The Jewel of Denial

As today marks the public launch of the Euston Manifesto it comes as no surprise to find one of its authors, Norman Geras, popping up in the Guardian with yet another of his trite expositions on the ‘geography of the left’.

It would be unfair to say that the position of the Eustonauts hasn’t moved on somewhat in the six weeks or so since the first appearance of the manifesto – at the time of the Manifesto’s intial launch, John Lloyd had this to say on the subject:

What has, however, been horrifying to see has been the disappearance, or even non-appearance, of any consideration of the nature of the regime of Saddam Hussein that was destroyed by the invasion. That which had been a prime object of left politics – the removal of dictatorship, made more urgent in Iraq’s case by the mass murderous and sadistic character of the Saddam regime – has dropped from consideration, or is given only formal recognition. What had once been an imperative – an expression, and where possible more than an expression of solidarity with the suffering under such a dictatorship – has been vitiated by the main aim of much of left politics: a cultivation of anti-Americanism. In many parts of the left, that has meant close alliances with fundamentalist Islamic groups, whose policies on civil and human rights, including equal rights for women and gays, are deeply reactionary. It has at times seemed to mean rhetorical support for those seeking to terrorise Iraqi, and other, societies out of any move towards democratic rule.

The depth of the difference between those who adhere to this view, and those of us who see the decision to confront Saddam as the right one (if overdue) now forces an explicit recognition of two broad camps on the left. The first has developed a critique of western (especially US and UK) foreign policy, the records of the Blair and Bush governments, the war on terrorism and many other issues which is uncompromisingly hostile, regarding above all the British and American administrations as irredeemably imperialist and reactionary. We see in some of their actions – specifically in their willingness to confront tyrannous and murderous regimes – a progressive approach, which should be supported – even as other elements in their policies, including many of the decisions taken (or not taken) to prosecute the war in Iraq were wrong, even disastrously so.

Now we find Norman Geras taking a much more expansive view of the Great Rift Valley of the left:

But a longer answer is worth spelling out for what it reveals about the "geography" of the left in relation to the Iraq war, and how this is simplified by some of the war’s opponents. Their story is of a three-way division within left-liberal opinion, comprising: (1) those who supported the war, the "left hawks" or "muscular liberals"; (2) on the other side, but merely marginal, a small body of anti-war opinion – people in and around the Socialist Workers party and Respect – actually wanting America to come to grief in Iraq, supporting or making apology for the so-called resistance and its murderous methods; (3) in between these, the largest sector of anti-war opinion, opposing the war for a combination of reasons, prominent among these the belief that it was likely to turn out badly.

This mapping of the terrain underlies the mystification over how people who opposed the war could support the Euston Manifesto, and also the upset over criticisms directed at the left, when according to that map they apply only to a few souls on the far and hard left.

The real geography, however, has been different. Within the large "middle" sector of left-liberal opinion opposed to the war there has been, from the start, a differentiating subdivision – between those who opposed the war without being in denial about the considerations on the other side of the argument, and those who precisely have been in denial about them. This latter group extends well beyond the far left.

The signs of denial are abundant in the recent public life of the western democracies: in the banners and slogans for that Saturday on February 15 2003, from which one would never have known that Saddam’s Iraq was a foul tyranny; in the numbers of those on the left unwilling to allow, many indeed unable to comprehend, why others of us supported a regime-change war; in a constant stream of comment in liberal daily papers and weeklies of the left; in the excommunications issued and more recent calls for apology or recantation; and, most seriously, in the perceptible lack of interest in initiatives of solidarity with the forces in Iraq battling for a democratic transformation of their country, part of a wider lack of enthusiasm for the success of this enterprise given its origins in a war led by George Bush.

So, six weeks ago, the left was divided into two broad camps – the Eustonauts (comprising the forces of pro-war decency and the new-found anti-war friends who’ve now seen the light and agree that Saddam was a complete bastard after all) and the ‘stoppers’ (Respect/SWP and their unauthentic in-denial fellow travelling useful idiots).

Now it seems that, having noted the existance of a sizeable strand of rationalist left-wing criticism of Lloyd’s over-simplistic view of the current geography of the left, Norm has come up with a revised set of boundaries which neatly divide the left into four broad camps – the pro-war decents, the anti-war left who’ve now seen the light and agree that Saddam was a complete bastard after all, the unauthentic anti-war left who’re still in denial and still fellow travelling useful idiots, and the hard core ‘stoppers of Respect/SWP.

Ah yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This is all very much in keeping with one of the more obvious subtexts to rationalist criticism of the manifesto itself, a view which sees its over-reliance on abstractions and platitudious statements of values as a sign of deliberate disingenuity on the part of its authors and main supporters; poorly executed disingenuity in many respects as most of the Manifesto’s biases are so obvious that authors could have saved themselves trouble of writing several sections simply by adding ‘America – Fuck Yeah!’ and ‘Israel – Fuck Yeah!” to the preamble.

To be fair, this is not an issue that is in any way unique to the Eustonauts. If you’ve been around the left for any reasonable length of time you’ll have seen it all before several times over, the latest ‘new democratic front’ to appear from nowhere clutching its shiny new (and carefully sanitised) manifesto and claiming to be the ‘authentic voice’ of the left – It’s sad to have to say this but left-wing politics tends to spawn these kind of set-ups with much the same frequency that Proctor and Gamble launch ‘new improved and best ever’ versions of the brand-leading washing powders and to much the same effect – you use them for a bit, find you can’t see any real difference between this new, improved version and the one you used to buy and then come to the conclusion that only new thing about it was that it said ‘New’ on the box.

Its long been one of the hallmarks of the hard-core ideological wing of the left that their values and ideals can turn on a sixpence and change overnight, but their methods and modus-operandi remain pretty much constant – which is not always such a bad thing as this odd character trait at least helped to spawn this classic piece of comedic dialogue:

BRIAN: Are you the Judean People’s Front?
REG: Fuck off!
BRIAN: What?
REG: Judean People’s Front. We’re the People’s Front of Judea! Judean People’s Front. Cawk.
FRANCIS: Wankers.
BRIAN: Can I… join your group?
REG: No. Piss off.
BRIAN: I didn’t want to sell this stuff. It’s only a job. I hate the Romans as much as anybody.
PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA: Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhh. Shh. Shhhh.
REG: Schtum.
JUDITH: Are you sure?
BRIAN: Oh, dead sure. I hate the Romans already.
REG: Listen. If you really wanted to join the P.F.J., you’d have to really hate the Romans.
BRIAN: I do!
REG: Oh, yeah? How much?
BRIAN: A lot!
REG: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.
P.F.J.: Yeah…
JUDITH: Splitters.
P.F.J.: Splitters…
FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
LORETTA: And the People’s Front of Judea.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
REG: What?
LORETTA: The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.
REG: We’re the People’s Front of Judea!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: People’s Front! C-huh.
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
REG: He’s over there.
P.F.J.: Splitter!

Interestingly, while Geras seeming has no problem with making sweeping, inaccurate generalisations about
the nature of those left-wing critics of the manifesto who can’t quite so easily be shoved under the carpet or dismissed as hard-core stoppers, he’s pretty quick to try shoot down the idea that the manifesto is pro-war:

A third reaction is that of people who see the manifesto as pro-war – referring to the Iraq war. The short answer here is: no, it isn’t. This is stated as clearly as can be in the document itself, and it is a plain fact that a number of the original signatories opposed that war.

If Norm has a point here then its a minor one and one predicated on a very narrow reading of the nature of the real debate – and the real divisions over Iraq that do exist on the left –  and, to a considerable extent, it’s this deliberately narrow reading of the debate which forms the tell-tale heart of the manifesto. It may well be stretching a point to suggest outright  that the manifesto is ‘pro-war’ but not to point out that it, and its core supporters, are solidly anti-accountability on the question of whether the US & UK government acted illegally in prosecuting the war and/or lied to their respective legislatures and, of course, their respective citizens in putting forward a case in support of the 2003 invasion.

This is where the rational left most clearly diverges in its view of Iraq from most of the Eustonauts.

If anyone’s in denial here its Geras and the rest of internationalist Power Rangers of the People’s Front of Euston who seem incapable of accepting that the vast bulk of opposition to the Iraq War on the left was based on rational value judgments of the overall situation in Iraq and beyond, including the question of the impact on such an invasion on neighbouring states, regional stability and the terrorist threat faced by the West after the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre, the case – or in reality lack thereof – put forward by the US and UK governments in favour of the invasion, the motives, apparent and suspected, of those political leaders who pushed most strongly for the invasion and, yes, the likely impact of the invasion on the lives of the Iraqi people, taking in everything from the plusses – Saddam’s removal from power – to the potential minuses ranging from turning the country into a terrorist’s playground to the risk of ethnic and religious conflict, civil war, the balkanisation of the country and the possibility of this all winding up with a Shi’a dominated, pro-Iranian Iraq.

No I can’t say for certain to what extent individuals might have considered all these factors – and quite a few more besides – or what weight they may have placed on any particular issue but if one spends a bit of time tracking around the rationalist left-wing blogs, particular those that have been openly critical of the manifesto, one will find that all these issues and more have been worked through in some considerable detail, often to accompaniment of half-baked amateur pro-war polemicists explaining loudly in the comments that none of this matters but they’re right and everyone else is wrong and that’s the end of it.

It also matters to many, if not most of these people, that the primary case put forward in support of the invasion – an imminent threat based on the presumption that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction – turned out to be… well, not to put to fine a point on it, complete bullshit and that this whole shooting match was predicated on a series of lies, misinformation and fabrications. And not unsurprisingly, when people get to thinking that the political leaders have basically taken the country into a war on the back of tide of hogwash they get to thinking that the democratic thing to do is maybe try to hold some of these people to account for their actions and not just take the attitude that truth about how and why the invasion of Iraq came about doesn’t really matter because Saddam was a bastard and had it coming to him anyway, so it doesn’t really matter in the long run.

One of manifesto’s more obvious pieces of errant sophistry keys right into this point in stating that:

In connecting to the original humanistic impulses of the movement for human progress, we emphasize the duty which genuine democrats must have to respect for the historical truth.

Which would be fine were not for the fact that a fair number of the most enthusiastic Eustonauts have spent the last couple of years pitching the line that the Iraq War was a humanitarian venture and then even if, in reality, it wasn’t well then that doesn’t really matter as long they believed it was.

Throw in fairly standard lines like this one from Geras in the Times, last week:

“Understanding” noises about terrorist atrocities — in London or Madrid, but especially Tel Aviv and Haifa — as having their roots in poverty, oppression and injustice are equally common, though these voices are at a loss to explain why there have been movements in the past fighting these evils that didn’t resort to randomly blowing up civilians.

…which is, again, pretty typical of the kind of crap we’ve had to put up with from the ‘decent’ wing of the People’s Front of Euston for the last couple of years – as far a they’re concerned they can freely chuck around trite aphorisms and blatant straw-men all they like but try to put up a counter-argument that consists of anything less than a 10,000 word dissertation and you’ve got no arguments at all.

Quite why the Eustonauts are unable to accept or even acknowledge the existence of a mainstream left-wing position which holds that while we – meaning the US and UK in particular – have a moral and ethical duty to straighten out the mess that invasion of Iraq has created and generally get the country back into some sort of reasonable state before we fuck off and leave them to their own devices, this duty does not obviate the need to hold to account those who lied and dissembled in order to take us into this war in the first place is perhaps easily understood if one looks closely that the manifesto itself and recognise that, in total, it contains only one definitive ‘real-world’ policy statement – this one:

We stand for an internationalist politics and the reform of international law — in the interests of global democratization and global development. Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the "common life" of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect".

The Eustonauts position is not simply one in which they are in denial about the real ‘geography in the aftermath of the Iraq war or about the truth as to how and why the war came about in the first place but one in which denial is a absolute prequisite of their position because to acknowledge that they were wrong over Iraq and that they are wrong both in their characterisation of the real nature of mainstream left-wing opinion and in their dismissal of the need for accountability for the lies and fabrications that were used to justify the 2003 invasion would be to see the centrepiece of their manifesto and their very raison d’etre, disappear up its own fundament.

UPDATE: Very good article on this same subject by Curious Hamster, writing over at the Sharpener.

3 thoughts on “The Jewel of Denial

  1. That, was bloody brilliant. Have you sent Geras any emails/links/trackbacks encouraging him to reply to your criticisms? I’d love to see his reply, if only for the comedy value.

  2. Right, I’ve found another topic I don’t need to blog about. “What’s your opinion on Iraq?”- I agree with Garry. “What’s your opinion on that Euston thingy?” – Unity keeps writing what I meant to when I got back from the office. Bastard.

    Actually, no. Well said. Shame Norm doesn’t accept trackbacks…

  3. Very good article. The Euston Manifesto people obviously want world dominition – let’s make it too easy for them, eh?

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