a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Worth reading

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 4th, 2007

  • Boerish (HTML Mencken, “Sadly, No!”) — the wonderfully pseudonymed ‘Mencken’ collects statements by pro-war enthusiasts Max Boot, Josh Trevino, Glenn Reynolds and others seeking inspiration for American strategy in Iraq in the Boer War — paraphrasing, “sure, there were concentration camps and scorched earth, but the Brits won” — and sets them against an assessment of that debacle by mid 20th century historian AJP Taylor. Eerie similarities surface between politics here and now and politics then and there. Mencken:

    The ground conditions SNAFU and the politician schemers realized they hadn’t thought things through, hadn’t considered contingencies. Check. Policies and practices which scandalized world opinion. Check. Depraved policies and practices that make a mockery of one’s country’s ideals. Check and mate.

    Taylor, emphasis Mencken’s:

    Fifty years afterwards, it is clear that victory has gone to the worst elements on both sides. Milner got his war without achieving his vision; the Boers lost their independence without being won for progress and civilization […] The mining houses and the most narrow-minded Boers, Johannesburg and Pretoria, have joined hands to oppress and exploit the native peoples who are the overwhelming majority of the population[…]

    (PS: In case you’ve never read this, either, by Liberal/Radical John Morley, in an 1899 Manchester speech: “You may make thousands of women widows and thousands of children fatherless. It will be wrong. You may add a new province to your empire. It will still be wrong. You may increase the shares of Mr Rhodes and his Chartereds beyond the dreams of avarice. Yea, and it will still be wrong!”)

  • What Went Wrong? (Bjorn Staerk) — As Staerk acknowledges, he once considered himself among the original post-9/11 “warbloggers.” Like me, he came to support the Iraq war; like me, he came to regret that:

    When I look around me at the world we got, the world we created after 2001, that’s the question I keep coming back to: What went wrong? The question nags me all the more because I was part of it, swept along with all the currents that took us from the ruins of the World Trace center through the shameful years that followed. Iraq, the war on terror, the new European culture war. […]

    And by “us” I don’t mean that everyone thought alike, I mean that there was an identity based on an unspoken agreement about who were “ok” and who weren’t. And – God help me – I was ok. I haven’t been for a while now, but it’s only recently I’ve realized just how little there’s left of what I believed five years ago. Our worldview had three major focus points – Iraq, terrorism and Islam – and we were wrong about all of them.

    I dodged the anti-idiotarian bit he talks about, at least, and I know I parted ways with the LGF crowd fairly early on as it became clear that the racist hatred on display there was a feature, not a bug. But none of that made me immune to many of the same mistakes Staerk describes himself making — despite not being the teenager Staerk was. Staerk’s post clearly didn’t satisfy many readers at the sites taking note of it, to put it mildly — one commenter at Crooked Timber wrote “Is this idiot going to crawl on his bare hands and knees over broken glass“* — but it will speak to many of the rest of us who’ve had to look in the mirror and wonder how we let ourselves go so badly astray. Or rather, shake our heads and see how hubris and naivete can get the better of oneself, too, not just of people in history books or works of fiction.

  • Liberating Iraq (Hilzoy, “Obsidian Wings”) — Hilzoy might have been responding to Staerk, but instead this piece is a reply to Peter Beinart‘s mea culpa in The New Republic. Her essay is liable to be remembered mainly for this crystalline paragraph:

    Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.

    But it’s more than that, and should be read carefully by everyone. Perhaps especially Mr. Staerk and myself. Staerk may have been ironic in speaking of “the moral courage to want to change the world by force” early in his essay, or he may have simply been describing a mindset he now rejects. Hilzoy continues:

    And another was this: liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?

    Unfortunately, there are almost always ways in which things could be worse. […]

    When you use force to liberate a country, like Kuwait, that has only been occupied for a short time, you can hope that its people will accept their previous government, and that whatever made that government function in the past will have survived. But when you liberate a country like Iraq, a country whose people have been brutalized, you risk loosing Hobbes’ “war of all against all” on its people. You remove the sovereign who has kept that war in check, without thereby creating any of the political virtues that allow alternate forms of government, like democracy, to function.

    I think some of her argument suffers from the India vs. South Africa example she uses to introduce her ideas; South Africans faced a far more determined and violent foe in the 1980s than Indians did in the late 1940s, and the very partition Hilzoy alludes to shows that Gandhian methods didn’t forestall extreme violence in that country once the liberation/independence was achieved. Of course, that wasn’t Gandhi’s fault. But the South African women of whom Hilzoy wrote might well have said at that rate, who knows what will come, we will stand up regardless.

    But that was how South Africans might justifiably feel about liberating their own country. The aspirations of many Americans to liberate Iraq are not in the same class — as the widespread buyer’s remorse demonstrates. That’s not to say other aims were much more sensible: I thought WMD or advanced programs for them were there, and that Saddam was not deterrable. They weren’t, he was, and I might have guessed that from the lack of evidence for WMD and the shifting rationales Bush et al presented for the war. And while Americans might feel differently about the price they’re paying for Bush’s decision if there actually had been an Iraqi WMD program to nip in the bud, Iraqis would have been just as stuck with the results either way.

  • Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, (Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books) — Eagleton, a professor of English literature at Manchester University, takes on the straw man version of religion in Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion:

    Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. […]

    Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.

    Eagleton’s a funny writer, but he makes points more seriously as well, including that Dawkins and many others conflate the intolerant fundamentalists in religion with everyone else who believes in the same God. Here Dawkins et al have a straightforward answer, though: you nice, thoughtful religious folk seem to let the fundamentalist ones represent you everywhere, so to all intents and purposes they’re the religionists the rest of us have to deal with. I hope Mr. Eagleton can be persuaded to wield his entertainingly sharp pen at, say, Jerry Falwell’s or Pope Benedict’s or the Ayatollah Khamenei’s expense sometime soon.

* See also a paragraph by paragraph rebuttal by Grand Moff Texan — and Staerk’s reply.

NOTES: Boerish via Roy Edroso (“alicublog”). Staerk via Mona (one of the new co-bloggers at “Unqualified Offerings”) and John Quiggin (“Crooked Timber”). “Liberating Iraq” via many, including Patrick Nielsen Hayden, where interesting comments about the post may be found. Including Hilzoy’s, who re-summarizes: “you can create a democracy when you invade for other reasons, but if that’s the point of invading, it will almost certainly fail.” Eagleton v. Dawkins via Teresa Nielsen Hayden‘s sidebar.
EDIT, 3/14: aspirations “are”, not “is.” Sheesh.

4 Responses to “Worth reading”

  1. RobertNAtl Says:

    Heh. Indeed.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I see a pattern here.

  3. Nell Says:

    Well, if the comment never appears, your view has been communicated by Dan Kervick, whose comments consistently inspire respect.
    I hope it makes Matt stop and think next time. He seems to have a touch of the excessive zeal of the convert’s — having regretted his pre-Iraq war liberal interventionism, he now seems to take a bit too much pleasure in ripping anything he associates with that worldview.
    Good results: appropriate skepticism about, say, U.S. military intervention in Somalia. Appalling results: joining Jackson Diehl in sneering at anti-genocide efforts.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Yes, I saw that.
    A second (third, actually, I left the one I cite twice) comment I left posted, so I guess it was the links that screwed things up.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> -- (comment rules)