Saturday, March 10, 2007

Failed reviews: introducing The Liberal

The Liberal is a new magazine to me, yet it was "first founded in 1821 by the Romantic poets Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt". It claims to be "committed to regenerating Romantic Liberalism and reinvigorating the public sphere". The burgeoning online edition features Simon Jarvis on Slavoj Žižek, Christopher Hitchens on the Leni Riefenstahl of Bush's America and Stephen Hart on César Vallejo. Most welcome however is Michael Hofmann on Brecht's poetry:
Poetry was for Brecht something he did on the side, almost a vice, a peccadillo. He didn’t want it to be his living, but was helpless to prevent it from remaining his primary expression. It was his mode of thought, of scrutiny, of play. This, I think, is what he meant when he said that the best argument against his drama was his poetry: the one deliberate, stylized, engineered and engineering – Brecht endlessly revised his plays to bring them ideologically into conformity with what was expected of them – the other anarchic, intelligent and trustworthy.
Like Prospect Magazine, The Liberal is Brecht without the poetry. A prime example is contributing editor Simon Kovar's review of Chomsky's Failed States. One can enjoy the familiar strains of ideological conformity as it tries to neutralise anarchic intelligence.

After token respect for some minor "compelling points" in the book, Kovar spends the rest of the review disguising his over-reading, impressions and suspicions as holes in Chomsky's logic.
Chomsky argues that post-9/11 American foreign policy displays a 'basic continuity' which reflects the interests of dominant domestic sectors, namely private business corporations. State power does not serve ideals, but rather the interests of concentrated power. 'Rationality' and 'logic' therefore dictate that any claim on, say, the moral imperative of humanitarian interventionism cannot be taken seriously. But if US policy-making is simply and predictably dictated by underlying structures of power, where does that leave the moral judgment (and therefore culpability) of individual politicians who are simply obeying the logic of the system in which they find themselves?
It leaves moral judgement where you left it Mr Kovar. Chomsky is merely pointing out that actions speak louder than words. While Chomsky is not a Behaviourist, neither is he a mind-reader. It's up to the citizens of the relevant countries to determine culpability (in an election if not a courtroom).
Most crucially of all, what room is left us in Chomsky’s analysis for the crucial distinction between liberal democracies – however flawed – and totalitarian tyrannies?
The distinction, as Chomsky makes clear so often you would have thought the reviewer might have taken note at least once, is that in the former we can change things using rational argument rather than fear and aggression. The significant flaw - hidden by Kovar's glib admittance - is that this depends on an independent political media to challenge power and inform the electorate. Unfortunately it spends most of its time defending power and disinforming the public. In this review at least The Liberal continues this sad tradition.

Like the clownish Peter Beaumont last year, Kovar thinks he has caught the great man out. "Chomsky seems reluctant to hold despotisms to the same moral standards he applies to liberal democracies." How many times has this canard been wheeled out?
The American, British and Israeli governments are readily condemned as being in violation of the standards of international law; but when Chomsky suggests that Syria and Hezbollah are not implicated in terrorism, or that Slobodan Milosevic wept for Bosnia’s Muslims, or that the West coerced Serbia into carrying out atrocities in Kosovo, one wonders if the same standard is being applied across the board.
Rather than "condemning", Chomsky is again merely holding these governments up to their own stated moral standards. It's Kovar who believes Chomsky is condemning them. They condemn themselves. And the "suggestions" he then lists are only that. They demonstrate the flexibility of perspectives available to the logic of the system, the perspective dutifully delineated at the drop of a hat by its loyal servants (e.g. a sudden concern for women's rights in Iran and innumerable uncritical reviews of Reading Lolita in Tehran).

Why does Kovar choose to read all this as apologetics? Does he read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book as an anti-Muslim tract or a critique of fundamentalist oppression by someone who should know? As a radical muslim, he might assume the first opinion, as a rationalist he'd be more likely take the second. So why does he read Chomsky so defensively? An answer appears in a revealing paragraph toward the end of the review:
It is important to remember that although Chomsky quotes liberal-democratic norms in support of his arguments, he is himself not a liberal in politics. Thus when he argues that the United States is not a “functioning democracy”, we ought to remember that liberal democratic theorists never pretended to be “democratic” in the sense that Chomsky understands the term. This is not simply because such individuals were out to protect property rights; rather, they held a genuine concern about the tyrannical potential inherent in popular democratic politics. When Chomsky quotes public opinion – making extensive use of polling data – and cites Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s popular support as evidence of their legitimacy, he displays precisely that tendency which those early liberals warned against: popular acclaim does not equal moral legitimacy. Perhaps Chomsky’s favoured analogy with Nazi Germany can at least be quoted in support of this point.
Again, Kovar seems to think pointing out contradictions in liberal-democratic argument is itself "an argument". It is simple empiricism. If the stated aim of a liberal-democracy is to "spread democracy" in selected countries, then logically democracy is the measure of that aim. And if Chomsky refers to democratic opinion (and its repression when it fails to deliver the "correct" result, as in the case in Palestine) then he is surely following such logic. This explains why he seems to Kovar to be "at one with politicians as drearily moderate as Menzies Campbell and Kenneth Clarke". But of course, he's different from Campbell and Clarke in that his analysis results from turning the logic of liberal democracy back on itself, thereby revealing that tyranny is not just inherent to popular democratic politics but currently extant. And rather than oppose it, the drearily ineffective Menzies Campbell has lately been talking up the occupation of Afghanistan as "winnable". After all, those with "moral legitimacy" know when to show genuine concern when the public sphere is invaded by innocents who take democracy seriously. How significant is it that the young man the elderly Campbell replaced as leader of the Liberal Democrats addressed the two million-strong march against the invasion of Iraq on February 15th, 2003?


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