Saturday, September 13, 2003

Reality tests

Mark Steyn thinks America is winning. Whether or not he's right he has, as usual, more than one good observation:
If 9/11 liberated the Bush administration to put into action its scheme to take over the world, then it also liberated the Western elites to embrace finally and wholeheartedly anti-Americanism as the New Unifying Theory of Everything. It didn't have to be like that: the intellectual class could have sided with the women of Afghanistan or the political prisoners of Iraq. But the advantage of sour oppositionism is that whatever happens there's always something to sneer at. If Osama pops up, see, he got away. If he doesn't pop up, how do you know he didn't get away? If he turns up dead, whoa, now you've made him a martyr, a thousand more will bloom in his dust.
Read the rest.

posted by norm at 5:47 pm | link

Ian Buruma

I excerpt from this at length; though I don't share all of Buruma's views, it's top stuff.
Here is Gore Vidal, often hailed as the most important literary essayist in America, a liberal maverick, whose languid but always spirited voice of opposition to most US administrations since Kennedy's Camelot never fails to find the keen ears of the European liberal-left. He was asked on Australian radio about what Vidal calls the "Bush-Cheney junta", and how the Iraqis could have been freed from Saddam Hussein's murderous regime without US armed force. His answer: "Don't you think that's their problem? That's not your problem and that's not my problem. There are many bad regimes on earth, we can list several hundred, at the moment I would put the Bush regime as one of them."

He was asked on the same show what he thought might happen in North Korea. Answer: "I don't think much of anything is going to happen; they'll go on starving to death as apparently they are or at least so the media tells us." And what about those media, specifically Fox TV? This is when the elegant drawl of the habitual old wit suddenly gathered heat: "Oh, it's disgusting, deeply disgusting, I've never heard people like that on television in my life and I've been on television for 50 years, since the very beginning of television in the United States. And I have never seen it as low, as false, one lie after the other in these squeaky voices that you get from these fast-talking men and women, it was pretty sick."

The Bush-Cheney junta as bad as Saddam's dictatorship. Starvation in North Korea, who cares? It's probably American propaganda anyway. But Fox News, now that's truly disgusting. I am no fan of Fox News, but there is an odd lack of proportion here that could be interpreted in various ways: the callous frivolity of a decadent old man; the provincial outlook of a writer whose horizons end at the shores of the US, or perhaps even at the famous Washington DC Beltway. Or is there a little more to it?
The moral paralysis of the left, when it comes to non-western tyrants, may also have a more sinister explanation. The Israeli philosopher, Avishai Margalit, calls it moral racism. When Indians kill Muslims, or Africans kill Africans, or Arabs kill Arabs, western pundits pretend not to notice, or find historical explanations, or blame the scars of colonialism. But if white men, whether they are Americans, Europeans, South Africans or Israelis harm people of colour, hell is raised. If one compares western reporting of events in Palestine or Iraq with far more disturbing news in Liberia or Central Africa, there is a disproportion, which suggests that non-western people cannot be held to the same moral standards as us. One could claim this is only right, since we can only take responsibility for our own kind. But this would be a rather racist view of world affairs.
[T]he case of Ramos-Horta is more interesting, since he opposed a US-backed government, General Suharto's Indonesian regime. East Timor was a cherished cause for Chomsky and others on the left.

In an article published just before the Iraq war started, Ramos-Horta recalled the suffering of his people. He wrote: "There is hardly a family in my country that has not lost a loved one. Many families were wiped out during the decades of occupation by Indonesia and the war of resistance against it. Western nations contributed to this tragedy. Some bear a direct responsibility because they helped Indonesia by providing military aid." Thus far, none of our left-wing critics would disagree. The split comes in the conclusion. Ramos-Horta remembers how the western powers "redeemed themselves" by freeing East Timor from its oppressors with armed force. Why, then, should the Iraqis not be liberated too?

Ramos-Horta respects the motives of people who demonstrated against the war, although he wonders why, in all these demonstrations, he never saw "one single banner or hear one speech calling for the end of human rights abuses in Iraq, the removal of the dictator and freedom for the Iraqis and the Kurdish people". He knows that "differences of opinion and public debate over issues like war and peace are vital. We enjoy the right to demonstrate and express opinions today - something we didn't have during a 25-year reign of terror - because East Timor is now an independent democracy. Fortunately for all of us, the age of globalisation has meant that citizens have a greater say in almost every major issue. But if the anti-war movement dissuades the US and its allies from going to war with Iraq, it will have contributed to the peace of the dead".

One might disagree with these words. But they have a moral authority mostly lacking in the polemics of those anti US intervention on principle. He has, however, stated a case that must be answered. Unless, of course, one really believes that the problems of faraway peoples are for them to solve alone, and that we have no business intervening on their behalf against tyrants, and that any attempt to do so has to be, by definition, racist, or colonialist, or venal.
It's long, but please read it all. Thanks to John Abeles for the link.

posted by norm at 4:45 pm | link

Western lines, normblog plaudits

I'm happy to report that my not very harsh reproof, a week ago, on the matter of those lines from Westerns and everybody's lack of effort in attributing them, has produced results. Some of you have done very well, indeed as well as a person can do, and others have tried within the limits of their knowledge and capability. Untroubled by the fallacy of composition, I commend you, my readers.

Top honours to Jurjen Smies at No Cameras, Alan Brain at A. E. Brain, and Jim Erickson in Los Angeles, who all scored five out of five. And a big round of applause for Roger Beeman of Flemington NJ, just one step behind with four out of five.

Credit for trying to: Brad DeLong of the eponymous Semi-Daily Journal and Chris Smith in Shetland, both of whom got the quote from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Chris Durnell of The Third Rail, who (in Brad's comment box, for which I'm unable to find the link) identified the lines from The Wild Bunch; and Tom Strong (same place) who got the one from Shane.

As set out by Jurjen, here are the answers:

'Get up, you scum-suckin' pig.' - Marlon Brandon as Rio in One-Eyed Jacks.
'Who are those guys?' - Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
'We're gonna stick together just like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can't do that you're like some animal. You're finished. We're finished. All of us.' - William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch.
'I've heard about you, Wilson.' - Alan Ladd as Shane.
'I'd admire to take you.' - Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine.

Jurjen writes: 'I'll tell you one good thing about living in the United States (as compared to western Europe) is that the video stores acknowledge that there are customers who want to see decent Westerns. I'm about to embark on an Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart film festival (Night Passage, Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie) in the comfort of my own home, something that would have been extremely difficult to achieve back in the Netherlands, where the video stores tend to think that two Sergio Leones and Young Guns II constitutes an adequate selection of Westerns (no, Shanghai Noon doesn't count, dammit). Actually, the Germans have an unexplained liking for Westerns, but unfortunately, they tend to dub them into German ("Hände hoch, Johnny, sonst pump' ich dich voll mit Blei!"); these days, they actually broadcast them with two-channel audio, so you can choose between German soundtrack and original soundtrack, but your television set has to be equipped to handle that. My old one wasn't, and I refuse to watch Jack Palance speaking German.'

posted by norm at 2:51 pm | link

That's entertainment

Wife of the Norm has a review today - in… er… her dnoc - of Jan Mark's teenage novel Stratford Boys. It's about Shakespeare at 16 putting on his first play with some friends. As WotN tells it:
In Stratford Boys [Jan Mark is] in what the Bard would call "comical-historical" mode… this is nothing less than her take on how it all started.
For anyone who… know[s] their Shakespeare, echoes from the plays are scattered everywhere. Anyone who doesn't couldn't wish for a better way to get acquainted with young Will. This is a hugely enjoyable and dazzlingly clever novel.
What I want to know is, does the book give any clues to the most important question about Shakespeare; which is how was he possible? I mean how could one guy know so much? How did he come by all that wisdom? I'll have to ask WotN during an episode of off-line existence if she thinks Jan Mark's book provides insights on this.

For your delectation if you're not already familiar with it, and to remind you if you are, here's a snatch of a relevant Howard Dietz lyric:
It might be a fight like you see on the screen
a swain getting slain for the love of a queen
some great Shakespearean scene
where a ghost and a prince meet
and everyone ends in mincemeat
Immortal lines.

posted by norm at 2:36 pm | link

Nu, a cat, already!

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
And we grumbled - oy vey.

If you want the real thing, The Cat in the Hat in Yiddish, go here. Thanks to Steve de Wijze, via this item at Jewsweek:

Support feline Yiddish.
Come buy it! Why not?
You'll like it just fine.
You'll love it a lot.

posted by norm at 2:32 pm | link

A. E. Biran delivers the gdoos

Alan's got a severe problem with unfixed typos today, but comes up with yet another item to divert his readers. Actually, some of the words on his 'The Way the Brain Works' look like those on my screen somewhere round 1.00 A.M late in a long blogo-tour.

posted by norm at 2:30 pm | link

Not yet rock bottom

On the key set of issues of the present time Jonathan Freedland is a bit of a fence-sitter for my taste. In this piece, however, centred on the same judgement as was highlighted here on August 19 from Amos Oz, he is worth reading:
[B]oth sides are weighed down with depression. That much was clear at this week's Middle East editors' dialogue, a meeting of 10 Israeli and Palestinian journalists hosted jointly by the Guardian and the Portland Trust. These shapers of public opinion, sharp-eyed, eloquent observers of their own nations, couldn't even allow themselves the bleak optimism of believing they had reached rock bottom. Few thought they had. Instead they are bracing themselves for what could be a murderous few weeks.
There are… crumbs of hope. Most Israelis and Palestinians show a remarkable degree of agreement, even consensus, on what will be the ultimate solution to their conflict. Polls show majorities on both sides acknowledge that the eventual deal will be a partition of the land into two states, one for Israelis, one for Palestinians, more or less on the lines of the 1967 borders. The editors reflected that degree of unanimity: of the 10, only one believed that the battle between the two peoples was incapable of resolution.
Israel and Palestine's tragedy is that while the peoples themselves now know what has to be done, their leaders refuse to do the job.
Freedland's proposed solution depends on the outside world, 'Britain, the US and others', stepping in - in which connection he observes: 'Whatever his domestic woes, Tony Blair is now perhaps the most admired world leader; he is, unusually, trusted by both Israelis and Palestinians.'

posted by norm at 2:27 pm | link

Friday, September 12, 2003

Tell the mountains and the canyons

Johnny Cash was America: 1932-2003.

posted by norm at 10:17 pm | link

CAH 14

[The earlier instalments in this series were posted on August 15, 18, 19, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29, and September 1, 3, 5, 8 and 10.]

The confusion Michael Perry alleges - between the relativist challenge (which should not be taken seriously) and pluralism about the human good (which is 'not only plausible but correct') - is amply illustrated by an article by Chris Brown, on the subject, precisely, of universal human rights. [See International Journal of Human Rights 1/2 (1997), 41-65]. Brown sees natural law claims about human flourishing as 'contradicted by the fact of value pluralism'. For him, 'different and potentially competing accounts of the Good' are incompatible with 'the idea of universal human rights which… is based on one particular conception of the Good'. Thus, pluralism of values being taken by him for the fact that it is, and since he regards this fact as in contradiction with universalist ideas about human flourishing and human rights, Brown's cleaving to the former results in an apparently relativizing challenge to the latter. Except that the challenge is not sustainable - hence my 'apparently' - because the denial of all human universals is not credibly sustainable. What happens, consequently, as it virtually always does with this type of argument, other than where its proponent is quite insensible of the looming threat of absurdity, is that Brown is obliged to backtrack. Referring to Michael Walzer's work, he writes:
A thin moral code may enable us to identify a number of obvious evils, human wrongs on a large scale, but this is not necessarily where the most important debates are focused. Establishing that, say, genocide is to be condemned is highly desirable, but most international human rights issues involve rather less clear cut cases.
It is a damaging concession - which Brown does his best to minimize - conceding, as Michael Freeman has pointed out, the very universal standards he purported to reject. [International Journal of Human Rights 2/1 (1998), 79-92.] And his effort to minimize the concession, once more merely par for the course in this sort of advocacy, is not very convincing. Identifying 'the most important debates' is obviously a matter of judgement, but whether or not establishing some minimal, universalist threshold as to what should count as the most fundamental human rights, or what kinds of violation of them might appropriately be classed as crimes against humanity, are judged to be the most important issues, it seems safe to suggest that they are at any rate extremely important; the more especially since, the force of Brown's concession once absorbed, it is not going to be only genocide which can be described as an obvious evil, but rather more than that. Trying to specify a framework of ethico-juridical norms for the criminalization of the obvious evils is not something that should be tucked away with a 'not necessarily… the most important', the real discursive function of which is the protection of a weak, because untenable, thesis.

[This instalment concludes the present series on crimes against humanity.]

posted by norm at 10:09 am | link

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Two 9/11s, two oversights

There's a dumb article today by Roger Burbach exactly where you'd expect to find it. Both Chris Bertram and Harry Hatchet have already put up excellent posts about it, Chris's reflecting wide-rangingly on some of the left-liberal responses two years ago following the calamity of September 11 - and producing an interesting discussion in Crooked Timber's comments box - and Harry's nailing in detail the poor reasoning in Roger Burbach's piece. I want to remark here on points which neither Chris nor Harry raises.

Burbach sets up a broad contrast between law and violence: between the approach of the Spanish judge who pursued Pinochet, on the one hand, and the American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other:
Like many advocates of a world based on law rather than violence, the Spanish judge Baltesar Garzón, who issued the warrant for the arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998, proclaimed on the eve of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001: "Lasting peace and freedom can be achieved only with legality, justice, respect for diversity, defense of human rights and measured and fair responses." The failure of the US to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, along with stepped up terrorist activities around the world, demonstrates that the US war against terror is a failure.
The struggle is joined. The years to come will focus on the great divide that has emerged out of the two September 11s. On the one side stands an arrogant unilateralist clique in the US that engages in state terrorism and human rights abuses while tearing up international treaties. On the other is a global movement that is determined to advance a broad conception of human rights and human dignity through the utilisation of law, extradition treaties and limited policing activities. It is fundamentally a struggle over where globalisation will take us, whether the powerful economic and political interests of the world headed up by reactionary US leaders will create a new world order that relies on intervention and state terrorism, or whether a globalist perspective from below based on a more just and egalitarian conception of the world will gain ascendancy.
The strengthening of international law is a matter central to my own present concerns and close to my heart. But I feel bound to point out two rather glaring oversights here.

First, justice and recourse to law are now necessary in application to the Chilean case because the government of Salvador Allende was criminally overthrown and the democratic movement in Chile crushed. It suffered a terrible defeat with a bloody aftermath. Would it not have been rather better had it had the strength, political and military, to withstand those who attacked it - Pinochet, the indigenous Chilean forces, including the military, supporting him, and their US accomplices? The recourse to law to punish those who have violated the rights and the lives of others is a precious value of civilization, but we don't have to go so far with it as actually to will the violation so that it may later be punished under the law. Better, therefore, that America, Britain and their allies fight the war against the many adherents of terror today - an apocalyptic terror, this, which doesn't shrink before the idea of thousands of innocent dead - than to lose it in some new global darkness whose costs are incalculable, and with the prospect of one day bringing some comparatively small number of those responsible for it to court should we eventually come out of it on the other side.

Second, the development and strengthening of international law will indeed depend, among other things, on the efforts of a world-wide movement of civil society to support it. But the world-wide movement, as is, still has a fair bit to learn in this matter. Its record is tarnished. I can't say how many, but it's plenty - plenty of those making up the movement for 'human rights and human dignity', for 'a more just and egalitarian conception of the world', have lately put their energies at the service of one of the more barbarous and repugnant regimes befouling the comity of nations. If all these people did not feel they could support the war to liberate Iraq, they should have butted out; they did not have to oppose it. But they did oppose it, in great multitudes, and thereby acted in such a way as to prolong the duration of the ghastliness that was the Baathist order. Before that plenty - fewer, but still plenty - dedicated themselves, likewise, to a line of criticism and a course of action that would have preserved the delights of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan.

We already know from enough history that having good words on your lips - here 'rights', 'egalitarian conception' - is a guarantee of nothing. The world is not an easy place these days. It never was. But the clarity of the choice and its potential consequences in marching against the war that has ended Saddam Hussein's rule was impossible to miss. A global movement so much of which refused - and even now refuses, though Iraqis seem not to have the same trouble with this, critical of the US authorities in Iraq as they are - to acknowledge the good that was the freeing of the Iraqi people, should be looked on at least with caution. It is where we are and where we have to start. But the idea that it is a repository of unalloyed political virtue would be a sorry delusion.

posted by norm at 6:02 pm | link

The deranged world of poisonous ideas

"To us… the men are magnificent." Find out which men here.

And then see here, on the dissemination of an idea that seems to be just slightly at odds with that one. (Via Bill Herbert.)

posted by norm at 3:20 pm | link

One (more) thing I love about blogging

It's like this. Yesterday I post a small item about Clifford Brown, just because I'm listening to him, that's all. Yes, and because of how good he is. Same evening I get an email from someone I used to know when I was a graduate student and haven't seen or otherwise been in contact with for 35 years. OK, he's got a quibble relating to my age, but I'll let that pass. I reply reminding him that we disagreed about Dave Brubeck back then, and he in turn replies to say we disagree about him still.

My friend of Nuffield days, Nick Rau.

Nick, I'll just, finally, try this. Paul Desmond, 'Balcony Rock' on the Jazz Goes To College album. Put it on. Listen. What? Ah... Buy it. Put it on. Listen.

posted by norm at 3:17 pm | link

Book cull

For reasons I won't go into I'm having to do a cull on my books. I thought it would be easy: there's maybe 30% of them I just know I won't need, or want, to look at again. But when it came to start, it wasn't easy at all. Not that my preliminary estimate was incorrect; no, it's something different. When you actually get to doing it, other things than the consideration of likely future utility kick in.

Wife of the Norm pointed me towards a nice piece on this subject by Penelope Lively, in the magazine Books and Company (Issue 6, Spring 2000 - no link), which used to be edited and published by Susan Hill but which she has now discontinued. Lively's approach was the same as mine: to ask about each book whether she was 'ever likely to take it off the shelf again'. However:
Any personal collection of books reflects the shifting tastes and interests of a lifetime. Throwing out any of this is like obliterating some aspect of memory and personality.
That's it. It kind of hurts.

posted by norm at 12:46 pm | link

War on terror

There's an excellent post up at Roger Simon's place, and which I urge you to read. It has some sharp reflections on the likely current status of Osama bin Laden, as well as about the war against terror more generally. Money quote:
[I]t reminds me of one of those rare moments when a professor in school tells you something you never forget. It was thirty years ago at Yale Drama and my professor was movie director Mike Roemer. He warned me that when you're making a movie, not all the people you are working with really want you to succeed, that you should choose carefully when you pick your partners in filmmaking and, even after, watch carefully. He could have been talking about picking your allies for the War on Terror. And unfortunately, in this case, you can't say what we usually do when filming is going badly: "It's only a movie!"
While you're over on the other side of the pond, check out this post of Michael Totten's.

posted by norm at 12:42 pm | link

Owed to America

Like countless other people around the planet, I'm thinking about America this morning. I'm thinking about some of the things America means to me. I don't need to be told (because I know) that there are also other sides of America than the ones I'm thinking about. I've known about them all my adult life: the legacy of slavery, poverty in the midst of wealth, Vietnam, Chile, the Contras and more.

On the morning of September 11 2003, this is the America I'm thinking about.


America is Hank Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. It is John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah and the Coen brothers. America is Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. It is Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane.

America is the Fifth Amendment. It is Martin Luther King.

It is Babe Ruth, and Jesse Owens at the Hitler Olympics; Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali – formerly Cassius Clay.

America is Tom Lehrer. It is Guys and Dolls, West Side Story and Singin' in the Rain.

America is Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. It is Bix Beiderbecke; it is Thelonious the Onlious.

America is Mark Twain. It is John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Oh, and Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, Mary McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Richard Yates.

And Damon Runyon: 'Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John'; 'the race track at Saratoga, which is a spot in New York state very pleasant to behold'.

America is Catcher in the Rye and it is Catch-22.

America is Texas and New York. It is Chicago and Nashville Tennessee. It is San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC. It is New Mexico, Virginia, Wyoming, Omaha.

And America is Omaha Beach. It is the liberation of Paris, the liberation of Dachau; and it is part of the Allied war which defeated National Socialism across the continent of Europe.

America is John Rawls. It is John Dewey, C. Wright Mills, Ronald Dworkin, Michael Walzer, Richard Rorty. And America is Herbert Marcuse – yes, Herbert Marcuse, Frankfurt School refugee.

America is Manhattan, Grand Central Station, the Empire State.

It is September 11 2001. It is Flight 93. It is 'Are you guys ready? Let's roll.'

America is the Grand Canyon and the Rockies; it is the Mississippi. It is Route 66, it's Maine to Albuquerque – jeez, it's all those names. It's one of the greatest of national anthems (with the Marseillaise); you hear those swelling lines, and if you don't feel anything about America, you're a stone.

America is Hank Williams, it's the Carter Family, it's Bill Monroe, it's Johnny Cash. And America is Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette and Emmylou Harris. America is Blonde on Blonde and it's Kind of Blue. It's the transcendent Bob Dylan, and the resplendent movie tradition, second to absolutely nowhere, and nothing, else on earth.

America is the Supreme Court and the Constitution; it's a political culture despised everywhere but exceeded nowhere.

America is a myth and America is a legend.

What a great country. No, I'll rephrase that. What a fucking great country.

posted by norm at 11:37 am | link

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Well, stone me!

Barbie dolls are deemed a threat to Saudi morality and... Jewish:
Saudi Arabia's religious police have declared Barbie dolls a threat to morality, complaining that the revealing clothes of the "Jewish" toy - already banned in the kingdom - are offensive to Islam.

The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as the religious police are officially known, lists the dolls on a section of its Web site devoted to items deemed offensive to the conservative Saudi interpretation of Islam.

"Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful," said a poster on the site.
Thanks to Steve de Wijze for the link.

posted by norm at 12:30 pm | link

Clifford Brown

I remember Clifford. Enough said.

posted by norm at 11:45 am | link

CAH 13

[The earlier instalments in this series were posted on August 15, 18, 19, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29, and September 1, 3, 5 and 8.]

It is plainly an assumption of what has gone before that there are universal human harms. The assumption is not an eccentric one in this context. It is germane, one way or another, to the very category of a crime which is against 'humanity', and consistent with a recurrent emphasis in the international humanitarian law literature. Karen Parker and Lyn Beth Neylon write of how 'the commonality of humankind' came to be accepted during the last two centuries as the basis for international relations, and Beth Van Schaack says of the Martens Clause in particular that it 'articulated the notion that international law encompassed transcendental humanitarian principles that existed beyond conventional law'. Of the formal emergence within international jurisprudence of the offence of crimes against humanity itself, Matthew Lippman has written: 'The rights of individuals were thus determined to transcend culture and country borders'.

But the universalist standpoint is often challenged. This is a challenge to be found, indeed, even in the international-law prehistory of the offence. It is contained in the dissenting memorandum to the report of the so-called Commission of Fifteen to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The two American members of that Commission, Robert Lansing and James Brown Scott, there entered a reservation concerning the report's appeal to 'laws and principles of humanity'. The laws and principles of humanity, they argued, vary according to time, place, circumstance and individual conscience, and therefore do not provide a sound basis for criminal prosecution in a court of justice. 'There is', they wrote, 'no fixed and universal standard of humanity.'

Lansing and Scott's view is widely echoed today by moral relativist (including postmodernist) currents of philosophical and social-scientific opinion, given to opposing universalist conceptions of the human in light of the specificities of history, culture and discourse. However, with respect to the issues being pursued here anti-universalist arguments are simply not credible. Having for my own part twice before, in arguing for the idea of a common human nature (see chapter 2), highlighted the self-contradiction and absurdity which the would-be denial of a common human nature inevitably produces, I shall limit myself on the present occasion to rehearsing the most salient points of two counter-statements to the relativist position, both of them apt to the issues at hand.

One is by Michael Perry (see chapter 3) and in defence of the concept of universal human rights. Perry cites a number of passages describing atrocities in the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s, and goes on to say one could fill volumes with similar reports from other times and places – 'reports of cruelty so calculated that simply to hear of it tears the soul' - but that the passages he has cited are in any case 'more than adequate... to illustrate and clarify the fundamental point: Some things are bad, indeed some things are horrible - conspicuously horrible, undeniably horrible - for any human being to whom the thing is done'. As he also says:
No one believes that rape, or slicing off breasts, or ripping out wombs, or decapitating a child in front of its mother (who has just been raped), or castrating a prisoner (or forcing another prisoner to do so), or throwing a prisoner into hot oil - no one believes that such acts are or might be good for them on whom the horror is inflicted.
However fashionable this relativism (antiuniversalism, antiessentialism, etc.) might be in some quarters today, some things are bad and some things are good, not just for some human beings, but for every human being.
On this basis, Perry contends that the relativist challenge to the idea of human rights is not plausible, and that we should not 'take seriously' the denial that human beings are all alike in some respects and that some things are good, and some things bad, for all of them. He is right, we should not take it seriously. And his basis for saying so is, as he claims, 'more than adequate'.

It chimes in with some earlier observations of Stuart Hampshire’s on the moral relativist underestimation of universal human needs and of the constancies of human experience, especially in their negative aspects. According to Hampshire:
There is nothing mysterious or 'subjective' or culture-bound in the great evils of human experience, re-affirmed in every age and in every written history and in every tragedy and fiction: murder and the destruction of life, imprisonment, enslavement, starvation, poverty, physical pain and torture, homelessness, friendlessness. That these great evils are to be averted is the constant presupposition of moral arguments at all times and in all places.
All ways of life, Hampshire says, require protection against these great evils. Without protection against them, '[t]here is no tolerable life, decent and worth living'.

If these negative constancies are so evident, though, and their denial is not to be taken seriously, how is it that the relativist challenge to human rights (and related universals) is put forward apparently seriously as often as it is? This is, Perry argues, because 'some confuse it [the relativist challenge] with a different position that is not only plausible, but correct'. He means 'pluralism about the human good'. The constancies in human experience do not rule out that there are also important non-constancies: that what serves the flourishing of some human beings within a 'concrete way of life' may not do the same for others within other such ways of life; nor that a way of life as a whole beneficial for some may not be beneficial for all. Similarly, Hampshire's reflections on the great evils of human experience register the 'diversity in ideals and interests' and the existence of different 'conceptions of the good', including the way in which the differences between them can arise from different ways of ranking and relating the component goods and bads amongst the constancies of human experience.

[The next instalment will be posted on Friday, when this series concludes.]

posted by norm at 11:39 am | link


Torture is also a crime against humanity (see post immediately below). I must say, I would like to learn that what Henry Porter sets out here isn't true:
Weeks go by without serious newspapers investigating or commenting on human rights abuses by the American government. At home and abroad, hundreds, maybe thousands, of men are being held in camps and prisons by the military, by the CIA and by the justice department, incommunicado, without legal representation or hope of release, there to endure prolonged and terrifying interrogation. Alone, this is enough for the US government to place itself in contravention of the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which it is obligated to uphold. But that is not all. There is evidence that the US authorities have encouraged the use of torture and may indeed have participated in the torture of those men they believe to hold information on past and future terrorist attacks.
By far the most disturbing development is the American practice of handing over recalcitrant prisoners to be tortured by compliant regimes in Jordan, Morocco and particularly Egypt, where beating, drowning and even electric shock treatment are used.

When a man is transported bound and blindfolded - in the American parlance "packaged" - it is said that he has been "rendered" to a foreign service, and from the unutterable hell of his subsequent experience come "extreme renditions".
All of the above may make you think that I have become violently anti-American. I have not - I still love the place and the people - but it is profoundly disturbing that our closest ally has slipped so easily into methods which begin to match the theocratic savagery that launched the 9/11 attacks in the first place.
The war against terror – as any other war – doesn't justify it.

posted by norm at 11:25 am | link

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

The discreet language of the BBC

Its report on today's bombings:
There has been a large explosion in Jerusalem, killing four people and injuring 40, police and witnesses say.

The blast comes just hours after a suicide bombing at an army base near Tel Aviv which left eight people dead and around 30 dead [sic], 15 of them seriously.
These are the first militant attacks inside Israel since... [etc.]
No, they're crimes against humanity because deliberately planned and executed acts of mass murder.

posted by norm at 11:09 pm | link

Blogless Saturday

Though it has only come to my attention belatedly, I was delighted to discover that one of the world's two best known fugitives experienced the same problem I did last Saturday. I'll go further. Since my sympathies are less confused than the elevated Mr Norman's (see previous post), I now feel my own inconvenience was entirely worthwhile, having been part of a more general inconvenience which included that of the Man Who Would Be Toadied to by George Galloway and Tony Benn. Had I known at the time, I would have suffered the inconvenience uncomplainingly. Anyway, read about his experience here.

posted by norm at 10:18 pm | link

Slimewatch UK No 5

I must say that this - the Guardian Diary – is not somewhere I'm willing to go as a rule, but Wife of the Norm pointed out the following item to me. It's by Matthew Norman:
The Polish army's stint in Iraq enjoys a promising start. Poland being the one country on earth wedged further up the American colon than our own, its troops took control of a sector in the central southern region between Baghdad and Basra late last week - and within hours, two tons of Polish dried sausage (kielbasa) had vanished. Doubtless the sausage is a surprise new line at all good souks.
In the overall scheme of things, it's no big deal; but now why would the elevated Mr Norman so relish that things should go badly for these Poles? It wouldn't be some sneaking sympathy for the Baathists and other criminals who'll be trying to kill them, so… maybe he's just confused.

posted by norm at 9:56 pm | link

Chris Hitchens on the anniversary

For a refreshing contrast see The Dude (via Harry's Place):
What is required is a steady, unostentatious stoicism, made up out of absolute, cold hatred and contempt for the aggressors, and complete determination that their defeat will be utter and shameful.
If our Congress or our executive mansion had been immolated that morning, would some people still be talking as if there was a moral equivalence between the United States and the Taliban? Would they still be prattling as if the whole thing was an oblique revenge for the Florida recount? Of course they would.
Should this solemn date be exploited for the settling of scores? Absolutely it should. When confronted with a lethal and determined enemy, one has a responsibility to give short shrift to demoralizing and sinister nonsense.
Yep. I'll go with that.

posted by norm at 9:25 pm | link

Subjects and objects

My dnoc today has a letter from Bob Holman saying the following:
The tragedy of the twin towers will be rightly recalled on Thursday. I doubt if the media will mention September 11 1906, when Mahatma Gandhi initiated non-violent, passive resistance as a means of social reform. The sufferings of the US were followed by calls for revenge and a hatred which contributed to the many deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. The message of Gandhi was about forgiveness, self-sacrifice and peace.
Given the nature of much of the fare to be found, day in and day out, on the same page, this letter is not especially noteworthy, but it provides an opportunity to comment on what is now a pretty general trope.

Why is Bob Holman's plea only addressed, as it evidently is addressed, to Western ears? If it's about overcoming hatred and a thirst for revenge through sentiments of forgiveness and peace, wouldn't it be to the point to urge the same upon the planners and perpetrators of terrorist mass murder and their supporters around the world?

Beyond his letter, I know nothing about what Bob Holman thinks, and so I won't ascribe anything to him. I'll merely say that the way he poses the issue is consistent with the way much of the Guardian's readership, and would-be progressive opinion more widely, now views the world.

In this view the perpetrators of violence against American or Western targets or just targets such people regard as acceptable are objectified, dehumanized. They're part of the general background which we - participants in the critical conversation - have to take as given, thus putting them beyond the possibility of deliberation and moral choice, and above all of properly assigned responsibility for what they do. Their crimes seem always to be explicable by reference to causes for which we (well, not the critics obviously, for they're clean, but some other part of the we) are responsible.

This way of thinking also presumes upon the norms of democratic discourse, all those rights and freedoms which underpin it. And it is perfectly entitled so to presume. Still, the parties coming in for the sharpest criticism are part of the political culture in which those rights and freedoms are available; it is not the out-and-out enemies of this political culture, those whom we are enjoined to understand and - in more extreme variants - love. But the proponents of such understanding don't join up to any terrorist outfit or movement to change it by persuasion and peace-loving sentiment from within. Nor do they dedicate themselves to deploying their critical and analytical skills against those people who do join up or otherwise lend their support.

It's much the same logic as directs the so-called peace activists to take their risks before Israeli or American soldiers and armour but solely there - before armies, that is to say, constrained by some sort of democratic and legal scrutiny. They do not chance their lives on Israeli buses, or other sites favoured by suicide murderers, or in any of the more dangerous regions of Africa; places where they might be blown or cut to pieces without more ado.

To try to understand a great political evil in order to fight and defeat it is a worthwhile objective. But understanding which simply dissipates the evil in well-meaning claptrap, or worse still, ascribes greater moral responsibility for it to others than those who in fact bear the direct responsibility, this should not be given the time of day.

posted by norm at 8:51 pm | link

Oliver Cameo

Oliver Kamm also gives his view on Meacher:
You expect politicians to play politics. But Meacher's argument isn't politics so much as pathology. It is obtuse, tendentious, ignorant and malign. It is base. It is squalid. It is indecent. It is, scarcely in the metaphorical senses, deranged and blasphemous.

Meacher attempts to evade moral responsibility for advancing his thesis by employing disingenuous rhetorical question and idle truism in preference to direct assertion. But no Guardian reader will have misconstrued his argument. His assertion that he is merely in favour of putting the facts doesn't even have the merit of deviousness: it's transparently dishonest, being easily checked against what he wrote a few days before the anniversary of the slaughter of thousands of innocents.

How matchless a combination of timing and turpitude. And how permanently debased a political reputation.
No, come on Oliver, enough of this beating about the bush. Tell us what you really think. Recommendation to read the rest probably unnecessary.

posted by norm at 11:43 am | link

Meacher nemesis, Michael

Michael Meacher comprehensively fisked by David Aaronovitch; taken down and taken apart:
This is conspiracy 101. Say something is a fact which isn't. Then ask questions, rising up through incompetence, gradually to mal-intention, and then - abruptly - demand who might be behind it all. Cui Bono, my dear friends?
I do not know what is more depressing: that a former long-serving minister should repeat this bizarre nonsense without checking it; that, yesterday, twice as many readers should be published supporting this garbage as those criticising it; or that one letter should claim that Meacher has simply said what "many have always known". Ugh! To give credibility to this stuff is bad enough, to "know" it is truly scary.
Read it all. It's devastating.

posted by norm at 9:08 am | link

Monday, September 08, 2003


Finding normblog blogrolled along the way at City Comforts Blog, I am reciprocating. But not without a bit of a grumble. For normblog appears there under the rubric 'Smart blog... But (mostly) oblivious to environment.'

Hey, gimme a break CCB. What do I know already - from the environment? I'm a son of the city. (Yes, yes, that's also environment, but don't get in the way of my point.) The country is not as good, not for more than a day or two at a time. I get edgy there; like the young Brando says in On the Waterfront, 'The crickets make me nervous'. And yet even so, only the day before yesterday, unprompted, I was saying how you could 'admire some feature or other of the natural environment'; and, shortly before that, I was discussing about nature with Gary over at Crumb Trail. Do I chide you with not posting about... the things you don't post about? I do not.

'Oblivious' - sheesh.

posted by norm at 3:39 pm | link

Different road map, earlier destination

This seems to me to make some sense. As do other ideas which involve Israel leaving the occupied territories sooner rather than later and dismantling the settlements in the process – including by way of unilateral action.

posted by norm at 2:57 pm | link

Meacher's Creatures

There are eleven letters in the Guardian today in support or praise of Michael Meacher's article – an article in which he felt able to suggest, on a speculative basis, that the US government may have openly connived at the murder of its own citizens on September 11 2001. If I were to suggest, likewise speculatively, that the writers of these letters are all probably child-molesters, I would doubtless be frowned upon; but there are days when, even though they are probably not child-molesters, I feel in some way tainted by having as my daily newspaper of choice a paper so many of whose writers and readers display so gross a moral perception.

posted by norm at 2:56 pm | link

CAH 12

[The earlier instalments in this series were posted on August 15, 18, 19, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29, and September 1, 3 and 5.]

I summarize. On the account of them I have given, crimes against humanity are (B3) offences against the human status or condition, which (B2) lie beyond a certain threshold of seriousness. They are inhuman acts. Being so, (A4) they shock the conscience of humankind, and (A3) humankind asserts itself – through the mediation of states, the socio-political communities across which humankind is distributed, and the law of nations by which these are collectively bound – as the sovereign authority criminalizing such inhuman acts. (A6) Humankind may also be said, loosely, to be the victim of crimes against humanity. Or perhaps not. It depends on a judgement about how widespread and severe the terrorizing effects of these crimes are. But nothing decisive here hinges on this judgement.

(B1) That an act is inhumane is not sufficient for us to treat it as a crime against humanity, and (A1) that it diminishes (all members of) the human race is not sufficient for this either – though crimes against humanity are inhumane, and it is also plausible to think that they diminish humankind. (A2) To be accounted a crime against humanity, an act need not threaten the peace and security of mankind or the world. In itself, it may do so or it may not. However, once an act has come to be classed as a crime against humanity under international law, its commission can render it in some degree threatening to the global peace just because it has. (B4) Nor, for an act to be accounted a crime against humanity, need it be genocidal or potentially genocidal in character, although if it fits this description it will qualify. (A5) Again, to be accounted a crime against humanity an act need not, indeed will not generally, threaten the existence of humankind, although if one day one did it too would qualify.

There is a possibility of misunderstanding I must finally forewarn against before moving on. The aim of this series has been to identify the nature of those acts which are now regarded as crimes against humanity under international law. In pursuing that aim, I have spoken of a threshold of seriousness at and beyond which inhumane acts are to be treated as offences in this category. Anyone familiar with the literature, however, will know that there is a threshold issue of another kind. If the one I have been dealing with up to now concerns the severity of the act-type making up the material element of the offence, the other threshold issue has to do with certain jurisdictional preconditions, or putative preconditions, for assigning this class of offence to the domain of international law and hence of the international community, as being more than just an ordinary municipal crime. This other issue will be the subject of a subsequent chapter in the longer work I am currently engaged on.

[The next instalment in this series will be posted on Wednesday; the series concludes Friday.]

posted by norm at 2:52 pm | link

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Quote of the (yester)day

Latecomer that I am to the blogosphere, I didn't know of this, from Brad DeLong, till Steve de Wijze sent it to me earlier today:
The Chomsky defenders - and there seem to be a surprisingly large number of them - seem to form a kind of cult. Arguing with them seems to be a lot like trying to teach Plato's Republic to a pig: it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.
What makes these lines even more relishable is the argumentation in support of them, which I strongly urge upon your attention if you don't already know it.

posted by norm at 4:50 pm | link

The importance of September 11

A review by Terry Eagleton in yesterday's Guardian begins as follows:
"There are few acts of comparable deliberate and indiscriminate wickedness in human history," writes Bernard Lewis of the September 11 attacks. The statement inspires about as much faith in the Princeton professor's scholarly credentials as if he were to claim that Jeffrey Archer is the finest novelist since Cervantes. September 11 was a human catastrophe, but it scarcely registers on the Richter scale of historical atrocity. Has Lewis never heard of Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Hiroshima, Vietnam?
There is 'no excuse', Terry goes on to say, 'for giving September 11 more importance than greater human miseries simply because it happened in America'. On the claim he is challenging – regarding the scale of historical atrocity – he is obviously right. Numbers aren't everything, but they do have some bearing on these grim comparative judgements; and the crime of September 11, horrifying and indefensible as it was, is dwarfed by many other deliberate and criminal political acts.

So if Bernard Lewis's quoted opinion forms the basis of his assessment of the importance of September 11 – equally if its having 'happened in America' does – then it is a poor one. However, this isn't the only available basis, and in saying that I'm not interested in Bernard Lewis so much as I'm interested in the issue itself. An alternative basis for assessing the importance of September 11 appears by coincidence on the page opposite Terry's review, in another review – this one by Giles Foden and of a book about al-Qaida by Jason Burke. It concerns the danger of the terrorist threat now facing the world. I do not say this is the sole importance of September 11: that it illuminated the scope and severity of that threat. But it should certainly be at the centre of a sober assessment of the significance of that terrible day.

Now, unless his thinking has changed on this point over the last year, Terry himself I presume agrees with this. For in May 2002 he wrote a longish piece, also in the Guardian, in which he very much emphasized the same threat:
The present century looks set to be dominated by a rather different sort of irony. Capitalism greeted the millennium with one arm brandishing The Wealth of Nations and one foot triumphantly planted on the corpse of its socialist rival; yet scarcely had the century turned before this victory began to look suspiciously pyrrhic. Indeed, we may yet see the capitalist world glancing nostalgically back at the socialist project it screwed so effectively. Socialism, after all, is out to expropriate the propertied classes, not to exterminate them. Its weapons are general strikes and mass struggle, not anthrax and dirty nuclear bombs.
[I]t is smallpox, not storming the Winter Palace, that some of them ['the wretched of the earth'] have in mind.
Those who announce that Marx's industrial proletariat has sunk without trace should be reaching for the anti-radiation tablets, not for the champagne.
[W]e now have dramatic evidence that the end of history might eventually spell the end of history in a rather less metaphysical sense [than that of the well-known phrase]. The fact that capitalism now has no real rivals in the official political arena is precisely what causes the unofficial rancour that can blow enormous holes in it, including nuclear ones.
There's no underestimation here, then, of the nature and magnitude of the danger of which September 11 suddenly made us plainly aware. I'm only puzzled, consequently, by Terry's implied diagnosis of the causes of this danger and by his gesture towards a solution: in turn, (1) the grievances (I infer) of 'the wretched of the earth'; and (2) the following recommendation:
Chomsky, however, has some simpler… more pertinent advice about how to stop terrorism: "Stop participating in it."
With respect to (1), and at the cost of repeating myself, I am mystified as to why those on the left who say this kind of thing make no effort to explain why other movements of the wretched of the earth have waged their struggles in ways that did not wantonly jeopardise the lives of thousands upon thousands of people (as small pox, anthrax and dirty nuclear bombs do) – showing that this isn't a product of oppression as such. And as to (2), I am mystified why the same kind of recommendation was and is never made on the left with respect to fascist movements and regimes: as if it might suffice not to support them or behave like them; as if they didn't need also to be actively fought.

(Updated at 2.40 PM on Mon Sep 8: The word 'jeopardise' in the last paragraph here is a compositional slip; 'destroy' would be apt.)

posted by norm at 4:39 pm | link

Cry Zimbabwe

Andrew Meldrum reports:
Up to 60,000 Zimbabwean youths have been trained by the Mugabe regime in the use of weapons and torture techniques and ordered to use violence against supporters of the opposition party, according to a report released in Johannesburg yesterday by the Solidarity Peace Trust.

The Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, told a press conference: "Many of those young people are under 18 and are classified as child soldiers.

"This is a crime against humanity and the perpetrators must be charged by the international courts."

Wesley Gumbo, 18, a former member of the youth militia, said he had been forced to join at the age of 15 and was ordered to intimidate and kill people identified as members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the legal opposition. "We were trained how to use weapons, guns and petrol bombs. We were ordered to harass people, to beat them and to rape and kill them," he said.
"When I remember all the things I have done I am crying. That is why I have run here to South Africa. I have no shelter, no relatives. I find it difficult to sleep because I am thinking of what I was doing."
Read the rest, but be warned, it is harrowing.

posted by norm at 12:33 pm | link


Yesterday I didn't have the stomach for commenting on Michael Meacher. Today I'm relieved of the necessity of doing so by being able simply to link to others. Anthony Cox over at Blacktriangle widens the scope of that blog's more usual concerns to comment on Meacher's dnoc-piece of yesterday, 'one of the most offensive comment pieces yet published in the Guardian; though to give him some credit this is no easy task’. You can say that again.

'This is no easy task.'

Anthony does in fact bring his comment on Meacher to bear on some of Blacktriangle's mainstream preoccupations, having pertinent things to say regarding opinion and evidence. He also links to a post about Meacher round at Harry's and which I recommend. (While you're there, you should also read this one on the anti-anti-war left.)

Beyond providing these links, my only comment on my own behalf about Meacher is to wonder if these successive episodes in which well-known politicians of (generically) the left discredit themselves – the egregious Galloway speaking fawningly before the mass murderer Saddam, Tony Benn and his simpering interview with the same eminent personage, now Michael Meacher in this article – are not symptoms of something much wider: the deep moral disorientation of so much left and liberal opinion in the present global context.

posted by norm at 12:13 pm | link

Peter's temporary home

Peter Cuthbertson has had to move for a while. Until further notice Conservative Commentary can be found here. It has a terrific joke today, credited to Alastair Campbell.

posted by norm at 11:57 am | link

A United City?

I have this email from Jonathan Derbyshire:
'Perverse' is too mild a description of your friend Paul's change of allegiance; it's positively Copernican! Full disclosure: I write as a Manchester City supporter.
Jonathan then goes on to say something nice about my blog. So, you see, it's not all rival supporters at one another's throats. As another of my friends - Geoffrey Shepherd - used to say (maybe he still does, but he lives in Washington DC, so I don't get to monitor his utterances these days), if more people were like this, there'd be no wars.

posted by norm at 11:55 am | link

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