Pearson . . . . again.

Hopefully Troppodillians will forgive me for tackling another Pearson piece only two weeks after my last effort. I’ll try not to make a habit of it, I promise.

With your indulgence, then, let’s proceed.

Is it relativism to hold our liberal democratic traditions to a higher standard than those of Islamic extremists? Do our actions over the years in the Middle East really have little to do with the growing emnity many of its inhabitants feel for us? Is it either useful or accurate to constantly label the narrative of grievance shared by a significant part of the Muslim world (and, it should be noted, many others) as irrational?

Noel Pearson seems to think so.

In a lengthy opinion piece this weekend, he ventures more deeply into the territory he introduced two weeks ago in United, Well Fight Terrorism. Pearsons views can be summed up as follows:

1. Despite many errors in its prosecution of the war on terror, some of them grievous, the liberal democratic West is in one camp, within the pale in Pearsons terms, while the Islamic extremists are in another. To obscure this distinction is not only wrong, but dangerous.

2. Those who oppose, in principle, the current policies for dealing with the Islamic threat hail from the Left and are generally immature and highly confused.

3. Even a radical change in Western policy would do little to reduce Islamic extremism because it feeds off an irrational attribution of real and imagined grievances to Western and Zionist conspiracy.

4. Deterring people from taking the step from the middle group [those who have some sympathy with the extremists] to the violent extremists, and controlling those who do take the step, must then be a very high priority for Western policy.

We can, I think, let this last one stand without too much further comment. It is, after all, little more than a commonsense wish, carrying a slight implicit policy prescription only in his use of the word deterring, rather than, say, encouraging. This, oddly enough, is as close as Pearson gets to an actual policy suggestion in the entire article.

The other three threads of his argument deserve a much less forgiving scrutiny.

At first glance, few would disagree with his initial point. Indeed, stated in such a simple form, its a truism. Pearson goes out of his way to acknowledge the many policy errors made in recent years and to restate the vital importance of argument and dissent within the West. First, though, he says, we must understand that we are we and they are not.

Fair enough, in many ways. Still, the effect of this line of argument, as employed by Pearson, is to discourage vigorous debate about the fundamentals of Western policy. Not the details, but the fundamentals. In fact, his whole piece (and most of the one two weeks ago) is devoted to confining such debate within boundaries he considers acceptable. The same is generally true of the writings of Hitchens and the signatories to the Euston Manifesto who Pearson so extols. In considering why it has this effect, we can at the same time cover his second point.

There are those within the West sufficiently embittered to blur, or even entirely deny, the distinctions between their own tradition and that of Islamic extremists. They are, however, few in number and weak in voice and so Pearson is, to a large degree, simply employing the straw man technique. What he ignores are all those who have a great love of their country and its traditions but are convinced these are being dangerously undermined, or even betrayed, by current policies. Most of these do come from the left, but roughly similar views on foreign policy and civil liberties are held by some conservatives, by liberals of a more classical persuasion (such as myself) and by many libertarians. It is these groups (many of whom are far more immersed in the traditions of liberal democracy than their critics), together with their principled concerns, that Pearson tries to exclude from the debate.

Lets consider two examples of his technique.

In the first, he extols Major Moris efforts on behalf of David Hicks as well as those of his colleague, Charles Swift, in bringing the case of Bin Ladens bodyguard, Hamdan, to the US Supreme Court. He then goes on to conclude:

Those who hold up Mori as a hero cant ignore that Moris commander-in-chief at the end of the day, is his countrys president, the reviled George W. Bush.

I was astounded at the chutzpah of this statement. Or is it possible, unlikely as it seems, that Pearson truly doesnt understand the full background? In any case, we should indeed praise Mori and Swift, and to some degree the system that allowed them, whatever its reservations, to proceed so vigorously. We can also praise the Supreme Court for hearing Hamdans case, although our enthusiasm ought to be tempered by the knowledge that the Court has so far been somewhat ambivalent in its willingness to deal with these fundamental issues. To claim any credit in these matters for President Bush, however, is to be absurd.

Had Bush and his administration had their way, what few avenues of effective appeal still survive would have been long gone. They have been resolutely obstructionist, have gamed and abused the court systems within the US and have sought, wherever possible, to arrogate power to themselves at the cost of the other two branches of government. Pearson is either being terribly disingenuous or needs to do some serious study. The move towards an imperial presidency has been underway for many decades but the Bush administration, far more than any other, has accelerated the pace and shown a brutal disregard for both convention and the checks and balances that have so far guarded America.

Pearson (perhaps trying to slip away from being tainted) insists that he wants to make it crystal clear that he is not seeking to defend the policy and strategic decisions of Bush and John Howard and their respective governments and that those who oppose their policies [may] be enemies in many senses of the word, but they are not enemies in the same sense as violent extremists. Has anyone serious claimed otherwise? Does this really need saying, or is it once again a largely rhetorical device?

As for the second example, consider this statement:

I believe that in the struggle against terror and in many other contexts we can and should divide the world according to a dichotomous rule: on the one hand the community of states characterised by liberal democracy and the rule of law, on the other, those who would prosecute their ideological, political and religious agendas outside the parameters of democracy and law.

Again, on the face of it, all well and good. And yet, and yet. If we are the community of states characterised by . . . the rule of law, how is it then that we invaded Iraq, entirely unprovoked and against the wishes of most of the worlds liberal democratic nations, and that the US is now considering bombing Iran, to take but two examples? Is this not acting more like the other in the above statement? I fear our use of phrases such as liberal democracy, rule of law and freedom has, post 9/11, veered perilously close to becoming Orwellian. They can all too easily become mere banners to march under, fig leaves with which to cover our nakedness.

What is most vital is surely to guard our own traditions from inner corruption, not to conjure up ghostly fears about fifth columns. Here too, Pearson tries to walk both sides of the track by dissociating himself from the specific policy disasters that have characterised the last five years, and by emphasising that internal criticism is vital. Only, though, once his dichotomous winnowing process is complete. Its hard not to wonder what purpose is served by Pearsons continual emphasis on the need to distinguish between us and them when the population of those in the West who dont entirely accept this distinction (if only viscerally) is trivial.

Finally, a brief look at the third thread of his argument. Pearson claims, again and again, that theres little point in considering serious changes in policy towards the Muslim world because it wont make much difference anyway, because the more extreme Muslim beliefs in regard to the West are irrational and rooted in perceptions of Western and Zionist conspiracy.

Remarkable as this assertion is, both in its sweeping judgement and its effects if accepted as true, those who read his piece searching for evidence to back it up will do so in vain. That Muslim perceptions of the West (and of the US in particular) have steadily and profoundly worsened in the wake of the Iraq invasion, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Americas support for the extensive Israeli bombing of Lebanon last year, the growing belligerence directed at Iran and so on ad nauseam, is of no account, it seems. All these clear indications that actions have consequences are ignored. So too is the much longer history of Western interference in the Middle East over the last century, its continual support for authoritarian regimes, little if any of it bringing any good. How can anyone of imagination wonder that Muslim (and other) opinion about our bona fides has taken a sharp turn for the worse? With such a history, of course many who once were entirely unpolitical will wake to powerful new passions and others will be drawn towards radical action out of some combination of anger, or despair, or ideology. Is this really so difficult to grasp?

Certainly, there is some truth to his claim that the paranoid Islamist narrative is not amenable to reason. There tends to be at least some truth in most of Pearsons arguments. Unfortunately, in their overall effect so far on this debate, they distort and confuse far more than they illuminate.

Only he can know why he chose to move in such a fashion into this new field of proselytising, but I do wonder if the cause may not be rooted in a deep frustration with the left gradually acquired over the years of trying to better conditions for his own people. Perhaps he has experienced them as naïve, ill informed, unrealistic, counterproductive, superior in manner, and that sense of the left has been carried over to whatever other policies they tend to support. Like civil liberties and a more humble foreign policy, for example. Perhaps he has found it impossible to separate the actual issues from his perception of their most active sponsors.

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Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

A superb post Ingolf. Thank you. My esteem for Pearson continues to plummet. Which is sad, because I think many of his reformist “mutual obligation” ideas for indigenous communities are very promising, albeit that they’ve been perverted out of recognition by Brough and Howard. In fact, Pearson’s uncritical embrace of the Brough/Howard intervention, despite acknowledging sotto voce that it breached many of the most fundamental premises of Pearson’s own policies, and his hysterical condemnation of anyone who dared to question Howard/Brough’s policies or motivation, was the precursor of the mindset you so skillfully dissect in this post. In relation indigenous policies, he also divides the Australian community according to a dichotomous rule: the virtuous who support the Howard/Brough intervention, and the “na

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

What Ken said. This morning, I’m fed up to the back teeth with dichotomisers who ignore all the middle they’re excluding for the sake of scoring cheap points.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

Will I take that as a pre-nomination, Ken?

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

Yes.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

I believe that in the struggle against terror and in many other contexts we can and should divide the world according to a dichotomous rule: on the one hand the community of states characterised by liberal democracy and the rule of law, on the other, those who would prosecute their ideological, political and religious agendas outside the parameters of democracy and law.

I refuse to read anything else written by someone who could pen such a moronic proposition. It manages to infantile, meaningless and portentous, all at the same time. I might save it as an exercise for first year undergraduates in their critical analysis tutorials.

Geoff Robinson
14 years ago

Public intellectual life= writing columns about ‘What I think other people are thinking about what other people are thinking’. After all so long as we think the right thing terrorists will go away

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

Political opportunism spewed amok has bred cancers, it seems, throughout most of the system; saddest of all is to watch the politicisation of people who, one would hope, given otherwise a principled stake in the ground with which to relate to, would do this nation proud. It’s hard to blame them. The disease has spread incrementally, out of sight. The public I’d contend, are still largely unaware fo the extent to which our system has changed. For one to stand up against it, effectively, requires the telling of a greater story, would it be fair to say this would be an impossible task to fashion this last decade, so that it is received? It’s been extremely easy for the diseased to snipe in five second grabs – cutting down the opponent and further spreading ill, not the least by spreading the ‘them against us’ idea.

The analogy goes on to embrace the need for the public to themselves get sick of it, to cut the sickness out at its core, then a healthy rebuild. Perhaps elements of this are happening out there, or beginning to, perhaps the smell of it if not the tangible substance is in the suburbs. If the principled stake can be shoved into the earth, perhaps the amoebic group which disagrees with opportunism can then find a place to pour nourishment.

It just seems like this thing has or had to work its way through, and sadly with many casualties along the way. I may be horribly wrong, but I don’t think we’ll see the likes of this opportunism, as we’ve seen this last decade, again.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

“those who would prosecute their ideological, political and religious agendas outside the parameters of democracy and law”

But Noel, that’s exactly what we “immature and highly confused” critics are accusing the Bushies of!

I used to think Noel Pearson was just cynically telling the govermnment what it wants to hear in order to get help for his people. Now I think he’s just sold his soul to them for power. He’s certainly sold his brain.

Niall
14 years ago

Surely the best advice to Noel Pearson would be “stick to your knitting”

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Allow me to add my compliments also for the post. A great piece Ingolf which I’m very glad I’ve read. As I’d not read the original, it confirms all the suspicions that your last post planted in me.

Pearson’s dichotomosing lines Those who hold up Mori as a hero cant ignore that Moris commander-in-chief at the end of the day, is his countrys president, the reviled George W. Bush. are reminiscent of similar ones in the previous column that stuck with me – that Julian Burside is all very well, but you wouldn’t want him in charge of security. Well no you wouldn’t. And I guess you wouldn’t want Marcia Hines in charge of security either. But then she’s a singer which raises the issue of why you asked the question in the first place.

At least you have attributed a meaning to it. I can’t quite figure out what the sentence is trying to say. I would have ruled out your interpretation as too far fetched, perhaps in favour of one that read it as a comment on a ‘system’ with GWB at its head. But who knows.

More generally I think Pearson exhibits a condition related to irritable bowel syndrome, which I call ‘irritable head syndrome’. This malady is what has driven lots of people who make the transition from left to right. It involves being driven more by your irritations than by the objective needs of the situation.

Thus Peter Walsh our greatest former finance minister joins the Lavoisier Society of greenhouse denialists because environmentalists irritate the hell out of him. Well environmentalists irritate the hell out of me – or plenty of them anyway. But the serious environmental issues are just that – serious. And any irritation with the Rousseau style sentimentality and naivet

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Further,

The idea that you give up on your enemies and just use hard power if you’re convinced they’re irrational is a laugh.

The idea of using carrot and stick, of trying to get some economic development into the places where Al Qaeda festers in the Middle East isn’t about persuading them not to become suicide bombers. It arises from an observation that if you can anchor young men’s passions on getting rich, they are less likely to blow themselves and others to pieces.

Perhaps we should try to get them more interested in sport for the same reason. But if it worked, it wouldn’t be an appeal to ‘reason’ – it would be about finding less destructive outlets for their passions.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

“It often feels like a waste of time to analyse the fulminations of the cultural warriors, whose ranks Pearson unfortunately seems to have joined, but maybe its not completely so.Perhaps by looking more closely at the inner workings of both their thinking and rhetoric, by responding seriously rather than in anger, that middle Gummo talked about can start to be heard again. Im not sure how else the streets of our cultural and political life can be taken back.”

Quite so, and one of the wiser utterances I’ve read in recent times, on this blog or elsewhere. It’s exactly what we aspire to on Troppo, however imperfectly, and it’s what your post exemplifies. I wonder if it could somehow be worked into the text of your primary post if it gets a guernsey in Best Blog Posts 2007 (which it certainly will if I get my way)?

tigtog
14 years ago

More generally I think Pearson exhibits a condition related to irritable bowel syndrome, which I call irritable head syndrome. This malady is what has driven lots of people who make the transition from left to right. It involves being driven more by your irritations than by the objective needs of the situation.

Nicholas, thank you for this pithy summation. I hadn’t thought of it in quite this way before, and it does make so much sense. The common phenomenon of such irritable heads descending into slogan arguments displays the contempt they have developed for the “other side”: there’s no effort to address actual arguments, confident that they “know” that the arguments will amount only to hearts bleeding.

Excellent post, Ingolf.

observa
observa
14 years ago

“If we are the community of states characterised by . . . the rule of law, how is it then that we invaded Iraq, entirely unprovoked and against the wishes of most of the worlds liberal democratic nations,..”
Well I’ll tell you what Ingolf. You list the liberal democratic nations opposed to the removal of Saddam and I’ll list the ones for and we’ll see which list is a majority eh? I’ll even chuck in Mr Metoo’s views at the time for you to chew on. Unstated here, but not far below the surface is the ‘good war bad war’ anlysis, where some dictatorial regimes can be legitimately removed, presumably if a gaggle of gangsters don’t significantly object in the UN, whereas even the Commonwealth can see through that grubby argument http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,22750254-5005962,00.html
Presumably Ingolf and Co are comfortable with supporting authoritarian regimes, or more likely want to have their cake and eat it, as their appetite takes them. If Saddam was always their best option, then Musharraf must be their golden haired, authoritarian bastard now. They can stick their new pinup boy alongside Saddam and Arafat presumably. Damned if the West does and damned if it doesn’t by the usual suspects. If you so much as suggest the West should ditch the illegitimate UN gaggle of gangsters for the higher legitimacy of a United Liberal Democratic Nations, who do all the heavy lifting now, they get an attack of the vapours. Always bloody excuses for the religion of peace
http://news.bostonherald.com/news/international/asia_pacific/view.bg?articleid=1043836
If it isn’t tsunamis or unemployment, it’s Iraq (but never Afghanistan), or being a millionaire or being poor, or ignorance or too much Western education, yada, yada. Is it any wonder Pearson’s fed up with such drivel, which of course he’s experienced first hand with the results of it for his own people. More bloody excuses than he can poke a stick at.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

tigtog,

I recall doing a debate at Melbourne Uni a few weeks ago arguing the first for the positive “that the Howard Government has failed the Australian economy”.

The audience were there for a good time, so they enjoyed my speech which argued that John Howard has never been very interested in economic policy. That the main things he’s done – like Workchoices and the GST – have been in the former case enmity for unions, and in the latter case a major panic about what ‘vision’ the government had of what it was going to do.

I argued that I coudln’t think of any precedents for the way the Howard Govt had behaved in the last year or so – except perhaps for the Whitlam Government. Their lurching from one mad scheme – taking over a hospital in a marginal seat, a $10 billion water plan announced without any input from Treasury, sending in the AEC to Queensland local government politics.

I said that their treatment of David Hicks had got more news but was exactly the same. Years of bemusement and neglect, followed by a few deals stitched up in a few weeks.

I later spoke to a bunch of Liberal Students who said I had been very persuasive until I had spoken of David Hicks. They couldn’t understand why I mentioned him, and assumed – quite wrongly – that he was being dragged in as some kind of ideological talisman. They simply couldn’t get the idea of talking about David Hicks as a matter of high principle (the right to due process). They were reading what I was saying not by its content but by word association – by what it reminded them of. Something similar to irritable head syndrome and a very powerful form of ideological propagation.

observa
observa
14 years ago

And he’s not the only one fed up with the double standards of Islam and their caravan and they’re beginning to fight back with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth
http://camden.yourguide.com.au/news/local/general/school-angst/1082645.html

observa
observa
14 years ago

Ingolf, there is no understanding these mad mullahs and their followers, apologists or acquiescents whatsoever. Even one of the world’s foremost leftoverists has had a salutary lesson regarding that singular truism now http://www.nypost.com/seven/11092007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/mad_mullahs_puzzled_putin_198418.htm?page=0
Came away dismayed did he? Get over it fast brother!

observa
observa
14 years ago

And if I were him I’d make damn sure I got extremely regular and timely progress payments on those Iranian nuke facilities too.

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