A Simple Argument

After watching Chomsky's film last night, I started to wonder why he is viewed as such a radical figure. What he's arguing is rather simple actually. (Because of this, I will employ the charged language of "good" and "evil" in a somewhat simplistic manner, as a kind of shorthand.) I see it as something like the following.

1. We should hold ourselves to the same standards we hold others.

This is a straightforward premise that almost everyone would grant on an individual level, but which some Americans might take issue with, making the claim that, since America is a force of good in the world, it's perfectly alright if we engage in some acts of evil for the sake of a greater good. Before moving on, I will try to refute this point.

First, two facts about our psychology: a) humans have an overwhelming tendency to view themselves, the groups that they belong to, and the people that they like as good; b) humans have a strong tendency to view individuals and groups that they dislike as bad or evil. I think the tendency in (a) is stronger than that of (b).

Concerning (a): Everyone, with very few exceptions, views themselves as good and no one thinks of themselves as evil. This includes Nazis, Soviets, Islamic terrorists, you name it. (The handful of exceptions would be silly people like Satan worshippers and perhaps psychopaths and serial killers who are honest with themselves.)

Vast amounts of evidence support this claim; take any purportedly "evil" group in history and look at their literature. Whether they're killing in God's name, for the sake of their glorious nation, or to spread freedom and democracy, they tell themselves some kind of story to justify what they're doing.

In short, to label a group as simply and purely evil is to totally misunderstand human psychology and, in fact, to repeat the error of many of these groups--this is why the rhetoric on both sides of the "War on Terror" is eerily similar. If a group is actually evil, it's not because they embrace the dark side but because what they think of as a good comes with evil, but often forseeable, consequences.

Now these two tendencies are not impossible to break free from, but it requires a great degree of self-honesty and the use of reason. You simply cannot take for granted that the side you're on consists of "the good guys". Everyone thinks they're on that side.

The world is a complicated place. Evil comes in degrees, and often as the consequence of noble intentions. Whether we are, in the end, a force of good in the world is determined by our actions. So, in order to make such a judgment well, it is essential that we hold ourselves to the same standards as everyone else.

2. Citizens of a democratic society are at least partially responsible for the actions of their government.

We live in a relatively free country and even though it is hard for an individual to make an impact by herself, people can come together in groups and bring about changes and reforms. The very least they can do is try. Cynicism and detachment do not absolve anyone of blame. I could say more on this point, but this is not the time or place for it.

I think these are really the only 2 premises that you need to grant. There may be some others, such as that responsibility requires becoming informed about the consequences of your actions, but I don't think I need to argue for these. Here are some of the conclusions that follow from these two:

3. It is our responsibility to figure out what wrongs our government is committing, to make them public, and to take steps to stop them.

This is clearly a driving force for Chomsky; he has said that what motivates his efforts is a matter of conscience, doing what he can to live with himself. This is why he looks at our foreign affairs and brings to light the crimes that our country has perpetrated on other parts of the world.

4. America is a good nation only if it avoids employing evil means to achieve its ends.

Realizing that every group of people sees itself as acting for noble ends, what really differentiates groups (if we apply a consistent standard) are the means they employ to achieve their ends. Really, the distinction between means and ends is fuzzy, so it is vital not to gloss over the tactics that we use to achieve our goals (Dewey is excellent on this point).

5. War, a human activity which invariably leads to widespread suffering and death, should only come in self-defense and as a last resort.

Okay, this may be a bit of a stretch, but here's how I think it follows. War is never an end in itself (or at least, most would grant that it never should be), but a means to some other end. However, given that judging the means we employ is essential to evaluating the character of our country, we should be extremely cautious about engaging in activities which are known evils, such as war.

6. The rule of law and consistent principles must always guide our conduct, even in extreme circumstances, and with people we detest.

Chomsky took a lot of flak for supporting the freedom of speech of a Holocaust-denier, but I think he made the right choice. Similarly, I concur with Glenn Greenwald on his recent post condemning Germany for trying to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld and others for war crimes that in no way involve Germany. I truly believe that Rumsfeld (along with Bush, Cheney, et alia) are guilty of war crimes, but this is not the way to prosecute them (read the whole thing for more on this).

This is also why our government should not suspend habeas corpus for so-called enemy combatants, or engage in torture, or spy illegally on its own citizens. Again, it is easy to view our ends as necessary (what is more vital than a nation's preserving itself?), so we must always proceed cautiously and, for all intents and purposes, act as though suspending the rule of law or violating international law are never justified.

I say "never" because in this way, on those occasions when there really are emergencies and extreme measures must be taken, we will always condemn them and strive to return to the conditions of normalcy, not letting ourselves slide along a slippery slope to totalitarianism or military dictatorship.

Really, this is all I think that Chomsky and many other leftist intellectuals are trying to do. Of course we have other goals (like ensuring more equitable distribution in the world, preserving our environment, and so forth) which might come into conflict, but this is one that I think almost everyone agrees on.

This is very much not a case of anti-Americanism (which Chomsky rightfully denounces as the kind of rhetoric one would expect from a fascist state), but precisely the opposite. Chomsky and others like him are true patriots who want us to be consistent and to live up to the values and standards that we profess (and judge others by). Is that so unreasonable or radical?


Jesurgislac said...

I'm both startled and dismayed that Greenwald appears to have no notion of an extradition process, during which a US court would have to be satisfied that Rumsfeld ought to be required to go to Germany to stand trial. I commented on this at length at the end of a very long thread on the Unclaimed Territory blog, and Greenwald hasn't responded, but I wish he would: I can't believe he doesn't know about extradition, but everything he says suggests that he thinks the normal course of international justice is the same course the US has pursued over the past six years - extradite by kidnapping, avoiding a court mandate.

specter_of_spinoza said...

I'm not by any means a legal scholar, and I have no special expertise with international law, so I might be very wrong about this. I can only speak as a philosopher who has a good bit of experience with arguments concerning ethical and political principles.

With that caveat, a brief response:

In Greenwald's defense, I don't think extradition is relevant here. If the German government were prosecuting Rumsfeld for a crime he committed against a German national, then extradition would be appropriate--but no Germans are directly involved in this case.

The question is, can Germany just declare itself to have universal jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes? If this were the ICC, or some other international body, I think it'd be a different story.

I read a decent portion of the comments in that thread (something I don't usually have time to do) and the most compelling argument that I saw for the other side was an interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that seemed a bit questionable, essentially saying that it was the responsibility of signatories to prosecute each other for war crimes.

I didn't find that very compelling, and Glenn's response seemed more than adequate to refute it.

His basic point is one concerning consistency and the rule of law, which is why I make reference to him. The consequences of bending the law in one case--even if it would address something that we perceive as a great injustice--does not warrant the precedent it sets.