All The More Reason

Tony Judt
September 15, 2006, 10:55 pm
Filed under: Iraq

Tony Judt, in a piece in the London Review of Books, asks:

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? Why, in short, has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?

Sometimes when someone can’t be bothered to make an argument they just write it as an assertion and hope people will play along. Less frequently, because of its boldness, someone will take that assertion and phrase it as a rhetorical question. In short, I don’t agree with the idea that the liberal intelligentsia has been keeping “its head safely below the parapet” at all – for better or for worse. I really find it hard to believe considering the clamour over the last few years, that anyone could consider writing a piece with that as its hypothesis, let alone as the stake to which some other sort of hypothesis would be based around.

Later on in the piece, Judt states that this liberal weakness has made it to Europe itself, citing amongst others Vaclav Havel as having “enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq.” He explains:

In the European case this trend is an unfortunate by-product of the intellectual revolution of the 1980s, especially in the former Communist East, when ‘human rights’ displaced conventional political allegiances as the basis for collective action. The gains wrought by this transformation in the rhetoric of oppositional politics were considerable. But a price was paid all the same. A commitment to the abstract universalism of ‘rights’ – and uncompromising ethical stands taken against malign regimes in their name – can lead all too readily to the habit of casting every political choice in binary moral terms.

The last little bit about binary moral terms is of particular interest if we note that Judt himself refers to the Iraq war not as a necessary evil, and certainly not as an overdue reckoning but instead as a “catastrophic invasion.” It would appear then that Havel and Glucksmann are not the only ones thinking in binary moral terms but perhaps Mr. Judt as well. What a pity the side he’s chosen to defend.

Jonathan Smith


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