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Why the ‘progressive Left’ can’t say ‘torture’

Some British writers and journalists of the “Left” have launched what is called The Euston Manifesto: For a Renewal of Progressive Politics. Much of its studied vagueness sweeps difficulty under the carpet of sonorous abstraction:

We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation.

To be unambiguously “for” development and “against” environmental degradation is, presumably, to be aware of a widely available secret new source of energy that does not worsen global warming. Perhaps they’ll let us know what it is?

In other places there are pleasant allusions to key buzzphrases of neoconservative speechmaking:

we have also to fight against powerful forces of totalitarian-style tyranny that are on the march again.

Early readers of this blog will remember fondly the thrilling rhetorical applications of “on the march” when applied to freedom; it is just as impressive when applied to tyranny, “totalitarian-style” or not. It is almost superfluous to point out that Saddam Hussein was not marching anywhere in 2003 except into a hole in the ground.

Where the manifesto gets really knotty, however, is on the matter of “our” and “their” violence. What happened on September 11, 2001, we learn, was:

an act of mass murder, motivated by odious fundamentalist beliefs and redeemed by nothing whatsoever. No evasive formula can hide that.

The 9/11 attacks were indeed an act of mass murder. It is refreshing to know that the authors are hostile to evasive formulas. But what’s this?

The violation of basic human rights standards at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, and by the practice of ?rendition?, must be roundly condemned for what it is: a departure from universal principles, for the establishment of which the democratic countries themselves, and in particular the United States of America, bear the greater part of the historical credit.

Why so coy? 9/11 was an act of mass murder, but the depredations of the US torture regime are, by contrast, merely “a departure from universal principles”, and please remember that the US invented those principles, so you can’t be too hard on them for an occasional “departure” since otherwise they would never have existed at all. (Please do not mention France.)

The flight into abstract language here is telling. Perhaps it even strikes you as an “evasive formula”. Why not call a spade a spade? If we congratulate ourselves on noticing that the 9/11 hijackers were mass murderers, why can’t we bear to say that the US has been systematically torturing people, in many cases to death? Why not flatly reject the linguistic massaging of torture into a mere “departure”? Try not to laugh, but to do so would apparently constitute a “double standard” . . .

But we reject the double standards by which too many on the Left today treat as the worst violations of human rights those perpetrated by the democracies, while being either silent or more muted about infractions that outstrip these by far.

If there are indeed some commentators who say that democracies’ “violations of human rights” in general are unambiguously worse than those committed by Saddam Hussein, or in China, or by Russia in Chechyna, or in Sudan, then they are hardly worth listening to. I am generously assuming that the manifesto authors do not include the civilian deaths caused by the war in Iraq under their rubric of “violations of human rights”, though you might want to say that to kill someone is to violate their human rights in rather an absolute and final way; and if civilian deaths are indeed such “violations”, then it becomes unfortunately clear that the US and Britain are operating on a scale to rival anyone. But for the rhetorical purposes of this manifesto, it doesn’t really matter who is actually saying that the US is the most evil regime on the planet. The point of invoking such views, rather, is that it handily implies that anyone critical of US and British actions thinks the same thing. And in this way, you can try to shut them up. What the above passage appears to mean is: You must not criticize US and British actions unless you also (simultaneously? or first?) point out how much worse the actions of other countries are or have been.

In general this can be called the “You can’t say A if you don’t also say B” argument. It is, of course, thoroughly bogus. Ironically, it is precisely the same kind of argument that some of the manifesto authors and signatories denounced Noam Chomsky for using, in an interminable open letter to the Guardian after that newspaper published an interview with Chomsky that featured invented quotes. The letter from Oliver Kamm, Francis Wheen and David Aaronovitch cites a July 2003 message from Chomsky to supporters in Sweden:

People are free to use the term ?genocide? as they please, and to condemn Racak and Srebrenica, say, as genocidal if they like. But then they have a simple responsibility: Inform us of their bitter denunciations of the incomparably worse ?genocide? carried out with the strong backing of the US and UK at the very same moment as Racak. Say, the massacre at Liquica [in East Timor], with perhaps up to 200 civilians murdered […] Swedes who display their outrage over these examples of Serbian genocide clearly have the duty of informing us of their far more bitter condemnations of the massacres (again with decisive US-UK backing) through 1999, leaving maybe 5-6000 civilian corpses, according to the Church in East Timor? Perhaps they have issued bitter condemnations of their Western allies (and Sweden). If so, they have a right to use the term ?genocide? in the case of the terrible but much lesser crimes of Racak and Srebrenica.

(Chomsky’s notion that there can be any question of having a “right” or not to use the term “genocide”, by the way, is false. The Srebrenica massacre was plainly and simply an act of genocide, under the only definition of that term that counts, the one of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. The letter’s authors are to be applauded for insisting strongly on this point.)

Now, note that Chomsky’s reason for using the “You can’t say A if you don’t also say B” argument is precisely the opposite of the Euston Manifesto authors’ reason for using the same argument. Chomsky argues that you cannot criticize crimes by other countries unless you also (or first) criticize crimes for which your own country shares responsibility. The Euston Manifesto, on the other hand, says that you cannot criticize the crimes of your own country unless you also (or first) criticize the crimes of other countries.

Both uses of the argument, by Chomsky and by his enemies, are merely rhetorical attempts to silence one’s critics. If A is worth saying and true, its worth and truth do not depend on whether or not you also have the opportunity, time, or expertise to say B. Plainly, we cannot say everything that needs saying on every occasion that we open our mouths. You might even suppose that, if you are a citizen of a democratic country that tortures, you have an explicit democratic duty publicly to denounce that torture. Anyone who tries to dissuade you from doing so on the grounds that you haven’t emphasized to their satisfaction the extent to which things are worse elsewhere, or who euphemizes torture as merely a regrettable “departure” from principles – such a person is, exactly, indulging in “double standards”. 

  1. 1  Anonymous  April 15, 2006, 3:30 am 

    Glaring mistake, undermining much of your rant: Oliver Kamm has nothing whatever to do with the Euston Manifesto.

    Good try, but you need to read more carefully, and keep an eye on that jerking knee of yours.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  April 15, 2006, 7:48 am 

    That is indeed a foolish error, for which I apologise. I will change it when I return from travelling, since I cannot at the moment. Meanwhile, I think the rant stands. ;-)

  3. 3  Andrew Brown  April 15, 2006, 8:00 pm 

    Yup. It is is really first class. Thanks.

  4. 4  Simstim  April 16, 2006, 12:07 am 

    Kamm may not have signed up the Euston Manifesto, but he’s certainly in that circle, see Matt T’s handy cut-out and keep guide to British Decency. I wonder which bit he objected to?

  5. 5  Chris Bertram  April 17, 2006, 7:05 pm 

    Kamm has now signed up.

  6. 6  dsquared  April 18, 2006, 8:48 am 

    That is interesting, because I actually thought that the seeming condemnation of state terrorism would end up being a sticking point for OK.

  7. 7  Steven Poole  April 26, 2006, 11:16 am 

    The point may be moot now, but I have corrected the reference to Kamm as one of the authors of the manifesto (and in any case, Wheen was one of the authors of both the manifesto and the letter). None of the rant is thereby undermined.

    I trust Kamm’s promised justification of civilian deaths is still forthcoming…

  8. 8  Oliver Kamm  May 5, 2006, 11:33 am 

    I’ve only now come across this, and am posting a comment because I can see no way on your site to send you a private email. You might wish to note my comments, take remedial action if you consider it necessary, and then kindly delete this comment.

    If you have hung an argument about euphemising torture on my own writings, then that’s worse than a mistake, because you already know that I specifically use the word torture in relation to Abu Ghraib. That’s how I describe it in my book, which you reviewed graciously while critically in The Guardian. I didn’t see the version of this post that you have amended, but you appear to have made your point by wrongly attributing to me authorship of one thing while not disclosing your knowledge of what I have actually authored.

    Secondly, you refer to invented quotations in Emma Brockes’s interview with Chomsky. That is a very serious allegation, and one that so far as I am aware (and I have looked closely at this material) is false. The headline to the interview (which was nothing to do with Emma Brockes, as you know) was wrong and merited correction, because it took words by Prof Chomsky and associated them with a question he hadn’t been asked. But that’s not what you say: you comment about what’s in the interview, and clearly suggest the journalist fabricated quotations. I hope you’ve got good grounds for saying this.

  9. 9  paul  May 9, 2006, 1:09 pm 

    If he wasn’t asked a question he couldn’t have supplied any answer.

    To select a quotation to answer an unasked question is to fabricate an answer.

  10. 10  Steven Poole  May 11, 2006, 12:43 pm 

    Mr Kamm,

    As to the error concerning you in my original post, I apologise again if it was “worse than a mistake”. I had the erroneous impression that you were one of the authors of the manifesto, and said as much without double-checking. It is now corrected. My argument does not depend (does not need to be “hung”) on that mistaken belief, but continues to apply to the manifesto as authored.

    I stand by my reference to the Guardian interview with Chomsky featuring invented quotes. The “interview”, as I refer to it, is what appeared in the newspaper: headline, standfirst, text and all (you will notice that I did not blame Emma Brockes by name); but anyway the part in the text about “massacre” being in scare quotes was also invented. That you ably showed his distasteful ambivalence as to whether Srebrenica qualifies as “genocide” does not in my view justify the invented attribution. This much has been accepted by the Guardian. As you can tell from my post, I am hardly an uncritical defender of Chomsky in other regards.

  11. 11  ANON  May 11, 2006, 5:31 pm 

    Dear Steven,

    I have just read your book UNSPEAK and it was indeed a fascinating read. I was particularly intrigued by your statement (in the Epilogue of your book):- “Unspeak is a kind of invasive procedure:it wants to bypass critical thinking and implant a foreign body of opinion directly in the soft tissue of the brain.” — because this is exactly what happens to children who are systematically emotionally abused by their parents from birth. In other words, their immature brains do not develop normally in the first critical three years of life. That’s why you won’t get people like GWB or Blair (and their cronies) to admit to their mistakes, even if those mistakes end up wiping us all off the face of the earth!


  12. 12  Steven Poole  May 12, 2006, 2:01 am 

    Dear Mama,

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the book, thank you. Although I wouldn’t want to speculate on the circumstances of anyone’s upbringing…


  13. 13  ANON  May 14, 2006, 12:34 am 

    Do you ever speculate on your OWN upbringing? I’m just curious, because when I started speculating on my own (Pavlovian) childhood conditioning, I discovered there were a few too many deckchairs on the sinking ship!


  14. 14  Ansar al-Zindiqi  November 12, 2006, 7:08 pm 

    The Left has been so stupid in ignoring Islam. They have swallowed the rhetoric of the likes of Tariq Ali and others and ignored the depredations of Muslims against their own people as well as against unbelievers. Too many so-called “leftists” have outright refused to study Islamic writings and gone into a twilight zone of circular thinking and tu quoque arguments on this issue.

    The notion that “all religions are the same” is endemic amongst the Left. Now they’re looking really stupid as it is apparent that millions will leave Islam. The left has fallen for taqiyya (look it up)and those who support the Palestinians are intentonally blind to the death cult that has such a grip on the minds of those people. They refuse to see that Islam is existentially death oriented.

    The commitment to the concept of historical materialism has blinkered many on the Left to the fact that ideas do count. Even extremely regressive ideas. I have been disgusted by the reactions of leftists to the phenomenon of honor killings in the West and their unwillingness to examine Islam closely. One example is to trivialize the fact that the Prophet Muhamad married a 6 year old and consummated the marriage when she was 9.

    It gets worse and the fact that Muslims consider such a sick person to be the best moral example for all humanity to follow should tell them something. But they will go ahead and run with that ball while in fact they dropped it a long time ago.

    The result is that rightwing fanatics are using the non-response and collaboraton of leftists in regards to Islam to further their erroneous worldviews. The Left(for the most part)will continue this slow slide to oblivion even though the contradictions inherent in capitalism will accelerate.

    Meanwhile I counsel,aid and assist those people who live in fear for their lives because they have left that ideology. So don’t get too upset with me. I’m the one with a fatwa against me. Not you.

    Ansar al-Zindiqi
    Helper of the Heretics

  15. 15  Alex Higgins  November 14, 2006, 8:22 pm 

    “The left has fallen for taqiyya (look it up)and those who support the Palestinians are intentionally blind to the death cult that has such a grip on the minds of those people.”

    Yes, my Palestinians friends are always trying to kill me too. We’ll just be playing chess or having a drink and their death cult impulses will seize them.

    What they need is some sort of military occupation for, ooh, about 3-4 decades. That’ll teach them.

    “They refuse to see that Islam is existentially death oriented.”

    Which is why Muslims started the war against Bosnia, expelling and killing Christians in the Drina valley and Srebrenica without provocation or pity.

    Sarajevo today has banners declaring ‘Happy Easter’ at Eastertide, but this is only part of a Muslim plot to lure Christians in and murder them, such is their love of death.

    “It gets worse and the fact that Muslims consider such a sick person to be the best moral example for all humanity to follow should tell them something.”

    Rastifarians consider themselves disciples of the deceased dictator Hailie Salassie. I guess that should tell us something but I can’t remember what.

    “Too many so-called “leftists” have outright refused to study Islamic writings”

    I can see you were dismayed by the Qu’ran, so I will spare you the details of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelations – but you’re in for a shock.

    “The result is that rightwing fanatics are using the non-response and collaboraton of leftists in regards to Islam to further their erroneous worldviews.”

    You may be close to exhausting the actual difference between your position and that of ‘rightwing fanatics’, but by all means spell it out. What is erroneous about the right’s worldview?

  16. 16  Tawfiq Chahboune  January 11, 2007, 9:18 pm 

    Dear Steven,

    Oliver Kamm writes: “The headline to the interview (which was nothing to do with Emma Brockes, as you know) was wrong and merited correction, because it took words by Prof Chomsky and associated them with a question he hadn’t been asked. But that’s not what you [Poole] say: you comment about what’s in the interview, and clearly suggest the journalist fabricated quotations. I hope you’ve got good grounds for saying this.”

    Ian Mayes, Guardian Readers’ Editor, investigated the controversy and wrote: “The Guardian also accepts that and acknowledges that the headline was wrong and unjustified by the text. Ms Brocke’s misrepresentation of Prof Chomsky’s views on Srebrenica stemmed from her misunderstanding of his support for Ms Johnstone.” Note that Mayes is making the distinction between the headline and Brockes’s own “misrepresentation”. Needless to say, Kamm is aware that Brockes’s “misrepresentation” and the headline are two entirely different things. Kamm tries to lump them into the same category so as to make his case. An exceptionally charitable way of reading Mayes’ findings is that Brockes had a hand in the headline. So Kamm has two choices. First, the charitable reading, Brockes had a hand in the headline, which would make his interjection on the very fact that she had no role in it look eccentric. Second, and the more likely meaning of what Mayes writes, accept, as Brockes herself has accepted, that she misrepresented her interviewee.

    Nevertheless, we have the report of the External Ombudsman, who says the following: “He [Ian Mayes] was clear that the journalist had been wrong to put the word massacre in quotes and that the headline, which was not the responsibility of Emma Brockes, had not been a direct question.” Again, two different things are being discussed, and in the first (the issue of the word massacre) Brockes fabricates a quote. Case closed.

    Moving on to the crucial aspect of “misrepresentation”, Mayes wrote: “At the time the correction was published, the author of the interview, Emma Brockes, her immediate editor, Ian Katz, and Noam Chomsky, the complainant, all expressed their acceptance of the way in which the matter had been dealt with and resolved.” Mayes goes on to write that “The Guardian journalists have repeated their acceptance of the correction in conversations with me in the past few days.” The External Ombudsman report says the following: “Emma Brockes felt that he [Ian Mayes] was ‘professional and did everything by the book. He consulted all of us. His independence was not compromised’. Ian Katz, Editor of G2, confirmed, ‘Emma and I signed off at each stage of the correction process’. That is to say, on at least three occasions Brockes has accepted that she “misrepresented” Chomsky. Kamm, however, does not believe that Brockes misrepresented Chomsky. Kamm knows better than Brockes.

    The External Ombudsman’s report is very telling in the following instance: “The Readers’ Editor does not enjoy legal privilege. He risked being sued by the original complainant or possibly Emma Brockes if he got his correction wrong.” That is to say, the correction was not wrong.

    The external ombudsman concludes: “The Readers’ Editor was right to conclude that an apology and correction was deserved. The journalists involved agreed. This was a serious matter. He was also right, on the evidence sent to him, that the substantive complaint from Messrs. Aaronovitch, Kamn and Wheen about Professor Chomsky’s views on Srebrenica should be rejected and that therefore the original correction should stand.” Quite so. According to Kamm, however, the journalists involved, the Readers’ Editor and the External Ombudsman are all wrong. But then we should not be surprised. Even after Brockes apologised to Chomsky for misrepresenting him, Kamm wrote that he was “delighted to report that Emma Brockes has been shortlisted for Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards,” specifically noting the Chomsky interview. That is the Kamm standard.

  17. 17  Steven  January 12, 2007, 4:21 pm 

    Hi Tawfiq,
    Quite so. Of course, distortion and misrepresentation are fine as long as they are directed against Chomsky…

  18. 18  Tawfiq Chahboune  January 12, 2007, 7:54 pm 

    Kamm’s flogging a horse that’s so long departed that its contents currently reside in glue products. Is he sinister or sincere? He seems to know the truth, but the truth is apparently an irrelevant construct. His recent post on Gerald Ford is an outrage to history.

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