepted as true.

Rob Jubb said...

I never said they weren't plutocrats too, and as I remember most of them were marginally more competent as well - a plutocrat is not just someone who's wealthy, but someone who exercises power in virtue of that wealth. Anyway, it was an aside.

On the 'just because our opponents predicted it, it doesn't mean that they had any good reason to predict it' defence, to be made credible, that defence requires engagement with what has gone wrong, and why non-Decent left people thought it would go wrong, none of which, as you correctly observe, has been much in evidence.

dearieme said...

Rob, it's in the asides that much of the information lies.