09 October 2007

The morality of war

There are two rational positions to be taken on the morality of war: that war is never justified, or that war is sometimes justified as the lesser of two evils. It is rare if not unheard of to claim that all war is always justified. Though there are convincing arguments for both positions, this will examine the moral implications of deciding (on secular grounds) that it is possible to justify some wars, and give five basic moral truths on this justification.

1. The justification for war is ideological.
Whatever the conflict, war is the violent extension of an ideological dispute. Even wars of resources need an ideological base, a reason why one tribe deserves the oasis more than the other that currently has it, or a country deserves access to oil fields at any cost, and this all-too-common ulterior motive is usually hidden by a religious or political argument. The ideological justification for war is essentially comparative, that is that one ideology is so much more dangerous and one so much more noble that the replacement of one by the other must come even at the cost of mass violence. Hitler’s plans for Europe must not happen, the Word of Allah must triumph over the decadent Infidel, Israel must survive and the Jews must stay out of the desert of the Diaspora, whatever the material motive, there is always a moral imperative at the heart of every war. If it is true that war can be morally justified, the heart of the justification will always be ideological.

2. All war is political violence, all political violence is war.
Because war is ideological conflict turned violent, there is always a political objective. Whether a war is justified depends solely on whether the declared moral justification or the material, ulterior motive is the dominant political goal, whether this political goal is justified, and whether it is justified enough to merit mass death. It is, however, a falsehood to make a moral distinction between types of political violence on any grounds other than the politics and the methods used.

3. Soldiers’ lives have only strategic value.
Only those who both believe in the ideology and believe it must be furthered with violence or have willingly delegated that decision to others can be morally (if not pragmatically) justified as targets. The only practical way to make the distinction between consenting and non-consenting participants is between combatants and non-combatants. However, assuming all human lives are of equal value, the only moral justification for a soldier of one side surviving in preference to one of the other is the moral strength of the ideology and the extent to which they further it. By analogy, imagine a firefight between an Allied and a Nazi soldier. Whose children would you rather see orphaned? The usual answer is that the German woman should be widowed and the German kids should never see their father come home, as his death hastens the defeat of National Socialism and the victory of liberal democracy.

4. There is no target.
In the same way that ranged weapons were considered base and ignoble in Medieval times, we must understand today that different weapons require different moral codes. Explosives and rapid-fire weapons are capable of hitting several targets at once, beyond the control of the firer. Firing a guided missile does not target the person or object at the centre of the cross-hair. It targets an area, a blast radius, and everything within it. The intention of the firer is irrelevant. By firing in the knowledge that civilians will be included in this blast-radius, the firer deliberately targets them. For a suicide-bomber to kill ten civilians and themself to advance their political goal is morally no different to a normal bomber killing ten civilians and a soldier to advance theirs.

5. The responsibility for damage caused lies with the firer.
Whatever the reason, it is the person who pulls the trigger who is responsible. They are the last in the chain, they make the vital life-or-death decision, and always have the option not to. If their orders to shoot civilians come from above, they are morally obliged to disobey. Even if threatened with death, a soldier’s death is morally preferable to a civilian’s, and thus the moral obligation is suicide over murder. If the other side has deliberately or accidentally endangered their own civilians, the option still exists to hold your fire or retreat. While this may put soldiers’ lives at risk, again, risk to consenting soldiers’ lives is vastly preferable to risk to civilians’. Though one side may make people into human shields, it is the side that kills the human shields that kills them. This is particularly true of modern asymmetric warfare. Hezbollah hiding among Lebanese civilians and American use of remote warfare both make soldiers near-impossible targets and both make it necessary for their enemies to accept civilian casualties in the violent pursuit of their political goals. However, just as there is no moral argument for blaming anyone but the nineteen hijackers for the attack on the World Trade Center, it is the IDF and the IDF alone that is responsible for the Arab civilians it may kill.

This is not to say that war can be justified, or that it cannot. This is a set of limits on the circumstances in which it can be, based on the logical results of the conclusion that "some things are worth fighting for".

12 September 2007

The Twin Towers: An innocent, but chilling explanation

While reading, sceptically, over a 9/11 'conspiracy' website (as if 20 people plotting mass-murder together doesn't constitute a conspiracy), I was struck by the vague plausibility of some of the structural inconsistencies. That maybe flying planes into buildings would damage them, and kill plenty of people, but would not be enough to bring them down. Those that believe this cite it as evidence of government complicity, but is that necessarily the case?

It could be argued that, assuming as I do that the two planes really were flown into the buildings by members of a small terrorist cell, it was actually right to use explosives to bring the towers down. Both towers collapsing straight down, as they did, was disastrous. But imagine the further loss of life, the further chaos and terror, if they had tipped over, or if the top had fallen off one and landed to the side of it. It is not too implausible that the explosives had long been placed there as a safety measure, for damage limitation, long before 11th September 2001.

If that were the case, the chilling part of this, perhaps more so than a villainous one-off government conspiracy (slightly more comforting than "A large, secret and vaguely defined group is still plotting to kill us) is that: someone had to make the decision to bring down the towers. Someone had to decide that destroying two buildings would minimise loss of human life. It would not take much for, amid the general panic, someone to make a mistake, to miscalculate, to err on the side of caution. But even more frighteningly, they could have been right. Peter Tatchell, amongst others alleges a cover-up. Is this to hide the kind of elaborate, comic-book conspiracy we're often treated to? I doubt it. It could simply have been to conceal a horrific, but necessary, worst-case scenario that would make every American hesitate even more before setting foot in a skyscraper.

I have to stress that my background is not scientific. I am neither supporting the controlled demolition hypothesis nor denying it, though I maintain a healthy scepticism for the convoluted explanations that surround it. I am simply saying, evidence of controlled demolition is no more evidence of conspiracy by the government than it is of conspiracy by hijackers.

29 August 2007

You Say 'Myth' Like It's a Bad Thing

Having tackled the most shocking thing zany Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ever “said” – that Israel must be wiped off the map – I will now move on to the second most shocking: his referring to the Holocaust as a myth. I am not going to do Nizkor’s job for them and dissect the IHR’s arguments, suffice to say, if any of history really happened, the Holocaust did. But then I remember an anecdote about JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and start to see Ahmadinejad’s point.

Tolkien described Christianity to his friend as “the true myth at the very heart of history”. So could we not also say the Holocaust is a "true myth"? We could certainly get away with saying it has mythical status. Myths teach us who we are, who we were, what people are like and how we should live our lives, whether fictional, like Oedipus, debatable, like the Tower of Babel, or true, as in this case. From the Holocaust, we learn the dangers of hyper-nationalism, the sheer cruelty human beings are capable of, the ease of committing atrocities against a dehumanised Other, the willingness of ordinary people to follow orders, the folly of racism and its 'science', the dangers of irrationality and Fascist anti-rationality, the banality of evil and, most of all, the thought and objective that dominated postwar Europe: that we should never let anything like this happen ever again.

And this is the point where I squint at Ahmadinejad in agreement, the pervasiveness of the Holocaust in modern Western thought. Considering how far I trust translations of his words, might this be part of what he meant, as well as or instead of “It didn’t happen and it should happen again”? Did he say a myth, a legend, or an untranslatable Farsi word somewhere in between, without the sting of scepticism in the English word? Did he say a parable or a fable? An instructive tale? Would 'The Legend of the Holocaust' have provoked half as much outrage?

But I digress. What we learned from the Shoah can be learned from other sources. Hitler's was by no means the only genocide, nor the only Jewish pogrom, nor the only industrialised slaughter of human beings, nor the only Nazi atrocity, nor the only Fascist government, nor the only atrocity based on 'racial science' or any perversion of a rational doctrine, nor the only example of human complicity. Denying it takes away the figurehead, the worst of all these things rolled into one, but it does not redeem them. There are two main schools of thought on dealing with Holocaust denial. The first is to ban a dangerous theory that hinges on an enormous racist slander. The second is to allow denial of the most rigorously-documented genocide in history and let the Neo-Nazis show their stupidity in public.

I propose a third – throw away our ideological crutch, or at least put it to one side every now and again. Whether it happened or not, we do not need the myth of the Shoah. The countless other atrocities they have under their belt give us plenty of sticks to beat the far right with. There is no longer a need for Eichmann to illustrate the Eichmann principle. The Stanford Prison study and Milgram’s Obedience Experiment that he inspired show us the evil ordinary people are capable of. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has easily reached mythical status for its dissection of totalitarianism. Of course the evil, the barbaric, racist, pseudo-scientific evil of the Holocaust should not be forgotten. But to limit ourselves to one instructive myth only makes us underestimate the evil behind it.

Worse still, it can make us blind, even complacent about racism and genocide that is not German-on-Jew. Many right-wing commentators, Richard Littlejohn, Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips and many others, rightly condemn anti-Semitism, yet are quite happy to take its myths of global conspiracies, ties to extremism and unassimilable minorities and retell them with different Middle Eastern protagonists. Rather than the Holocaust tainting all racism, for many it is OK so long as we pretend to like the Jews. In the case of Littlejohn, even genocide, when the Mbongo tribe slaughters the Mbingo tribe, is fine, so long as we learn the lessons of the Third Reich and make sure no Jews are harmed. The fact that so many disgusting forms of racism slipped through the net is the fault of those of us on the left who didn’t have enough examples of their sins to throw back at the hyper-nationalists and totalitarians, the anti-racists who lacked a sufficient variety of sticks to beat these intolerant morons with.

Let me provide some. The “historical” revisionist Harold Covington said: “Take away the Holocaust and Hitler becomes the greatest statesman of the twentieth century”.

I say, take away the Holocaust and the Nuremberg laws were still passed. Take away the Holocaust and Europe still has centuries of Jewish, queer, Roma and Sinti blood on its hands. Take away the Holocaust and Hitler still terrorised the German people, and ethnic nationalists still slaughtered civilians all over the world. Take away the Holocaust and Hitler and Mussolini still based their economies on slave labour, and other racialists and eugenicists still committed genocide in Africa, America and Australia. Take away the Holocaust and Hitler still bombed the people of Coventry and starved the people of Stalingrad, and mankind was still capable of the gulags and the killing fields of Cambodia. If we need the Holocaust to believe such things are bad, then it cannot help us anyway. But luckily for almost everyone, Covington was also wrong about Hitler’s statesmanship. Take away the Holocaust and he was still the idiot who went to war with most of the Northern Hemisphere and lost.

06 July 2007

America, Britain and Multiculturalism

American culture, most will agree, is the dominant face of world culture, and America has become by far the most influential culture in the world. Hollywood films are shown in cinemas everywhere. Only in Russia and Scotland does any soft drink, Irn Bru, outsell Coca-Cola. Jeans and a t-shirt are worn across the world. The federal systems in Germany, Austria, India, Brazil and many others are based on America’s. Whatever one’s views on American-style capitalism, it has recently become rather popular in Eastern and Central Europe. The USA has imposed its republican/democratic system of government on Japan, India and most of Europe so successfully that not only do the locals not mind and even ridicule and fear all other systems, but even dictators go to great lengths pretend to use it. Yet it is peculiar to Britain that the tireless warriors against the corrupting forces of Multiculturalism actually see the USA (as well as Spain and the South of France) as the refuge for their Indigenous Culture. Their obsession with foreign cultural influence, unlike French, Arab or Czech national identity crises, does not include American culture. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to borrowing from America, we fail to notice it or even to see it as a different culture, perhaps we simply do not count other white Anglophones as foreigners. But whatever the reason, we don’t seem to mind America eroding our national identity nearly as much as say... Blacks and Muslims.

Here lies the rub – America is very, very multicultural, yet its values are all but unshakeable by outside forces and its culture totally infectious. Naturally, clever marketing and economic power are factors, but other industrial powerhouses did not have the same success. What American multiculturalism seems to have achieved is a system and culture that, by (admittedly, often very reluctantly) accepting and incorporating foreigners and their cultures, is more flexible and universal and in turn more easily accepted and incorporated by foreigners, both at home and abroad. American culture is a one of affluence, but it is also one of cultural diversity and cross-influence. The lesson should be clear to insular Brits – used correctly, multiculturalism can strengthen our culture and values and prepare them for export.

Like much of modern politics, Islam both in Britain and the Middle East will be the battle-ground. Monoculturalism, especially coupled with Islamophobia or compulsory Christian dominance, excludes Muslims, and forces them to choose between their countrymen and their God. God will win. Every time. If we want to integrate Muslims, multiculturalism is the way. Show them they, as citizens, have a valid say on our culture and values and they will join them and take them on board. Order them to assimilate and they will refuse. Inevitably, the clash of cultures will destroy many weaker British traditions – the slightly un-Islamic pastime of binge drinking may lose out – but the stronger values will survive and be more widely accepted, and the fallacy that the Western values worth defending – individual rights, representative government and the rule of law – and Islam are incompatible will be made laughable.

The goal would be Western schools of Islamic thought. Not Islam in the West, but British Islam, French Islam, American, German, Dutch and even Israeli Islam. While these, naturally, would have their extremists, kicking against the values of the culture they grew up in, there will also be those that, having benefited from Western ideas, apply them, tailor them and mix them into their faith. The more we accept foreign cultures and include them in ours, not by assimilation but by making them an integral part, the more we will have of the latter. The more we alienate our Muslims by expecting them to assimilate at the expense of their faith and religious identity, the more we will have of the extremists that feel hated and that hate back. Excluding Muslims from secular British identity and making it known that even our secular values are opposed to them will bring about more London bombings. Including Muslims, by developing a secular ideology of tolerance, individual rights and freedom to follow private religion, will grate with the non-Muslim, “indigenous” assimilationists and ultimately benefit minorities more than the privileged, established majority. But it will, given time, consolidate and spread our values. If we can produce a school of thought in Islam that is tolerant, egalitarian and respectful of basic human rights, especially those of women, it will undermine the absolutist, misogynistic and brutal governments that exploit people’s religious beliefs to consolidate power.

But this will require sacrifices. Islam contains as much, if not more, justification for peace as for war, and if we want to persuade them to emphasise this we will need to stop declaring war on Muslims, in every sense of the word. Secondly, we need to establish a European intellectual tradition within Islamic theology. If our Universities can run courses training Christian clerics, we should encourage, or if necessary, force them to extend the same privilege to other religions. Doing so would also give us more home-grown Imams and end our dependence on Saudi-trained Wahabbists even more dangerous and bigoted than the loud-mouthed silent majority of Britons. Let’s not think of it as trampling our own indigenous culture by kow-towing to the “ethnics”. Think of it as stamping it down to consolidate it. If multiculturalism, tolerance and immigration destroy and weaken indigenous cultures, then why isn’t the whole world farklept of listening to rap in jeans while drinking Coke in front of Friends?

21 June 2007

False Friends and Pussycats

There have always been female singers, dancers and page-three models that bend and gyrate half-naked in front of predominantly male audiences in a way that would make most 70s feminists shudder. Yet there has been a rush of those whose language is feministic – it is a "liberating" experience and makes them feel "empowered". Attacks come from all sides – the sexually conservative and the downright catty attack them as sluts, attention seekers and poor role models. The traditional wings of feminism see it as self-degradation, becoming sex-objects and selling out their sisters. But rather than presenting themselves as sex 'objects', many behave in a sexually dominant, active way, sex subjects more than anything, and there is little inherently misogynistic about male arousal or female semi-nudity. Context and presentation of sexuality, even when intended for male entertainment, is everything, and the frantic, brazen antics of Courtney Love and the glossy camp of Christina Aguilera do seem, if anything, to erode traditional feminine sexual roles and promote an active, woman-centred image. However, some others don’t seem to fit: 'empowered' topless models and strippers and, especially, the PussyCat Dolls. These sound less sincere in their convictions to the bikini-feminist cause, and we should well be suspicious – Go to any strip club and ask any girl if she enjoys her work and you’ll always find she loves it – never expect anyone to honestly evaluate their job while they’re at work.

The lad-mag and pop-music industries depend heavily on images of semi-naked women that contradict classic feminist ideas, yet need a steady turnover of young, attractive, sexually uninhibited women. However, it is impossible in the modern world to argue against feminism, and there are two reasons for this: Firstly, attacks on basic feminist principles are no longer taken seriously, especially coming from women – imagine "Well, why shouldn’t I, as a woman, be treated like a second-class citizen and a sex-object?". Secondly, this political move makes all the wrong bedfellows – the typical female opposition to Feminism comes from middle-aged Daily-Mail and Concerned-Women-for-America types, who are equally appalled at the filth that passes for music videos these days. Yet the market for naked ladies remains, and so it is necessary to justify it using acceptable discourses. What can be acceptably challenged is the feminist movement's assumption that these sexualised images of women are exploitative. Hence the claims to 'empowerment' and 'liberating' feelings perfectly acceptable in modern post-feminist society, and putting feminist critics in a difficult position – allying with anti-feminist sexual conservatives to attack high-profile, successful women.

I do not doubt for a second that many of these feelings of 'liberation' are genuine. Some young girls and women obsessively strive to become page-three models and over-sexualised teen-sensation singers, and much of the branding, from PussyCat Dolls to Playboy memorabilia, is aimed squarely at the female market. So what is it, I wonder, about the PussyCat Dolls that grates with me? They talk the talk of female empowerment, but for some reason the PCD brand doesn’t sit right. Their language is the language of feminism, or at least the slightly unusual modern type so often embraced by women who titillate men for a living, and their choreographer/shadowy svengali, Robin Antin, is a woman and definitely does her best to sound like a feminist:
"Inside every woman is a PussyCat Doll, which makes you feel sexy and empowered. You wake up every day and put on a little bit of gloss, mascara, a little blush, and look cute. It’s about looking after your body, being healthy, eating the best, drinking a lot of water and taking care of your hair. It’s about using the PussyCat Doll mentality in your everyday life and being inspired by the best a woman can be. It’s a religion."

Sounds like air-punching self-help yuppie bollocks, but there is still a lot to be read into it. She uses plenty of feminist power-words – "empowered", "inspired", "the best a woman can be", but other words – "cute", and especially "pussycat" and "doll" are infused with ideas of submissiveness, and the context of the words undermines their 'feminist' punch. The PussyCat Doll inside every woman does not empower her, but simply makes her feel empowered. Even this empowerment is a rather petty one – the right and the power to put on lippy and have soft, strong and shiny hair. The adherents of the PCD religion are not inspired to be the best a woman can be, but by the best a woman can be – I am assuming by this she means the PussyCat Dolls. According to PussyCat Doctrine it is somehow empowering to aspire to them, but if you're not a PussyCat already, I'm afraid full PussyCat empowerment is not for you.
"It is an anthem for all confident girls," Antin says of 'Don't Cha', "I want to help women really accept themselves. I will never give up on putting my message out there for girls and for women."

Messages for girls and for women, confidence, accepting yourself – the feminism boxes are all ticked, but again something is wrong with the context. Is it actually a message of confidence for girls? No, it's just an anthem for confident girls – those fat girls and uggos excluded from the PussyCat Dolls Alpha clique remain so, those included are encouraged to be comfortable with their dominance. But it is the chorus of 'Don't Cha' that reveals the PussyCat mentality. (The verse provides a mildly touching back-story to the hot-girl anthem, which in many ways doesn't fit with the main thrust of the song, but it is the way with pop-music that anything in the verse is effectively buried, and can easily be ignored).

So, "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?". There are four ways to read this question – as a confidently hot woman, as a confidently hot man, as a shy, fat or ugly woman and as a shy, fat or ugly man. For the hot man the message is "Dump your sub-par girlfriend and hook up with a real woman", for the hot woman: "You are hot, you are a PussyCat Doll, you can have any man you want". Messages of confidence, no doubt. But for the fatties, dorks and uggos the message is "Don't you wish you had a girlfriend who was hot like me?" or "Doesn't your boyfriend wish you were hot like me?" messages that simply and effectively destroy confidence.

The empowerment is genuine. It is, for the most part, attractive, confident women using their sexuality to gain power over men. But this is not women's empowerment and it is not feminism. This is the empowerment of hot chicks over sexually-frustrated men and, most importantly, over other, less attractive, women. This is not women gaining power, this is women who already have it consolidating it and, in doing so, pushing down other women. Basically, a net loss for Womankind. Feminists should be naturally wary of any use of feminist language at a time when anti-feminist rhetoric is ridiculed or ignored. But especially, feminists should be wary of talk of 'empowerment'. With many layers of power-structures, empowerment comes in many forms, and the empowerment solely of the attractive, slim and confident over the fat, ugly and socially inadequate is not the empowerment of women or a step towards sexual equality. Simply empowering a woman is not enough to be Feminism – Marie Antoinette was very much empowered over the average French peasant – to have gender equality requires advancement of the whole gender. This must especially include the women who are not part of the fit-girl elite.

14 June 2007

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Calls for the Dissolution of Jerusalem City Council

For anyone with an interest in translation, or for that matter anyone concerned with the presentation and distortion of facts, the looming/escalating Iran crisis is one of the most interesting of recent years. The hinge is the famous quotation by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – usually translated as “Israel must be wiped off the map”. This is the most widely used and recognised translation, but it hits many pitfalls. A word-for-word translation gives:
“This regime that occupies Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”
That he is actually quoting (misquoting in fact – the Ayatollah said “stage of time”) someone else is the first reason to distrust the hysteria around it, but is not interesting in the same way as the translation. The latter part can be interpreted in a variety of ways – literally it makes little sense, so most would assume it is an idiom, and it is, according to most translators, an idiomatic way of saying ‘vanish completely’. However, using ‘vanish’ in an active form instead of ‘be wiped’ in the passive implies internal forces instead of a hypothetical nuclear attack. Even more complicated, some languages, like English, are more profligate with passives than others, some, such as Spanish, have no passive form, and most Indo-European languages can imply passive meaning with active forms, or use the same form for passive, reflexive and intransitive verbs. Could ‘vanish’ also mean ‘vanish itself’ or ‘be vanished’? This is the first problem the translator faces – different methods of expression in different languages.

The “regime that occupies Jerusalem” is even more complicated. Firstly, the linguistic problems – does ‘regime’ have the same negative connotations as in English? It is more likely taken directly from French than from us, where it can also mean a diet. Could this also be the case in Farsi? Most languages do not distinguish between ‘occupies’ and ‘is occupying’, which do we think he meant? The whole phrase, however, hits a new problem. It clearly means Israel, but does it mean Israel as a whole, just the parts occupying Palestine, just the parts occupying Jerusalem, the whole country or just its ‘regime’? Most would doubt this phrase meant the whole country, George Bush, for example, spoke of destroying the ‘regime’ of Iraq, but, we assume, hoped not to destroy the entire country. However, there are also personal political issues to take into account. Many in the Iranian government refuse to call Israel by name, therefore this would simply be one of the many euphemisms commonly used as simply ‘Israel’. This in turn infects literal use of these phrases in the same way ‘passing water’ is always tainted with urination. Even the seemingly simple modal verb, ‘must’ can carry a wide variety of meanings, levels of certainty, strengths of intention and implications.

This table shows a variety of possible meanings, simply connect the columns and choose whatever statement best suits your agenda.
This regime occupying Jerusalem
vanish from the page of time
The entire State of Israel
be dissolved
The Jewish people
never have existed
The current Israeli administration
be destroyed
The Israeli people
redraw its borders
The military occupation of Palestine
Israel’s post-1967 borders
be omitted from historical record
The Israeli political system
be wiped from the face of the earth
Jerusalem’s local government
be brought to an end

Anything from “The military occupation of Palestine must end” to “All Jews will be destroyed” to “Jerusalem’s local government should be dissolved” is possible, and most translations and interpretations in the West approximate the second. Considering Ahmadinejad’s history of belligerence towards Israel, the more belligerent translations are perhaps more likely, but how certain can we be of this history? Ambiguity and distortion are unavoidable in translation of any kind, and there are other kinds of translation involved in building up a picture of a nation and its main character.

The Holocaust is a concept that requires particularly careful translation. It is a peculiarly European part of history, in which Iran had no involvement. The Holocaust, for countries outside of Europe and America, is a less weighty historical event than it is for the nations who were involved in forming and liberating the camps For Jews it is even more different - who could argue that ‘ha-Shoah’ means exactly the same to Israelis as ‘der Holocaust’ does to Germans? Its importance concerning the rights of Jews within society is also minimal in countries who, having expelled their Jewish population, are no longer concerned with the issue. However the resulting creation of Israel is more emphatic where Israel is more of a political issue. Oddly enough, Holocaust denial translates more easily into Western consciousness, being in both societies a prelude to anti-Semitic rhetoric, which too is often surprisingly similar. Even calling the Holocaust a ‘myth’ is rife with difficulties. The famously devout C.S. Lewis, speaking to the famously mythology-obsessed J.R.R Tolkein, described Christianity as “True myths, myths that really happened”. Is it not possible for blatantly true events to take on the social and literary function of a myth?

The difficulty of translating words, euphemisms, idioms, metaphors, even historical events, should make us wary of our perceptions of any culture. I don’t doubt that anti-Semitism is driving much of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and policy, but there are many circular arguments that we use to confirm this. We believe he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, this translation is confirmed by his attitude to the Holocaust, which is confirmed by his calling it a ‘myth’. We know ‘myth’ to be an accurate translation because of his history of anti-Semitism, which we see in his belligerent rhetoric towards Israel. His belligerence towards Israel, combined with his stated ambition to wipe it off the map shows he cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, and his desire to wipe another country off the face of the earth is proof that he is trying to acquire them.

Subtle nuances will always be lost, or more likely altered, in translation, but overall this is seldom a problem. But subtle changes in meaning build up, especially when they feed off and contribute to a distorted and probably prejudiced picture of their background. We have a tendency to take accurate translation for granted, even though we get most of our translations from the Middle East from one source – the Middle East Media Research Institute, whose connections are perhaps dubious. Plans for the invasion of Iran are already being made, and especially plans for its media-friendly justification, and we should always be wary of hearing our enemies’ words via our mouths.

08 February 2007

Johann Hari - Enemy of the Enlightenment

Johann Hari, for those unfamiliar, is a left-wing British journalist with a habit of embracing, or usually building from scratch, the most bizarre political positions with the most rational and indisputable reasoning. He believes in the abolition of the monarchy for the sake of the royalty. He believes in fighting homophobic extremists using gay sex, and among brilliant pieces on the right to asylum, the conflict in the Congo and blood shortages in Palestinian hospitals, has even written an article on the prevalence of gay Nazism. I enjoy the spectacle of his running battles with Richard Littlejohn and identify with him as a non-sporty sexual minority (though where he is fat and gay I am skinny and, until recently, involuntarily celibate). However, his repeated attacks on Postmodernism grate with me, and this article is an attempt to rationalise why they seem to smack of hypocrisy, irrationality and particularly arrogance. This critique is by no means an indictment of Hari, the fact that I read his columns religiously shows the admiration I have for his work and particularly his talent for avoiding simplistic categorisation and any kind of party line. I cannot, however forgive these attacks as, because they are a minor irritation and as Derrida said, "The only forgiveness is to forgive the unforgiveable".

The first of these attacks followed the demise of Jacques Derrida, the "mad axeman of Western philosophy". His summary of Derrida's philosophy is brief, but impartial and thorough. However, he neither refutes nor even seems to disagree with a single one of Derrida's ideas before he reveals the source of his opposition: "All we are left with - if we accept Derrida's conclusions - is puzzled silence and irony. If reason is just another language game, if our words cannot match anything out there in the world without doing 'violence' to others - what can we do except sink into nihilism, or turn to the supernatural?" Hari argues not against the reasoning, but against the result of that reasoning. Yet to introduce his review of 'Why Truth Matters', he says: "The great Enlightenment goal of pursuing the truth wherever it may lead us – even to ideas we find totally unexpected, or initially horrifying – is under siege.". But when the ideas to which Derrida's pursuit of the truth and its nature lead horrify Hari, he begins to vilify Postmodernism as vehemently as he glorifies the Enlightenment. His subsequent attack on postmodern literature - conveniently ignoring 'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit', 'The Name of the Rose' or other brilliant postmodern works - takes him further towards the horrifying result and further away from his own beloved Reason. Postmodernism and Deconstruction are "the terrible forces of ultra-scepticism" and he most tellingly talks of "chaining the deconstructionist beast" and limiting the extend of intellectual enquiry.

He frequently misrepresents Postmodernism to fit his beliefs. The most prevalent misconception is that "Derrida's method for destroying language is deconstruction", that is that close examination of something will destroy it. He describes Foucault's relations with the Iranian Ayatollah as: "the culmination of his life's work dismantling reason". And although there are many reasons to dismantle something, to break, to fix or, especially for a philosopher, to examine it, Hari treats this act as pure destruction. Even Hari's love for the Enlightenment seems as unenlightened as his hatred of those that question it. In the same article, condemning the Chapman Brothers as monsters, he attacks their belief in "transgression" and the way they "vandalise and ridicule the fruits of reason". However Goya's mockery and caricatures of the ancien régime, also clear transgressions, are lauded as such. Derrida's is a "shrill and silly agenda to unpick and 'expose' the Enlightenment tradition" and "The Chapmans' declared aim is... to puncture and destroy it". To puncture and expose, or to subvert and question the validity of, the Enlightenment is, to Hari, to destroy it. His Enlightenment is only valid when it is absolute.

Absolutist Enlightenment? It is at this point that Hari becomes an enemy of his own beloved creed, one that, as he quite rightly points out, has benefitted Western society immeasurably. And it is at this point that he becomes dangerous. He claims "Postmodernism demoralises and disorients intellectual elites when confronted with reactionary movements", but overconfident, purposeful elites are a dangerous thing. The most disgusting ideologies of the twentieth century grew from dogmatic interpretations the Enlightenment's intellectual traditions. Darwinism, Marxism, Smithsonian economics, were all three rationalist, materialist readings of the world perfectly consistent with Enlightenment ideals. But it did not take long for Marxism to become Stalinism, for the same absolutist interpretations to be applied to the Free Market or for Darwinism to become Social Darwinism, racial science, eugenics, Fascism, Nazism and ultimately genocide. It is neither coincidence nor shady conspiracy that Third-World dictators see the Enlightenment as a branch of Western imperialism - "spreading civilisation", namely our own, post-Enlightenment civilisation, was always the given justification for the most brutal parts of European empire-building, from Britain's forced famines in India to Belgian slavery in the Congo, to the French army torturing Algerian POWs. Adorno identified this danger when he observed that the myth of the Enlightenment is often stronger than the Enlightenment itself. A professed belief in the Enlightenment does not make anyone enlightened or immune from the descent into myth, tyranny and the sleep of reason. Rather, the certainty given by the illusion of rationality makes pitfalls more likely, and this perversion of the Enlightenment happens not wilfully but by mistaking the Enlightenment for its own myth.

Reviewing 'Why Truth Matters' Hari claims: "The postmodernists serve up the ultimate in identity politics...identity politics is the opposite of progressive or liberating politics. It privileges the unchosen, the happenstance and the biological over the learned, the acquired and the new.” Yet he omits other ways of creating identity - by freely chosen beliefs and associations such as religions, social groups and political parties. The intellectual protectionism he applies to his creed shows Hari identifies with the Enlightenment's flag rather than its beliefs. In short, he chooses the politics of identity over reason. This becomes clearest when, quoting Levinas, he chides Derrida as a "Jewish mystic". He does not point to any peculiarly Jewish irrationality (though Deconstruction does mirror the 'riddles within riddles' of Talmidic hermeneutics). Without reasoning, he simply states: Jewish equals religion equals irrationality, and ignores the emphasis many religious thinkers place on Reason. He simply labels his opponents with words associated with irrationality, as the Other Party, in the same way a SWP-supporter or an Ayatollah might simply dismiss any counter-arguement as 'Toryism' or 'Western interference'. His simplistic portrayal of Postmodernism seems to be as a champion of irrationality, particularly irrational tribal beliefs, religious superstition and identity politics, where the Postmodernist claim that nothing is inherently right makes it impossible for it to champion anything.

Hari's support for the Iraq war has won him a lot of criticism from the left and from even the Chapman Brothers. But this support is forgivable and if anything, shows an admirable independence of thought and moral courage. But it also demonstrates a (well-intentioned) naivety stemming from his unenlightened, tribal belief in the Identity of the Enlightenment. Despite his scepticism on WMD, he supported it on 'humanitarian' grounds, to oust Saddam and bring democracy and freedom, but an injection of moral relativism into his view could perhaps have changed this. Of course, nobody should have abandoned democracy as just another "discourse", and championed Ba'athism, the indigenous way of the Iraqi people, and this is never the aim of Postmodernism. But belief in the inherent validity of their own beliefs made the Hawks blind. Democracy is a discourse, or rather many, fragmented and entwined, and as such it is tainted by its context and by the discourses that accompany it. The discourse of democracy we brought to Iraq was accompanied by lies, shock-and-awe, cluster-bombs, torture, humiliation and gross mismanagement, and then by the following terror campaigns and civil war. Seeing the Enlightenment ideals as absolutes prevented the Hawks from anticipating their possible failure and preparing persuasive arguments and methods to maintain them. Hari later retracted his support, not because he no longer believed in democracy, but because he had, in his own words, been foolish to believe that George Bush was the man to bring it. But why was he deceived? Perhaps he was too willing to salute the flag of the Enlightenment, and too receptive to anything done in its name.

Hari is correct when he claims: "the Hindu fundamentalist right in India and the new creationist right in the US are well-versed in postmodern language. 'Epistemic relativism makes possible a world where bad arguments and no evidence are helped to win public discussions over justified arguments and good evidence'”. Postmodernism is not, as he so dogmatically believes, the enemy of the Enlightenment, but its direct continuation, and like the ideals of rationalism, science and liberation, it is easily twisted to justify irrationality, superstition and repression. Postmodernism simply asks that the Enlightenment examine and contextualise itself with the same rigour it does others. Postmodernism, with its constant self-examination, has an inbuilt safeguard against absolutism and, rather than being an oblique obfustication of polysyllabic meta-commentary and reflexivity, this takes the form of a simple joke: "There are no absolutes - save one".

The true enemies of the Enlightenment are those that use it as a pawn in their tribal struggles, either as an interfering foreign 'Other' to justify their theocracy, or as their own tribal banner to wave at the uncivilised, superstitious savages about to be plundered for their fossil fuels. As he grovels and squirms to apologise for supporting the war in Iraq, Johann Hari should perhaps look at why he was so easy to dupe at the slightest mention of Enlightenment ideals, and we his loyal readers should ask ourselves if those preaching blind faith in the Enlightenment and even its son Postmodernism are really their friend or foe.