Thursday, July 21, 2005

Norman Geras versus the 'apologists'

The intellectual trajectory of Norman Geras is strange to behold, from the 'militant of the Fourth International' and author of an outstandingly good book on Rosa Luxemburg (among many other important works) to one of the intellectual strong-points and lode-stars of the pro-war Left. His blog is always worth looking at for a bracing encounter (except of course for the cricket stuff) and one of his pieces has made it to The Guardian.

There are apologists amongst us. The 'We told you so' lot have been bleating on about Iraq ever since the atrocities of 7/7 - it is time to fight back. (July 21, 2005 The Guardian)

"Within hours of the bombs going off two weeks ago, the voices that one could have predicted began to make themselves heard with their root-causes explanations for the murder and maiming of a random group of tube and bus passengers in London. It was due to Blair, Iraq, illegal war and the rest of it. The first voices, so far as I know, were those of the SWP and George Galloway, but it wasn't very long - indeed no time at all, taking into account production schedules - before the stuff was spreading like an infestation across the pages of this newspaper, where it has remained.

"No words of dismay, let alone grief, could be allowed to pass some people's lips without the accompaniment of a "We told you so" and an exercise in blaming someone other than the perpetrators. No sense of what such a tragedy might call for or rule out on the first day. Exactly as if you were to hear from a distraught friend that her husband had just been murdered while walking in a "bad" neighbourhood, and to respond by saying you were sorry about this but it was foolish of him to have been walking there by himself. We had the same after 9/11; still, one nurtures the illusion that people learn. Evidently some don't."

Geras's argument is silly. He's accusing people trying to make political judgements of being insensitive. He could well be right about that, but Galloway was right to point out that that was what Tony Blair was doing right from the start. Geras makes a point about the 'first day', but Galloway is the only person who could be said to have spoken in these terms so quickly and I'm still praising him for making even a small break in the establishment political consensus that Iraq was irrelvant and shouldn't be mentioned. If you can't say such things on the first day, when can you say it? And will Geras excoriate British public opinion for coming to the same conclusion?

"It needs to be seen and said clearly: there are, among us, apologists for what the killers do. They make more difficult the fight to defeat them. The plea will be - it always is - that these are not apologists, they are merely honest Joes and Joanies endeavouring to understand the world in which we live. What could be wrong with that? What indeed? Nothing is wrong with genuine efforts at understanding; on these we all depend. But the genuine article is one thing, and root-causes advocacy seeking to dissipate responsibility for atrocity, mass murder, crime against humanity, especially in the immediate aftermath of their occurrence, is something else.

"Note the selectivity in the way root-causes arguments function. Purporting to be about causal explanation rather than excuse-making, they are invariably deployed on behalf of movements or actions for which their proponent wants to engage our indulgence, and in order to direct blame towards some party towards whom he or she is unsympathetic.

"A hypothetical example illustrates the point. Suppose that, on account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this and express their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame this act of violence on the government's decision or urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn't happen, because the anger of the thugs doesn't begin to justify what they have done. The root-causers always plead a desire merely to expand our understanding, but they're very selective in what they want to "understand".
If causes and explanation are indeed a serious enterprise and not merely a convenient partisan game, then it needs to be recognised that causality is one thing and moral responsibility another, though the two are related. The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity doesn't show that they, as well as the direct agents, are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn't serve to justify it. Furthermore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won't necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it."

Actually I agree with Geras on the relationship between 'causality' and 'moral responsibility' and that it is a serious matter, but disagree with his conclusion (but note that his 'won't necessarily' undermnies the general applicability of his aargument) about not sharing blame. The blame and moral responsibility is at a different level, doesn't remove theresponsibility.

"The "We told you so" crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London. How do they know this, these clever people? For what they need to know is not just that Iraq was one of a number of influencing causes, but that it was the specific, and a necessary, motivating cause for the London bombings. If it was only an influencing motivational cause among others, and if, more particularly, another such motivational cause was supplied by the military intervention in Afghanistan, then it's not the case that the London bombings wouldn't have happened but for the Iraq war. "

Geras is taking on a strawman here. Gives us the quotes. But I do have a level of agreement, expressed also by Freedman yesterday, that treating the bombers as the (wrong) armed-wing of the anti-war movement is a mistake. The issue is the linkage between the bombings and Iraq as one of the generalised concerns that form the ongoing and developing background to jihadi politics.

"Ever on the lookout for damning causes, the root-causers never go for the most obvious of these. This is the cause, indeed, which shows, by its absence, why most critics of the Iraq war or of anything else don't murder people when they are angry. It is the fanatical, fundamentalist belief system which teaches hatred and justifies these acts of murder. That cause somehow gets a free pass from the hunters-out of causes."

Again I agree that the belief system must be included in our understanding, but Geras could do well to remember that even cool tolerant technocratic belief-systems can be employed for acts of murder - helicopter gun-ships, high-level bombers and cruise-missiles being the case in point.

"There are apologists among us, and they have to be fought intellectually and politically. They do not help to strengthen the democratic culture and institutions whose benefits we all share. Because we believe in and value these, we have to contend with what such people say. But contend with is precisely it. We have to challenge their excuses without let-up."

A majority of the population are now among the apologists! And sudddenly Geras has transformed himself into a late-period hysterical Sidney Hook!


Blogger badmatthew said...

Some Guardian letters from July 22nd.

Scott Lucas: I presume Professor Geras would include, among his "we told you so" camp on a link between the war in Iraq and terrorism in Britain, the CIA, British intelligence services, top British military officers, Chatham House, and former high-level US officials such as Zbigniew Brzezinski. All suggested, before and after 7/7, the occupation of Iraq might lead to attacks abroad.

To warn about the consequences of British and US actions is not to apologise for those of the suicide bombers. Conversely, Professor Geras's challenging of alleged excuses is no substitute for thoughtful consideration of how we deal with the causes of insecurity and terror in Iraq, Britain and other areas of the world.
Prof Scott Lucas
University of Birmingham

Chris Harman: If such bombings are the result of "fundamentalist beliefs that teach hatred", such beliefs have characterised the behaviour of "civilised" western politicians, generals and businessmen in vast regions of the world for centuries. In the case of areas which were once centres of Muslim civilisation, the record stretches from the start of the British conquest of India in 1757 and the French conquest of Algeria in 1830, to the present occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. We are rightly horrified when people who have witnessed such horrors come to believe that inflicting such horrors themselves is the way to fight oppression. But we should not be surprised, nor should we regard them as uniquely evil.
Chris Harman
International Socialism Journal

22 July 2005 at 10:39  

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