[This is a somewhat expanded version of a blog post that appeared just a few days ago and engendered considerable reaction.]
Good, insightful people can have conflicting views about Libya, the Mideast, and North Africa, and the UN and U.S. role there.
Rather than flinging verbal daggers at one another until irretrievable splits permanently part us, can we disagree but also hear others and realize we may not be right? Can we even find a way to pursue the logic of our views, differences and all, in a shared agenda?
To that end, can we agree on some basics to have in mind to test positions against the immense amount we know about U.S. policies, the limited amount we know about events in Libya, and our shared values and commitments?
About the U.S., we know that U.S. foreign policy stems from three highly related sources:
1. Geopolitical, economic, and social interests of U.S. ruling elites which in Libya are overwhelmingly dominated by oil and by U.S. ability to coerce regional outcomes toward U.S. agendas.
2. Desires to maintain an ideological facade to ward off dissent by claiming to respect people, law, and justice, even while actually pursuing antihuman, illegal, and unjust acts.
3. Being forced by dissent and activism to do what they would otherwise not do, but then of course seeking to implement the two above points as best they can, as well.
About Libya and the region, we know:
1. That the Mideast and North Africa are in turmoil including challenging and even toppling existing relations, in turn potentially affecting regional decisions about oil, Israel, the U.S., etc., and
2. That the internal balance of power varies from country to country, often involving serious repressive internal and external obstacles to change.
About our values, we all, who are reading this, presumably want:
1. Maximal gain in the quality of life, freedom, and future prospects of people in as many countries as possible, both in the region and elsewhere too, and…
2. That popular movements in Libya and throughout the region have room to enlarge their awareness and demands and to press their cases without suffering extreme repression or even massacre.
Can we agree, therefore, that any U.S. undertaking in Libya – or for that matter anywhere – will have as its main intentions virtually zero to do with saving innocents other than as something to claim for purposes of rationalization? And can we agree that U.S. intentions will have everything to do with attaining better results for empire, albeit in this case in a difficult situation where U.S. interests are challenged and may be seriously diminished and where public pressure is limiting U.S. options? And can we agree that we want to aid prospects for oppositions to institute new relations throughout the region?
If we can agree as noted above, wherein lies the basis for dispute?
Some activists felt that the potential massacre of the opposition in Libya had to be avoided at nearly all costs. Some of these activists, even with a full understanding of the dangers inherent in unleashing U.S. military saw the UN injunction and ensuing intervention as the least harmful real protection and space gaining option for the Libyan opposition.
Other activists felt, despite their fear for the very survival of the Libyan opposition, that U.S. intervention – and British and French – would be so grotesquely motivated that while one could conceive of such acts stopping at merely protecting the opposition, there was no reason to believe that anything like that would happen unless it was forced, so that the likely cost of intervention would be horribly unacceptable including co-opting or subordinating the opposition to U.S. dictates.
The debate, now, after the intervention has occurred, could become more nuanced and precise or more polarized and harsh.
Both sides might agree that whether we like it or not, clearly Qaddafi has some support so that this has become a protracted struggle, perhaps even a civil war. In that context, one side may say, okay, intervening with a no fly zone and perhaps even some very limited attacks on repressive forces about to strike the opposition to prevent massacre and to level the playing field for Libyans to determine their own future by debate and without violent repression was the best we could get and our support was well advised. The other side might say, staying out so that Libyans could determine their own future because greater intervention would in fact generate both greater carnage and also nationalism so great as to trump the true issues of the day and generate only a typical interventionist horror and nationalist reaction, usurping the more creative and far reaching dissident potentials, was the likely outcome, so our opposition was waranted.
Some will qualify the above views one way, some another way. Some will feel strongly one way, others another way. Some will feel they didn't know enough, or still don't know enough, to have had an opinion about the nuances at all – or perhaps even that no one does.
In the real circumstances that actually pertain now, if we can agree to disagree respectfully about past matters, can't we then all also agree that at most limited protection of the opposition should occur and that as little as possible beyond that will be better than escalating intervention, and that in any event actions widening the assault into an interventionist war would be horrific for countless reasons?
And if we can now agree on that much, then whether one wished there had been no intervention at all or liked that it occurred up to a point but wants it to not usurp the opposition's agenda much less plunge the country into interminable occupation and conflict, is actually moot. The universal bottom line now, regardless of one's views about what has happened up until now, would be, even with just this level of agreement, to bring pressure to bear to prevent a widening violent approach by the U.S., Britain, France, et. al., so that Libyans will determine the future of Libya. Disagreements about the past could then take a very distant back seat to unity against wider war in the future.
There is, I think, a broader and more subtle and perhaps more troubling point to make, or perhaps more accurately, derivative lesson to consider.
When someone who I respect, with views I think are informed and solid and with values that I think are sound, takes a stance contrary to a stance I take – what should be my reaction? Say I favor x. This other person, let's call him Joe, previously an ally and considered by me quite sensible and moral, favors y. Let's say that I think y is horribly wrong and Joe, instead, says it is x that is horribly wrong. In this case we can say x is do not institute no fly and y is do institute no fly – or vice versa. In another case the difference might be about some tactical choice for our movement, or even some strategic priority for it.
Okay, so now what? What should be my attitude to Joe and his attitude toward me?
Well, one possibility is that I can think that my view, x, is so utterly obviously true and right that the only conceivable way Joe could believe y instead of x is if Joe has changed his spots – Joe no longer has the values he had earlier or he no longer has the broad analysis he had earlier, and thus of course Joe arrives at y, where I arrived at x. Now there is no denying that this could be accurate. In the Libya case, as one example, Joe, the long time critic of U.S. imperialism, capitalism, etc. etc., who has for years or even decades favored self determination, self management, etc. – could have suddenly moved from his past views and values to new ones, and thus of course to now favoring y instead of x.
But here is a second possibility. Perhaps Joe is smarter than I and has made a subtle connection I haven't seen. Or perhaps Joe knows some additional facts that I don't know. Or maybe Joe has a different perception or assessment of existing facts, because the assessment is a judgement call, and somewhat of a guess, and he just guesses differently than I do. At any rate, Joe hasn't changed his spots. He hasn't lost his values or insights. He just honestly disagrees. And he may even be not just reasonable, but correct, and in that case I may even be wrong, even though I don't think so.
We on the left often have a very hard time thinking the second possibility even exists, much less is highly likely – yet when you look at the above in the abstract, of course the second possibility is highly likely and the first possibility, with its sudden changing of spots, is strikingly unlikely. We also seem to like to rush to the judgement that the first possibility must be the case, despite it being so improbable, and also so nasty.
Here is an observation. It isn't even only that the rush to judgement that assumes possibility one is horrible and destructive. We have all seen it occur. We have even seen moronic versions of it in which someone we have been mentored by, say, takes a view contrary to ours, and we dispense with decades of their wisdom and immediately deduce that because they differ from us they must have lost their way and be in a logical or moral sewer, including selling out us and their past, and so on. Okay, that's really bad. It is hard to avoid sometimes, arguably, but is nonetheless horribly bad and important to avoid.
But the problem I want to extend this discussion to, particularly when we are assessing social possibilities, our views of complex policies, and even more so, our views about our own strategic and tactical options, is different. In such cases, we need to not only disagree with mutual respect, we also need to disagree hoping not that we are right and Joe, say, is wrong, but that whoever is right, whether us or Joe, the correct view emerges as ratified and thus the progress of our joint project is greater. To want to be right so much that we are upset to be wrong when discovering that we are wrong means that the overall left is now right – is the added dimension of these issues I mean to highlight.
I have an analogy, harsh, but perhaps clarifying.
Consider Sam is on death row for murder. Sarah was his defense attorney, who lost the court case. Steven was the prosecutor who won the case. Sarah finds out there is DNA from the scene that has newly surfaced. She (and Sam) argue the DNA should be tested so as to show without doubt Sam's innocence, which she believes in. Steven argues against testing…and this is of course not hypothetical but instead something that happens quite often in the real world.
Notice that Steven wants to have been seen as correct in his past actions more than he wants justice to be attained. The same may be true of Sarah – by the way – who if she were the district attorney would very likely argue like Steven. Okay, Steven's vile stance, and it really is infinitely despicable, is partly because his career depends on his resume of unchallenged victories and is hurt by discovery of failures and their reversal. But it is also, I suspect, partly because due to the circumstances of Steven's training and the roles he has filled and their implications for his personality and thinking, Steven's orientation is truly not about attaining justice, but simply about winning contests, about being right, and about not being wrong.
Switch to us. I won't belabor much more. If there is a dispute over x and y – and Sarah says x would be better for the left project she is part of and Steven says y would be better for that project – if their highest aim is, in fact, the advance of the left project, then they should both want whichever of x and y would in fact be better for the project to be enacted. So they might sensibly argue for what they favor, but if proved wrong they should not be sad at having been wrong, but happy that the truth was found, and move on. That is who we need to be. It is, however, often not who we are. Often we don't really believe much in victory in our left endeavors (which is analogous to justice in the court setting) but instead we only want to "fight the good fight," "look good," and advance our standing by, well, being right, or at least seeming to be right, and certainly not wrong – not least because we don't really think victory (analogous to justice) is possible. We are, too often, more like the District Attorney than we believe.
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