Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Waggy Finger Wags, And Having Wagged, Moves On

Okay, I'll try to respond to Professor Norm's post without being too much of a dick about it. I can see that it's going to be very, very difficult.

Here's reason No.1 for that. The point I was trying to make - an
d judging from the response, failing to make clearly - about Priya Gopal is that her critics intentionally reach for the most uncharitable reading of her piece they can muster, and then stuff it into a pre-existing narrative of liberal perfidy and indifference to suffering, for political reasons.

Professor Norm responds by... Offering the most uncharitable reading he can muster, and then with the stuffing, and the liberal perfidy etc.

First blame the playa, then hate on the playa, then coalesce the playa into a previously-constructed framework of Bien-Pensant Liberal Relativist Playas Whose Tendency To Pay Lip Service To Human Rights Is All Too Common In Our Times, Yo.

The crux of his argument is that Gopal is belittling and sneering in her attitude towards Afghan women's freedom from oppression and shows insufficient Moral Seriousness and Mature Judgement. I'm far more receptive to this argument than I am to the more hysterical versions elsewhere.

An
d yet, and yet. What form do these sneers take? The examples of sneering he offers - 'the trendier option involv[ing] incorporating the security apparatus of the US into modernity by teaching it to live in a law-saturated present', another about how western security services can change the character of Afghans - are very clearly an attack on Hollywoodised depictions of Afghan people. You can tell because she instantly references Kabul Beauty School and The Kite Runner, and starts on about "formulaic narratives" where the bad guys get their comeuppance and the goodies save the day and so on.

These are fair points - popular culture's take on any complex issue is always reductive and not a little bit stoopid. Take it alongside her calls for "ideas for real change" and it's absolutely clear that she's saying depictions of Afghanistan in fiction are insufficient to appreciate the reality of daily life in that country, and have a tendency to bleed over into reporting. Thus, do you get a war and an entire country reduced to a photo of a mutilated woman.

Professor Norm's argument - the whole of it, as far as I can see - is the insistence that this
constitutes mockery. How would you misunderstand this and take it to mean Let 'em eat razorblades? The answer is "intentionally", I think.

Other points, in no particular order -

- For the umpteenth time - while I agree with Gopal on some of her points, I'm not buying the whole shebang. I think her calls for "real ideas" are vague and windy, and that she's guilty of trying to adapt a fucking movie review into an incisive comment on propaganda, popular culture and a godawful war.

- Nonetheless, if the Professor wants to have a very detailed discussion on the subject of "not... want(ing) to recognize when those you perceive as being on your political 'side' haven't got a leg to stand on" and "want(ing) to defend them at all costs by facile point-scoring", I'm happy to oblige. The words "Mutually-Assured Destruction" spring to mind.

- To refute my point about how "(x) is bad but let's not (y)" is a perfectly reasonable argument, Norm asks the following question -

"Imagine, for example, that one fine morning you were to open the Guardian to discover the following about the use of torture by the CIA or some other US agency: "Torture is unacceptable, but we must also be concerned by the continued insistence that the complexities of Western security policy can be reduced to bedtime stories".


Oh yes, just imagine. I'm suspicious that there's some kind of gotcha, spring-loaded argumentative trap here, because I can certainly imagine opening The Observer to discover Norm's fellow Euston Manifesto drafter Nick Cohen scratching his head and mumbling about ye olde "Ticking Clock" dilemma with torture, calling for suspected terrorists to be deported even if they'll be arriving home at baseball bat o'clock.

Further, I can also imagine clicking on Normblog to discover that Professor Norm himself has said that torture shouldn't be "taboo", musing on the "dirty hands problem" and contends that the case for torture "deserves careful consideration".

Now, I don't believe that Norm is endorsing thumbscrews there, and I see no profit in pretending that I do... Perhaps by writing a blog post bewailing the Awful Perfidy of the Decent Left and its Wilful Moral Unseriousness and Tendency To Ignore The Awful Realities of etc. and so on.

In summary - point not conceded. It's still fine to say "(x) is bad but (y)", especially where (y) is "an extended and hyperviolent military campaign with no clear plan for victory".

- And, while we're on the subject of people pretending to be horrified by the things other people haven't said, I'm reminded of other occasions when such things have happened.

- Quite what that extended burble about how some people are rude to and dismissive of those who loudly and enthusiastically called for the invasion of Iraq is doing in there, I have no idea. Other examples were surely available. I think it might be an extract from page 388, Chapter Seven, Book Nine of the Professor's thirty two-volume epic poem "Just Because Iraq Was a Disaster Doesn't Mean I'm a Dumbass, You Snotty Liberal Bastards".

I think it would probably be good if we were all nicer to the Professor, starting with me. On the other hand, in the grand scheme of horrible, unconscionable things that happened this decade, "some tossers on the internet being a bit snarky to an academic" is probably less than tragic.

- On moral seriousness - or, as I read it, Moral Seriousness! - I take our wars, our enemies and the fate of the civilians they stomp over very seriously indeed. I tend not to take jokers with blogs quite so seriously, because I'm one myself and frankly, a fairly ridiculous individual. Others may be moral titans, but I usually work under the assumption that everyone else is as full of shit as I am.

- I'm aware that Professor Norm doesn't like being referred to as "Professor Norm" one little bit. So it goes.

Update!: Professor Emeritus Norman Geras - having just read this post - would like to remind us that the Taliban are sick, evil fucks, who do sick, evil fuck things.

I've been aware of the Taliban's sick, evil fuckery since long before the September 11th attacks and continue to be appalled by them, but* I really don't know how I'm supposed to respond to news I'd already seen myself. I've been publicly calling them sick, evil fucks for years and frequently escalate that description on request, and I know that they'll continue to be sick, evil fucks for centuries to come.

And still, what's the take-home here? Should I tattoo I hate the Taliban on my forehead? What will it take, do you think? A photo of me wiping my backside on a picture of Mullah Omar? Perhaps - and this is a long shot - I'm to stop believing that the war is unwinnable and conclude that it's actually now winnable. No doubt we'll find out soon enough.

*See what I did there?

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