September 13, 2003


Two years of gibberish: The garbled utterances of the left after 9/11 merely flattered the arguments of warmongers. (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, September 2003, Prospect)

[...] 11th September was a day when consciousness changed. To look back at the responses which the murder evoked from the literary and political intelligentsia is to see something more than many clever and famous people making fools of themselves (enjoyable though that is). Here was a turning point. The mass murder in New York came just over four years after the death of Princess Diana. Writing here about that event, I said that the beatification of Diana by some alleged radicals demonstrated more vividly then anything since the fall of the Berlin wall the final bankruptcy of a large part of the progressive tradition 200 years after 1789. What was said and written after "9/11" might have been the formal declaration of that bankruptcy. [...]

Two years later, the sorriest consequence of all this has become much clearer. Because the critics of the Bush administration and Blair government made themselves so ridiculous in the aftermath of 11th September, the proper case against the Iraq war was subsequently much weakened. Sane critics of Bush and Blair must have been embarrassed by the sheer emptiness of the Voices for Peace, one of the instant books which came out in autumn 2001, in which Mark Steel, Ronan Bennett, Annie Lennox ("I'm sorry, but I just don't get it"), George Monbiot ("Let's make this the era of collateral repair"), Anita Roddick ("We must shift from a private greed to a public good") and other usual or unusual suspects were rounded up, along with Adrian Mitchell (yes, also still with us), who rather lamely reprinted his old favourite "Tell me lies about Vietnam," which must have taken a few wrinklies back to the 1960s.

These unthinking "radicals" provoked more than just amusement mixed with irritation-they induced a sense of despair. They simply had nothing to say-as they showed when they were asked for more practical advice. If Alice Walker's suggestion that Bin Laden should be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done was one of the most remarkable entries in this whole sottisier, it wasn't much different in kind from the fatuities on offer elsewhere. Paul Foot led the way by telling Bush, "first, cut off your aid to the state of Israel." This was like saying, first, conquer the law of gravity, or, first, fly to Venus.

Other pundits came close to admitting defeat. "There is no real solution," John Mortimer sighed, and Jon Snow added limply that "There has to be a complete re-evaluation of how the world ticks." Tom Paulin did have a pragmatic answer-"I'm in favour of the symbolic notion of dropping food parcels into Afghanistan"-and Bruce Kent suggested that the al Qaeda leaders should be tried in absentia: "I would even go as far as combing through their bank accounts."

A crucial distinction was hereby discarded. An invasion of Afghanistan was, arguably, morally justifiable, militarily feasible, and in any case politically inevitable. No American president who had failed to respond with physical force could have remained in office. If the attacks had been carried out by an identifiable state, no one but a pure pacifist would have denied that the US had a casus belli. If there had been an equivalent casus belli in the case of Iraq then that war would have been very different. There wasn't, of course: the Bush and Blair regimes had to cook up a false case for a war which had been decided upon years ago, which some of the bright sparks in the Washington administration had been publicly advocating for six years, and for which 11th September provided less a reason than a pretext. But saying that the Iraq war was and remains legally and morally unjustifiable would have been much more cogent if it hadn't been for the earlier fatheaded "voices for peace," whose unintended effect was to make almost any case for war seem more plausible.

Two years on, one further lesson not easily seen at the time-not on the day we all watched the aircraft sharking in, the falling bodies, the crumpling towers, nor in the weeks afterwards when our clerisy gave such an egregious performance-emerges more clearly. The liberal left has forgotten the grammar of pacificism: not absolute rejection of violence but liberal noninterventionism, the noble doctrines of Cobden and Bright. Plenty of the self-styled "dissenters" of two years ago evidently followed a new doctrine. Armed force may be justified, but not if it in any way coincides with British or American national interest. This is almost the opposite of what Bright advocated: armed violence should be restricted to the basic defence of the nation; otherwise although one may have sympathy with suffering peoples across the globe, "it is not my business to make my country the knight-errant of the human race." It was because the left had forgotten Bright's dictum that Tony Blair was able to wrong-foot his party over Iraq.

A clue to this sorry performance may be found in the relationship between the literary-academic left in the west-or "what's left of the left"-and militant Islam. On the face of it they should be opposite magnetic poles. So they once were. The Enlightenment knew what to say about religions, all of them: "Écrasez l'infame!" In the 19th century, the progressive party believed that one of the reasons for European superiority over the benighted regions of Asia and Africa was the conquest of superstition.

Today, credulous doting on Islam is not just an expression of western self-hatred. On the face of it, Islam and the western left have nothing in common at all. But they do, in fact, something profoundly important. They share the common experience of defeat.

Were he a bit more perceptive, Mr. Wheatcroft would realize that this vacuous Left is the ultimate expression of Enlightenment.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2003 9:33 AM

One of the fascinating things about the Enlightenment is the precision with which you can mark its peak: 1776, when Smith published Wealth of Nations and Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. It's been downhill from then on.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 13, 2003 10:01 AM

Tha's a slander. Both Smith's capitalism and the Declaration require Judeo-Christian faith.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2003 10:11 AM

Unwittingly, Wheatcroft subscribes to Annie Lennox's ("I'm sorry but I just don't get it.").

Posted by: genecis at September 13, 2003 10:19 AM

That's what makes 1776 the peak of the Enlightenment. After that, it started jettisoning religion as fast as it could, so that by the time of the French Revolution the Enlightenment was terror's best friend. Smith and Jefferson, on the other hand, didn't see any contradiction between religion and reason.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 13, 2003 10:55 AM

The way I read the excerpt is "you mean I no longer can just assert that I'm correct, but have to actually demonstrate it? Man, that's way too much work."

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 13, 2003 11:01 AM

Ah, a glass half full deal, eh?, David.

I'd say it was Judeo-Christianity's high water mark.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2003 11:23 AM

I don't get the glass half full thing. I think the glass was full and then dumped out with the baby, to mix metaphors. And wouldn't the Judeo-Christian high point have to be a couple of thousand years ago.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 13, 2003 12:08 PM

You see the Enlightenment half full, I see it half empty (okay, totally empty).

Not sure, even in my most ecumenical spirit, I can agree that the Crucifixion was a high point. :)

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2003 12:20 PM

I was being purposely vague for exactly that reason. I can happily stick with Sinai.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 13, 2003 1:56 PM

"Tha's a slander. Both Smith's capitalism and the Declaration require Judeo-Christian faith."


Hong Kong, among other places with scarcely a Judeo-Christian to be found, seems to have mastered Wealth of Nations quite nicely.

And if you replace "Creator" with "by virtue of their existence" all the following assertions still make just as much sense.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 13, 2003 9:03 PM

If you put "endowed by their Kumquat" it would make just as much sense to those who don't believe in a creator. But you will have lost me and Jefferson.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 13, 2003 9:23 PM


You're citing our fellow former British colony for the notion that Judeo-Christianity is unimportant to capitalism?

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2003 5:28 AM


Exactly. There were a great many things that went into making Wealth of Nations possible. The English Channel, The 30-Years War, and Christianity not being afflicted with pre-destination are probably several among them.

And having happened in England first, English colonialism would ensure its spread.

But your assertion was that, absent Judeo-Christian beliefs, Smith's capitalism is impossible. Hong Kong's history contradicts that assertion. Instead, that history rather demonstrates evolutionary theory. A series of mutations led to a new life form which proved so fit that only the most vigorous rear-guard actions could hope to keep it even momentarily at bay.

No matter the extant religious beliefs.


In what way would that leave you behind?

Allow me to rephrase what I had earlier written to "...that all men are created equal, possessing certain inalienable Rights, that among these are ..."

The meaning of what follows is rendered no less comprehensible, nor is the impact any less profound, for the absence of " their Creator..."

That Judeo-Christianity proved insufficiently inimical to the Enlightenment to prevent Wealth of Nations and the Declaration happening seems scarcely reason enough to conclude understanding the latter requires understanding the former.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 14, 2003 7:04 AM

So Hong Kong Chinese are a different species than other Chinese? Or were they rather beneficiaries of a Judeo-Christianity that they may not have believed in personally at first. One would note that the capitalist society they had now appears as if it may prove transitory--the British Christians no longer being in control.

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2003 7:21 AM

Capitalism without the institutional support for the rule of law and ordered liberty is impossible. Liberty is valued only where the dignity of the individual human being is valued. The concept of "ordered liberty" or freedom within the context of respect for the rights of others and reciprocity may be impossible without the idea of "natural law" above the law of man. The attempt to organize society on the basis of pure reason has always involved replacing the concept of a higher law beyond the competence of man with a reliance on "democracy" or the general will, the nation, the volk, the vanguard, etc. In those instances the individual becomes an abstraction who needs to acquiesce or be eliminated. Only when the individual is seen as a creature "endowed by its creator..." can government and society be placed in its proper and limited role and the individual protected from the threat of elimination in the name of the greater good.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 14, 2003 11:09 AM

Jeff -- If we can agree that men were created, I'm copacetic.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 14, 2003 6:13 PM

If we exist, we must have been created.


Divine intervention or as one bit of detritus from a goal-free fitness mechanism--take your pick. It just doesn't matter, because no matter your outlook, this particular form of social organization is so much more "fit" than any other yet tried.

The truth value of the Declarations assertions are independent of your particular view of man's creation.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 14, 2003 10:21 PM

Jeff --

Until you defeat the British Empire, the Declaration is just a bunch of pretty words, about as effective as blogging. In other words, these self-evident truths would come only from the barrel of a gun and could be overturned by another gun or even the ballot box.

If they come from G-d, they are immutable.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 15, 2003 10:29 AM

If they're just political they may depend on one vote. If the Supreme Court rules 5-4 against abortion one day and 5-4 in favor of abortion tomorrow and then 5-4 against it a few years later, in what sense have we been discussing a "right". All you've done is replace God with Sandra Day O'Connor.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 10:35 AM


You lost me here. Should some other form of social organization come along that is more fit than one emodying those assertions, overturning them, does that mean there is no God, or there is a God, and they are, after all, quite mutable?


I haven't replaced God with anybody. Rather, it seems obvious, to me anyway, that those assertions possess inherent truth value independent of their justification--what and why are two different things.

My assertion that women should be sovereign over everything within their bodies is an assertion. If I told you God spoke to me and told me to spread that word, would it make an difference to you?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 15, 2003 1:34 PM

The point, reiterated dozens of times, is that there is no other political system that does so. Rights are either from God or from the State. If the latter, they are temporary. If the former, eternal.

And, no, your assertion that God had spoken to you and told you the fetuses must die would mark you a psychopath, not a prophet.

Posted by: Jeff at September 15, 2003 1:38 PM


If the former, then eternal?

If I remember my history correctly, this state of affairs has existed in only a few places for a vanishingly brief time in comparison to humanity's time on earth.

That sounds much more like ephemeral than eternal to me.

And, I am truly honored to know someone who is able to distinguish those who truly have spoken to God from those who haven't.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 15, 2003 8:47 PM

When blacks were enslaved did they not have a right to be free? Christians believed they did because they were Created in His Image. Your position in 1860 would have been they had no such right because the State didn't recognize it, as your position is now with regard to fetuses.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 9:12 PM