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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, June 10, 2011

Flashback - what Hitchens actually said

The piece that I linked to by Jeff Sparrow complains about a short passage in a 2002 article by Christopher Hitchens. Now, I don't entirely support Hitchens' views on foreign policy (indeed, I tend to be opposed to them) or his sometimes hardline rhetoric. In particular, I have always opposed the invasion of Iraq in the circumstances that arose last decade. But let's get in context what Hitchens is really saying in this passage, quoted by Sparrow:

It is … impossible to compromise with the stone-faced propagandists for Bronze Age morality: morons and philistines who hate Darwin and Einstein and managed, during their brief rule in Afghanistan, to ban and erase music and art while cultivating the skills of germ warfare. If they could do that to Afghans, what might they not have in mind for us? In confronting such people, the crucial thing is to be willing and able, if not in fact eager, to kill them without pity before they get started.

I really don't like the phrase "kill them without pity" - I don't like the idea of being either able or eager to kill anyone without pity, which is not to say that I dispute the need in some cases to kill, however regretfully.

But as even the quoted passage shows, Hitchens is talking about the need to fight against Islamist fanatics such as the Taliban. Sparrow does not even seem to consider the possibility that this kind of religious fanaticism, with its very prominent totalitarian and apocalyptic elements, is similar in its malevolence and destructiveness to Nazism. Would Sparrow have complained if Hitchens had advocated warfare against the Nazis in the late 1930s?

Well, yes, he probably would have.

It wouldn't hurt to read the entirety of the Hitchens piece, with its detail and its qualifications, before dismissing Hitchens as, in effect, a mere right-wing warmonger. I have my own criticisms of the article, but let's play fair.


Anonymous said...

Brother Blackford,

Did you mean to write Iran or Iraq here: "... I have always opposed the invasion of Iran in the circumstances that arose ..." ?

Russell Blackford said...

Fixed ... yes, thanks, I meant Iraq. Jeez, I do hope we're safe from the horrible debacle that an invasion of Iran could have been.

That Guy Montag said...

A question Russell:

Do you disagree with Hitchens on Iraq as a matter of principle such as that violent resistence towards a particular ideology is never justified, or on pragmatic grounds such as the lack of an exit strategy and the fact that it took the West's eye off the ball in Afghanistan?

Arthur said...

Taliban is 'similar in its malevolence and destructiveness to Nazism'?

The Taliban didn't start annexing neighbouring states, and executing millions, did they?

And is it fair to leap to conclusions about whether Sparrow would oppose war against the Nazis? 'Yes, he probably would have'? Really?

Listen, I could declare by fiat that the Hussein regime in Iraq (which did go around annexing neighbours and killing millions) was 'similar to the Nazis' - denounce those who opposed the war against it - and publicly dismiss them all as Neville Chamberlains. How's that?

Russell Blackford said...

The Taliban have a comprehensive apocalyptic worldview, just as the Nazis did. Like the Nazis, they were driven by it to do crush freedom and do atrocious things. Whether there was a trigger for a just war or lawful war in 2001 is another matter, but yes the Taliban are much like the Nazis in the ways that are salient to this discussion.

The problem with the Nazis wasn't merely that they annexed territory and started wars. Military conquerors of one kind or another have done that throughout recorded history. The special problem with Hitler was not that he resembled, say, Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great.

Any Arthur, you're welcome to Sparrow and his idiocy if you can't see what an evil worldview the Taliban have ... and that Sparrow doesn't even mention this when discussing an article in which it is one of Hitchens' main points.

Russell Blackford said...

TGM, I thought that invading Iraq would be disaster and that it was extremely unliklely to produce consequences likely to justify the horrible suffering, dislocation, loss of life, etc. You can consider a regime to be evil, and you can be forthright and unapologetic about it, but when it comes to pressing the button to attempt a regime change I think you always have to err on the side of conservativism as you make your decision. You know in advance that many things will happen that are not specifically predictable and are likely to involve people being killed, maimed, suffering horribly, and on and on. In modern circumstances, infrastructure is wrecked, populations are cast into horrible situations without basic needs, civilisation is set back. When you cash out the effect on individuals, it's appalling.

No one knows the very long term consequences, but we can certainly know the sorts of things that are likely to happen in the medium term.

So, I'm not against going to war in any circumstance whatsoever short of the most direct national defence. But I am certainly not going to favour going to war unless the case is absolutely compelling. I don't think it was with Iraq - on the contrary, I think it was foreseeable that in the circumstances at the time there would be a total train wreck (well, something much worse than a train wreck) in the hope that the very long term consequences might be positive. I'm not going to favour going to war when I see it like that.

More generally, it's possible to oppose going to war - as I did with Iraq - while also conceding freely that the regime you are dealing with may be evil, may have a horrible authoritarian ideology, and so on, and that there could be circumstances where it may have to be opposed with military force. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

Russell Blackford said...

But see, Jeff Sparrow's piece makes no attempt to say, "On the one hand this; on the other hand that." There's no willingness to search for what the strength might be in Hitchens' position, no willingness to make concessions or to admit that, for example, we really were faced with a dreadful regime in the case of the Taliban. It's all rhetoric. It's all: Hitchens takes the "wrong" line, therefore he is right-wing, a warmonger, something like a racist, someone who should be denounced when he comes to Australia, etc.

This is simply not good enough. It's not useful, intelligent writing. It's the opposite.

Now, you might say the same of my post, but all I've written, in this case is a very short blog post. If I were asked to write a substantial piece for an outlet like New Matilda it would obviously be much more considered and nuanced - as the discussion of "Islamophobia", etc., will be in the relevant chapter of my forthcoming book, and as my online pieces for the ABC are.

When you write a lengthy piece for a respectable outlet, I think you should be called on it if what you actually produce is nothing more than demonisation and hysterical propaganda, as Jeff Sparrow has done in this case.

Anonymous said...

Sparrow is a Marxist.

He would have complained about the West going to war against Hitler from September, 1939 right up until June 22, 1942.

Just like all the other Communists.

sailor1031 said...

That would be 1941 not 1942.......

So when Bush decided to invade Iraq was he acting out of free will or was it just deterministic and inevitable. Since I would not have gone to war but Bush did, any determinism must at least be operating at the individual level....