Sunday, September 11, 2011

Blaming the bad guys

I feel as though I've talked about this before, perhaps more than once, but here it is again. Christopher Hitchens, talking about the "simply evil" attacks of 9/11, writes:
That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist "targets," was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. There was always some "intellectual," however, to argue in each case that the policy of Tony Blair, or George Bush, or the Spanish government, was the "root cause" of the broad-daylight slaughter of civilians. Responsibility, somehow, never lay squarely with the perpetrators.
So here's what I've said before and am going to say again: responsibility can (and in this case certainly does) lie squarely with the perpetrators of a crime without this meaning that there is no point in looking elsewhere for any root cause. This root cause is unlikely to be anything so simple as the policy of this or that government, but only careful investigation will show whether it is or not. The point I want to make is that to identify a root cause of some class of actions is not to deny that agents are wholly responsible for their own actions. The same kind of point applies, I think, to unemployment and rioting (or looting). That is, the unemployed are likely to be on average lazier (not necessarily by much) than the employed, and when rioting or looting is going on you can expect it to attract a bad crowd. Similarly, as far as I know, the people who ran the Nazi death camps tended to be sadists and psychopaths.

But no one would blame the Holocaust on a few bad apples. Not everyone directly involved was unusually sadistic or psychopathic before they got involved. And why people like this were ever put in a position to commit their crimes with the acceptance of (most of) the rest of their society surely calls for explanation. The same kind of thing goes for unemployment, I would think. In a world with no unemployment everyone will work, except the very lazy. In a world with some unemployment those very lazy people will still not work and some others won't either. These others will include some (maybe very many) people who are just unlucky, but they will probably also include some people who are a bit lazier than average. When being a Nazi in power is an option, this option will be popular with sadists. When being unemployed is one of the paths facing people, this will be popular with relatively lazy people. And when rioting and looting are going on, thieves are likely to want to join in more than other people. So the popular, conservative view that rioters are thieves, the unemployed are lazy, and so on, is likely to have a grain of truth in it. (I should stress in the case of unemployment that it might well be no more than a grain. In the 1980s in Britain whole factories, mines, etc. were closed own, leaving their workers unemployed. Of course these people were not lazy. And the same kind of thing is happening now in the U.S.) But this does not explain why being a Nazi in power, or being unemployed, or joining a riot is even an option in the first place. Factories don't close down because their workers choose not to work, preferring leisure over income as I'm pretty sure one of my old economics textbooks implied.

And so with Al Qaeda. I accept Hitchens' characterization of them as:
a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.  
But this does not explain why the group has ever got as far as it has toward achieving its aims. Saying, however truly, that it and its actions are simply evil does not explain all that needs to be explained. For that we need a more sophisticated analysis, of the kind offered here by Peter Bergen. And given this, assertions like Hitchens', implying that to identify root causes is to let the terrorists off the hook, are either propaganda for the popular, conservative view that we have been involved since 9/11 in a simple war of good against evil, and that it is not only unnecessary but morally wrong to consider the possibility that things might be more complicated than this, or else simply mistaken.


  1. I think the best refutation of Hitchens is to point out that it isn't just his "intellectuals"-in-scare-quotes who take the view he attributes to them. The same view is also widely taken by members of the intelligence and security services whose job it is coldly and coolly to assess and identify both security threats and their causes - instead of scoring political points by peddling the narrative that is most rewarding psychologically regardless of its truth or falsity, which is conversely the job of politicians.

    From time to time there are these news stories where high-ranking intelligence officials, researchers at impressively creepy military think tanks, etc., vent their frustration at their inability to get politicians to acknowledge that root causes matter, that the so-called war on terror has made the world less safe and not more, and so on. (Things which they characterise in addition as being obvious to anyone with any professional competence at all in the assessment and elimination of security threats - anyone except Hitchensian politicians and columnists too busy running their moral Punch and Judy show to notice.)

    The current situation is a fascinating reversal from the historical norm, which perhaps has passed Hitchens by. It used to be the intelligence services who were traditionally viewed as an important threat to idealistic politicians and their socially progressive goals; all those rumours about Harold Wilson and MI5, for instance. But nowadays the spooks and spymasters more often seem to wring their hands in frustration at the reactionary regressiveness of politicians. (Just like the House of Lords in Britain used to be a brake on all sorts of social reforms the House of Commons wished to carry out, while it currently seems to be far more progressive in many matters than the Commons.)

    The most interesting philosophical treatment of this group of phenomena that I've so far come across is by Raymond Geuss (him again) in his essay "Political Judgment in Its Historical Context" in Politics and the Imagination, which discusses the frustrating experience of Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the United States, with the Bush administration.

  2. Yes, politicians seem to be either acting or getting stupider. Maybe it has always seemed that way. Or maybe the electorate is getting more stupid. Or the media more cynical. I don't know. One reason I wrote about this piece by Hitchens is that an old friend of mine, who is not at all stupid, thought that Hitchens was exactly right. I suppose there have always been people with that kind of "moral clarity."

    And that's another book by Geuss to add to my reading list. Thanks!

  3. This is the Geuss book that I initially recommended, but at the time I only recommended the more explicitly Wittgensteinian bits in it... it's heady stuff (for me at least) and best taken in small doses. Fortunately all of Geuss's essays and books are short - a rather underappreciated virtue.

    One of the most interesting things about the quantitative empirical stuff that went into my own book was that contemporary electorates are almost exactly as (ir)rational and (un)informed as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, when research began in earnest. As for politicians, I'm not sure that being informed is helpful by itself. If you're well informed, this can merely help you find more inventive and ingenious excuses for disregarding the information you have whenever it conflicts with prior ideological commitments. That's one of the theories in the literature anyway.

    The media are more cynical than they were a generation ago - but then again, claims that public affairs have relatively recently taken a significant turn for the worse have been regularly made in Western culture for more than two thousand years.

  4. If we focus back on the war on terror, the one explanation I personally lean towards is the one offered by the late Tony Judt, which sees it largely as an artefact of the aberrant historical experience of the United States. As he wrote a few years ago:

    Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. [...] And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties. [...] With the exception of the generation of men who fought in World War II, the United States thus has no modern memory of combat or loss remotely comparable to that of the armed forces of other countries. [...] American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead. [...] As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. [...] I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand - in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies - seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.

    I think this is true, and very relevant, and extremely underrated. In Western Europe, it was only Britain that stood alongside the US - but this was caused not by popular support, which was lukewarm even at its height, but more by the grip of the mythology of "special relationship" on the British political class, and partly also by the personal character traits of Tony Blair.

    And then there's the fact that most senior politicians themselves no longer have any real personal background in the military. Bush never saw active duty, while Blair of course doesn't even have any kind of military training (and neither does Hitchens). In fact, of recent major pro-war politicians, only Colin Powell is a war veteran, and he was the most moderate and multilateralist pro-war politician around. The more indirect and simile-of-the-cave-like the politicians' personal experience of the hellishness of war becomes, the easier it becomes psychologically for them to go to war. There isn't anything more characteristic of recent times than Blair lecturing Jacques Chirac, a decorated war veteran, on the virtues of war, or Bush painting John Kerry as a defeatist softie.

  5. The Geuss book I plan to read first is Outside Ethics, but this will have to join it near the top of my list. And short is good as I'm a slow reader.

    The media are more cynical than they were a generation ago - but then again, claims that public affairs have relatively recently taken a significant turn for the worse have been regularly made in Western culture for more than two thousand years.

    Yes, this is confusing. There's all the evidence that things have got worse, and then all the evidence that we always misperceive such evidence.

    There isn't anything more characteristic of recent times than Blair lecturing Jacques Chirac, a decorated war veteran, on the virtues of war, or Bush painting John Kerry as a defeatist softie.

    And Bush getting away with it. At least Blair's party lost its credibility. But then so did the Lib Dems, and now the Conservatives can sell themselves as the Devil you know, as opposed to the Devils you thought you knew. I think I would have to vote for Rupert Read's Green Party, but most people still don't. It's unsettling that politics increasingly feels like a choice between sanity and insanity, rather than competing sane options.