Saturday, September 05, 2009

Liberal Relativists Inherited 'A Blind Eye To Misogyny' From Their Imperialist Ancestors.

In a particularly bracing essay about the way the fashionable punditti have greeted Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom's latest book, Does God Hate Women?, my comrade Nick Cohen concludes that "what the world needs now is an uncompromisingly militant feminist movement."

Nick observes:

"It is deplorable but unsurprising that the past 20 years have seen a cooling of a belief in the need for universal emancipation. Most women at the top of society are dependent on cheap and usually foreign labour. So, too, are their partners, who enjoy the benefits of a dual income. In these circumstances, going along with the belief that culture condemns certain women to servitude is a domestic convenience, the more so when speaking out against it is dangerous.

"For at the root of the weird twists in liberal opinion I have been arguing against lies physical fear: the fear of provoking accusation of racial or religious prejudice; the fear of provoking trouble; the fear of provoking violent retribution. Generally, people do not own up to cowardice. They prefer to dress up it up in fine clothes and call it 'respect for difference' or 'a celebration of diversity'. . . They smugly declare that ‘we haven't got the right to impose our values on another culture' and think themselves liberal when they do it."

A tremendous essay. Every last sentence of it.

I've long admired Benson and Stangroom. I suspect that what they observe about the "postmodernist" left - its indifference to evidence, its "relativism", its imperviousness to reasoned, fact-grounded argument - goes a long way to explain how the most delusional, bourgeois posture on the Afghanistan question can become the most stylish, presentable, "progressive" position.

Here, Peter Bergen relates some useful facts about what we are all constantly berated to sneer at as a failed "imperialist" adventure: You were more likely to be murdered in the United States in 1991 than an Afghan civilian is to be killed in the war today; More than five million refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban - one of the most substantial refugee repatriations in history, and little noticed, mainly because it has gone so smoothly; One in six Afghans now has a cell phone, while under the Taliban there was no phone system; Millions of kids are now in school, including millions of girls, when under the Taliban girls were not allowed to be educated; Etc. etc.

Here, meanwhile, Bergen shreds Stephen "The Israel Lobby" Walt's attempts at constructing an argument to support the fashionable "troops out" position. Troops out? Scale back? We tried these things before, Bergen points out:

"Twice. In 1989 the U.S. closed its embassy in Kabul and then effectively zeroed out aid to one of the poorest countries in the world; meanwhile Afghanistan was racked by a civil war, which spawned the Taliban who then gave safe haven to al Qaeda.Then in the winter of 2001 the Bush administration overthrew the Taliban, and because of its aversion to nation-building rebuilt the country on the cheap and quickly got distracted by the war in Iraq. . . . So the U.S. has already tried the Do Nothing approach and the Do It Light approach in Afghanistan, the results of which are well known. The Obama administration is now attempting a Do It Seriously approach, which has a real chance of success."

I'm convinced that Bergen is right. Obama's new approach is cause for much optimism, especially now that Stanley McChrystal in ISAF's wheelhouse. The main obstacle is not the Taliban, though. The big problem isn't even in Afghanistan. It is what Cohen calls "a cooling of a belief in the need for universal emancipation" in the rich countries of the world.

"There are dozens of arguments against the bad idea of cultural relativism, but 'women in Iran and in Saudi don't like being stoned to death' can serve for them all. And yet the bad idea persists, undented and dominant, because of a deep selfishness in advanced societies. It comes in three forms, moral, economic and physical. People on the receiving end of repression notice the air of moral superiority as soon as Western liberals refuse them their support out of 'respect' for the culture which intimidates them. Liberal relativists are in this respect the true successors of their imperialist ancestors. Where once Westerners denied rights to lesser breeds without the law who were racially unsuited to enjoy liberty, now they deny them to diverse breeds without the culture who are unsuited by accidents of history and geography to exercise the freedoms white Westerners take for granted or handle the complex arguments white Westerners take in their stride."


Blogger vildechaye said...

What a great post, Terry.

Just wanted to make one little quibble: Everything you said about the "'the "postmodernist'left - its indifference to evidence, its "relativism", its imperviousness to reasoned, fact-grounded argument" - also could have applied to the Marxist lefties of the 60s and 70s as they excused actions of the Soviets and/or Chinese and/or other unaligned dictatorships.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Well, yes and no.

To the extent that such excuse-making of that sort was fashionable then, it applied more to the "old" Left rather than the "new" Left, which, to its credit, included voices that adamantly rejected Stalinism, Maoism and so on. But the New Left did carry with it a kind of "everything is subjective" way of thinking in its retreat back into the social sciences faculties, producing "theory" that gave the appearance of intellectual heft to the kind of politics Cohen (and Stangroom and Benson) so energetically oppose.

Or something like that. . .

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

storming stuff

7:29 AM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

Terry you're much more of a student of the left than I am, so I'll take your word for it. My recollection of McGill campus in the mid-70s is was that Mao -- maybe not Stalin -- was pretty popular. Nobody protested what the (no longer exactly Stalinist) Soviet Union or (still Mao led) China was up to, but U.S. Imperialism was very bad, as was Zionism.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

The Maoists were a terrible scourge through the 1980s (I have the scars to prove it). The old CP was much more amenable to hard work, and the paradox is that while the CP cadres tended to be more embarassed about the USSR than defensive about it, the CP was deeply rooted in working-class communities and trade unions, and its members were the least likely to show up as members of the Foucault and Derrida fan club.

The CP was a bit like the church. You were born into it; it was rare to find a party member without at least one other family member in it, and not uncommon that a party member would have parents, uncles, aunties and cousins in the party. It's why I have a hard time beating up on the old CP, for all the party's horrible sins. The rank and file were often just good trade unionists with a strangely elaborate Paul Robeson record collections and so on. A bit like Catholics that way. So many damn good people, regardless of the rottenness of the institution.

10:05 AM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

Terry: For a short time I copyedited a Marxist academic journal called "Studies in Political Economy" and I can remember an article about Stanley Ryerson, the great man of Canadian Communism. You're right in what you say about those guys. But they weren't the hard lefties visible on campus: What you saw there were the "new left" McGill Daily types or, worse, Marxist-Leninists (who i thought at the time were completely insane). And yes, compared to them, certainly, the old-guard CP was very rooted. From what I recall from the Ryerson article, Khruschev's 1956 anti-Stalin speech is what split them and ultimately did them in.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

The old CP lost many of its best people with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and they lost many more after the crushing of the Czechosloviakian revolt in 1968. I knew people who joined the party, and left the party, and rejoined the party, and left. . . the best and bravest I ever knew was Homer Stevens, my boyhood hero:

8:58 AM  
Blogger Bernard said...

My favorite anecdote of the Albanian following types from the early 1980s was at Langara where a bunch of books and stuff stamped with: "Property of the CPC-ML"

The hard left has always been more of a faith than a political philosophy. Some, like the CP, you are born into, some are/were more like cults or fundamentalists.

I had dealings with various CP members in the 1980s and found them to be realistic and spending most of their time actually trying to accomplish something. Never met one that was blinded by what the Soviet Union was.

2:09 PM  

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