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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Left at War

I have more important news that I’ll have to save for tomorrow (no, really—truly world-transforming Jamie news), but for now, I just want to note that the Manichean left has begun to respond to my critique of the Manichean left, and they completely agree with my critique.  No, wait, that’s not exactly true.  A certain person has taken me to task for my “badmouthing" of Naomi Klein and “Women in Pink” [sic]—and hard as it may be to believe, there are some people who take this guy at his word.  So before I get to the more important news, I thought I’d post the passage in The Left at War that mentions Klein and Code Pink.  Consider it a free sample!  From chapter 3, “The Hard Road to Debacle”:

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The international outrage and dismay at the failure of the U.N. to act in Rwanda—a failure whose domestic American version involved the refusal of any government official to utter the word “genocide”—has been well documented, and helped to set in motion a new form of left internationalism.  There were two curious features of this new left internationalism, however:  one was that, as we have seen, not every faction on the left was on board with it, because some saw it simply as a stalking horse for American imperialism; and the second was that, unlike the left internationalisms over the previous 150 years, this one did not depend on the existence (real or hypothetical) of an international proletariat.  It was not a Marxist internationalism—or, for that matter, a socioeconomic internationalism of any kind.  Rather, it was a moral and legal internationalism, seeking change not in the base but in various superstructures: the United Nations, international criminal tribunals (in Rwanda and the Balkans), truth and reconciliation commissions (in South Africa), and an International Criminal Court.  The intervention in Sierra Leone was one of the high-water marks of this internationalism; another was a Spanish court’s indictment of Augusto Pinochet in 1996, followed by Pinochet’s arrest in Britain in 1998 and his Chilean indictment in late 2004; still another, of course, was the liberation of East Timor.  Though the new internationalism has occasioned much debate on the left, the vast majority of its most vocal and dedicated opponents are on the right.  The United States’ opposition to the International Criminal Court is one of the many shameful blots on our recent record, but it makes sense if you realize that a good part of the Republican electorate in the U.S. loathes even the U.N. with unbridled passion and hates and fears anything that threatens U.S. domination of world affairs.  (Hard as it may be to imagine, their complaint is that the United Nations has not been beholden enough to U.S. interests.) A political party whose major figures routinely sneer at the U.N. can hardly be expected to countenance something so radical as an International Criminal Court in which Henry Kissinger, among other U.S. policymakers, would take his rightful place in the dock alongside Pinochet and Milosevic.  And it should have been no surprise that the far-right fanatic known as Osama bin Laden targeted Bali in part out of his sense of outrage at the Australian-led U.N. intervention in East Timor:  “Australia was warned about its participation in Afghanistan,” bin Laden said in his late 2002 audiotape taking responsibility for the Bali bombing, “and its ignoble contribution to the separation of East Timor.”

“Moral internationalism” is the cause, one might say, of a “human rights left”; and I imagine that it is not well understood, in popular discussions of left internationalism in the U.S., partly because it has so few points of contact with more salient lefts such as the environmentalist left or the antiglobalization left.  For most young American activists, certainly, being “on the left” in a global sense more commonly means being familiar with Naomi Klein’s No Logo and The Shock Doctrine or Medea Benjamin’s Global Exchange and Code Pink than with Human Rights Watch, more drawn to G8 protests than to the plight of Iranian dissidents.  I do not mean to disparage other forms of left internationalism; climate change and the workings of multinational capital are both, in their separate ways, truly global issues, and anyone who calls attention to carbon emissions and sweatshops is working on the side of the angels.  But I am not sure that human rights issues always get the attention they deserve from left internationalists in the U.S.; I am not sure that the defense of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspires quite so many activists as do street demonstrations against the World Trade Organization.  And I am quite sure that American “leftists” who defame Samantha Power as a mouthpiece for war and imperialism and who denounce Salman Rushdie for his response to the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini are effectively working to undermine the human-rights internationalism that should be the foundation of any global left with regard to genocide and freedom of expression.

In an obvious sense, of course, the human-rights left is working at a severe disadvantage.  The idea of enforcing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or supporting the causes of political dissidents living under tyrannical regimes seems all too thin and abstract, a matter of checkbook altruism, a paltry thing when compared with the immediately and dramatically pressing crises of global poverty, brutal inequality, ecological devastation and climate change.  What is the life of a single dissident, let alone the status of a piece of paper, when one contemplates the possibility of permanent, irreversible damage to the planet and the reality of billions of human beings living in utter abjection?  What is the value of an opposition newspaper in a distant country when one realizes that one’s sneakers have been manufactured by child laborers earning pennies a day?  It is no wonder that the global left tends to emphasize equality over freedom—for freedom seems like an ephemeral, epiphenomenal thing compared to the bare facts of bare life, to the wretchedness of the wretched of the earth, to the essential requirements for life’s sustenance and sustainability; and to some young left activists, liberal advocates of political freedom sound like earnest, misguided wonks working to craft ever finer versions of laws that forbid rich and poor alike from sleeping under the world’s bridges.  Pledging allegiance to international norms and standards in the political realm must seem, to some people on the environmentalist and anti-globalization left, like pledging allegiance to an international system of weights and measures.

Then, too, there is the profound insult to moral internationalism in having “human rights” championed by a United States that practices torture and indefinite detention—and that, in violation of the Universal Declaration, fails to consider food and health care as basic human entitlements.  And yet, and yet:  the case must be made that political freedom and international institutions are more important to economic sustenance and ecological sustainability than most people (and most nations) have realized to date.  It is quite true, for example, that some international conflicts are conflicts over resources—not excepting oil—and it follows that stronger international institutions stand a better chance of resolving such conflicts peacefully than weak international institutions trying vainly to referee a war of all against all.  Likewise, tyrannies have proven to be exceptionally poor stewards of the earth and only moderately successful, at their very best, at combating immiseration; indeed, at their worst, as in Saddam’s Iraq, Karimov’s Uzbekistan, and Pinochet’s Chile, they have opened new frontiers in human immiseration.  Though the human-rights left is working at a disadvantage when competing for the hearts and minds of young activists, and though its commitments may seem to some too thin a gruel for human consumption, it nevertheless works on the crucial assumption that the best chances for human flourishing, in every sense of the term, are to be found in democracies with a high degree of political transparency and accountability.  The fact that the United States can be weighed in those scales and found wanting is obvious, and merely underscores the point that the U.S. should be more democratic and more transparent than it is; moreover, as I will argue in the following chapter, there is a virtue to the “thinness” of international norms and standards, insofar as they may be able to dilute “thicker” commitments to blood and soil and nation.

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See you tomorrow with more important news!

Posted by Michael on 12/02 at 11:22 AM
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