Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The quality of their mercy. posted by Richard SeymourIt is not unusual for those recanting from Left-Wing or marxist positions to cite among their reasons for doing so that the Left is too dismissive of rights, insufficiently appreciative of the pacifying effect of liberal institutions, and particularly insensitive to the cruelty that rights-regimes try to curtail. This was Kanan Makiya's argument, and of course Alan Johnson recently repeated it in his list of observations about why he is no longer a marxist. The Eustonites - effectively, though not dearly, departed - made a great deal of their support for 'human rights for all', and again it was part of their belabouring of the Left that it had proven insufficiently appreciative of those rights.
So, a very simple question. Does apostasy improve one's commitment to such rights? Does liberalism? We can put this question historically. Were those who rallied round the Wilson administration in 1917-18 more or less concerned with individual liberty than before, especially those who sent up a hue and cry about Bolshevism? Were the Cold War liberals more sensitive to domestic curtailments of individual liberty and rights than their more radical forebears might have been? The ex-Trotskyists among them: were they more or less inclined to oppose McCarthyism, given their understanding of Stalinist repression? Was Camus a better defender of human rights in Algeria than Sartre? Are the 'war on terror' liberals more or less attentive to the issues of cruelty to prisoners, arbitrary detention, torture, evidence-based trials, the rule of law and so on, than their radical opponents? I think the answers to most of the mentioned examples are too obvious to meditate on. And while there is clearly no simple answer to the last one, there are a few relatively simple cases. One of the co-founders of the Euston Manifesto is an apologist for torture and a supporter of internment and/or deportation based on MI5 say-so. Another wants to withdraw from European human rights legislation and set up Diplock courts, after those used in Northern Ireland to try and imprison suspected Republicans. Do we need to rehearse the history of those Diplock courts, or the legacy of internment? Not "human rights for all", then. And this fits into a wider intellectual milieu, with people like Sam Harris defending torture, Michael Ignatieff warning that it may be the 'lesser evil' (retracting his criticism of the Qana massacre too), and Martin Amis flaunting his sinister balls. I can hardly be bothered to reproduce the kind of thing that Christopher Hitchens is likely to come out with these days, and at any rate he seems to have taken too literally Oscar Wilde's aphorism that "the wise contradict themselves."*
Perhaps a more frequent response than outright support for repression is a tactful silence or a drastically curtailed attention span. Yet it is hardly possible for anyone supporting the 'war on terror' and buying its quack ideology not to be an apologist for some atrocities here and some repression there. By contrast, the fiercest critics of the current global torture regime, the secret prisons, the crackdowns on civil liberties, the conscious murder of civilians in Iraq and Palestine and Afghanistan and Haiti and Somalia by our governments, the repression of asylum seekers (particularly of those who are 'detained' in 'decention centres' without having committed any crime), and so on, are indisputably those whose job it is to scorn 'bourgeois rights' and be all, you know, totalitarian. Now why might that be?
* The full epigram is: "The well-bred contradict others. The wise contradict themselves." Hitchens perhaps doesn't realise that by noisily contradicting others and unwittingly contradicting himself, he does not become both well-bred and wise.