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Tuesday, April 06, 2004


There’s a Crooked Timber post about Hitchens article about Falluja. We haven’t read the latest outburst from Mr. Hitchens – after a while, it gets depressing to watch a man with no motor control trying to thread a needle. What interested us about the post was the end of it. After taking Hitchens to task for writing that the lynching in Falluja proved just how right we were to invade Iraq, the CT writer adds:

“… it seems appropriate to ask of everyone who seems certain of the rightness of their position on the war, whether there are any developments that would lead them to say, “OK, I was wrong.” For instance, if there is a functioning and independent Iraqi democracy within two years, which lasts for at least a further five, then I think that ought to shake the convictions of hardened opponents. But I don’t think that’s likely.”

On the face of it, what could be more reasonable than to apply the pragmatic principle of success or failure to positions that are, after all, built lock and stock in the context of social action? Yet this seems to LI to be a profoundly misleading move, one that a., denies agency to the Iraqis, b., misunderstands the deep and various levels of objection to the war in the first place, and c., posits an objectionable, and in the end pseudo-scientific relationship between politics and history. Wring those bland and seemingly reasonable words a bit, in other words, and you get a bad and typical thing, indicative of how deeply embedded in the intellectual mindset is that model of control and planning which developed in the 18th century and still defines the political role of the thinker in the West.

Let’s go to a. One of the more startling things about the Iraq invasion has been the framing racism of it all. Look, for instance, at the Washington Post’s Portrait of the Fallen – pictures of the casualties in Iraq – and you will notice … no Iraqis. Not only has the Defense department made no effort to collect information on Iraqi deaths, but the systematic downplaying of those deaths actually impedes any effort to understand what is happening there through the sieve of Western media. The values accorded to life and death, here, are the biopolitical substratum of the traditional racist images that have been set into motion by the occupation of Iraq. And not just by the Bush side, either. The great bien-pensant meme on the liberal side has been for more troops, or international troops, in conjunction with a suspension of Iraqi self-rule, so we can teach these people autonomy. It is the usual parent/child image, with the non-Western Iraqis playing the part of the recalcitrant child. As children, of course, they are too emotional, they complain all of the time, they are superstitious, and they are violent. Best, then, to spread a grid of soldiers over them commanded by adult Western bureaucrats. The endless stories about “teaching” policemen and soldiers all hammer in the same theme – these people are children that we have to take care of. Get out the stick, or the helicopter, or the tank, when they get unruly. In the meantime, of course, the Westerners doing all of this training can remain superbly indifferent to the very language the Iraqis speak, and certainly to their history – how can children have a history? – and their desires, all tuned to that frequency of the libido that makes them grumblers and rioters.

The racist substratrum conditions c., the control and command model. That accident, unexpected outcomes, and struggle might have as much to do with Iraq becoming a democracy, or not, as any central plan created by D.C. bureaucrats is simply made invisible by the options proposed by CT’s post – the right or wrong, the “proofs” that legitimate a position taken according to time and circumstances. This is where LI feels Burkian conservative twinges – a conservatism that has almost disappeared in the world. Burke’s objection to “theorists” in politics is just to this kind of attitude. It takes social action as, essentially, mechanical. And so you take an attitude at time x, the attitude is informed by principle y, and then history happens – the machine grinds out a result – and you proof your attitude.

Foucault, bless his baldheaded heart, was onto this kind of thing in Surveiller et Punir. For LI, a position is an adaptation to circumstances, rather than an idea that hovers above them. It is LI’s own form of anti-intellectualism.

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