Christopher Hitchens and moral glibness
Sometimes I wonder if Slate knows that they’re being ripped off by Christopher Hitchens. After all, he’s been writing the same two columns for while now: either he complains about how oppressive it is that he has to share space with religious people, or he’s blasting liberals for not being “serious” enough to support the indiscriminate killing of Arabs and/or Muslims. This week’s column is in the latter category:
But spastic missiles and low-yield nukes can still ruin the whole day of a neighboring state, as well as make a travesty of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and such international laws and treaties as are left to us. Thus, if it is true that Iran is not as close to “break-out” as we have sometimes feared, should that not make our deliberations more urgent rather than less? Might it not mean, in effect, that now is a better time to disarm the mullahs than later?
The rest of the column continues along these lines: “if liberals are opposed to attacks on repressive regimes on the basis of potential harm to us, then said liberals should support an attack earlier on in the timeline, when said regimes are relatively weaker.” As Matt Steinglass correctly points out, this is nonsense – both on its merits and as a characterization of liberal opposition to the United States’ various foreign interventions. Liberal opposition to the Iraq War – to use one notable instance – wasn’t rooted in any fear of “the awesome power” that Saddam Hussein had at hand. It was based in two perfectly sensible observations: first, Saddam Hussein had done nothing that would warrant military retaliation, thus making the entire project illegal and immoral, and second, our utopian plan to build a stable, democratic Iraq was doomed to failure, if only because the United States doesn’t have the capacity or the power to completely transform a society from the ground up. Steinglass’ take is worth quoting here:
Those of us who didn’t want to invade Iraq tended to focus on the fact that invading a country that hasn’t attacked you, or really even done anything that would constitute a legitimate provocation, is illegal, because it’s illegal, and immoral, because it entails killing a lot of people (including children) for no good reason, and foolish, because it leads to consequences that may spiral horrifically out of control in unpredictable ways.
Furthermore, Hitchen’s logic simply doesn’t hold up*. We aren’t required to attack Iran because it is relatively weaker; the fact that Iran isn’t strong enough to retaliate in any meaningful way only means that attacking is a slightly more viable option among many other options. Diplomacy is still feasible, as are sanctions and what not.
That said, I’m always amused/deeply depressed by what counts as “acceptable” in our elite discourse. It is perfectly OK for Christopher Hitchens – or anyone, really – to euphemistically call for the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of civilians. Indeed, doing so marks you as a serious member of the political elite. This point has been made many times before, but there has not – and never will be – any social or professional sanction for the scores of pundits who clamored for the United States to go to war in Iraq. And in the case of someone like Bill Kristol, who bears direct responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, their enthusiasm was met with overwhelming professional success. By contrast, you are liable to be permanently banished from respectable circles if you so much as suggest that war for war’s sake is deeply immoral, if not a bad idea.
Indeed, the same goes for a whole host of critical issues. When a group of overly-parochial, self-interested politicians work together to block climate change legislation, they are lauded by most in the news media as courageous moderates. But in reality, it might be more accurate to describe them as borderline sociopaths. After all, their actions – or lack thereof – will directly contribute to the preventable deaths of tens of millions of people who had the misfortune of A) being born deeply impoverished and B) living near the coast. That they show almost no remorse about this is deeply troubling and absolutely reprehensible, to say the least. Roughly 45,000 Americans will die for lack of health insurance, and its treated as a minor data-point rather than the big fucking deal that it is.
I honestly don’t really know where I’m going with this. The short of it is that I am very – very – tired of our political culture’s moral glibness. I’m tired of people who treat politics as a game to be won and loss and not as a serious endeavor with real consequences for real people. And I’m tired of watching brave voices – from across the political spectrum – get pushed aside for refusing to treat politics as a game. As it stands, if you use your influence to push our system to do right by its citizens, then you’re dismissed as naive or “shill.” But if you have the courage and integrity to defend the government’s campaign of torture and disappearance, or solemnly advocate for the indiscriminate slaughter of brown people, then well, God better watch out because the sky’s the limit.