I finally got around to reading the Euston Manifesto. Something of the sort used to be me. Here I am, back in Feb 2004, recollecting 2002-2003: “I did a Hitchens, basically. But I’m better now. Really, I feel fine.” Well, I was never worse than a sort of nail-biting queasyhawk, squawking about threatening storms. But good thing that Belle has been upholding the family honor with her ongoing ‘why I was wrong’ series. Apart from the fact that Belle accidentally logged in as me to make the first post, I never openly endorsed them. Usually I do that at dinner. But maybe a few words now about this Euston thing.
The whole ‘Decent Left’ thing, starting with Walzer’s original “Dissent” piece, is about post-9/11 US foreign policy. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that it’s narrowed to be about the Iraq War, and everything feeding into it and flowing out of it. Whether you are still on the Decency bus depends on whether you are still, to some degree, on the Iraq bus. [UPDATE: Russell Arben Fox points out, in comments, that Walzer has been consistently anti-war. But is a Euston signatory. This does compel me to revise somewhat, but I’m not exactly sure what way would be best. Except clearly the implication that Walzer was pro-war must be scrubbed.] Which means it’s weird to get stuff about how we “support the open development of software and other creative works and oppose the patenting of genes, algorithms and facts of nature.” Thus do we stand against that influential sect of leftists who opposed the war but favor patenting facts of nature? But letting such failure of focus slide, consider this:
We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this [the invasion of Iraq] occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.
Drawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the “anti-war” movement with illiberal theocrats), we reject the notion that there are no opponents on the Left. We reject, similarly, the idea that there can be no opening to ideas and individuals to our right.
You are interested in practically everything under the sun except for the arguments, pro and con, concerning the thing you are arguing about? This hands Michael Bérubé his punchline on a platter: “It’s like, “Everything changed for me on September 11. I used to consider myself a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m outraged by Chappaquiddick.”
It’s actually quite simple to shift the conversation off of the arguments about intervention, if it comes to that. If you truly, sincerely want to be forward-looking in this regard: admit you were wrong – wrong in terms of how it has turned out (obviously); wrong on the intellectual merits at the time, since there were those who correctly predicted how it would turn out, and produced – in advance – arguments against the war that we now know were basically sound. This second point is admittedly more complicated, but that some people opposed your bad arguments for the war with bad arguments against the war is, indeed, a pile of rubble not to be picked over at this time. Everyone who argued for the war was wrong about what Iraq was probably like, what it would probably be like post-invasion; and wrong about the character, motives and basic competence of the Bush administration. It was pretty hard to be pro-war without being wrong about at least four of those five. So do not attempt to make out how having been wrong puts you on double super-secret morally superior probation, somehow. It isn’t so hard to admit you were wrong. People make mistakes. You don’t have to shut up and never express an opinion about politics ever again. You just have to not persevere in putting lipstick on the pig you rode in on. Because it’s a pig. (Yes, of course, we STILL have to decide about the pig now it’s here. Fair enough.)
Maybe it would be a good idea to think about how the Decent Left exhibits self-lacerating impulses, with regard to the left as a whole, analogous to those the left as a whole is alleged to suffer from, with regard to society as a whole: to wit, a tendency to focus on the mote in one’s own eye rather than the beam in thine enemy’s. To adapt Walzer’s original article: “Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition
to the global reach of American power to a small number of really stupid but vocal Ward Churchill-types, who really tick you off.” It is significant that ‘the Decent Left’ is, largely, an academic phenomenon. I think this is due in part to the fact that certain varieties of theatrical nonsense, not to put too fine a point on it, afflict segments of the leftist professoriat. This is well worth criticizing, especially if you are an academic. But you also have a duty not to get confused and think these people have influence outside the academy. There is no sense tilting against them, by handicapping arguments about Iraq in Bush’s favor, to compensate for inconsequential bits of academic weirdness. (And really, usually, that’s all it is. Mostly lefty academics who say really outrageous stuff are posturing. We academics know that.) If you are a Decent Left academic-type: consider whether you are reacting locally, and mistaking that for thinking globally. As to those many Euston signatories who are journalists as opposed to academics, I dunno. I have no diagnostic insight.
It might also be a good idea to meditate on how, the last time out, some of us got preoccupied with the subtle and wonky satisfactions of trying to forge a “nuanced, sophisticated middle-ground position.” This sort of Higher Broderism resulted in us getting played for chumps. (Not to mention people have died.) So we should, as Matt says, “be prepared” to not get fooled again.
But really maybe the best option is to extend a friendly invitation to these decent folks, who really are on the same side with us: just admit you were wrong and adjust accordingly. The fact that your manifesto attempts to skirt around arguments for and against the war shows that you are genuinely, intellectually, uncomfortable with what you have thought in the past. Come clean. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Some lefties will gloat mildly for a few days. But mostly they’ll just be glad to have you back.
I’m genuinely dismayed by what looks to me like sheer stubbornness on the part of these Euston folks. So many smart folks. So you made a mistake. Own up. Formally apologize, for what it’s worth. Get on with it. Get yourself straightened out and pushing in the right direction, figuring out what to do next. Which surely isn’t writing manifestos that play into the hands of Max Boot when he is asking for something especially unreasonable. It is the fact that so many of us on the left generously gave the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt – again and again – that is such a retrospective embarrassment. So, if this is you, don’t get utterly bent out of shape the next time someone on the left says something stupid. Don’t get baited into a ‘no enemies to the right’ posture. Just think: I’ve said stupid things myself. Because if you supported the war in Iraq, you have probably said some stupid things in your time. And then, by all means, tell the other leftist he or she is being stupid, which is perfectly possible.