Saturday, July 09, 2005

When terrorism begets nationalism...

Jonathan Schwartz, a progressive blogger who has commented recently at The Reaction (see here, for example, where he defends the primacy of the rule of law), offers a thoughtful take on good and evil, terrorism and nationalism at Moral Questions: see here. Key passage:
When you see things in terms of good and evil, you are forcing yourself into some very small boxes in terms of your ability to act. You certainly cannot negotiate with "evil personified". You are virtually forced to act with a heavy emphasis on force. So when we finished with the Taliban, it still, of course, was not enough to make us feel safe. We decide to go by force to eradicate our enemies, to hunt them down if we could in the region of the world where they lived. To destroy, we hoped, what it was in them -- "the evil" -- that we feared, and to make them like us. For that, in the end, is what fanatical nationalism cames down to: the belief that what is in our interest is good, and what is against our interests is evil.

With the London bombing, I have to wonder how much longer it will be before America itself is attacked again. And when that happens, I do fear how powerful nationalist appeals will become again. Indeed, a cynic would say that nothing could be better for Bush's stalled second term agenda. I just hope that if and when that time comes, we keep in mind the words of no less an arch-nationalist Republican than Abraham Lincoln: "with faith in the right, as long as God gives us the ability to see the right."

Good stuff, Jonathan. A lot for us all to think about.

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  • Damn, that guy can write!


    By Blogger Jonathan, at 1:00 AM  

  • If you didn't say so yourself... Hey, you wrote a good post. Pat yourself on the back!

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:58 AM  

  • It's a good post and I agree to some extent but also disagree. I agree to the extent that reducing complex situations and motivations to good and evil can lead to bad policy and mirror imaging. As Jonathan says, the militants see us as just as evil as they are. I certainly agree that it is dangerous to look at "evil" as a disembodied force independent of context and human motivation. Bush has mistakenly used this religious conception of evil as an independent force to justify such things as Iraq and to ignore diplomacy in a host of contexts.

    But I fear that Jonathan has fallen into the trap that a lot of left/liberals have--refusing to see the terrorist attacks as "evil" and simply relating them to policy or politics. I think that is a mistake. What the terrorists did is evil. In her book, "Evil in Modern Thought," Susan Neiman, who is certainly no neoconservative, has what I consider a strong critique of leftists that refuse to lable the 9/11 attacks as evil.

    Jonathan's point, as I understand it, is that labeling something as "evil" over determines a military response to it. Certainly, that has been Bush's reaction to it. But does that HAVE to be the case. Aside from the fact that I think some military response was justified and necessary after 9/11, does labeling something as "evil" automatically preclude a rational response to it? And does not refusing to label something as evil risk creating a moral equivalency between things that are not equivalent? In my view (and I suspect Jonathan's), apartheid was evil, but we could just as easily contextualize it and say, for example, that it was a rational response to particular historical conditions, etc. I'm not trying to defend apartheid, obviously, but making the point that refusing to see something like the terrorist attacks as evil risks relativizing and minimizing them.

    Certainly, politicians can and do use words such as evil as cover for bad policy. And a rational response requires that we put even egregious acts in their proper context. But that doesn't mean that we should abjur finding anything as evil.

    I also have to respond to Jonathan's and others' concern about nationalism. If you listen to them, Americans are all running about in an enraged state lynching Muslims and calling for wars all over the globe. (No, they are not.) I'm not sure what was so bad about responding to an attack on our country and to the heroics of firefighters and police with some national pride. Of course, it can be taken too far, but what I see from leftists is an aversion to even the slightest bit of national pride. Katha Pollit refused to allow her child, in the aftermath of September 11, to display the American flag because she thought the flag stood for violence and all sorts of other bad things. Maybe Jonathan agrees, but I must respectfully disagree. To me, it stands for the fact that we are a community and that our community was attacked.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:25 AM  

  • Well, I am a Leftist, and I guess this is the best pointer to my bonafids, if there is one. I really don't feel comfortable passing judgment on ideas of good and evil. But I think that is more a matter of being overly cautious, not necessarily a refusal to make the judgments. In fact, as a leftist, I believe that there should be a very strong element of morality in all types of governance and international relations. Let's just say I'm skeptical of rhetorical appeals to morality which are really little more than thin facades for nationalist objectives.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 3:24 PM  

  • Every thing is murky, there is no black or white. Remember that mark...

    "The citizen of the world"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:12 PM  

  • Jonathan,

    I'm skeptical too about the uses of rhetorical devices by politicians and I'm very uncomfortable with the way Bush has used the Axis of Evil and so forth. In general, purple prose doesn't serve much point. But, what I see is deeper than simply a matter of language. My perception is that at least some on the left has taken a position that, while 9/11 was bad, it was understandable within the context of American actions. I find this kind of ethical relativism disturbing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:39 PM  

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