Monday, June 22, 2009

Clarity and confusion

Norm has dealt with the content of Peter Beaumont’s article in Sunday’s Observer perfectly adequately. Instead of going over the same ground, I want to comment on the structure of Beaumont's argument, as it is a classic example of a technique used in making a dubious argument. The trick that he is playing is simple. He is asserting that the truth lies between two extremes. It sounds eminently reasonable and studiously moderate. It portrays the opposition as being simplistically polarised; allowing wordy, meandering equivocations to appear to be an intelligent expression of complexity. The problem is that this may not be where the truth lies. Let’s see how he sets about it.

Firstly, under the banner headline, “The urge to split the world into two warring camps is childish”, he splits the debate on foreign policy into two warring camps; the anti-imperialist “remnants of the old left”, opposed to interventions, and a coalition of liberals and neo-conservatives who promote them. It is an over-simplification that makes it conveniently easier to claim a reasonable sounding middle ground.

The reality is somewhat different. Anti-imperialists are joined by traditional conservatives, opposed to the intervention in the internal affairs of other countries in principle, sympathisers with Jihadi Islamism, the BNP, Greens and a multitude of deranged conspiracy theorists. The interventionist camp actually includes many other old leftists (mind you some used to call themselves the New Left. Have the new become old after all those years? Perhaps they should be the middle-aged left). For these, the support for democracy, human rights, equality, etc., are indivisible. Thus they tend to favour some interventions, though certainly not all.

And it is this indivisibility that is the key. I despair at the number of times I have heard it said that ‘the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle’. If you are opposed to stoning women to death for adultery, there is no middle position. A more nuanced stoning does not exist.

Beaumont proceeds to describe the position of the interventionist camp thus,
The unifying conviction that has glued this group together has been an almost religious belief in the transformative power that western democratic habits possess when transplanted into societies and cultures that have experienced largely restricted freedoms
Another rhetorical trick; it is far easier to attack a fictitious position than a real one, so best to invent one.

No, what the coalition he depicts as interventionist argue is that when the people of a country resist tyranny, we should support them, when they call for equal rights for women, we should stand in solidarity with them, when they call for an end to regimes built on arbitrary murder and torture, we should do what we can to aid them. This isn’t an ‘almost religious belief’ in the power of democracy. It is a moral and political choice to stand with the oppressed against oppressors and support the democratic aspirations of others. Where then is the balanced middle ground?

None of this belittles the immense difficulties of transformation and change and the real dilemmas about how best to support and assist, but it certainly does not suggest that a commitment to a better world needs diluting with relativist mush.

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