The Gate Bulges Inward

In “Losing the Enlightenment”, a speech given at a recent dinner honoring Winston Churchill, and reprinted as an OP-Ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, Victor Davis Hanson argues that the West is suffering from a “loss of confidence of the spirit”.

Hanson writes:

Note also the constant subtext in this new self-censorship of our supposedly liberal age: the fear of radical Islam and its gruesome methods of beheadings, suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, barbaric fatwas, riotous youth, petrodollar-acquired nuclear weapons, oil boycotts and price hikes, and fist-shaking mobs, as the seventh century is compressed into the twenty-first.

In contrast, almost daily in Europe, “brave” artists caricature Christians and Americans with impunity. And we know what explains the radical difference in attitudes to such freewheeling and “candid” expression–indeed, that hypocrisy of false bravado, of silence before fascists and slander before liberals is both the truth we are silent about, and the lie we promulgate.

There is, in fact, a long list of reasons, among them most surely the assurance that cruel critics of things Western rant without being killed. Such cowards puff out their chests when trashing an ill Oriana Fallaci or a comatose Ariel Sharon or beleaguered George W. Bush in the most demonic of tones, but they prove sunken and sullen when threatened by a thuggish Dr. Zawahiri or a grand mufti of some obscure mosque.

Read the essay in its entirety here.

Related content from Sphere

13 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    Well, I read the Journal piece and I think it is a bunch of twaddle. The meme about the West being in irreversible decline because it is filled with lily-livered liberal pantywaists who are filled with self-loathing is risible, and the suggestion that Islam is a monolithic block of people who hate nothing as much as our cherished Western values is also a non-starter.

    For starters, the author ignores the many legitimate grievances which Muslims have with the West. A short list would include tyrannical governments propped up with US financial and/or military support (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, pre-Ayatollah Iran, Iraq in the 1980’s); the forced migration of Palestinians when Israel became a state; the abandonment of Iraqi Shia by Bush I after our promise of support; and, of course, the debacle in Iraq. I think that most people would be pretty steamed if a foreign country invaded their country in search of weapons which don’t exist, leading to a situation where Iraq have the same death toll as 9/11 every month – in a country with one tenth of our population.

    The author also labors under the delusion that any clear-eyed view of the disaster in Iraq is tantamount to self-loathing or an unwillingness to confront terrorism. When John Murtha said that Marines killed Iraqi civilians in Haditha “in cold blood,” he was, in fact, correct. I don’t see why Rockefeller’s statement that the world would be better off if Saddam were still in power is a priori untrue: given what is happening in Iraq, this is a credible (if arguable) statement. When George Soros – who knows something about Nazism, having taken an assumed identity as a child in order to survive the war – says that Bush has “improved on Nazi propaganda techniques,” he is also making a credible statement. While Goebbels may have been the one to start using the “big lie,” the distortion of truths by the current administration has a level of sophistication which would have been envied by the Germans.

    Finally, the author creates straw men which do not exist. The fact that there is a film and a book about assassinating Bush does not mean that this is the “new national pastime.” The left is advocating “more entitlements?” (The largest entitlement of the past few decades – prescription drugs for seniors – was passed by Bush and the GOP Congress). They are advocating “more taxes,” “open borders,” and “radical secularism?” (Really? Who?) According to the author, the left is “angry” and “unruly” because “without scandal or an unpopular war they cannot so easily gain a national majority based on European-based beliefs.” What exactly is he trying to say: that the Democrats are grateful for the disaster in Iraq and Republican corruption because nobody agrees with their platform? (So that’s why Clinton was elected to two terms and had nearly double the approval rating in his sixth year that Bush has? Because nobody agreed with his programs?) Or is he saying that there are no legitimate reasons to be “angry” that we’ve sent troops to Iraq to die, only to launch an enterprise which is the best recruiting tool which Al Qaeda could have dreamed of? Or is his point that there are no legitimate reasons to be “frustrated” that the Bush administration has been consistently outsmarted and out-maneuvered by North Korea, Iran, Iraqi insurgents, and Al Qaeda?

    There is a strain of American thinking – detailed long ago in a book by Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” – which shows a deep-seated desire to paint the enemy as absolutely evil, with weak-willed supporters here in the US who are aiding and abetting them, fought of course by valiant warriors who are uniquely able to see the truth. Hofstadter’s context was McCarthyism, but if you substitute today’s alleged heroes and villains (Al Qaeda for Russia, Bush for McCarthy, and the left or liberal media for the State Department) you will see the same pattern today. Hanson’s speech is hysterical, poorly reasoned, and wrong on the facts. His argument is an absurdity too gross to be insisted upon.

    Posted November 29, 2006 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well! That certainly got a rise out of you, Pete, as I thought it might. I’m still at work just now, but will respond shortly.

    Posted November 29, 2006 at 7:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    There’s a lot to respond to here.

    For starters, I don’t think that Hanson is arguing that the West is in irreversible decline; he is lamenting the degree to which we cower in fear, gladly censoring ourselves, lest we provoke the jihadists. One doesn’t have to look far to see that this is increasingly so.

    Of course the Muslim world is not monolithic; but surely you do not deny that there is a ruthless and rabidly violent Islamic subculture that is implacably committed to the destruction of Western liberal civilization, and to the establishment of a global Ummah, and that will cheerfully employ the most gruesome methods to achieve its goals. Yes, there are lots of moderate Muslims – a majority, perhaps – but they aren’t the ones Hanson is talking about. They are also not, apparently, particularly troubled by the atrocities committed by their fanatical coreligionists.

    While I agree that there are legitimate grievances that Muslims may have against the West, in particular the propping up of dictators like Saddam and the Shah, it is disingenuous to suggest that the struggle by Islamic fundamentalists against the West is only the result of our sins. (I’ll also point out that for all the outrage about the displacement of the Palestinians upon the creation of Israel, other Arab states have done very little to support them, while the US has consistently supplied foreign aid.) You seem to be arguing that if only we had been nicer – perhaps even now, if we can just find the right way to beg forgiveness for being so mean – that none of this would be happening. In fact, this is simply the latest outbreak of a mortal struggle that dates back more than a thousand years. Fundamentalist Islam has been smoldering resentfully since the Siege of Vienna, and the goals are the same now as they were then.

    Also, you seem to want it both ways – first we are to be blamed for propping up Saddam, then for toppling him.

    As for Murtha, he certainly did not wait for any review of the facts, let alone convictions, before his inflammatory remarks. He seemed awfully, almost offensively eager to pounce on any news that could cast us in the worst possible light, and seemed to care not at all about the extent to which his public remarks might madden and encourage our enemies, with callous disregard for the consequences of such provocation both for our servicemen and the people of Iraq.

    If you are next going to equate assertions that Saddam had WMDs – an opinion shared by all members of the intelligence community, both here and abroad, and confirmed at least in the past by his actual use of them against his own people – with Hitler’s propaganda machine, which included, among other things, referring to Jews as apemen – then you are perilously close to invoking Godwin’s Law, and on that particular assertion I won’t comment further.

    There is much that I would disagree with Hanson about, mostly having to do with social conservatism and religion (I’m leaning more and more toward “radical secularism” myself). But it cannot be denied that Europe, at least, appears to be drowning, with birth rates among its secular citizens falling far below replacement level as the tide of non-assimilating Muslim immigrants advances. There is genuine reason to be concerned, if one cares about the future of the Enlightenment experiment on the continent of its birth.

    As for reasons for us to be upset with the Bush strategy in Iraq, they abound, as I have said often. But the recent flurry of insults to our armed forces from Kerry and Rangel, for example, are as ideologically tainted, and as polarizing, as any jingoism coming from the right. You refer to the “paranoid style” that paints our enemies as evil, but we have argued about this before, you and I, and I stand by my claim that there is an equally paranoid style on the Left that sees the Devil in everything America is and does.

    Posted November 29, 2006 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    By the way, Peter, I certainly appreciate your reading and commenting, even when we disagree on a few minor points!

    Posted November 29, 2006 at 10:16 pm | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    Well now, we’ve got ourselves a WWF Smackdown here.

    1) I don’t buy the argument that we are cowering in fear or censoring ourselves. Far from it. If you want to hear racist, hysterical, anti-Muslim rants, all you have to do is listen to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Micheal Savage, Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, or the Wall Street Journal, to name a few. As for cowering in fear: people fly on airplanes, live in New York and Washington, and go about their lives despite the fact that we have been attacked by Muslim fanatics. Life goes on. 9/11 was a shock, but people have adapted to it. The Bush administration, which has no achievements to discuss and instead has relentlessly played the fear card, learned earlier this month that even the “be very afraid” mantra is now a non-starter.

    2) I do not deny that there is a radical Islamic subculture, which regrettably has grown much larger as the direct result of our misadventure in Iraq. However, 9/11 was caused by nineteen men, who had perhaps a few dozen others supporting them. Hannah Arendt famously said “give me one hundred men who aren’t afraid to die and I will change history.” 9/11 was an example of that. However, to say that the people who caused 9/11 are emblematic of Islam makes no more sense than to insist that Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczinski are representative Americans.

    3) I also don’t buy the argument that Al Qaeda or Islamic terrorism is not something which bothers the vast majority of Muslims. What are they supposed to do – have Moderate Muslim Day? The Sunday Times magazine section recently had a cover article describing the enormous controversy which bin Laden has created and the opposition to terrorism from Muslim scholars and religious leaders. People want to think ill of Muslims, out of the human desire to believe that your group is superior to other groups. Hence the meme that terrorism is somehow OK with the vast majority of Muslims has been accepted as an a priori truth, with no evidence to support it.

    4) I don’t argue that had we been nicer, we would not have been attacked on 9/11. I have little doubt that bin Laden would have attacked us regardless of what we did or didn’t do. However, if we had a more enlightened attitude – and if there were less polemicists like Hanson eager to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment – I have no doubt that there would be a much larger constituency of moderate Muslims in positions of power whom we could ally ourselves with. It is clear that bin Laden’s goal was to attack us and incite a massive overreaction which would enable him to gain many more supporters, and regrettably he succeeded beyond his wildest imagination.

    5) Implicit in Hanson’s thesis is the contention that somehow Muslims are more violent, more fanatical, or more dangerous than the rest of humanity. However, this is demonstrably untrue. In the century just past, there were numerous instances of the extermination of vast numbers of people. If you were to compile the Top Ten Atrocities of the 20th century – the Holocaust, Mao’s starvation of his people, Stalin’s enslavement of Eastern Europe, the killing fields of Cambodia, etc. – none of them were caused by Muslims. I find it ironic that societies with so much blood on their hands find it easy to castigate Muslims as violent and extremist.

    6) I think we should be blamed for propping up Saddam and also for toppling him. I see no contradiction there. By what right to we support a dictator to change the power equilibrium between Iraq and Iran to something more to our liking? And by what right do we topple a sovereign government to install our preferred form of government?

    7) As for Murtha: there was forensic evidence and eyewitness accounts detailing the massacre, as well as dissembling and contradictory accounts by the Marines who were there. I don’t know what additional proof would be necessary. Is your suggestion that after killing innocents – in effect, perpetuating the crime that we are theoretically in Iraq to eradicate – we ought to just say “my bad” and move on, because to discuss it would “madden and encourage our enemies” or be “provocative” to our soldiers and to Iraqis? When My Lai occurred, should we have just ignored it because it would have encouraged the Viet Cong?

    8) It is not correct to state that Saddam’s purported possession of WMD was “an opinion shared by all members of the intelligence community.” Among those who publicly doubted their existence was Hans Blix and his group, and among those who privately doubted their existence was British intelligence. Needless to say, if you are going to invade a country to find its WMD, you damn better be sure you are right. Saying that you were wrong but others were also wrong is not an acceptable excuse.

    9) I certainly don’t equate the erroneous assumption of WMD with Hitler’s propaganda machine. Rather, I equate the Bush/Cheney/Rove modus operandi of distortion, half-truths, manipulation, and propaganda with the Nazi propaganda machine. For a much more robust case than I can make myself, I heartily recommend a piece in today’s slate.com:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2154567/nav/tap1/

    10) If the birth rate for European Muslims is higher than for non-Muslims, then the non-Muslims should screw more often. Is your suggestion that Muslims should stop having kids?

    11) I certainly have no drum to bang for John Kerry, who I think is a decent man but an inept politician. However, he bungled a joke and judging by the reaction, you would think that he insulted Mom, apple pie, Banana Republic, Britney Spears, and everything else which we hold holy. The fact is that he is a decorated war hero, yet in this Alice in Wonderland world of contemporary politics, you have people who avoided serving in VietNam (or, as with Cheney, avoided the draft altogether) castigating him as unpatriotic or not “supportive of our troops.” Well, Kerry bungled a joke, but Bush bungled a war. Want to support our troops? Don’t send them to fight wars with inadequate armor. Don’t ask them to fight in a murky war where you can’t tell friend from foe (this was Murtha’s complaint – not eagerness to portray them as murderers, but grief at seeing fellow Marines forced into a role which is incomprehensible and impossible, for no good reason except for the President’s inability to admit or recognize a mistake). And do you really want to support our troops? Bring them home alive, not leave them as target practice in a conflict which should never have been started, never have been executed without any consideration of its likely consequences, and never have been continued once it became evident for all to see that it was the worst foreign policy mistake of our lifetimes, if not ever.

    Posted November 30, 2006 at 12:46 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    I get the impression that you’re reluctant to tell me how you really feel about all of this…

    Ok, point by point:

    1) Some cower, some don’t, and some who don’t are assassinated. I noticed, for example, that Cartoon Network, when Parker and Stone called their bluff on their commitment to free speech, lacked the spine to air a two-second glimpse of Mohammed on South Park – the show that makes, for example, a running joke of “Jesus And His Pals”. The Pope is castigated for his folly, and clergy murdered, when he mentions an ancient conversation that suggests Islam might be an unreasoning religion. Salman Rushdie must hide for his life when a national leader puts a price on his head for a depiction that happens in the dream of a fictional character. An opera is prophylactically canceled in Berlin before anyone even raises a fuss. Theo van Gogh is slaughtered like an animal in the street for airing his views, and Robert Redeker has to take his family and disappear, lest he too is hunted down in his own country for expressing an opinion.

    2) You seem to forget, as do, apparently many others, the numerous horrible terrorist attacks by radical Islamists that preceded our misadventure in Iraq. I most certainly do not defend some of our fouler foreign-policy maneuvers of the Cold War era, but I see a disturbing tendency toward self-flagellation here, as if the entire Muslim world were just sweetly saying their prayers and eating baklava for the last 1400 years until the nasty old West had to go and bully that sweetheart Saddam.

    3) There may indeed be, at long last and long, long overdue, an bit of a groundswell among more moderate Muslims to address the behavior of their virulent fundamentalist brothers. But you make it sound as if there are more Crips in Belle Mead than there are furious Muslims in the world; for evidence to the contrary, one only has to look at the enormous mobs that assemble — crying for, and often drawing, blood — every time someone looks askance at the Prophet, or God forbid, suggests that Muslims are given to violence at slight provocation.

    4) How, exactly, would you characterize a “more enlightened attitude”? What level of supine appeasement would be appropriate? Implicit in this your remark is the insupportable assumption that a tolerant liberal society is obligated to extend its tolerance to those who are themselves murderously and adamantly intolerant, a view that I consider utterly indefensible.

    5) Quite right you are. In all the cases you mentioned, a fanatical ideology was combined with an utter indifference to slaughtering the innocent. They were jihads all.

    6) Well, if we are going to speak of “rights” — an amorphous concept, in the first place, in international affairs: by what right does a brutal despot, having captured and enslaved an entire nation, and ruling it through fear and torture, and having openly used hideous weapons to annihilate entire communities of his own oppressed population, and who openly supported terrorism and the destruction of Israel, thumb his nose at the entire civilized world, for decades, with impunity?

    7) I am not denying that there was apparent culpability on the part of the servicemen involved. What I found revolting was Murtha’s obvious glee in exploiting this horror for his political advantage, with no regard for any ill effects such pandering might have for soldiers still in the field.

    8) It was eminently reasonable to assume that Saddam had such weapons, and such a view was very widely held; he had, after all, already used them both against Iran and against the Kurds. I can adduce vastly more support here for this, if we must continue to bicker over it, but it’s late. Even your boy John Kerry talked, before the war, about the threat Saddam’s WMD’s posed.

    9) My God, Peter, don’t you think you are going just a little too far with this one?

    10) I agree; if Europe wants to preserve any trace of its culture, they’d better get screwing, because they are being massively outscrewed at the moment. I recall one radical Muslim quoted as saying that “we will conquer Europe not with bombs, but with the wombs of our women.” It’s working. The most common name for a baby boy in Amsterdam is now Mohammed.

    11) I actually agree with some of what you say here; we have massively bungled Iraq, and the situation is quite possibly hopeless. And my opinion of the Bush team probably hovers about level with yours.

    I am not so sure, however, about Kerry’s being a “decent man”; he seems like a vain, selfish, pompous, grasping, power-hungry hypocrite to me, as well as something of a dolt.

    Posted November 30, 2006 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    1) Given the barbarities which have occurred throughout history in the name of Christianity, I’m unsure why the Pope felt it necessary to lecture Muslims. Given the Catholic Church’s strict adherence to dogma, I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t also consider Catholicism to be an “unreasoning religion.” Pat Robertson called Islam a “violent religion” and said that Muslims are “worse than Nazis.” The French forbid Muslim girls from wearing head covering in schools, and Denmark is considering a law to ban burkas. Muslims are second class citizens throughout Europe. This is not to exculpate the people who killed van Gogh or the fatwa against Rushdie: it is simply to state that extremists exist in any group of people, and if Christians and Christianity (or anyone else) were the subject of ridicule and insult on a daily basis, I would expect similar events to happen. If the producers of South Park or anyone else decides that discretion is a more worthwhile goal than throwing more fuel on the fire, then so much the better. I support the right of Nazis to march through Skokie, but that doesn’t mean that I think it is right or moral.

    2) I don’t dismiss Muslim terrorism before we invaded Iraq, but I would also put it in context. The use of terror to achieve political goals started with the anarchists, who were neither Arab nor Muslim. It was used by the Jews (Irgun), Christians (Bosnia), Japanese (Nanking), and others. So it is hardly unique to Muslims. Moreover, I would hazard to guess that Timothy McVeigh killed more people than all acts of Muslim terrorism before 9/11, or that more people die in Darfur every month than died from all acts of Muslim terrorism, including 9/11. My point is not to forgive and forget Abu Nidal or Yassir Arafat: rather, it is that violence is a human characteristic, not a Muslim one.

    I think that Muslim terrorism has gotten so much of the world’s attention, among other reasons, is because there is something much more shocking about beheading someone than putting a bullet through his head. Hence to our Western sensibilities we regard terrorists as barbaric and violent (which they are). However, all things are relative. In America, you can walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a gun. Roughly 20,000 people were murdered last year in America, many more than have ever been killed by Al Qaeda. Some would argue that this is the hallmark of a violent society. The purpose of terrorism is to shock and to, uh, terrify. They have succeeded in that. However, a more clear-eyed view would place terrorism in its proper context, as a hazard but – compared with many other dangers – a relatively small one.

    While it is wrong to typify a religion from the actions of a small number of its members, you could make the case that non-Muslim societies have exhibited far more barbarism and violence than Muslim societies by virtue of the number of people involved in their atrocities. If you compare Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism, or any of the other 20th century atrocities to Muslim terrorism, the chief difference (besides the vastly greater number of dead innocents) is that none of these events would have happened without thousands (or tens of thousands) of participants, including all of the governmental and military apparatus necessary to execute these events. Nazi Germany, for example, was a sick society whose members participated on a vast scale. Muslim terrorists act as rogue operatives who are loosely affiliated, if they are affiliated at all. Which is more emblematic of the society at large?

    3) I don’t know how many Crips there are in Belle Meade – apart from Mike Owle and Kenny Pizzolato, anyway – but there are huge Muslim populations in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and Bengladesh who simply go about their lives and have nothing to do with terrorism.

    4) A more enlightened approach does not include tolerating the indefensible. However, it starts with the presumption that it is not our role to lecture to others how they should live or why our values are better than theirs (as, for example, Karen Hughes did as Bush’s emissary to Saudi Arabia, telling Saudi women how much luckier we are because our women can drive). It means that their religion is not called violent and their prophet and literature are not insulted. It means that if we truly believe that our system of government is superior to theirs, they will gravitate to it because of the force of ideas, and not because it is forced upon them. It means that if we have problems with Muslim countries, such as Iran or Syria, then we have a dialogue with them instead of refusing to speak with them. The Bush administration operates on the assumption that we know what’s best for the rest of the world, and we will force our wisdom on them by force of arms if necessary. An enlightened approach is the exact opposite.

    5) Agreed.

    6) The fact that Hussein did not have the right to do the things he did does not mean that we are somehow justified in doing the things which we have done. Murderous tyrants have ruled other countries for centuries – Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Jong, Stalin – and it has never been our policy to topple their governments. If you want to make the argument that other countries have the right to depose a dictator like Hussein, I think it has to be along the lines that some regimes are so odious that they should not enjoy the protections of sovereignty. However, the only ethical way that someone like Hussein can be toppled is if there is a consensus among nations that this ought to be done, which certainly was not the case with Iraq. If the leading powers decided to topple the North Korean regime, I have no problem with that. If one or two countries did so, that is something else.

    7) I didn’t find Murtha gleeful at all – somber is the word I would use.

    8) Saddam used WMD against the Kurds and the Iraqis over a decade before we invaded and before UN sanctions and inspectors were in place. Whether the assumption was “eminently reasonable” or not, it was wrong. That’s all that counts.

    9) I don’t think I am going too far at all – read the slate.com piece and then tell me what you think.

    10) and 11) agreed

    Posted November 30, 2006 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    1) Christians ARE the subject of insult and ridicule (as well as systematic oppression) on a daily basis in many Muslim countries. There seem to be fewer riots, though.

    2) You make many good points. I largely agree, though I think you are vastly undercounting the size of the pile of corpses that can be laid at al-Qaeda’s feet. However, regardless of any past examples of brutality by other societies, it is Islamic terrorism that is the world’s problem at the moment.

    3) True, of course. I have no quarrel with them, generally, other than to wish they might be more influential in reining in their bloodthirsty brothers.

    4) Agreed in part, though responding to a suggestion that your religion is violent by erupting in violence rather undermines one’s case, and to respond to criticism with riots, beheadings and suicide bombings is indefensible.

    5) Good! We progress.

    6) A consensus is not always possible; in the case of Iraq, for example, the French and Russians obstructed action against Saddam precisely because they had ongoing, profitable sub-rosa relations with him. What is the moral course when those whose consensus you seek are in league with the very villains that need to be dealt with?

    7) Ah yes, most heart-wrenchingly somber. A very effective performance indeed.

    8) Hindsight, as always, is 20/20. As Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”

    9) Fair enough; read it I will.

    10) and 11) Excellent.

    Posted November 30, 2006 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  9. the one eyed man says

    6) The moral course then is a stalemate. There is no one country which has the sole right to determine which regimes have the right to survive, for the simple reason that it is too easy for a country to mask its self-interest in the cloak of altruism. Our motives in invading Iraq are not entirely pure: we would not be there if they were not an oil producer. (George Bush said as much a few weeks ago, when the Feckless One said that if we weren’t in Iraq the gas price would be much higher.) The advantages we hold over other countries are military and economic. I do not think that we have any advantages in wisdom, ethics, or judgment.

    8) Hindsight may be 20/20, but if you choose to take a gamble you are responsible for its consequences, regardless of how unintended they may be. The reason that pre-emptive military strikes have never been American foreign policy is because intelligence is inherently murky and even something which seems like a “slam-dunk” turns out to be anything but. There are many instances when we faced enemies far more lethal than Saddam Hussein, yet we did not use the military option. When China developed the nuclear bomb, we faced a nation of a billion people with the largest standing army in the world, led by a madman who was sworn to our destruction. Many people called for a pre-emptive military strike. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and now Wal-Mart shoppers everywhere can buy their underwear for $1.99. Bill Parcells said “you are what your record is:” don’t tell me about bad referee calls or bad luck, all that counts is how many wins and how many losses. When a country does the most consequential thing which nations do – send men off to die in the conquest of another country – and the casus belli turns out to be a completely erroneous assumption, then there are no excuses which approach the magnitude of the error.

    Posted November 30, 2006 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    6) I disagree. I can imagine, say, a scenario in which another nation had decided, say, to exterminate, oh, let’s say, all of the Jews living therein, and all the other nations of the world, either from fear of that nation’s power, or from a desire to continue mutually profitable business arrangements, decided to look the other way. I think that in such a case sophistry about “rights”, especially when based on a sort of arbitrary head-count of consenting neighbors, would be irrelevant (“nonsense upon stilts”, according to Bentham), and that we would have a moral obligation to do something about it. I argue further that this is not so far from the actual situation that prevailed in Iraq. (For me, WMD’s were never the issue anyway.)

    I think it is odd to say that you “do not think that we have any advantages in wisdom, ethics, or judgment”, without specifying advantages over whom. Surely there are imaginable regimes over whom we would have all of those advantages, e.g. Cambodia under Pol Pot.

    8) Indeed, one is responsible for the consequences of one’s adventures – I have not argued to the contrary – but that does not necessarily mean that the gamble was not a reasonable decision based on what one knew at the time.

    Posted November 30, 2006 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  11. the one eyed man says

    The Holocaust was so different from all other human events, before or after, that one could argue that it is sui generis and its lessons are not applicable to other circumstances. But that’s a cop-out. If it is possible to create a situation where a pre-emptive strike by one country to topple another government is justified, this would be it. However, there are many more examples where a pre-emptive strike may have seemed justifiable at the time (e.g., China, Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.) but fortunately was avoided. I’m not a pacifist, and as far as I am concerned, once German troops crossed the Polish border, there were no moral or ethical constraints in sending the marines. The question would be whether a pre-emptive invasion of Germany before September, 1939, is justifiable. Given the benefit of hindsight, you could certainly make a cogent argument that it would have been justifiable. I think that this is something on which reasonable people can disagree.

    I don’t think that we have any advantage in wisdom or ethics than any other people – I’m not comparing governments. In his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr makes the point that individuals have a moral compass, but states act solely in their self-interest. I tend to agree, although certainly some regimes are better than others. My point is simply that the American people are no more or less moral than the Cambodian people, the Iraqis, or any other group of people, and the implication that we know better than others how they ought to live is a fatuity.

    As for what we knew at the time: I don’t think that an invasion based on anything less than incontrovertible proof is an acceptable gamble. We do not have the right to gamble with other peoples’ lives.

    Posted November 30, 2006 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    I agree that on average morality is similar among people – but it can rapidly fall away as we move from individuals to cliques to clans to mobs to states. The case of a nation hijacked by a dictator is different from democracies, though – you are, in effect, dealing with a single, plainly immoral agent, who is holding his people hostage.

    Saddam Hussein is a man who liked to watch videotapes of his political opponents being slowly lowered, feet-first, into industrial plastic shredders. There is nothing fatuous about claiming moral superiority to such a man, and when someone like that has risen to totalitarian control – meaning that the world is confronted by a ruthless and unpredictable criminal, answerable to no-one, and armed with the wealth and power of an entire nation – there is arguable justification for moving against him. There was certainly “incontrovertible proof” of his monstrousness, if that’s what you require. And it can also be argued that to leave him in power was to gamble with just as many lives, if not more.

    Posted December 1, 2006 at 12:10 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Ok, Pete, I’ve read the McWhorter piece. I was not impressed.

    Posted December 3, 2006 at 1:20 am | Permalink