Ted Barlow has a great post over at Crooked Timber. One of the things about ideological warfare is its relentlessness. Tactics and attitudes that emerge to respond to bad situations build up a kind of second nature in their adherents which continues to roll on even where many of the important objectives of the movement have been achieved. I marvel at the continuing vigilance of feminists, the constant baying for more positive discrimination of various kinds as a kind of reflex action. The instinctive defence of old positions – or rather the insistance that, in crafting new positions to resopnd to obvious inadequacies in old positions, ideological toes are not trodden on. I put Clive Hamilton’s ‘rethinking’ of the left agenda in a similar category – constantly telling us that he’s really being true to the left (who cares?)
Ted’s post is an open letter to the New Republic for joining in on the critique of Amnesty International for comparing the Guantanamo Bay prison used to to make its inmates beyond the reach of due process with Soviet Gulags. It puts me in mind of Ken Parish’s great comment on a post by Don, which should be posted up here as a prelude to Ted’s words.
The straighteners and punishers are audaciously attaching the straightener and punisher label to the forces of tolerance, acceptance and freedom. The latter don’t seem to know what to do to combat such radically dishonest rhetoric, and the cool, disengaged crowd neither know nor care enough to realise that it’s a classic three card trick.
Anyway, here’s Ted.
Irene Khan, the Secretary General, made a wide-ranging speech criticizing the United States, the UN, Western Europe, and the governments of Sudan, Zimbabwe, China, and Russia, among others. . . . [S]he made an overheated and historically ignorant comparison of Guantanamo Bay to the Soviet gulags. In response, Bush administration officials joined the ignoble ranks of leaders who have responded to Amnesty International reports of human rights abuses with spin and self-pity. President Bush said [the report was] absurd. Vice-President Cheney said that he didn’t take Amnesty seriously, and Donald Rumsfeld called the description “reprehensible”. . .
On one hand, we had an organization with a 40-year history of standing up for human rights regardless of borders and ideology, criticizing the United States for holding prisoners without due process and torturing them. Only a fool would deny that this is, in fact, happening. On the other hand, we have an Administration accusing Amnesty International of poor word choice. Your contribution to the debate was a piece criticizing Amnesty for the use of the term “gulag”.
I completely understand the objection to the term. . . Surely human rights abuses performed in our name, by our elected government, deserve scrutiny and criticism, even if such abuses don’t approach the depths of Stalin or Saddam. It seems obvious to me that Amnesty doesn’t deserve your sneers. . .
P.S. You can imagine a world in which the term “gulag” had not been used in that speech. In that world, do you imagine that the Amnesty report would have set off a serious effort on the part of the Bush Administration to correct its abuses? Or do you think that they would find another excuse- any excuse- to belittle and ignore the report? The question answers itself, doesn’t it?