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Exclusion wall

Boycotters on the fence

The largest university lecturers’ union in Britain, NATFHE, voted on Monday to recommend a boycott of Israeli academics and institutions that do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from “Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall”.

It is, of course, a sad spectacle to see a crowd of witless self-publicizing minor academics purporting sincerely to think that problems may be solved if we stop talking to people. Curious, also, that cheerleaders of the motion among Palestinian academics denounce Israel’s policy of “collective punishments” and yet encourage a boycott that is itself exactly a form of collective punishment.

Let us instead focus on this odd nugget of language, “exclusion wall”. Unexpectedly, it appears to be self-defeating . . .

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We call it life

Global warming and friendly gases

In an attempt to mitigate the impact of Al Gore’s new film on global warming, an organisation called the Competitive Enterprise Institute has released two new television adverts that aim to counter what it calls “global-warming alarmism”. The bland name of the Competitive Enterprise Institute conceals the fact that it is funded by, among others, Exxon, Amoco, Texaco, and the American Petroleum Institute. The oil industry’s strategy for dealing with global warming has long been to try to instil confusion and doubt in the public, to “teach the controversy”, as they say in another context, even when there is no controversy. On the evidence of these ads, that is still their approach. Here is the full transcript of the voiceover for one of the ads, entitled “Glaciers”:

You’ve seen those headlines about global warming. The glaciers are melting, we’re doomed. That’s what several studies supposedly found.

But other scientific studies found exactly the opposite. Greenland’s glaciers are growing, not melting. The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner.

Did you see any big headlines about that? Why are they trying to scare us?

Global warming alarmists claim the glaciers are melting because of carbon dioxide from the fuels we use. Let’s force people to cut back, they say. But we depend on those fuels, to grow our food, move our children, light up our lives.

And as for carbon dioxide, it isn’t smog or smoke, it’s what we breathe out and plants breathe in. Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.

Note how the vast global scientific consensus on human-caused warming of the earth is reduced to a conspiracy theory featuring a shadowy, anonymous “they” who are “trying to scare us”. “They” (in other words, the world’s scientists) are “alarmists”, which has the same tang of unreason as other helpful words like “extremists”. This much is par for the course in industry-funded “scepticism”.

The attempt to rebrand a gas, carbon dioxide, meanwhile, is comical. It is true, of course, that we breathe out carbon dioxide, as a waste product; what the advert doesn’t mention is that if we were to breathe in too much of it, we would die. A strange effect for a gas they call “life”. And it is true that plants breathe carbon dioxide in; but what is as well known is that there aren’t enough plants on the planet to breathe in all the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

Cleverer is the line “they call it pollution”. It attacks a straw man who believes that all pollution (smog, smoke, and so on) is made up of carbon dioxide and nothing else. Of course that is false. On the other hand, most people do consider that the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is a pollutant. It is an unassailable scientific fact that carbon dioxide heightens the intensity of the greenhouse effect. Running for office in 2000, even George W. Bush had pledged to regulate the emission of carbon dioxide by power plants. Once in office, though, he reneged. White House spokesman Scott McClellan explained: “CO2 should not have been included as a pollutant during the campaign. It was a mistake.” Not a scientific mistake, of course; a political one.

The rhetorical crux of the advert, however, is its claim that there are some “scientific studies” that apparently “found exactly the opposite” from the studies about melting glaciers. As a matter of fact, the CIE’s claims about the studies it cites are demonstrably false . . .

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Islamic terrorism

On not calling things by their right names

Observer columnist Nick Cohen is confused about nomenclature. He writes:

Franco Frattini, the EU’s Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, has already banned the use of the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ to describe Islamic terrorism. ‘You cannot use the term “Islamic terrorism”,’ he insisted. ‘People who commit suicide attacks or criminal activities on behalf of religion, Islamic religion or other religion, they abuse the name of this religion.’

I was brought up as a democratic socialist and abhorred the crimes committed in the name of the left. But I would always agree that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were inspired by a version of socialism, just as the most liberal American Christian would accept that fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics are inspired by a version of Christianity.

Yet the EU wishes to deny that political Islam inspires terrorists to blow up everything from mosques in Baghdad to tube trains in London, even when Islamist terrorists say explicitly that it does. You should always pay your enemies the compliment of taking them seriously. The EU can’t understand what its enemies are saying, because it won’t call them by their right name.

You may notice that the comparisons are subtly rigged. Cohen insists on saying “Islamic terrorism” all right, but he will only allow that Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were “inspired” by “a version of” socialism, and abortion-clinic bombers by “a version of” Christianity. To be consistent, he should demand that Stalin be named “a socialist dictator” tout court, and the abortion-clinic bombers be named “Christian terrorists”. But he doesn’t write those phrases down.

What is odd is that Cohen, almost as if by accident – or as though he doesn’t actually know the difference – actually uses the correct term on the way to demanding the wrong one. He refers in passing to “Islamist terrorists” who claim inspiration from their religion. “Islamism” (whose adherents are “Islamists”) is the term that scholars of Muslim thought use to describe a tradition that seeks to apply (some interpretation of) the teachings of Islam rigorously to the political sphere. It contains a militant strain of violent rhetoric and action that goes back to the writings of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s. It now rightly describes the rhetoric and action of such organisations as Al Qaeda.

Cohen, on the other hand, appears to think that it matters little if he describes Islamists, alternatively, as being inspired by “political Islam”, a construction implying that when Islam gets into politics, its only issue will be murder. That there have been, and are, political Islams that abhor wanton killing is not a very obscure fact, but it is not allowed to get in the way of the incontinent generalization. And the language of “Islamic terrorism” works in a similar way . . .

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Turning points

On a road to nowhere?

The selection of Iraq’s new prime minister and other officials is, said President Bush yesterday, a “turning point” for that country’s people.

This is not the first turning point for Iraq in recent times. In July 2003, for example, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, said:

the death of Uday and Qusay, I believe, is definitely going to be a turning point for the resistance and the subversive elements that we’re encountering.

Four months later, after nearly 40 American soldiers had been killed in 10 days, Sanchez insisted that another “turning point” in the war was imminent – or, as you might say, just around the corner. After this “turning point”, Sanchez predicted, the “former regime loyalists, criminals and foreign terrorists” (no mention of disgruntled folks back then) would “fail” in the face of renewed US aggression.

That same month of November 2003, the President also declared a “turning point” in “the world democratic movement”.

But we were not yet in the home straight, for other turning points loomed. The June 2004 “transfer of sovereignty” to the interim Iraqi government (“Let freedom reign!”) was announced as yet another “turning point” for Iraq. The January 2005 elections marked the next “turning point”, Bush said, and for good measure they were also “a milestone in the advance of freedom and a crucial advance in the war on terror”. By the end of last year, the President foresaw that:

the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq.

And yet another turning point has been navigated this week. There seems to be no end to turning points. It is as though Iraq is a massive labyrinth. No sooner have you turned once than you must turn again.

In this way, any notion of success, of arrival at a destination, is pleasantly deferred, just as it is in the notions of a “road map” or freedom being “on the march”. “Turning point” is a cunning metaphor, since it does not insist that we are now in the objectively correct orientation. There may be more turning points to come, and that is fine. The phrase does not even explicitly admit that things beforehand were not optimal, that we were not going in exactly the right direction. After all, if you are journeying in a car, you are not going in the wrong direction just because you might have to make a right turn a few miles ahead. That’s just the way the roads are made . . .

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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” . . .

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Quibbling while the world burns

Note: this is a review of four books, originally commissioned by the Guardian. Some of it may be found relevant to a current debate about the Enlightenment and “universalism”, among other things.

• Decadence: The Passing of Personal Virtue and Its Replacement by Political and Psychological Slogans, ed Digby Anderson
(Social Affairs Unit)
• Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, by Frank Furedi (Continuum)
• Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas, by Perry Anderson (Verso)
• Metapolitics, by Alain Badiou (Verso)

Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen, for a clash of incompatible fantasies. According to the conservative essayists in Decadence, a misty golden age of “genuine virtue” has passed, to be replaced by bogus slogans and psychobabble. This is all the fault of the Enlightenment. But here comes Frank Furedi in Politics of Fear, arguing that conservatives no longer appeal to tradition, and that the problem is that we have turned our back on the Enlightenment. Evidently, both these views cannot be right. In Decadence, Nietzsche is the drooling bogeyman, denounced as a cheerleader for the Enlightenment and the subsequent plague of leftism; and yet Frank Furedi calls Nietzsche “the philosopher of the right at the turn of the twentieth century”. Whom shall we believe? It is a choice between cartoons.

Cartoonishness is often, indeed, the result of appeals to concepts of “left” and “right” in politics, which invite the drawing lurid stereotypes of opposing points of view. A collection of essays about political philosophers and historians by Perry Anderson (let us call him Perry A., to distinguish him from Decadence‘s Digby A.) appeals explicitly in its title to this topographical metaphor of a “spectrum” of ideas; and it travels, as it were, from Hayek over to Hobsbawm. But the problem in general with such talk is that each is free to draw his own personal spectrum, clustering things he dislikes at opposing extremes and thus making himself look reasonable in the middle. A messy graph of incompatible spectra arises.

Frank Furedi knows this – after all, his title promises to take us “Beyond Left and Right” – and yet he cannot help but continue to use the labels. At one point, for example, he calls Perry A. “one of Britain’s leading leftist intellectuals”. Well, Perry A. edits the New Left Review, and, sniping from this position, he is able in Spectrum to lump together the disparate thinkers Leo Strauss, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott under the label “radical right”, which rather leaves one at a loss as how to describe neo-Nazis. Yet Perry A. will also shift the goalposts when it suits him, using an appeal to some vague past of “coherent ethical vision” – an appeal that would warm the heart of Digby A. – as a stick with which to beat John Rawls, the liberal writer of A Theory of Justice, here described as occupying the “centre”, and laboriously traduced and patronised by the author. “Leading leftist” Perry A., moreover, describes the London Review of Books (in a generally admiring article) as “politically correct to a fault”, while sighing relievedly that at least it has never hosted any “feminist insistence”. Is that how “leading leftists” talk these days? “I detest pubs,” Perry A. confesses at another point. No doubt. Pubs are notoriously hotbeds of “feminist insistence” . . .

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‘Moral clarity’ and violence, in Iraq and elsewhere

Oliver Kamm, a British writer and blogger, criticizes with his usual style and vigour an academic, Professor Ron Greaves, who has called the July 2005 London bombings an act of “demonstration” instead of “terrorism”. Kamm is right to find this absurd. However, his argument does not stop there. He writes:

Moral clarity on terrorism requires distinguishing the force used by the democratic state from the violence of private armies. […] It is true […] that the word terrorism is used politically in order to denote illegitimacy of certain types of violence. And there’s much to be said for that, as there is for referring (as I have done in this post) to the “force” exercised by the security services of a democratic state as against the “violence” of those arraigned against democratic authority. To do this is […] to use language discriminately where moral discrimination is essential. The democratic state uses violence, and terrorists use violence; but these acts are not alike.

They’re not alike, we are to understand, because state violence is democratically legitimized. Well, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that tens of thousands of civilians were to be killed by a country whose leader became President after the Supreme Court instructed a state to stop counting votes. Would that bless anything he chose to do with the nimbus of democracy?

That can’t be it. Let us imagine what might better justify the qualitative distinction between types of violence. There must at base be an implied appeal to accident. Acts of terrorism such as the atrocity committed by the July 2005 London bombers deliberately kill civilians. State acts of “force”, in Kamm’s formulation, may cause the killing of civilians as, in the disgusting Unspeak has it, “collateral damage”: an unfortunate side-effect of the effort to kill the enemy. In each case, the civilians are just as dead. But we didn’t really mean to kill the second lot, so it’s not so bad.

Those who wish to argue that state violence is always especially legitimate are obliged to explain exactly how much of a moral fig-leaf this appeal to accident provides. They will need to respond to the idea that to deliberately commit an act with foreseeable consequences is to intend those very consequences, among any others that might also be under consideration. The point was made powerfully by an Israeli air-force captain, among one of 30 who refused to continue bombing Palestinian cities in 2003, after the dropping of a one-tonne bomb on the home of Hamas leader Salah Shehade had killed him along with 14 members of his family, mostly children. Captain Assaf L said (cited in Unspeak, page 132):

You don’t have to be a genius to know that the destruction from a one-tonne bomb is massive, so someone up there made a decision to drop it knowing it would destroy buildings. Someone took the decision to kill innocent people. This is us being terrorists.

For Kamm, however, any such conclusion must be forbidden by “moral clarity”. It is an interesting rhetorical paradox that the phrase “moral clarity” usually signals the introduction of a double standard, an attempt to split morality into a twin-track system whereby, for instance, “they” are evil, and “we” just make mistakes. In this sense, “moral clarity” is really moral relativism: if you criticize us, we will just point over there and remind you of how bad they are . . .

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Disgruntled folks

Bush names sulkers in Iraq

George W Bush has recently been giving a lot of speeches and press conferences about the “war on terror”. Some of his pronouncements have been surreal, as in this during a White House press conference:

You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life.

The idea that this was the first time killers had destroyed innocent life was reminiscent of Fox News’ description of the July 2005 London bombings as “the first homicide attacks in Western Europe”. The nature of the threat was metaphysically unprecedented. No one had ever before been a victim of homicide, or been killed. Truly was it a time to declare war on murder.

But in Cleveland, the President had something very revealing to say about the insurgency in Iraq:

The enemy in this case is disgruntled folks inside of Iraq, coupled with an al Qaeda presence there that wants to harm Americans again.

“Disgruntled folks”, hmm?

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