Tag Archives: Dissent

With Arendt on 7/7: The left, social theory and terror

DissentI wrote this originally for the Centre for Urban and Community Research’s Street Signs magazine in September 2007. I re-wrote it for Dissent in September 2010. Dissent’s website migration means all the formatting has been lost, so I am re-posting it here, for the anniversary of 7/7.

When the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York happened, I was in my office in London, trying to finish a report that was overdue. A colleague came in to tell me what was happening. It seemed unreal; my first thought, of which I am now ashamed, was that this was a distraction I didn’t need. I went downstairs to the communal office where people were standing around the radio listening to events unfold on the BBC, then after a while returned to my office to try to finish off the report. It was only when I arrived home and started to watch the images on television that it began to feel more real. And then it began to feel painfully real when I spoke on the telephone to my mother—a New Yorker transplanted to Yorkshire.

Within hours of the attacks, I got an email from a friend describing them as “chickens coming home to roost” for American foreign policy, specifically U.S. sponsorship of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, as part of the final stages of the war on communism. In this sense, the phrase has a certain chilling accuracy. But the more general claim behind the phrase was the idea that America’s foreign policy would inevitably lead to “blowback,” to use another phrase that soon afterward appeared in an email from another friend—in other words, that the responsibility for the attacks was somehow America’s; responsibility and culpability shifted away from the terrorists themselves and onto a larger system. In the days and weeks after September 11, the “chickens coming home to roost” emails came thick and fast.

In July 2005, when my adopted hometown, London, was attacked, exactly the same pattern of responses followed. I received my first email from a friend with the words “chickens coming home to roost” within hours of the 7/7 bombs—while I was still waiting to get through to close friend who lives very near Tavistock Square and who I feared had been caught up in the rush hour atrocity. Now it was not American international policy in general, but the Iraq War specifically, and Britain’s involvement in it, that was the chicken that had come home to roost.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, were those describing the bombers in terms of evil. The focus on the terrorists as evil, common in politicians’ speeches and newspaper editorials, removed the attacks from any kind of social or geopolitical context. It focused responsibility for the act squarely on the moral agency of the terrorists themselves.

These two responses—chickens coming home to roost on one side and pure evil on the other—demonstrate two opposite failures of thought, or, more precisely, failures of understanding. The claim that the attacks were evil was often accompanied by an insistence that seeking any explanation beyond the purity of evil was illegitimate and would somehow violate the sanctity of those who had been killed in the attacks. The concept of evil comes from moral—and more specifically religious—language, connoting the ineffable, the incomprehensible. To insist on this ineffability is to deny the possibility of rational analysis. The insistence on ineffability is a refusal to think about the attacks and shows a rush to judgment. In these statements, the attacks are a moral outrage, and to think about them, to try to understand their causes, is tantamount to excusing them.

For those whose drive is to analyze, particularly for those of us with a commitment to secular values, there is a basic reaction against the use of the concept of evil itself. Intellectuals, trained to refuse such moral categories, naturally reject this sort of rush to judgment. But there is no doubt that, if the word evil has any meaning, the indiscriminate mass murder of civilians—regardless of age, gender, race, religion, politics, or any other category—qualifies precisely as evil. To deny the evil status of the terrorist attacks is to deny the possibility of moral judgment.

The refusal of moral judgment typical of secular intellectuals does not, however, shy away from apportioning blame. The formula of “chickens coming home to roost” however, apportions blame not to evil individuals but rather to the underlying structures of global society. This has the effect, I believe, of removing the events from the agency of their perpetrators. The bombers cease to be protagonists but become pawns in some much larger game: global capitalism or Western imperialism. Such a refusal may be an intellectual strength, allowing us to reach for a deeper analysis than the politicians and newspaper editors, but it can be a moral failure, too. Continue reading

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A reply to Douglas Carswell: Not actually why the British left hates Israel

DissentWith Douglas Carswell in the news today for winning UKIP its first parliamentary seat after his defection from the Conservative party, I dug out something I wrote about him in 2010 for Dissent. However, I noticed that when Dissent upgraded its site, all the punctuation and formatting on old blogposts went funny, so I’m re-posting it here, in the form in which I submitted it to them with a couple of small copy edits. I also added in a sentence (italicised) in the final paragraph, making it marginally more relevant to the UKIP bandwagon on to which Douglas Carswell has recently jumped. I’ll eventually re-post all my other Dissent posts here too.

I have no doubt that certain respectable forms of antisemitism, disguised as hatred of Israel, are endemic in large sections of the British left. This phenomenon needs exposing, and requires explanation, especially given the left’s earlier history at the forefront of the struggle against antisemitism and, indeed, against all forms of racism.

The explanation given by Tory MP, Daily Telegraph Briton of the Year 2009 and blogger Douglas Carswell, however, is not of much help. He offers his theory In a Jewish Chronicle op ed, “Why the British left hate Israel”. The first part of his answer is the left’s reverence for internationalism or, as he calls it, “supranationalism”, in which anti-national values such as universal jurisdiction and global forms of justice are given precedence over the nation-state. Israel, he says, is hated because it is such a stark example of national self-determination in a globalising world.

At first glance, this argument is compelling. There is a strong streak of internationalism on the left, best exemplified by Rosa Luxemburg, who, despite her Jewish roots, wrote that “there can be no special little corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel myself at home in the wide world, everywhere there are clouds, birds and trees”. However, the mainstream of the left has always supported national self-determination too: Marx was a champion of Polish and Irish nationhood, and national rights were a key plank of Lenin’s worldview.

In fact, it is the section of the left that has furthest extended this pro-nationalist tendency where hatred of Israel burns the brightest: the so-called “anti-imperialist” left, for whom Arab nationalism, Serbian nationalism, Venezuelan nationalism and indeed more or less any nationalism apart from Jewish nationalism are accorded sacred status. For the “anti-imperialists”, national self-determination is an absolute right – just not for the Jews. The anti-Zionism of the “anti-imperialist” left goes against the grain of Luxemburg’s universalism just as much as the ultra-nationalism of the Zionist right does. We need a different explanation for Israel-hatred.

Luckily, therefore, Carswell switches direction at this point. “The contemporary left,” he writes, “appears to meander behind the 18th-century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The founding father of cultural relativism, Rousseau contended that the primitive and pre-industrial were more noble than advanced Western society.” Again, superficially appealing: large sections of the left subscribe to various forms of cultural relativism which forgive all sorts of oppressive practices if those practices are committed in the name of “culture” or “faith”. Israel is hated, Carswell asserts, because it demonstrates the superiority of Western values, and therefore refutes cultural relativism. (He doesn’t explicitly say that Arabs are savage, but the implication is clear.)

However, although it is literally twenty years since I read Rousseau, this whole claim didn’t ring true for me, and not just because in my two decades on the left I have never heard anyone refer to Rousseau in a political conversation. Nor because I don’t see how Rousseau, who lived before the industrial revolution, could have preferred pre-industrial society to his own. Rousseau, in fact, did not use the term “noble savage”, but he did see humanity as innately moral, based on our universal human capacity for sympathy. Although Rousseau’s ideas have not been that influential on the British left, the broader Enlightenment insistence on universal values and natural rights is at the heart of the left’s historical project of social justice and human rights.

The point is not that Carswell is ignorant about Rousseau (knowledge of eighteenth century philosophy has never been among my criteria for judging parliamentarians); nor that he claims a knowledge he evidently does not possess (although intellectual honesty is a significant virtue in an MP).

The point is that the left’s Enlightenment roots once predisposed it towards universal (or, to use Carswell’s term, supranational) values. Nationalism is in fact one of the worst forms of cultural relativism: loyalty to the nation can be inimical to loyalty to the higher value of humanity, and nationalism can justify any crime so long as it is perpetrated for one’s own nation. That is why the “anti-imperialist” left, with its vicarious nationalism, betrays the universal values that are the true heritage of the left. In other words, the “anti-imperialist” left mirrors the retreat to nationalism of the anti-EU, anti-human rights and anti-universalist right. It is by recovering universal values – not by returning to nineteenth century nationalism, nor by seeing Israel’s neighbours as ignoble savages – that we can take a stand against the new forms of intolerance that mar some sections of the left.


The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union

Published in Dissent’s Arguing The World blog:

My trade union, the University and College Union (UCU, representing professionals in further and higher education in the United Kingdom), has its annual congress this weekend, and, under the title “Campaigning for equality,” will be debating a number of motions on racism and discrimination, including one on how anti-Semitism should be defined.

Unions need policies on such things, because union case work, on relations between employees and management and among colleagues, often involves discrimination and harassment that may be racist. At times like now, when there are huge cuts in higher education and academics are being placed under ever more performance pressure by management, harassment and workplace tensions can increase, and these issues become even more important.

But there are many difficulties in addressing racism. Continue reading