Saturday, May 31, 2003

AND, SPEAKING OF ISRAEL: This profile-cum-interview-cum-article from Ha'aretz of/with/about Michael Walzer contains the wisdom that I and others have come to expect from arguably (and I'd be willing to make the argument) the most humane, balanced and incisive public philosopher living today (no offense to Martha Nussbaum fans intended). Among many other fine things, Walzer makes a case for the value, and indeed necessity, of acting with hope, which provides a more measured, upbeat, and probably productive perspective than I did in my last post.

DEAR LORD: Ariel Sharon is talking sensibly and truthfully -- calling Israel's occupation of the West Bank what it is, and at least accepting a Palestinian state as a future goal, acknowledging that "Holding 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the Israeli economy."
(which seems pretty obvious to me, but for Sharon to actually acknowledge both Israeli culpability and the Palestinian's right to self-rule is, well, staggering -- and heartening). And, as one might expect, far-right ultra-orthodox settlers in the West Bank are upset.
You know, schadenfreude isn't an admirable emotion. But sometimes it can be excusable -- and so very, very sweet.
Ok. I've now restrained myself.
Of course, Sharon's move is, thus far, only rhetorical -- though rhetoric can be important, and this is certainly a big, and a wholly good, step for Sharon and his government to take. Will it be enough, though, to overcome the 'facts on the ground' -- the militancy of the obdurate settlers, and of Mr. Sharon's own party?
I doubt it. But it is a small step in the right direction. Like all such steps, it gives hope; and, as in all such cases, that hope can be a source of strength for those who desire, and are willing to work, to see things change.
But hope can also be a deceiver, and is easily killed by reality; and the Middle East is littered with the corpses of disappointed hopes -- and of those who died because hope wasn't enough to vanquish violence -- as it never is.

Friday, May 30, 2003

STRAUSSIANS AND ... HOBBITS?!?!: I'm NOT going to post at lenght again on Strauss and his followers. This gets me into trouble. I can't resist, however, mentioning this irresistable tidbit. I was just looking over the preliminary program of the APSA (that's American Political Science Association) annual meeting this August -- and salivating (yes, I am, indeed, a dork. Sad thing is, I know from experience that if I actually go to the convention, it'll be a depressing experience -- academic professionalism in all it's dreariness run rampant --but looking at the paper and panel topics, I can't help but get excited), and I came across the following panel: 'Faerie and Political Philosophy in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien'. That's right: a panel at the APSA about the Lord of the Rings.
But, before all you cultural reactionaries out there start lamenting the decline of academic seriousness and the rise of pop-culture studies, know this: a good many of the titles of the papers to be presented give off a bit of a whiff of -- well, something fusty and classicist and Germanic. Llet's just say that, if the NY Times and Le Monde are to be believed, the architects of US foreign policy would feel right at home. Yep, the panelists are going to be talking about classical virtue, the nature and limits of justice, friendship as a political virtue, and the question, 'What is Political Philosophy'. Of course, you don't have to be a Straussian to be interested in this stuff (look at me -- no, not like that!) -- but it helps. And the thing's being presided over by Catherine Zuckert, a Straussian and author of what I'm told is a particularly good discussion of Strauss and the ancients in her book Postmodern Platos.
I take all this as yet more evidence of what a varied, interesting, and un-sinister -- indeed, positively cute -- lot the Straussians are. And also that some of them have a little too much time on their hands.
(For those of you wondering about, or at, my greater than usual flippancy and, indeed, mild derangement in the post, I should explain that I've just submitted my Master's Thesis here at Oxford, which means that the fruits of 8 months' labour have now been harvested, and sent to the boss -- that is, the History Faculty -- for evaluation. I'll hopefully be hearing if I'll actually get my Master's degree and go on to do a DPhil in 4 or 5 weeks; until then, well, I don't have all that much to do. Which is nice, and would be all the nicer if I wasn't still lacking a functional ethernet connection of my own. Ah well, there's always Pimms, and Oxford in the early summer, and cider, and novels, and scotch, and archival research, and did I mention Pimms? ...)

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

MORE ON TERRORISM: A friend, responding to my earlier post on the definition of terrorism, as well as Jeremy Reff's post to which I was responding, a friend of mine writes:
' Josh asks explicitly in his addendum ... when terrorism (if ever) is justified. Antjie Krog, in her book Country of My Skull, about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I think presents an interesting framework ... She suggests that in an oppressive regime, there are perpetrators and there are beneficiaries. To take the South African example, all white South Africans benefitted from apartheid. But most of them didn't actually devote their lives to maintainting it (ie, most weren't in the SADF or the
police or other repressive branches of the government). Those people in the repressive branches of government she would categorize as perpetrators. (This is roughly a line between civilians and non-civilians, perhaps, although not in the literal military/civil way.) Krog argues that perpetrators are legitimate targets of violence. But then she argues that any beneficiary who does not actively oppose the system from which he benefits is also a legitimate target. Beneficiaries of an unjust system have the obligation to oppose it or they are perpetuating it and become just as bad as the police.
This is, admittedly, a tough argument practically. At what point do beneficiaries start being required to fight they system? Surely children don't have that responsibility. But do college students? At what point should we expect people to understand that they are benefitting from an unjust system?
All this assumes, of course, that a resort to violence is justified to begin with, which may be be an overly large assumption. I tend to think that the decision to move to violence is as much, or more, of a strategic decision than a moral one when dealing with oppressive systems. I have little patience for people who say, "look at Gandhi, look at King, be nonviolent" to, say, Palestinians, or black South Africans, because the systems in which they're fighting are wildly different. King and Gandhi succeeded because they were working in specific historial contingencies, contingencies that may or may not exist elsewhere. Black South Africans tried nonviolence for 20 years and then chartered the MK because nonviolence simply wasn't getting them anywhere. The oppressive system was too hegemonic, and the beneficiaries were too unwilling to care about the massacres to which blacks subjected themselves while nonviolent. (Arguably apartheid ended because of a combination of the overt, terrorist violence of the MK and the sort-of-non-violent-but-not-completely tactic of "ungovernability.") Turning to violence at the wrong point can hurt a cause tactically (as perhaps it has in Palestine), but it's hard for me to tell people just what they should take before fighting back.'
In a later e-mail, my friend clarifies:
'My criteria for supporting violence are these: first the moral criterion, that all peaceful means toward the goal should be exhausted; second, the practical criterion, that the violence should be expected to succeed, or at least do less harm than good. Anarchist propaganda by deed typically did significantly more harm than good, and thus shouldn't have been pursued--regardless of whether it was moral. There should perhaps be a sort of zero-th criterion that the goal should be legitmate.'
My response can only be tentative and inconclusive; and while I'll try, as always, to base my thoughts on arguments, also as always, some of what I'll say will be based on bedrock moral beliefs, first principles which I can't really justify (well, I like to think that I could, eventually, but it would mean writing a treatise on moral philosophy for which I have neither time nor aptitude.) Also, what I'll be saying will all be very general -- yet I think that, really, one can only really make judgments about terrorism in specific cases, based on one's estimation of their merits. What follows are really just ideas for general guidlines to help in thinking particular cases through.
I think what my friend has written me raises three main questions, at least for me: Is terrorism ever a good idea? Is terrorism ever therefore justified? And what should the limits on terrorism be?
First, the practicality of terrorism. Let us, first, limit ourselves to discussing terrorism as a means of fighting against an oppressive, unjust, cruel threat -- a government such as that of apartheid South Africa, or another country which threatens one's own country, such as Nazi Germany -- this sort of terrorism, terrorism as self-defense, as a means of opposing and trying to end oppression, is I think that only kind that can even start to be justified. It seems to me that terrorism is often not the only, or the best, way of fighting oppression -- though it is more often than many of us would like to think. Usually, deciding whether or not to adopt terrorism as a means involves choosing between peaceful resistance -- and therefore possibly longer suffering, a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness, etc. -- and violent resistance, and thus the commission of morally evil acts, and the unleashing of all the unpredictable dangers that terrorism unleashes, for both sides. These are indeed serious: terrorism often does turn out to be counter-productive to the cause it's intended to serve, and deeply damaging to the society that it touches as a whole. It tends to lead to radicalization, reprisal, escalation; it tends to make the system or people against whom the terror is directed readier to respond in kind, with ever greater oppression. It also tends to radicalize the oppressed, and empower the most ruthless, extreme, often unprincipled, often selfish factions and individuals within that group -- the way in which Arafat and terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah have used anti-Israel terrorism as a foundation for their own power -- with disastrous results for the Palestinian people. And terrorism tends to creat long-term rifts, animosities, and instability within the societies it has affected, making the achievement of a just and stable order all the more difficult.
So, even when it IS the only effective means of resistance or defense, terrorism's practical usefulness or effectiveness is generally quite dubious; resorting to it is always opening up a pandora's box. Often we can't know if the results of the terrorism will be better or worse than what would happen without a resort to terrorism; we can only try to make the best practical judgment about the particular situation at hand that we can. I also agree that there's something deeply off-putting about the idea of those of us who aren't directly affected by the injustices that the terrorists are fighting passing judgment on them -- we're not the ones who have to live with the consequences, either of their actions, or inactions. Yet, they may well be wrong; and, in resorting to terrorism, are making other people pay with their lives for the terrorists' errors. And, if we do, after careful and just consideration, decide that the terrorists are in error, then I think we can condemn them for not acting differently -- and indeed have a responsibility to do so.
Now, the morality of terrorism. I think that terrorism is always evil, because I think that cruelty, violence, the striking of fear into people, is always evil -- and all the more evil when those against whom these are directed are civilians, as is usually the case, sooner or later, with terrorism (that's another practical problem with terrorism: it's hard to contain -- in the escalation of violence to which it usually leads, more and more people, many of them undoubtedly innocent, are affected). Sometimes evil things are necessary, and sometimes they are less evil than the only alternatives; but this does not mean that they cease to be evil.
So, when is terrorism a justified evil? Well, at the least, I think it has to meet certain conditions:
First, as my friend writes, that all other means have been exhausted, and there is absolutely no other way to deal with the evils terrorism seeks to combat, or the other ways available are even worse;
Second, the cause which the terrorism is serving must be just. This is of course just throwing the question back to another level: what is a just cause for terrorism? As I wrote above, I think terrorism can only ultimately be justified as a form of self-defense -- and self-defense against violations that are clearly as bad or worse than the violence unleashed by terrorism will be. Vengeance is not a justification. So terrorism that is vengeful – that is intended to punish those held to be responsible, rather than to protect the oppressed against oppressors or free them – is unjustified. (This is one reason why I reject what my friend summarizes of Krog's argument -- more on which below).
Third, the terrorism should be limited, first, to actions which are likely to be effective rather than counter-productive, and second, to appropriate targets. This, in turn, leads us to the question of the limits of terrorism (though I know I haven't even begun to adequately explore its morality and practicality)
In terms of the limits on terrorism, there are two kinds that I can think of immediately: limits on means, and limits on targets.
In terms of the means, terrorism should only use means that are containable -- that is, that can be reasonably thought to be limitable to the targets selected, without affecting too many other people -- and that are not needlessly cruel. So, for instance, I think that most forms of chemical and bio-terrorism are unacceptable, as is terrorism involving torture of the victims.
As for appropriate targets, I'm of the view that terrorism should generally NEVER be directed against civilians, but only against those directly engaged in oppression – military, police, some responsible government officials. Kept to such limits, terrorism, it can be argued, is a form of self-defence, and legitmate as such.
No-one actually deserves to be killed by terrorism. Sometimes it's necessary to kill others, in order to defend oneself, or prevent them from harming others; but to resort to terrorism to punish people for their supposed sins is, I think, not merely unconstructive, but morally very dangerous. A potential target being blameworthy is, in itself, not adequate justification for terrorism: the target must be blameworthy, and must also pose a clear, direct threat to others, and striking that target must also be reasonably expected to do some good.
This brings me back to Krog's argument. I haven't read Krog's book, which my friend very highly recommends; and it may indeed be excellent. I can only say that her argument, as my friend presents it, strikes me as, indeed, terroristic, and terrifying. I think that, first, there is a vitally important moral distinction between active perpetrators, and those who passively benefit from, and fail to protest or resist, their crimes. This is not to say that the latter group is blameless -- far from it. But being blameless, and being morally equivalent, are two rather different, far-apart things. And it seems to me that terrorism is drastic enough, and inherently evil enough, to require that its targets be truly guilty of very actively and definitively bad deeds -- both in the past, and in the forseeable future. I think that terrorism is only ever justified against the perpetrators, and not against the beneficiaries, of injustice (of course, if it were justified against all beneficiarise of injustice, it'd be justified against pretty much everyone). And, as I've said, it's only justified against the perpetrators if it is both necessary, and likely to do good.
All of this -- far from conclusive or water-tight in itself, begging and raising myriad questions -- makes me think that terrorism is very, very rarely justified. But I don't think we can rule it out entirely -- like war, like all coercion and violence, it's sometimes necessary. And, when it is, god help us all.
ADDENDUM: Another reader (well, ok, fine, my father actually -- well, SOMEONE has to read this blog!) writes:
'If we justify terrorism by saying it's ok in situations where there is injustice, then we are in effect saying it's ok everywhere. There are no political systems that are totally free of injustice. In fact, there are no social systems that are free of injustice ... So it really comes down to determining how much injustice is necessary, and I don't think there is any way of making such a determination because we can't measure injustice the way we can measure the volume of a liquid or some other physical property.'
I, of course, completely agree (no youthful rebellion here!), and I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear to begin with: injustice has to reach such a magnitude of monstrosity that even something as evil as terrorism is preferable to the status quo, if it is indeed the only alternative. And, as I tried to suggest above, determining when terrorism is the only way, and when the status quo is awful enough to justify terrorism (or, for that matter, an invasion by US and allied forces, say ...), is always incredibly difficult, always prone to uncertainty and error, and, ultimately, always controversial.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

STRAUSS UPDATE: (Ok, so maybe I was a bit overly optimistic when I spoke of returning reborn in my last post) Peter Berkowitz -- a fine writer and a fine human being -- has an article in the latest Weekly Standard not only pointing out what he kindly calls the 'implausibility' of Leo-Strauss-holds-America-in-his-web conspiracy theories, but defending Strauss's character and work. It's a good piece, in places a beautiful one -- and it leaves me just a bit uneasy.
Berkowitz follows the familiar (to those of us who, for some reason, find such things fascinating), though none the less worthy for that, course of maintaining that Strauss was a friend but not a flatterer to democracy (a phrase which has reached boilerplate status in some circles; to his credit, Berkowitz eschews it, though it does encapsulate his argument). And, as Berkowitz points out in this essay, as in so many of his writings, being a friend by providing criticism and a reminder of that which liberals and democrats have all too great a tendency to lose sight of. All of this -- set out with enviable concision and grace -- is surely good to say, and I'm glad he's said it.
But it does leave me thinking. Berkowitz's piece is a response to rather unfair criticisms of Strauss; so it's only natural that he should stress Strauss's virtues in order to set the record straight. And the piece is not an extended study, but rather a brief, accessible impression of what it is Strauss was really about -- which will hopefully interest some readers enough to lead them back to Strauss's own writings -- surely a good thing.
And, of course, there are plenty of places to go to find critiques of Strauss. And, of course, the Weekly Standard is the last place one would expect to find such a thing (other than, maybe, Interpretation)
And yet ...
Berkowitz writes as a friend of Strauss; but his friendship is not the sort of friendship he praises Strauss for showing to liberal democracy. In short, Berkowitz's depiction of Strauss seems to me insufficiently critical.
Now, part of being a good friend is thinking about what it is your friend needs, and how you can best meet those needs in your own behaviour. And it may well be that, at this point, the last thing Strauss needs is more criticism.
But I don't think this is the case. I think that what Strauss needs is, precisely, criticism -- fair, respectful, appreciative criticism, which will put the unfair and vulgar criticism recently levelled against Strauss to shame, and show it for what it is; and which will not appear defensive or uncritical, and thus unreliable, to those who approach Strauss with suspicion.
I should like to provide such criticism myself; but I am not qualified to do so, knowing Strauss's works, and their sources, too little and poorly. Peter Berkowitz, though, is well-qualified to mount such a friendly criticism, and critical defense. I can only hope that, at some point in th future, Berkowitz, whose attempts to strengthen liberal theory by pointing out its flaws and omissions I've so admired in the past, will turn to a similarly balanced and generously-intentioned, yet unsparing, evaluation of Strauss, of which he is so highly capable.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?