Phrase of the Day: Armchair Isolationism

In his plea to look serious, Obama has would-a-been Presidents rallying to his cause. First, McCain appears on Fox News to put down its obligatory anti-Muslim bigotry currently masquerading as counter-jihadism:

(With thanks to Harry’s Place.)

Second, John Kerry has been speaking – some words so blunt one has to question whether Obama approved them – against what he feared to be the lingering political undercurrent of “armchair isolationism”:

“This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter,” Mr Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”

Mr Kerry made an impassioned case for punitive strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons after President Barack Obama put off military action to first ask Congress for approval.

What Kerry calls “armchair isolationism” is quite important: it requires no effort on the part of the person sitting in the armchair, making it much more effective than the “armchair general” metaphor that reactionaries like to jump on.

It goes rather well with what Daniel Finkelstein has called in his blog the tendency of an “omission bias” where we instinctively presume that doing nothing is better than doing something, if the outcomes are uncertain:

Basketball referees are taught that there are four types of calls — correct calls, incorrect calls, correct non-calls and incorrect non-calls. It is better to make a correct call than an incorrect one, obviously. And if you fail to call an infringement when you should, you will be criticised.

But every referee knows that it is far better to make such an omission than to make a call in the dying moments of a game and be wrong. So what happens? In sport after sport, the referees blow their whistles far more in the earlier parts of the game than in the closing stages, thus penalising those infringed against. Omission bias.

Yesterday morning the Conservative MP Adam Holloway, opposed to taking action in Syria, provided as his chief argument that the outcome of intervention was impossible to predict. And he is quite right. In fact, he pierced to the heart of almost every foreign policy dilemma. The outcome of action is always hard to predict.

Kerry has had a morally dubious edge in his history, of course, having once boasted for shooting a member of the Viet Cong from the riverbank. As if that were not rather distasteful in itself, this would feature in the same presidency campaign he ran based on a platform of opposition to the Iraq war. I have seen people oppose both wars; I have seen others support the overthrow of Saddam but remain horrified at the prospect of napalm in the jungle. Kerry’s revisionism was more the twisting of rotten carcass than a breath of fresh air, his trade-off between principle and populism outperforming even Ed Miliband.

All the same – swiftly navigating away from that tangent – it’s encouraging to see that both the left and right of American politics seem willing to confront Assad. It seems that McCain will have advised the President on more than he did to the Senate, whom he recommended vote for action principally to maintain American credibility. Elsewhere, he has been more willing to emphases the need for a Syrian policy against Assad as necessarily being concomitant with an active one to support the more moderate rebels facing off terrorist groups.

In a way, it’s a long overdue slap down to the old Kissinger-esque assumption that a foreign policy of humanitarianism cannot also be one of realpolitik pragmatism. McCain, and to a lesser extent Kerry, have recognised that a war against sectarian jihadists satisfies both outlooks.


Orwell, and the Humanism of Making Tea

What Orwell probably didn’t realise when he sat down to write his rules for making tea was that he was contributing to the humanistic philosophy of the cuppa. Would it be Aristotelian tea? Platonic tea? Socratic tea? No, that’s quite silly. But still, it’s true that his article was somewhat essentially humanistic: in ways I love and would rather pretentiously advocate. What do I mean? Is Mark really comparing making tea to humanism? I believe he is.

The Good Book by Professor A.C. Grayling – whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet – lays down a huge volume of what the author calls “secular laws”. That is to say, humanist values that dispense of divine instruction, and as a corollary they dispense with the sense of predetermined “absolute” laws. Religious critics always claim that without supernatural justification for universal laws, they can’t hold as fact: objectivity, and therefore any moral purpose to law, falls apart to blurry subjectivity. Readers of this blog will know, full well, that I hate this process; there are objectively moral laws that ought to operate in this world, as the Good Book attempts to illustrate. As a basic starting point, these might include: no murder, no rape, no pedophilia, no racial/sexual discrimination. We don’t need God for this.

Now Orwell, in writing his rules for tea, is doing the same. Writing on the presupposition that there are no agreed laws for tea making – given the absence of an almighty, omnipotent, omniscient Tea Father – he tries to establish an empirical science behind how one should travel from leaf to drink (e.g. “the water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact”). As it happens, most of his rules do the trick.

I’m not so convinced about the Ceylonese vs Chinese debate, but it’s true the milk should be added to the tea, rather than the other way around; that there should be no sugar, ever; boiling water; made in small amounts; no strainers. In other words, appreciate your tea. And read Orwell’s rules.

Just don’t name a blog after it. (That’s my job.)

Does the Death Penalty Trivialise War?

It was at his 2004 State of the Union Address – in the midst of an ongoing hunt for those pesky WMDs – that George Bush declared:

I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime – a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States – and war is what they got.

Exaggerated – and I trepidly suggest fictitious – claims of a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam aside, the language here is telling. “Justice” has always been the most obvious choice of populist rhetoric; its ambiguities are concealed by the universally agreeable passion it provokes. Central to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of a just war was its “just cause”: as soon as justice is given common definition both in statute and in the popular worldview then so many actions and institutions are legitimised.

And look at the delicate euphemism behind Bush’s speech: we will meet the challenge of “chaos and carnage” with our own, with more than “legal papers”. I keep trying but I can’t imagine Blair ever saying this. Both are devout Christians, so you might have thought such moral-stuffed language would come merrily; so it’s a cultural distinction. Specifically, the attitude towards capital punishment. Polls do occasionally show majorities or pluralities of Brits in favour of it for the most abominable crimes, but that’s never true of the political classes. The fact that it’s far more acceptable in America makes banging the drums a little easier, wouldn’t you say? It’s easier to imply that justice will be violent when “an eye for an eye” sits behind a constitution.

What was always so remarkable about the American revolution was how mob warfare did not become mob rule in triumph. Unlike France later on, America built its institutions around strict codes, establishing a state subservient to absolute laws that derived their authority from secular rather than religious morality. But I find the death penalty to be an excess of this. The constitution should never have been revered – since it took a civil war to drive out slavery – and the elimination of murder as a form of justice would I think improve it that little bit more. It makes war far harder to justify.

For example: people like myself, for whom it is contemptuous that a state might assume so great a moral authority than it can kill its citizens, find an anti-war position instinctive. To support the killing of the foreign “enemies” to which Bush alluded conflicts with the view that death should never be an instrument of justice. It’s sometimes made more bearable through talk of “collateral damage”, where death is recognised but it’s penciled in coolly without the shallow confidence. In other words, paradoxes have to be overcome before a war is supported, and so it makes it all the more important to weigh up reality against idealism; war would have to be a last resort, and it would have to be purely strategic. No gleeful yodeling at the death of an enemy, no talk of “justice”. Only pure, cold, calculated facts.

Or at least, one can hope.

Morality and the Past

Can we pass judgement on history? It’s one of the many interesting questions to which my answer is “why the fuck not?”

If either of my tutors read this, I have no doubt that they would be thoroughly appalled. But it’s part of my personal – and silent, and very cautious – criticism with ivory tower mentality. The idea that it’s a perfectly legitimate way of life to withdraw into a tower and spend your life researching intricate facts about which no one else gives a shit. I do feel like I’m betraying the Oxford legacy, but I hate it. Such a waste of intelligence.

Complaints against moralising with those unable to defend their name are usually threefold:

  1. It’s “unhistorical”; our values were not present at the time.
  2. Moral prejudices will inevitably skew the facts.
  3. What’s the point? It’ll just be us attacking past cultures.

The first is true, but irrelevant. Why don’t we approach alternative cultures with a view to compare, to contrast? It’s fascinating to analyse, say, modern Islamic and more liberal-minded values. Unsurprisingly I’m generally reaffirmed in my view that stoning gays or rape victims is wrong, but I’m at least open to persuasion. The trouble with this is that we’re limited, rather obviously, by contemporary or near-contemporary anecdotes and cultures for our evidence. Opening the scope to the whole of history multiplies this to new level.

The second is a cause for a concern, but ultimately insults the historian. I, for one, would advocate a sort of parallel approach here: keep your specialists. They provide the facts and the gritty detail – the boring language, the dry and witless abstracts and tedious conclusions. (It is, I think, rather difficult to popularise intimate historiography of the early Counter-Reformation subversion of the Eucharist by priestly pretensions to the divinity of hierarchy. Trust me . I’ve tried.) But add to them historical polemicists. They take the facts and add the colour, thus rehabilitating history with a role for popular culture. And then the specialists can read the polemics and point out what does and does not reek of bullshit. The democratisation of accurate history, in other words.

And finally: other than comparing the values of other societies, we can draw some rather important “lessons”. I can’t think of a better word, sorry. What we need first to accept is that morality can be objective, and universal (equality of the sexes, the races etc are I think guaranteed). And if they are objective then there can be empirical substance behind them. We can provide facts that support or contradict those moral arguments. Was William the Conqueror a bastard (in term of conscience, that is)? Well, let’s see what he did!

Think of it as the new humanist historiography. Machiavelli, for one, would draw political instruction for his contemporaries. If we can agree with some universal standards for philosophical humanism then we can apply them to history, and we can draw more objectively moral lessons.

So Elizabeth I was a bitch and her father was the early modern predecessor to Stalin – who was indeed evil. Who’s with me?