Thursday, December 21, 2006

The (Blit)con-game, or, exercises in deliberate misreading, part II

As feared, the 'Blitcon' meme which Zaiuddin Sardar recently set free in the garden of cultural commentary is being nourished by those who should, I would think, know better. It is thus receiving an extended lease on life rather than being allowed to die the natural death it so richly deserves.

It has, for example, (thanks to Geoff for pointing this out to me) been picked up by Sunny Hundal, in his essay 'Unequal Standards of Outrage', at Comment is Free.

Considering Hundal's outrage at western militarism it is perhaps ironic that his comment resembles nothing so much as an American cluster bomb: loud, imprecise and annoyingly prone to leaving a lot of dangerous debris lying around. (Judging from his words, and curiously for an article which ostensibly demands equal standards of outrage, it is only western violence which really drives his condemnation.)

Hundal, though, is not entirely in agreement with Sardar. He says he has only one 'contention' with Sardar's concept of 'Blitcon' literature: 'the assertion that Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie dominate the British literary landscape.'

So, to some extent, I could simply refer back to my criticism of Sardar's original version of this notion while at the same time noting that Hundal's single caveat about these authors' significance (which is likely intended to have been an insult, but it merely succeeds in sounding catty) would seem to make the whole issue far less important, indeed, possibly irrelevant.

Nonetheless, I feel the need to respond to the few unsightly mutations which Hundal has added to the original idea.

Hundal says:

neocons and their supporters have moved on to the notion that this is a global war against mad terrorists who threaten the very existence of "western civilisation" as we know it, and any progressive thinkers who want a slightly more nuanced approach or suggest the military's own actions are exacerbating the problem are surrender monkeys who loathe the very free society they live in.

Well, 'neocons' is already a fairly imprecise term, but when supplemented by 'and their supporters' it just becomes even more vague. More seriously, though, when he is confronted with a more nuanced approach to the matters at hand, he, like Sardar, responds with a clumsy sleight of hand which turns - seemingly - anyone who disagrees with him into a card-carrying member of the club of lying-right-wing-western-imperialists.

Three words: pot-kettle-black.

For instance, he cites selectively from the same interview with Ian McEwan I cited in my previous posting in which McEwan proposes a 'civil war' within Islam.

Hundal responds to McEwan thus:

Except, it's too easy to blame this on a civil war within Islam instead of taking responsibility for years that were spent arming the mujahadeen, arming Iraq and Iran, and helping feed the paranoid delusions of al-Qaida.

Consider this sentence carefully.

First, its elements could be reversed and Hundal's complaint ('it's too easy') would be at least equally (and possibly even more) valid. I.e., one could continue chanting that, really, everything in the world is 'our' fault while at the same time ignoring any elements/tensions/ideologies within the Muslim world which should be taken into account when constructing the 'nuanced' view being urged here. (Or does Hundal think that 'nuanced' means something other than what it does?)

But, second, why must one choose between holding either view? Are they mutually exclusive? Can one believe both of the following ideas without being mentally ill?
  1. movements within Muslim countries and within Islamic thought (perhaps spiced during their evolution by 'outside' influences such as European fascism) contribute not only to violence against 'us' in the west but also - as we can see every day in Iraq - against other Muslims
  2. there has been a history of American mistakes which have contributed to some of these problems.
McEwan is not asked the question in the interview, but I have little doubt that he would, for example, agree that sending masses of arms to an army of religious fanatics (or alternatively to dictatorships) was not really such a grand idea in hindsight.

Does Hundal know that McEwan thinks there is no role for these issues in an analysis of terrorism? No, he doesn't. Does he present any evidence of this? No.

What evidence does Hundal present that McEwan believes, like the neo-con caricature he has created, that 'this is a global war against mad terrorists who threaten the very existence of "western civilisation" as we know it'?

Erm...also none.

Let's consider this last point. In an interview on PBS, McEwan was asked about the influence of 11 September 2001 on his work and whether it provided a 'new theme, or perhaps even a new responsibility, in the way you approach your own work?'
IAN McEWAN: I think we should be careful not to over-inflate the matter. I mean, in the first half of the 20th Century, we lived through human disasters on a scale unimaginable. The Holocaust was once suggested would be the end of not only civilization, but art, too. And yet art, and especially literature, rose to the occasion. And I think the novel, you know, its business is the investigation of human nature.

This terrible event caused some people to say -- I think completely mistakenly -- that it would be impossible ever to write anything ever again. And this is a nonsense. I mean, it actually generates the need for more investigation. We barely know ourselves. And I think the novel, with its marvelous ability to take us inside other people's minds, to give us the flavor and fine print of thought and consciousness, is well-placed to keep on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your way of doing that is to insert history into your story, or your story right into history?

IAN McEWAN: Yes. I mean, if you set a novel in the mind of a thinking man going about his day, on such a day, Feb. 15, inevitably he is going to dwell on this. He doesn't really know, unlike many people around me, he doesn't really know his own mind almost. He's very torn; he thinks the occupation will probably be a mess, and he's sort of against it. But there's another part of him that just longs for Saddam Hussein to be overthrown. In that sense, he's rather rootless, but from my point of view, ambivalence is much richer than certainty. (Emphasis added)

Yes, 'ambiguity is much richer than certainty', the voice of a true imperialist.

Again, one may agree or disagree with McEwan's perspectives on this. One may even disagree with the kind of ambivalence about the Iraq War which he summed up in the interview partially quoted by Hundal (I quoted this in my previous piece too, but I think it's important so here it is again):

I certainly had the feeling that whatever the strong moral arguments were for deposing Saddam, the Americans would not be good nation-builders. But I had a moral problem with this view among the 2 million protesters that you should leave Saddam in power in a fascist state with 27 million Iraqis under him. The problem is that they felt good about it. I thought they should have opposed the war but also felt bad about it. (Emphasis added)
However, whatever one thinks of this point of view, it should on no account be (mis)used to suggest the following, as Hundal does:

Those who want a more intelligent approach to dealing with the issue are told that anything less than an overwhelming military response means giving in to the enemy.

Is this really what McEwan said? Really?

Is McEwan expressing his support here for the American will-to-supremacy, his belief in the ultimate superiority of American culture and the desire for Americans to impose their culture on other peoples? Or is he expressing an insightful critique of the all-too-easily won moral superiority and smug certainty of one section of the anti-war movement. (Even as someone who opposed the war, I can tell you that I think McEwan's point was worth making.)

Even in the case of Rushdie, I think it is impossible to make the argument that Sardar/Hundal do that the 'Blitcons' (oh how I hate this word...) have a 'simplistic view of the world, rather like that of George Bush'.

Well, let's take a look at the same pre-war interview of Rushdie that Hundal cites. Rushdie, indeed, makes the case that insufficient attention was being given (particularly by the left) to the atrocities in Iraq, and he suggests that a genuine 'war of liberation' in Iraq may be justified. He even has some ringing lines about supporting a war to remove Saddam, but a careful reading suggests that they are hedged in by a lot of qualifying commentary.

To be honest, I find Rushdie's argument here somewhat ambivalent and confused. However, it is only possible to label this as a 'neocon' view if anyone who supported the war, with any amount of doubt and qualification and from any point of view is a neocon. And this would seem to be an unjustifiable extension of the term. (As confused as Rushdie's commentary is, though, it's far more subtle and thought-out than Hundal's.)

Where, for example, is the simplistic, neoconservative viewpoint in the following?

Saddam Hussein and his ruthless gang of cronies from his home village of Takrit are homicidal criminals, and their Iraq is a living hell. This pretty obvious truth is no less true because we have been turning a blind eye to it - and "we" includes, until pretty recently, the government of the United States, an early and committed supporter of the "secular" Saddam against the "fanatical" Islamic religionists of the region. [Note: If this last line sounds familiar, it is: Hundal made largely the same complaint about 'arming Iraq', and if you scroll up again you'll find it.]

And where, precisely, is the heartless 'Blitcon' who is primarily concerned with ensuring that 'their children can feel safe on the tube' and whose 'primary concern is their only safety, even if means thousands continue to die in other countries' in the following comments from Rushdie?

It should, however, be said and said loudly that the primary justification for regime change in Iraq is the dreadful and prolonged suffering of the Iraqi people, and that the remote possibility of a future attack on America by Iraqi weapons is of secondary importance. A war of liberation might just be one worth fighting. The war that America is currently trying to justify is not. (Emphasis added)
Hundal's screen of deceptive verbiage gets even better. At a later point, he says, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Al-Qaida may be the new global enemy but Osama bin Laden and his minions have played little obvious part in Hamas or Hizbullah's suicide attacks in the past. Turning a conflict over land into an ideological clash of civilisations only makes this intractable problem worse - and that is exactly what the neocons and al-Qaida are trying to do.

OK. It may in fact be true that both 'the neocons' and al-Qaida are trying to do that; however, the issue at hand is whether the writers in question have been furthering this goal. (We're talking about the 'Blitcons' Mr. Hundal, remember...so please do try to keep your eye on the ball. But...erm,...is the Israel-Palestine question really just 'a conflict over land'? I think you may have missed something there.)

Throughout both pieces, there has been a continuous (and very, very obvious) elision between McEwan-Rushdie-Amis and 'neocons' so, yes, I think we can assume that Hundal wants them included in this over-simplistic effort to reduce all issues to a 'clash of civilisations'.

Well, have they?

Let's see. Rushdie put it this way recently:

SPIEGEL: Of course there can be no justification for terrorism. But nevertheless there are various different starting points. There is the violence of groups who are pursuing nationalist, one might say comprehensible, goals using every means at their disposal ...

Rushdie: ... and there are others like al-Qaida which have taken up the cause of destroying the West and our entire way of life. This form of terrorism wraps itself up in the wrongs of this world in order to conceal its true motives -- an attack on everything that ought to be sacred to us. It is not possible to discuss things with Osama bin Laden and his successors. You cannot conclude a peace treaty with them. They have to be fought with every available means.

SPIEGEL: And with the other ones, the "nationalist terrorists," should we engage in dialogue with them?

Rushdie: That depends on whether they are prepared to renounce their terrorist struggle under a certain set of conditions. That appears to be showing at least initial signs of working with the Basques of ETA. I think we have Bin Laden to thank for that to no small extent -- the Basque leaders didn't want to be like him. And with the IRA it was the loss of credibility among their own people, who no longer saw any point in fighting violently in the underground. Remolding former terrorist organisations into political parties in the long term is at least not hopeless. It might work with those groups that are not primarily characterized by religious fanaticism -- the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example, a group which virtually invented suicide bombings, have no religious background at all. They have clear objectives: an independent state.
(A comment which should also be sufficient to respond to Hundal's bizarre implication that the 'Blitcons' think that all obscene violence - such as suicide bombing - is somehow Islamic: 'We are solemnly informed by each of the three above', Hundal claims, 'that American and British foreign policy had very little to do with shaping that nihilistic mindset. If this is all to do with militant Islam, why were some of Hizbullah's suicide bombers secular and others Christian?' Well, I assume that this is because none of these writers assumes - and have in fact all stated quite explicitly that they do not believe - that radical Islamism is the only form of insanity around these days.)

And then Hundal provides us with this little logical gem:
Zia Sardar's critics say none of the three were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war or big fans of George Bush but that misses the point.

No. No, no, no. No.

It is precisely the point. The argument that Sardar made was that these three authors promoted a 'neo-con' agenda. He defined the 'Blitcon project' as based on three 'conceits' (and I quote): 1) 'the absolute supremacy of American culture' 2) 'Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation' and 3) 'American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world'.

Thus, the central issue (perhaps the only issue) in responding to this ridiculous, simplistic and thought-killing exercise of Sardar's is, in fact, to analyse what these authors have said and written in the light of these accusations.

Because if one does that, one finds that all three of them have been critical of US actions in Iraq and elsewhere, have drawn attention to the ambiguities and ambivalences inherent in reacting to the present world, have sought to express the complex nature of violence and terrorism, have carefully distinguished between Islam and the radical ideologies related to it, and have expressed the problem of a broader conflict between reason and irrationality (does Hundal think that any of these writers is unaware of - or in agreement with - the 'Christian evangelicals in the American heartland' which he mentions?)

I think one must conclude that rather than an exercise in complex thought, this little name-calling game is an exercise in the opposite of thinking, and it is based upon a caricature that can only be sustained by twisting the actual comments of these writers into shapes that have little to do with the forms they took when uttered.

One may agree or disagree with their arguments, by all means. Even vehemently. But in the process can we please avoid the sort of cheap intellectual dishonesty which makes real debate impossible?

Die, miserable Blitcon meme, die...

1 comment:

Dan Mega said...

This is very insightful, and one of the reasons as to why I refuse to pidgeonhole myself into any political category.

I look, I see, I decide. Too bad other people can't do the same (without tossing around garbage phrases like 'neocon' or 'leftist').