COMMENTS SUSPENDED FOR THE MOMENT ...
It seems the people at Squawkbox automatically terminate their (relatively reliable 'cept on most weekends) service after a while, after which one is required to pay for it. A new comments facility will be up within the next few days or so. Until then, I'm open to advice in the matter.
I've my nose buried deeply in an elegantly constructed text by David Harris, called *A Society of Signs* (Routledge 1996). I usually don't report on these things as I'm thoroughly tired of the weasel abstractions that blight so many of the texts I try to read for my work, and blogorrhoea was never going to be about the things work obliges me to read. Indeed, I blog to get away from work. That said, part of the blogorrhoeaic quest is for an empirically falsifiable philosophy of history with practical intent. And I persist in liking the idea of one such.
So I might finish this one.
And who saw 'Thin Red Line' tonight? Maybe it's because I was in the mood (ie. not a very good one), but I thought it a very superior American war flick (of the accepted classics, I've always liked Milestone's 'All Quiet On The Western Front'; King's 'Twelve O'Clock High', Kubrick's 'Paths of Glory' and Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now'. Of the long forgotten, I rate more highly than just about anyone else Losey's 'King and Country' [put Courtenay, Bogarde and McKern together and surely it can't go wrong?]). Given that war settings afford the opportunity to explore just about anything (the entire spectrum of human capacities and proclivities), it's surprising how few really good movies it's generated, I reckon. I'll take advice on that topic, too.
Bed time now.
I DON'T KNOW
by Glenn Condell
When was the last time you heard a right-winger say that? They almost never do. It's nearly as rare as 'I was wrong'. Nobody likes to admit ignorance or error of course, but it's anathema to the wingers because of the centrality of certitude in the face they present to the world.
They had no doubt Saddam had WMD and no doubt that it constituted a clear and present danger. They were told by people they trust. Now that it's clear there's no WMD, they are equally sure it no longer matters, again because people, the same people, tell them it doesn't.
It's not that some on the left don't exhibit the same intolerance of doubt. The hectoring one-note lefty, the familiar figure of fun, does exist. But his (or her) counterpart on the right is, from my POV, a more numerous and far more powerful species, on the whole. And while they may not join unions, they stick to together. Leave the reservation and you walk the plank. It may be at its zenith, but there's not a lot of wiggle room in the right at the moment. Discordant voices are occasionally heard, but they normally shut up quick smart. Prescient as Generals Shinseki and Zinni turned out to be, and as sharp as Mssrs Baker and Eagleburger were, their commentary was notable for its absence after their initial appearances. Moving down the food chain, there's not too much daylight between the legions of the willing out on the superhighway either, says my left eye. One of the marks of this particular conservative ascendancy is its overriding concern for unity; its mania for control; and the spite it reserves for outsiders is surpassed only by it's venom for those who stray from the big tent. Coercion over collegiality.
This may be true of the hard left as well, but what exactly is left of the 'hard left' anyway? Where is it? Who are they? Am I a member? According to some of my interlocutors on newsgroups and in comments boxes, my views cast me into this outer darkness, especially as I have committed the unpardonable sin of working for a University. Apparently, I know nothing about 'the real world', whatever that is. I try to restrain my bile, not always successfully. It is a tactic for Big Pundits and little punditos to infer that most of the protestors were virtually Red Brigade, but I know I'm not and most people I've spoken to know they aren't either. The communist project is marginal where it isn't dead, and it forms only a fraction of those habitually referred to in the media as 'the left'. The history of conservatism in the last hundred years has been largely concerned with protecting the democratic institutions we hold dear from the programmed contamination of socialism in general and communism in particular. I ask you, where does the danger come from today? No prizes.
So what is this 'left' then? Who are they? Perhaps it is just loads of people like me, who feel an authentic revulsion at the treatment of refugees, Tampa, the WMD lies and the general drift toward conformity since 9/11. People like me and my hitherto apolitical parents who, with millions of other 'ordinary people', felt moved to march in February because of a volatile mix of outrage and fear. Outrage at the bullshit being forced down our throats and fear about the likely effects of the evil committed in our name. The genesis of their decision to protest was apolitical in the sense that they didn't take part as proxies for anything or anyone but themselves. They'd have been every bit as shitty had Labor led us to this pretty pass. They simply felt the ground, fairly solid since 1945, shifting beneath their feet and didn't like the direction it was going.
This, according to some, makes them 'Leninists', members of the 'knee-jerk left' or even 'objectively pro-Saddam'. It is in a sense vastly amusing... dear old Dad, whose experiences with organised labour as a young electrician in the 60s curdled any affection he may have had for the idea of unions and ensured at least twenty years of Liberal voting; he's a lefty! In fact, according to the more extreme rightwing water-carriers on the net, even the good generals above have put themselves beyond the conservative pale. I have this hunch, a conviction really, that the majority of people classified as 'left' lately would be surprised, even shocked and in some cases angered to find themselves part of this cohort. War, the sudden eclipse of the UN by the US and the treatment of refugees are issues that cross every boundary.
Let's for the sake of argument accept my contention that the real hard core left is neither central enough nor big enough to be either (a) influential in progressive politics or (b) the bogeyman the right likes to pretend it is (contrast this with the significance of the hard right in conservative politics). If this traditional powerhouse of progressive thought and practice has shrivelled into virtual irrelevance, what does characterise the broader 'left' these days, apart from the fear and the outrage?
I think doubt is one the chief defining features. Skepticism, wariness, mistrust.
We no longer (if we ever did) worship the stone carved shibboleths of the past, whether socialist, anarchist, whatever. Lenin played with the Beatles so far as most are concerned. 'Most leftists' are like 'most people', who have money worries, kids, a bald spot or varicose veins. We don't have the time or the inclination to become political scientists. All we know is that an already dangerous world is getting a lot more dangerous and the people we elected to govern us are acting in ways almost certain to increase that danger. Some blame cowardice, others incompetence or greed. Many see America as an immensely powerful but wounded and confused giant, animated by a quasi-religious hubris that feeds on ignorance and fear. They are skeptical about and uncomfortable with Mr Howard's implicit accord with the sycophantic attitude that informed Harold Holt's 'All the way' salaam to LBJ.
This potpourri of diagnoses is echoed by a similar variety of panaceas to fix it all up: an international police force under UN control; throwing more weight behind Europe or China in an attempt to re-balance international power relations; more and louder protests. The prominent birth of a pro-war left just emphasises the lack of unity. The average length of comments in right-wing blogs is half the size of those from the left; there's just not as much to debate when there's general agreement. (There is to be fair the semblance of an anti-war right gaining in strength, but Bush power in media and the bureaucracy have muted it's effect).
Unlike the apparent majority of our counterparts on the right, we are uncertain about where we are, how we got here and where to go from here. Our opponents don't dally with such doubt; it's another of their enemies. To which the left makes both a happy and an unhappy contrast. It's healthier in the long run to encourage debate, to foster if not reconciliation, then at least mutual acceptance of divergent views; but in the short run it's electoral suicide. 9/11 and it's afterburn affected the left in two intersecting ways; it simultaneously provoked intellectually valid, but electorally suicidal rifts, just as it provided their opponents a climate of fear that they simply could not have bettered with the services of a genie.
It looks pretty depressing all round, so it might be time to introduce my special guest and secret weapon, one of last century's great physicists, Richard Feynman
'The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darned sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty -- some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain... Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure - that it is possible to live and not know. But I don't know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle... If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn't know, then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know. But in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.'
It will always be politically difficult to sell uncertainty, but I find in these comments the seed of an attitude that may one day succeed against the bellicose certitude that has led us to the mess we're in. We have no open channels at the official level right now; we have a tunnel. We ought to be voting for people who have the courage and confidence to share their fears, regrets, doubts. People who are willing to have a mature conversation with us. People who are prepared to risk the opprobrium of the imperium doing their job for the people they represent. People who prefer channels to tunnels.
Feynman goes on:
'This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we really should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas brought in: a trial and error system. This method was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the 18th century. Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar... It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future with a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we, so young and ignorant, say we have the answers now, if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, 'This is it, boys! Man is saved!' Thus we can doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.'
And they're trying it on again. For much of the last century though, the roles were reversed and it was the left exhorting us to 'get with the program' and the right exhibiting a Burkean concern for the value of continuity and tradition and grave doubts about both the motives for and possible effects of the 'program', not to mention a sensitivity to the law of unintended consequences. This valid concern though, eventually curdled into paranoia and intolerance. This is the kernel of the neocon story. From this fetid swamp emerged several species of zealotry and greed, ossifying the animating spirit of doubt that had sparked the movement. Socialism's journey from a ferment of discussions in the coffee houses of Europe to it's doctrinaire decline decscribes a similar arc. From flexibility to rigor mortis. From skepticism to belief. From doubt to faith. Or if not faith, then an invincible cynicism.
'Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world would agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true... It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations... The writers of the Constitution knew of the value of doubt... The fact that you are not sure means that it is possible that there is another way some day. That openness of possibility is an opportunity. Doubt and discussion are essential to progress.'
But then, this:
'The United States government, in that respect, is new, it's modern, and it is scientific.'
The contrast between this sunlit technocratic upland and the cool empiricism that preceded it is itself an emblem of Feynman's dictum of doubt. Feynman died in 1988. Would his confidence in the United States government have lasted, would he have thought its recent conduct 'scientific'?
The rather unexpected and disturbing thought occurs that I might perhaps have classed myself as 'of the right' in certain eras of the last century. I'm sure Burke, for whom skepticism was integral, would have been as comfortable there as Feynman, but I'm struggling to imagine either of them embracing the conservative agenda of the present time. The even more unexpected thought occurs that, in these times, old Edmund would, along with Nelson Mandela, the Pope, you and me and millions of others, be classified as 'of the left.' A big statement and I'm no Burke scholar, but if the essence of his message is 'steady on, don't throw something out if you're not sure what will replace it, don't pretend to know it all, look to the folly and the wisdom of the past in planning for the future' then he'd have been, on this issue, one of us.
So while I think doubt is currently more characteristic of today's left, this is not an eternal arrangement. It is characteristic of true, Burkean conservatives in any era. It sits easily with the empirical, scientific temper and is generally at odds with the world of belief. And we who are skeptical of the Washington Project are the true conservatives of this era; it's us that worry about leaving the status quo behind in a cloud of dust and this time the right are the mad professors with the charts and maps and projects. It's all upside down
in this crucible. It's one of those times when the ice breaks at weak points and could end up anywhere before eventually settling again into patterns that will last until the next spring thaw.
In this uncertain time, none of us are sure what what to do, but some of us are very sure of what we won't accept. We won't accept nameless brown Muslim people being persecuted, incarcerated or killed in our name. Quite apart from the future dangers inherent in such a fearfully immature response, it is quite simply wrong. Call us bleeding hearts until you're blue in the face, if you like; we've moved past our natural reticence and will respond to the brownshirts in kind. Our 'tolerance', our 'decency', our 'sense of fair play' will be actual rather than rhetorical. We won't accept a daily shower of lies. We won't accept the perversion of the military and the public service, the further concentration of the media and threats to the very structure of our bicameral democracy in the service of an opportunistic rightwing agenda, whether it is driven by fear or greed or powerlust or even a sincerely held belief that it's good for us. It isn't good enough and we won't accept it. It is not our way.
We are in no doubt about that.