Wednesday 30 July 2003

Voices from the Left

Let's start with Norman Geras, someone a bit to my left. ( I can't imagine myself ever giving an address to the "Workers' Liberty summer school" ). But I'd gladly call myself a fellow-traveller of his, as he doesn't let any particular dogma interfere with his basic integrity. That's all too rare, on the left, right or centre.
For some, because what the US government and its allies do, whatever they do, has to be opposed - and opposed however thuggish and benighted the forces which this threatens to put your anti-war critic into close company with. For some, because of an uncontrollable animus towards George Bush and his administration. For some, because of a one-eyed perspective on international legality and its relation to issues of international justice and morality. Whatever the case or the combination, it has produced a calamitous compromise of the core values of socialism, or liberalism or both, on the part of thousands of people who claim attachment to them. You have to go back to the apologias for, and fellow- travelling with, the crimes of Stalinism to find as shameful a moral failure of liberal and left opinion as in the wrong-headed - and too often, in the circumstances, sickeningly smug - opposition to the freeing of the Iraqi people from one of the foulest regimes on the planet.
After getting to his site via Andrew Sullivan's blog, and reading the article ( long, but worth every word), I was going to put a link to his site immediately. Then I noted he already has a link to my blog. I'm honoured.

Now from a (former) member of "Voices in the Wilderness", the Idiotarian Radical Catholic Pacifist movement in Middle East Quarterly :
Voices' unwillingness or inability to criticize the regime effectively turned us into its unwitting apologists. It was tragically ironic: Voices and the regime did not share a single value. Voices was an attempt by Catholic radicals and their disciples to promote their vision of world peace; Saddam Hussein's only apparent desire was to maintain his iron grip over Iraq. Voices and the regime agreed only that the sanctions crisis was rooted in U.S. policy. Yet that single point of agreement became the fulcrum of Voices' venture in Iraq. This was yet another case of politics making for the strangest possible bedfellows.
To be perfectly frank, we were less concerned with the suffering of the Iraqi people than we were in maintaining our moral challenge to U.S. foreign policy. We did not agitate for an end to sanctions for purely humanitarian reasons; it was more important to us to maintain our moral challenge to "violent" U.S. foreign policy, regardless of what happened in Iraq. For example, had we been truly interested in alleviating the suffering in Iraq, we might have considered pushing for an expanded Oil-for-Food program. Nothing could have interested us less. Indeed, we even regarded the paltry amounts of aid that we did bring to Iraq as a logistical hassle.
I can remember the exact instant when I decided to leave the utopian fantasy world of Voices. I was on a train from Bellingham, Washington, where I lived at the time, to Portland, Oregon, to visit a friend. It was the spring of 2000, and I was reading a new article on sanctions by Amatzia Baram. Baram proceeded to shatter the myth that 1.5 million Iraqis had died of sanctions-related disease. He did it by checking Iraqi claims against recent Iraqi census data. Since 1991, Iraq's population, even by Iraqi figures, had grown way too fast for there to be anything near the number of sanctions-related deaths claimed by Iraq. Baram's conclusions contradicted everything I had heard in Iraq and from Voices:

How many people would do the research, look at the numbers, and let the facts get in the way of long-held beliefs? The man may have belonged to an Idiotarian organisation, but he's both intellectually honest and well-intentioned. To continue :
But my split with Voices was not simply the outcome of reading Baram's article. From the outset, I had expected that Voices would cultivate knowledge on all things Iraqi as we set about our task of ending sanctions. I expected the better academic works on Iraq—the landmark studies by Baram, Batatu, and Marion and Peter Sluglett—to be on the office bookshelf. Instead all I found were uninformed tracts by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Edward Said.
So I left Voices, and I am no longer affiliated with it in any way. Perhaps it is poetic justice that I am now training to become a historian of Baathist Iraq. I now spend hours pouring over the documents of the defunct regime; perhaps this time I'll get it right.

With such plain human goodwill, the diamond-hard honesty to look for the flaws in one's own beliefs, and the courage to do something about it, there's no limit to what can be achieved.


: The article was found via Bargaz, thence from Damian Penny. Both blogs worth reading.

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