July 19, 2003

Liberals against Liberalism

Here's another nice essay by Oliver Kamm, continuing the eccentric "leftists for Bush" theme. He cites three statements by leftish Bush-Blair antagonists and opponents of intervention (Noam Chomsky, Gerhard Schroeder, and a humble UK blogger) noting how each fits "neatly into the tradition of isolationist rationalisation for ignoring human suffering" that was once, perhaps, regarded chiefly as the province of "the right." (It's an often observed irony, if that's in fact what it is, but it's an irony that keeps giving: British lefties borrowing the rhetoric of a previous generation of "Little Englanders", and forming tactical alliances with exterminationist anti-Semitic groups; American lefties flirting with and copping the rhetoric of Buchanan-esque isolationism, anti-Semitism...) Kamm:

There are many things that can be said about views such as these, but it's straightforward to say what they are not. They have nothing in common with the ideals of liberal democratic, progressive internationalism as conventionally understood. No one who holds to them has any connection with that tradition.

The principal heir to the tradition among among modern statesmen is a man who does believe that political liberty is universal and who recognises the strategic as well as moral imperative of spreading it. George W. Bush is truly the president, and soon once more the candidate, of the finest ideals of the liberal Left...

That first bit is hard to dispute. As for the second, I daresay it will sound crazy to most of this blog's readers, but if you ignore the domestic agenda and regressive tax policy, and set aside any skepticism about the sincerity of Bush's fitful pro-democracy rhetoric, there is a case to made and Kamm argues it well. It's food for thought, at any rate. The real point, perhaps, though, is not about Bush, but rather about today's left-liberals: I don't have any comprehensive data, but my impression from those I know and read is that most of them are not all that into liberal democracy these days. Am I wrong?

As for true enthusiasts for the ideals of liberal democracy and progressive internationalism, Lord knows they might hope for a more sympathique, a better-spoken, a less culturally dissonant, a more consistent, and perhaps a more convincing standard bearer. (It would also help if he had a different party affiliation, of course.) Tony Blair fits the bill, I'd say. But they (left-liberals, I mean) tend not to like him either.

UPDATE: Michael Totten comments.

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 19, 2003 05:49 PM | TrackBack

He's sure right about one thing...

The notion that the root cause of terrorism is a lack of participatory government is just the sort of idealistic hokum that the left should be eating up.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 19, 2003 08:35 PM

I'm trying hard to think...exactly who would be some well-known examples of this tradition, besides George Orwell and his intellectual descendants like Hitch? I remember the numerous apologists for Stalinism all too easily, but the former seem to escape one's memory ;)

Posted by: JB at July 19, 2003 10:57 PM

Many of today's "left-liberals" seem pretty indifferent about liberty and democracy for others. I say that as someone who always thought of herself as a left-liberal. Here's a paraphrased (since I don't happen to have it on tape) actual conversation I had a few weeks ago:

Today's Left Liberal: "They need to get the United States OUT of Iraq!"

Me: "That would be a humanitarian disaster at this point."

TLL: "What??? No. Bush is a humanitarian disaster. He should be impeached."

Me: (pause) "OK."


Me: "I was reading Hitchens, and -"

TLL: "Christopher Hitchens? Didn't he support the war?"

Me: "Yes, but -"

TLL: "Isn't he the one who says we'll find weapons of mass destruction?"

Me: "Have you ever read Hitchens?"

TLL: "I wouldn't read his stuff."

Me: "You're not even interested to see what he has to say?"

TLL: "No. He supported the war."

Me: "OK."

TLL: "Bush should be impeached!"

Me: "Well, what do you think about the situation in Iran?"

TLL: "Bush wants to bomb the hell out of Iran, too."

Me: "I mean, what do you think about the demonstrations?"

TLL: "What demonstrations?"

Me: (pause) "The student pro-democracy demonstrations against the totalitarian mullahs."

TLL: "I don't know. We should stay out of Iran."

Me: "That's fine, but wouldn't you at least like to know what's actually happening there before saying that?"

TLL: "You can't believe what THEY say is 'actually happening there.' I know Bush just wants to bomb the hell out of them... and I have the right to say anything I want!"

Me: "Well, a lot of people don't."

TLL: (angrily gets up and leaves)

Conversation over. Screw democracy. Impeach Bush.

Posted by: Holly at July 20, 2003 02:52 AM

Dr. Frank, you're exactly right.

I don't know if I'm actually a left-liberal for Bush. I'm not planning on voting for the guy, and I sure didn't vote for him last time.

But I do recognize this odd trait of his that nearly everyone else seems to miss. He's more like that strand of the old left that I belong to than anything I've seen from Republicans, ever.

He's went from an isolationist conservative a radical anti-fascist for democracy. Heh. Who woulda thunk it?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 20, 2003 09:55 AM

Bush was probably always aware, growing up, of the history of WWII and The Marshall Plan. It's just that prior to 9/11 there was no impetus to replay that historical scenario -- spreading freedom as a means of advancing national security interests.

Posted by: JB at July 20, 2003 02:08 PM

Hi, it's the humble UK blogger here. This discussion has little to do with left and right, and everything to do with people of pro-war opinions using a position of moral blackmail to justify the war.

(As in "things are better now, so we must have done the right thing".)

The idea that we should be told the truth by our politicians, and demand that if we go to war it is done for the right reasons, is central to liberal democracy. If it is not, then liberal democracy has lost its way.

Besides which, you unhesitantly accept that the Muslim Association of Britain is anti-semitic. Well, (a) show me the proof, and (b) it's an organisation of many different people, and if it is anti-semitic at the organisational level (which I do not accept), that is by no means to say that it is anti-semitic at the grass-roots level.

And finally: 'little englanders' don't have a great reputation for forming ties with ethnic minority groups.

Posted by: Ryan at July 21, 2003 09:55 AM

Ryan, I'm not all that sure what "moral blackmail" means, but if you're saying (as your "as in..." seems to indicate) that there is something unseemly or unfair about the view that deposing Saddam Hussein was worth doing even if some elements of the case offered at the outset may have been flawed, I can't say I agree. On the one hand, you have a kind of "procedural" objection (something was allegedly wrong with the presentation, invalidating the entire venture); on the other, you have a fascist mass murderer who isn't murdering any masses anymore, the way cleared for a fledgling democracy, none of which would have had a chance of happening absent intervention. You can choose the first position and regret that intervention took place on this procedural basis, or because of pessimism about the chances of liberal democracy taking root in a place like Iraq. Some on the "other side" might be forgiven for suspecting a bit of disingenuousness, but it's arguably a defensible view. But Kamm is right: for better or worse, the argument for the second position is more "liberal."

Or maybe I've misconstrued what you mean by "the right reasons."

One of the common arguments against intervention has been "we have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations unless they have already directly attacked us." That has been advanced by many on the left in this debate, particularly in Britain, and it sure sounds similar to Little Englander rhetoric to me. Just as the similar argument in the US often puts its proponents in the camp of America Firsters/nativists like Pat Buchanan. You have to admit there's a striking irony there, even leaving anti-Semitism out of it entirely (though one can't help noting that, for some reason, there does seem to be a hint of anti-Semitism in both cases.) The irony doesn't necessarily make it wrong. But in any case, again, it's not a "liberal" argument.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at July 21, 2003 03:20 PM

"Moral blackmail" is a great Orwellian coinage. I love it. I want to build a little shrine to it and burn tiny effigies of oil industry executives in rituals designed to purge the great devil Bush from the body politic.

I think it means "don't confuse me by demanding moral judgment". It's similar to the accusation "he's stealing the moral high ground!" except that this new phrase is more compact, and carries its imputation of crime in an explicit formulation - blackmail! Moral blackmail! It's a crime!

I have a leftist friend, and I use him shamelessly in rhetorical experiments, testing out theories about the new New Left. I've found that "judgment" is a real poser for the postmodern leftist. The uncritical adoption of lowest-common-denomination relativism in the younger generation seems to have left a lot of folks functionally incapable of exerting or even understanding "judgment" in moral terms. Give them tangibles or physicalities, and they're on solid ground. Add any sort of moral element to a question, and they can't get past equivalencies.

Posted by: Mitch H. at July 21, 2003 04:49 PM

I think Peter Beinart put his finger on it in his July 21, 2003 editorial in The New Republic: "the left isn't galvanized by by victims; it's galvanized by victimizers."

As they say, read the whole thing.

Posted by: lancer at July 21, 2003 06:34 PM

There's no use getting into an argument about what is and isn't liberal. I don't care if it is, as you suggest, liberal, to invade other countries without provocation. And it was without provocation, without immediate threat, and with the existence of sound alternatives.

If you accept a war which was based on misreprtesentation, you then accept all wars where you percieve the end outcome to be positive. But is it automatically right to do something if the outcome is percieved to make the world better? No. You saw the movie seven, right? I'm very worried by a man who goes to war on the basis of fabricated evidence. I don't trust in his moral clarity. I hope this is far enough 'beyond equivalence' for you.

Lancer: I don't remember the right being terribly galvanised by the victims of sanctions in Iraq, or the victims of Israeli repression in Palestine, to name a few victims that gavinise the left to a great extent. I don't remember anyone in power in America being galvanised by Saddam's victims throughout the whole of the 1980s.

Posted by: Ryan at July 21, 2003 08:44 PM


Paul Wolfowitz was galvanized by Saddam's oppression all the way back in the 1970s.

Give the man his due.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at July 21, 2003 11:51 PM

I'm tolerably amused by the notion that someone might derive his moral precepts from a shallow, tedious thriller like se7en. Better than a shallow, fascistic mis-reading of Fight Club, I suppose.

Oh, wait. This isn't amusement. It's anguish.

Ryan, I gather from your cultural references and writing style that you are yet young. This is good - the defects of education are more easily repaired than the disastrous habits of old age. I strongly recommend that you devote yourself to the serious study of some religious tradition. The King James and Protestant glosses thereof. Or the Aquinian tradition. Or the Torah. Or some nonreligious philosophical tradition. Don't do Eastern traditions - they won't address your critical deficits, although there's much of use and interest in them - I'm partial to Daoism myself. It doesn't really matter *which* Western/critical tradition, and it helps if you are hostile to some or all of the ideas in that tradition. But put some effort into forming moral judgments in the face of other's informed opinions.

Give some thought to developing critical capacities beyond shallow ironies and feeble equivalencies. Perhaps when you have done so, others might listen to the things you have to say, and not be so distracted by the ludicrous fashion in which you express them.

I can merely hope that once you return from this proposed education, that you no longer find the bloody and brutal fascism of totalitarian states "unprovocative".

Posted by: Mitch H. at July 22, 2003 04:18 PM

Actually, I'd settle for just finding out how exactly the lesson "is it automatically right to do something if the outcome is percieved to make the world better? No" is supposed to be illustrated by the movie "Seven".

Posted by: Name: at July 22, 2003 04:46 PM


I strongly sympathize with at least one aspect of the sentiment you've expressed.

If the case for some 'x' is made on some grounds 'y' and the latter turn out to have been manipulated, or merely deficient, then it's perfectly legitimate, perhaps obligatory, to criticize the case from 'y'. If grounds other than 'y' substantiate 'x' (which may very well be the case), then those grounds should be advanced as chief premises before rather than after the fact of prosecuting 'x'. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is exactly the sort of thing you mean by this statement:

"The idea that we should be told the truth by our politicians, and demand that if we go to war it is done for the right reasons, is central to liberal democracy."

This is not, as Dr. Frank says, merely a "procedural" argument, or, if it is, it isn't the trifle that characterization implies. There is a value at stake here concerning the integrity of public discourse, especially with respect to the case made for war on the basis of the WMD threat--whether or not you believe the war is justified apart from that issue. Many war supporters, and I do count myself one at this stage, will adduce in fighting the criticism of "the case from y" (a) an ad hoc moral consequentialism from which it dubiously follows that any criticism at all is tantamount to some kind of lack of moral clarity, and (b) a strawman argument equating criticism of the case made for the war with a denial of any and all value to the war.

Others, apparently, will sneeringly direct you to completely orthogonal religious texts...

These are all hollow responses. The basic notion you express in what I've quoted above, if I understand it properly, is an untouchable...don't let anyone bully you into ceding that point, no matter how much sneering and name-calling you have to put up with.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 22, 2003 09:14 PM

spacetoast, my only problem with your preceding point (which is otherwise fine) is that there's no Official National Repository Of Lists Of Reasons The Government Is Officially, Technically Using To Justify Their Actions. In short, there is no "official" Case-for-war to criticize or not criticize. I happened to approve of the war but my reasons for doing so may or may not have any overlap with the reasons stated or mis-stated by Bush in speech X, or speeches X and Y but not Z, or speeches X and Z but not Y, or speeches X, Y, and Z, or press release W....

When people criticize "the-case-from-y", what are they doing? At best their criticism means: "if y was the reason for doing it, then it was flawed, because y was flawed". But who on earth says "y" (the uranium-Africa thing, just to remind) was the reason for doing it? as opposed to just something Bush said one day, which was but a minor point and not a key one in the first place? Well of course, we can always refer to the Official National Repository Of Lists Of Reasons The Government Is Officially, Technically Using To Justify Their Actions.

Except, there is no such thing.

Posted by: Name: at July 22, 2003 10:13 PM


I don't want to get into a citation game here, but, as I see the facts, the case for war publicly advanced by the Bush and Blair administrations was built chiefly on the back of assertions concerning the threat of WMD--assertions which, as yet, have not been substantiated. If you would deny this, or reduce the WMD claims to a sort of "one among many" premise in that case, then we're at a standstill. The reason is I say this is that, in my view, that denial is an enormous revisionism. Otherwise, it does not follow from the fact that the case for war wasn't formed in terms of a simple syllogism that we can't pinpoint and evaluate its foremost premises. We can. More simply...

"...there is no "official" Case-for-war to criticize or not criticize."

...if I believed anything like this, I would believe that the problem is in fact much deeper than what's under discussion here.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 22, 2003 11:48 PM

I don't have a big argument with you spacetoast. You're right that any way you slice it, "WMD" figure prominently in there somewhere obviously. But, I stand by my statement that there is no Official Case-For-War (tm). There isn't.

That probably sounds worse than I intend it to. You're right to sound alarms, that what I'm saying seems to disallow any form of argument. I don't mean to say that, however. It's perfectly fair to look at public statements and cobble together what the case-for-war is (roughly, publicly) and then argue against it. (With the caveat that the case-for-war can be different in some forums - i.e. the UN - than in other forums - i.e. Congress, and this is perfectly acceptable - something which is not widely acknowledged.)

My only point is that you can be wrong in "pinpointing" and identifying the "major premises" of what you think, or pretend to think, the Case-For-War was. (Case in point: the people currently pretending that the case-for-war was exclusively dependent on something to do with whether or not Saddam tried or didn't try at all to purchase enriched uranium from some person or people within the boundary of a country called Niger....) But it's hard to show that such people are "wrong"... because there's no Official Case-For-War (tm).


Posted by: Name: at July 23, 2003 06:44 PM


I take exception to the phrase "cobbled together," I think it's quite a bit more exact than that, but I'll meet you somewhere in between "cobble" and "pinpoint." I don't attach particular importance to the uranium issue...I think it's problematical, I'd like to get the full story (although I doubt we will), but I don't claim it was the backbone of the case for war the way some people seem to. Also, I allow that the case was made not only in different venues but at different levels. For example, I only pay attention to what Bush says when I think it'll have been extensively strategized in advance, e.g. the state of the union, and even then I make adjustments in terms of the audience he's addressing, the role he plays, and so on. I view him, at least with regard to Iraq, as mainly a talking head for the DOD hawks. As I see it, his job is to deliver the platitudes that create the right climate of public feeling for Rummy, Wolfy, et al, to do their business. Maybe I'm just a cynic, but I've never taken Bush seriously as a proper spokesman for Iraq policy, so specific inaccuracies and discontinuities in his statements don't bother me too much.

That said, I think it's just fanciful to deny that the case was made, at all levels of discourse and in all public venues, mainly on the basis of WMD charges that have so far come up lame. I don't share, e.g., Oliver Kamm's view of the Bush administration as a sort of "gunslingers for liberty and western-style democracy" posse, so I don't hold them to the "lone ranger/boyscout" code of ethics that view implies. Nor do I expect them to be motivated by altruism as opposed to all the usual stuff.

[As an aside: I accept the main (descriptive) part of the (somewhat controversial) Schumpeterian theory of democracy, outlined by Richard Posner in his recent "Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy."


So I do accept and certainly expect a fair amount of rhetoric and dissembling, because that's how the politics works, but there's a point beyond which rhetoric and dissembling are really lying, and it looks to me, at this point, like the administration crossed that line in making the case for war. Given the gravity of the circumstances, *that* would be unacceptable--whatever other valuable aims will ultimately be satisfied. If I'm wrong about that, I'm wrong about that, it's that simple, and it's done. But it doesn't really matter whether "where are the WMD?" (and so on) comes mainly from anti-Bush agitators or college Chomsky toadies or anti-semites or whatever, because it's impossible to imagine what the administration's case would've looked like without the WMD charges, and that does matter very much.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 23, 2003 10:47 PM

I think a good deal of the confusion here has to do with the way the Cold War warped American politics. Up through WWI, there was a very strong internationalist, largely pacifist mode of leftist thought. It was internationalist in that it saw nationalism and patriotism as tricks played by the ruling, capitalist classes on working people to make them fight amongst themselves rather than against the folks causing the problems. One of the most infamous Wall Street speculators of the 19th century, Jay Gould, once famously said, "I can hire half the working class to kill the other half." The left wanted to oppose war not through nationalist isolation but through international solidarity. I think that was one of the genuinely appealing aspects of Communist leftism before Stalin took over the USSR. I think this strain of thought was often, but certainly not exclusively, pacifist as well (one obvious exception is the Spanish Civil War).

It's been a long time since internationalist non-militarism was a part of American politics. There have been some recent examples -- such as the Central America solidarity movement in the 80's (hey, Frank, do folks in Berkeley still have crosses in their front yards with the names of death squad victims?). But recently, especially since the centrist Clinton Admin, the options presented to the American people have been (a) military intervention, or (b) isolation. The idea that the USA could be directly engaged in the affairs of other peoples (and I say peoples deliberately, as opposed to governments, which may not represent their own citizens) without just invading or bombing, hasn't been current in our politics in my lifetime.

Part of what this reveals is that American liberals haven't always been part of a traditional left. Best example: Hubert Humphrey, who is one of the great figures of 20th century American liberalism, the man who made the Dems the Civil Rights party in the 40s and 50s, but was HATED by the left when he ran for President in 1968. In other words, proving that Bush's foreign policy would fit with Truman, or Kennedy, or even LBJ doesn't necessarily prove that it's a leftist foreign policy.

One distinction to make, I think, is that the left has always been suspicious of the US government's motives in foregn affairs, and hasn't been enthusiastic about governmental intervention in other people's affairs (I won't go through the laundry list of abuses perpetrated overseas by US foreign policy). The left has been more supportive of people-to-people efforts: the Abraham Lincoln Brigades in 30's Spain, the International Solidarity Movement in contemporary Gaza and West Bank. This is NOT what Bush wants -- in fact, many NGO's and American businesses are complaining about being locked out of Iraq by the government.

One of my interests as a leftist is to revive and revise internationalist, non-military options. Liberia is a good example: we should have options other than (a) doing nothing or (b) sending in the marines. Unfortunately, our country hasn't done much to develop alternatives to the military. The basic problem in most of the world, including the US, in my view is the maldistribution of power: too few people have too much of it, and huge numbers of people have way too little. Building democracy should be the process of redistributing power downward. As much as Bush may hate Saddam Hussein, I see no evidence whatsover that he or the GOP want power redistributed in this way, here or abroad, and if you don't want power distributed downward I don't really see how you're on the left.

Posted by: Nick at July 24, 2003 09:32 PM

Niccceee pagee

Posted by: Hero at February 20, 2004 01:06 PM
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