Waylaid Dialectic

June 19, 2011

Meanwhile on the left-most edges of the Lunisphere…

Filed under: Human Rights,Inequality,Social Justice — terence @ 7:16 pm

George Monbiot catches and dispatches left-wing genocide denial by Edward S Herman, along with tacit endorsement from Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. What is with these guys?

I’m more sympathetic to radical left-wing thought than most liberals. I can see the need for it. By any measure (be it utilitarian or justice based) we live in a radically unethical world. Injustices occur all the time and the potential for raising welfare through tackling inequality is considerable.

And yet I find the radical left pretty unconvincing. For three reasons:

First, the alternatives they propose to capitalism tend to strike me as improbable given human nature and the challenges of large scale collective action. And, similarly, I don’t find very convincing their answers to questions along the lines of ‘ok so that sounds plausible, but how do we get there from here?’

Second, much of the radical left is simply disingenuous in the extent to which it plays down differences between the centre-left and the right. Obama may not be great but you-have-got-to-be-fucking-dreaming if you think there is next to no difference between him and the Republican Party in its current permutation.

Third, too many radical left-wing thinkers seem to need to justify their world view through bizarrely one dimensional interpretations of events. People like Chomsky and Pilger often do great work putting paid to the myths of benign Western Foreign policy. That’s great. But it’s hard not to want to part company with them once they start downplaying the crimes of our official enemies, as is occurring in the case of the Herman book. Thoughts with as much nuance as, “we’re pretty bad a lot of the time, yet there are also people out there even worse, and sometimes our foreign policy interventions aren’t totally evil and may have some benefits” too-often seem beyond them.

Of course, the problem doesn’t afflict everyone on the radical left: there’s a tradition including Orwell and people such as Monbiot himself, which is much more consistent in its critique of atrocities. There is also, as Monbiot also points out, plenty of denial on the right too. And, despite their shortcomings, people like Pilger and Chomsky still deserve to be listened to; at times they are bang on. But me personally, ultimately, I find their myopia frustrating.

Of course, to put this in perspective, there are far bigger problems with the world than a few members of the left leaping off into the lunisphere, or the shortcomings of the radical left more generally. But, for what it’s worth, it still bugs me. The radical left ought to have a lot more to offer.

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4 Comments

  1. Personally, I find both the alternatives liberals suggest, and their strategies for getting there, unconvincing, given their track record. Mostly the liberal record looks very nice if you don’t look too closely, only look at the nice bits and don’t consider the perspective of those who it’s been too difficult to include in the liberal project.

    The comment “we’re pretty bad a lot of the time, yet there are also people out there even worse, and sometimes our foreign policy interventions aren’t totally evil and may have some benefits” seems to be just down playing the crimes of our official friends (and claiming the radical left consider ‘foreign policy interventions’ – I presume this is a nice liberal euphemism for ‘wars’? – “totally evil” is just silly. Only complete nuts use terms like “totally evil”, if you’re going to cite a few nuts as representative of the radical left, of course you’ll get a poor view.

    And alleging Chomsky’s tacit endorsement seems a bit far-fetched given his position on free speech – which is pretty extreme. He didn’t object to a holocaust denier using his writing (without permission), he just maintained that this wasn’t in any way an endorsement of the guy’s views. You can disagree with that position, but I think you might need a bit more evidence to maintain that he is endorsing something unless he actually says he is. This just seems to be jumping on the right’s attempts to discredit Chomsky by alleging that any claim that atrocities have been exaggerated is per se an endorsement of those who carried out the atrocity, which is pure humbug.

    It reminds me a bit of a time I had to argue with a (liberal) journalist who claimed that there were twice as many people on a demo as there were (I had counted heads). Does that make me an opponent of those protesting?

    cheers

    Sam Buchanan

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — June 23, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

  2. Hi there Sam,

    Thanks for your comments and sorry for my delayed reply.

    “Personally, I find both the alternatives liberals suggest, and their strategies for getting there, unconvincing, given their track record. Mostly the liberal record looks very nice if you don’t look too closely, only look at the nice bits and don’t consider the perspective of those who it’s been too difficult to include in the liberal project.”

    The track record of left-liberalism is, indeed, not great. It certainly hasn’t managed to extend safety nets to all those who need them (although some Scandinavian states have come close) and amongst overall progress there has been plenty of injustice. But my point is, at the same time, left-liberalism has produced real tangible benefits. And in this sense has performed better than every other alternative tried to date. Maybe there’s something better still out there, but I’m not persuaded by any of the alternatives currently put forwards by the radical left.

    “The comment “we’re pretty bad a lot of the time, yet there are also people out there even worse, and sometimes our foreign policy interventions aren’t totally evil and may have some benefits” seems to be just down playing the crimes of our official friends (and claiming the radical left consider ‘foreign policy interventions’ – I presume this is a nice liberal euphemism for ‘wars’? – “totally evil” is just silly. Only complete nuts use terms like “totally evil”, if you’re going to cite a few nuts as representative of the radical left, of course you’ll get a poor view.”

    Sorry, I don’t get how my comment is playing down the crimes of our official friends with that comment. My point here is simply that when confronted by the alternative — for example ongoing ethnic cleansing by Milosevic (sp?) in Yugoslavia — sometimes military action (war), even if not perfectly motivated or perfectly executed, may be worthy of support. Or it may not. But let’s at least argue the case by accurately representing those involved. Rather than pretending that Milosevic wasn’t a genocidal thug.

    “And alleging Chomsky’s tacit endorsement seems a bit far-fetched given his position on free speech – which is pretty extreme. He didn’t object to a holocaust denier using his writing (without permission), he just maintained that this wasn’t in any way an endorsement of the guy’s views. You can disagree with that position, but I think you might need a bit more evidence to maintain that he is endorsing something unless he actually says he is. This just seems to be jumping on the right’s attempts to discredit Chomsky by alleging that any claim that atrocities have been exaggerated is per se an endorsement of those who carried out the atrocity, which is pure humbug.”

    No, the difference between the Faurisson affair and the Herman book is that, in Faurisson’s case Chomsky’s intro was used without his permission, and that, once the scandal erupted he simply defended Faurisson’s right to free speech. As you say, it would be humbug (or at least unfair) from this to infer that Chomsky was a Holocaust denier. In the Herman case though he’s written a blurb and given permission for it to be used. It’s hard to see how this isn’t endorsement of the book. Quite possibly Chomsky doesn’t share Herman’s views on Serbia and Rwanda but, if that’s the case, why write a forward for the book? Either he agrees with Herman, in which case he is deeply wrong. Or he doesn’t, but he doesn’t think Herman’s denialism a major flaw. In which case he’s also wrong.

    Comment by terence — June 25, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

  3. […] Democracy Really Possible? Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:18 am In my previous post I suggested that one of my frustrations with the radical left is that the alternatives they propose […]

    Pingback by Is Social Democracy Really Possible? « Waylaid Dialectic — June 26, 2011 @ 9:18 am

  4. “It certainly hasn’t managed to extend safety nets to all those who need them (although some Scandinavian states have come close)”

    Firstly, its arguable as to who was responsible for instituting those safety nets – in this country its mostly been pressure from the radical left, and fear of the further strengthening of the radical left, that gave rise to social welfare. The record of social democrats has been to slowly run it down. The DPB is a possible exception – I don’t know much about its history, though it certainly appeared when radicalism was on the rise.

    Secondly, some time you must tell me about the Scandinavian safety nets for much of the working class who supply their food, manufactures and raw materials and happen to live in developing countries. If the great triumph of social democracy is to extend social welfare to an elite at home, at the expense of lesser mortals living elsewhere, I’m not much impressed. It’s not much different to Kuwait, with its social safety net and education options, all good if you’re a Kuwaiti citizen and not a Bidoun or guest worker.

    BTW, I notice Sweden is in the top ten arms exporting countries of the world – not bad for a country of under 10 million people – and maintained an intact industrial base during WWII by trading with Nazi Germany. Is this justified by the “overall progress” of social democracy?

    “Sorry, I don’t get how my comment is playing down the crimes of our official friends with that comment.”

    Eh? You don’t think calling a war a “foreign policy intervention” is playing it down?

    “when confronted by the alternative — for example ongoing ethnic cleansing by Milosevic (sp?) in Yugoslavia — sometimes military action (war), even if not perfectly motivated or perfectly executed, may be worthy of support”

    Possibly – which is why there has been support, or a lack of condemnation, for military action from the radical left. The radical left has been pretty damning of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, largely supportive of the military intervention in East Timor (in the case of NZ, much of the demand for intervention came from the radical left), and fairly quiet on interventions in countries where we didn’t really know what was going on. I don’t recall any condemnation of the war in former Yugoslavia from the NZ left, there might have been the odd comment, but generally the radical left didn’t take a position, I presume because we didn’t know enough about the situation to make an assessment. Your caricature (“Thoughts with as much nuance as, “we’re pretty bad a lot of the time, yet there are also people out there even worse, and sometimes our foreign policy interventions aren’t totally evil and may have some benefits” too-often seem beyond them”) is just that.

    “Quite possibly Chomsky doesn’t share Herman’s views on Serbia and Rwanda but, if that’s the case, why write a forward for the book?”

    Don’t know – has he commented on this? It seems to me that Chomsky takes an extreme position on free speech and the value of raising debates. So I wouldn’t be inclined to assume that his support for the publication of Herman’s book implies support for the entirety of the contents.

    Comment by Sam Buchanan — June 26, 2011 @ 11:32 am


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