What would be your most important piece of advice about life? > Be fair. Be honest. Be sceptical. Never mind the bollocks.That's from the normblog profile, a while back, of Tim Burke. It's a good precept - and not only for life generally, but also in blogging. In fact, especially there, since in terms of fairness, honesty and scepticism, there's a lot of the other stuff about, and if you wasted your time going after all of it, that's what you'd be doing with your time, wasting it.
Tim Burke has taken me to task over my post on Tony Judt. Were I to act on the advice Tim gave in that profile answer of his back in May 2004, I might not feel it necessary to respond to him now; because, except for the fact that 'bollocks' isn't a word I'm given to using outside private conversation, is the sort of expression I mostly refrain from in public debate, there are several elements in his criticism of my post that arguably belong in that very category and which certainly fall short of being fair.
Yet, for every valuable precept there's another, and it's in the nature of things that the second can yield a different practical conclusion from the first. So, while I prefer not to engage with forms of blogospheric discourse not measuring up to Tim's precept, and mostly don't, I believe in the principle, as well, that people who are fair-minded as a general rule and conduct themselves in a civil way should be treated likewise, their occasional departures from this norm notwithstanding. That's why I'm replying to Tim, despite those items in his criticism which I rate as belonging in the category I wouldn't normally bother myself with and he professes not to either.
1. Item. This is of the species 'He's not [that is, I'm not] such a bad guy in one important respect, but... he [that is, I] may not be altogether sound in that respect either.' Here it is in Tim's own words:
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.'Geras has had nothing to say...' Well, you see, my view about torture is inflexibly simple: I'm against it. In all circumstances and for everybody, no exceptions. As it's a view I've made clear on this blog whenever I've posted on the matter, a view that is also continuous with my published work over many years and with the work I'm engaged in at present, as well as with my support (also over many years) for human rights NGOs, NGOs concerned specifically with torture, I don't feel the need of proving that my view hasn't softened or slipped, by saying something about torture at a particular time nominated by Tim Burke. 'Nothing to say in the past month' is an idle game, and I suspect Tim knows that. I could on the same basis note that during this September, when there occurred - just for example - a Global Day for Darfur and publication of a parliamentary report on anti-Semitism in Britain, Tim for his part had nothing to say about either. Or if he did and I've missed it, then he was silent about something else important. An idle game I wouldn't usually bother joining even by way of a rebuttal.
2. Item. With a link to this recent post of mine in which I made it clear (as I have many times) that I don't lump together into a single category everyone who opposed the Iraq war, Tim gives me credit for trying to be fair. Nonetheless, he draws out the following so-called 'implication' from my criticism of Tony Judt:
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.It's most creative, this, but only in the producing-it-out-of-the-air mode. Or to put it differently, Tim makes it up. In the post on Judt, I precisely register a distinction between those I refer to as the 'Hizbolleft' and others of anti-war conviction who (I say) do not share the same political vices (roughly: accommodation with anti-democratic forces) as that left, but for whom the supreme virtue nonetheless has been that you should think like them, and for whom therefore the pro-war left has been a quite particular object of hostility. On the one hand and on the other hand: I distinguish different sections of the anti-war left and and criticize them for different things. Forget the Hizbolleft, I say, and their anti-democratic solidarities and allegiances; more interesting, I say, are these others, these of the one truth on Iraq and the one virtue, namely theirs.
Tim seems to think he can show that this latter category is empty by pointing to his own case - that he isn't a legitimate object of such criticism - and the case of 'lots of [other] liberal critics of the war'. But this is an elementary logical mistake. It doesn't have to be about him or about such others. Because I don't play the tenor sax, this doesn't mean that nobody does. Because Tim Burke isn't himself a sneering anti-'decent' - though not, one may note, above ironic use of the scare-quoted term - it doesn't mean that that's an empty set.
3. Item. Tim appears to believe that my use of a tu quoque form of argument against Tony Judt is beside the point. But, believing so, he misses what was in fact the central point of my criticism of Judt. It was that by treating under a common and prejudicial label - 'collapse of liberal self-confidence', 'liberal intellectuals... fast becoming a service class' - a large number of figures with whom he has political differences on some related issues, Judt in effect denies the legitimacy of there being an alternative liberal response on those issues. Leave aside that one might think at least some of the figures he names are owed better than to have their viewpoints reduced to being due to an insufficiency of emotional courage or the pursuit of ignoble motives and interests. The issue isn't whether Judt is right against them or they right against him on the substantive questions at stake. It is that he declines to treat those differences as legitimate differences among liberals (or within the left), as political disagreements not hard to explain in view of the gravity and complexity - or even merely the two-sidedness - of the problems it concerns. No, he prefers to traduce all these people as failed in their liberalism and on account of dubious motives. I would say that this provides more than reasonable grounds for charging Judt with binary thinking - 'If you're a real liberal (member of the left etc) you have to think like this'. And as binary thinking was what Judt alleged against others, the tu quoque is entirely merited.
That is not, in other words, a purely formalistic riposte. It is the very heart of the matter. Tim seems to think that what bothered me in Judt's article was its impugning the sincerity of those who supported the Iraq war from the left. Not so. Naturally, a person will be less inclined to engage intellectually with those who treat her as other than sincere - as dishonest, cowardly, venal and so forth. But this isn't the crux of what I was identifying as wrong with Judt's article. The crux is that, alleging against others a failure of liberalism, he defines the space of (genuine) liberalism in such a way as to suggest that support for the Iraq war must have been impelled by extraneous, unprincipled - or, at least, non-principled - impulses. I would say that that itself is a pretty dire failure of anything claiming the name of liberalism. So, yes, pot and kettle, and if Tim doesn't like this, he could spell out why it doesn't apply to what Judt wrote in that LRB piece, rather than just dismissing it peremptorily as a piece of you-too-ism without substance.
For the rest, and in line with that last point, it is notable that Tim is less interested in Judt and what I in fact criticized him for - which centred on a list of people that included Adam Michnik, Václav Havel, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Michael Walzer - than in presenting us with his picture of the group of pro-war liberals he repeatedly identifies as 'decents' and 'Eustonites'. It is as if my post, just like it was supposed to be about Tim Burke, was primarily about us, the Euston Manifesto group - which it wasn't. But anyway Tim's picture, as you may confirm for yourself, is a rather disobliging one. In some details it is produced (as in 2 above) out of the air. Thus, he ascribes this accusation rather loosely to 'Geras and others':
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...Not only do I not think anything like that, I've said that I don't on plenty of occasions; I can't speak for 'others'. But never mind stuff of that sort, hey. I meant to leave it behind at the asterisks above. Let's now get to the core of what Tim has to say that can be met as being his serious purpose - so to say beyond the asterisks.
This purpose is to lay upon us pro-war liberals and Eustonians an obligation to debate with those who disagree with us. We...
... 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 [i.e. we Eustonians] have to agree with their critics, but they do have to preemptively agree on the legitimacy of certain arguments, both philosophical and empirical.I pause to note the largeness of the concession: we don't have actually to agree with our anti-war critics, we only have to accept that they get to define the terms of debate. In fact, I don't accept this. Free intellectual and political debate is what it is, namely free, and no party to it has a monopoly on setting the parameters. But my refusal may not matter too much, since as it happens I do accept some of the terms Tim goes on to specify as obliging us. I do accept, and I always have, that 'some things about the war are ambiguous, uncertain, confusing, without easy resolution'; I likewise do accept the need of 'standards for success and failure in war and occupation' and the need to take 'responsibility for both conceptual and empirical error'. Of course, if there's an imputation there - as there surely is - that these things haven't previously been accepted, by me or 'others', then speaking for myself (which is all I can do) I reject that.
There's a connected trope in what Tim says on this score. Not only do we have an obligation to debate, he says, but we must...
... 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.Now, if 'joining people of good will in the intellectual spaces etc' isn't simply another way of saying being open to debate on questions that are complicated and hard, then Tim appears to be requiring something about where and with whom the debate takes place, and on this I have something to say.
I have been debating about the Iraq war since July 28 2003, when I launched normblog. Extensively. Intensively. Tim may not like what I've said. That's his right. He can engage with it or he can leave it alone. However, by doing this on my blog, the place where I've been doing it is the blogosphere, and this is a free and open space more or less. Anyone can take issue with what anyone else writes. Have I declined the opportunity to debate with others of opposing views? I don't believe so. Leaving aside that I have discussed, at length and repeatedly, positions adopted and questions raised by critics of the war - why Iraq and not other tyrannies, sovereignty, thresholds of intervention, alternative regime change scenarios, questions of responsibility, whether democracies are to be held to a higher (human rights) standard than other regimes, whether or not it matters if US and British leaders deliberately misled their publics, the 'incompetence dodge', whether or not democracy is nascent in Iraq, and a lot else than this but which I'm not going to trawl further through my archives to find – and leaving aside that I have written 11 of 17 Euston 'platforms' trying to clarify points in the Euston Manifesto and responding to its critics... leaving all this, as I say, aside, I have engaged with many bloggers of anti-war conviction. These include Tim Burke, Chris Brooke, Ken MacLeod, Michael Fisher, Brad DeLong, Dave Gwydion, Chris Young (and here and elsewhere), Stuart Turner, and others yet. Why, I even used to discuss things with Marc Mulholland, until his blogging turned obsessive in a particular way that I've come to know and leave alone.
The thing is, Tim Burke doesn't get to say - if this is what he indeed intended to say (and if he didn't, then he can treat what follows as merely general and not as addressed specifically to him) - where I debate or with whom. For in my book the kind of stuff which the word 'bollocks' is generally used to cover extends from the substance of what may be said and written to the manner in which it is expressed. Not only do I bypass objections of a substantively footling kind - the straining at a word here, the twisting of a phrase there, the noting of a failure to say 'yay!' or 'boo!' on some occasion when someone else requires it of you, the ascription of some viewpoint irrespective of what is amply on the record showing that the ascription is spurious - but I don't go (except rarely, reluctantly and at moments of my choice) into spaces where the mode of address is abusive or even just mildly insulting; and I scarcely ever engage with those for whom I have become someone without principle or conscience, a renegade, member of the pro-war 'left' with scare-quotes - generically, a BAD PERSON of one stripe or another. 'People of good will' is fine by me, but each of us gets to make the judgement for himself or herself of who displays it and who doesn't. There are spaces into which I don't go and people I won't engage with. I didn't reach the seventh decade of my life without learning not to walk where I'll get dog shit on my shoes. That says nothing against the act of walking.
One final point. There's something else beyond good will here. Not only is the blogosphere a relatively free space; blogging is a relatively free activity. Nobody is obliged by any particular thing that has been written by someone else - even if it was done with the most beautiful of wills. You blogged last week or last month or last year on the topic of fleas and rainbows. The fact that today you have a would-be interlocutor on fleas or rainbows doesn't mean you have to say the same thing again, or indeed a different thing on the same topic. You may just not want to repeat yourself. You may want to blog about... oh, I don't know, Iraq, or Zimbabwe, or The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady. You may want not to blog, but to watch a movie. No one else gets to set the terms, either of debate or of how and when you blog. I think I've done as much debating in the blogosphere as most people, and plenty more than some. And I could point to rather a lot of non-engagement, if I may so put this, with arguments I've made at length and by people to whom I therefore owe nothing in the way of discursive reciprocity. If Tim doesn't see eye to eye with me on these matters, bevakasha, my friend.