Wednesday, January 12, 2005

My Word of the Year: Extraordinary Rendition

The linguists are meeting in Oakland, a wonderful place for a conference, to select 'word of the year': 'wardrobe malfunction,' 'reality-based,' 'Santorum,' 'improperly-sourced' were among the candidates. My choice: 'rendition.' Both the term and the practice reveal just how far we have sunk beneath liberal-democratic standards of decency in the conduct of our ill-fated 'war on terrorism.' The term itself is a piece of legal bureaucratic gobbledeegook designed to obscure the shameful practice it names: secretly dispatching some alleged terrorist into the clutches of foreign torturers. (For an account of what it involves, see the cases of Maher Arar (more here) or Mamdouh Habib or Khaled el Masri.) It would be satisfying to pin this practice on Bush. But it was introduced under the Clinton administration and has involved the cooperation of a number of European governments (including Britain, Sweden, and Germany.)

Monday, January 03, 2005

Adam Smith on Earthquakes--Part One

Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire were not the only great thinkers to discuss earthquakes and the moral implications of such disasters. Here's Adam Smith (from the Theory of Moral Sentiments):

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
Just the type of thing one might expect from the founding intellectual father of commercial society. Heartless bastard. But there's more going on in this passage than initially meets the disapproving eye. Read in a broader context, Smith has something interesting to tell us about how and why we respond as we do to the miseries that befall ourselves, our friends and family, our compatriots, and "hundred millions of...[our] brethren".

To be continued.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: Timothy Garton Ash, Free World

Never judge a book by its cover, still less the author's mugshot on the inside cover. But in this case it's hard not to. I've never trusted a man who wears cuff-links. Add these to a pink shirt and a well-trimmed beard and Mr. Ash. . . . .or is it, I wonder, Mr. Garton Ash. Is Ash, in other words, the man's surname and Garton the second of his two forenames, or what? That's the trouble with Brits, you can never figure out their customs. Take tipping. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Mr. Ash (pink shirt, cuff-links, beard) starts out with one suspicious reader.

Mr. Ash wants to enlist his readers ("To the Reader," he begins) in constructing " a free world." He is quite chipper about the prospects--"the surprising future of the west" is the book's subtitle-- because he thinks that we only have to rid ourselves of "the walls of ignorance, selfishness, and prejudice that divide free men and women from each other (xiii)." And there Mr. Ash loses me. I don't think that free men and women are separated just by "ignorance, selfishness, and prejudice," I think they are separated by fundamental disagreements about the importance of such things as religion, nationalism, free market capitalism and even freedom itself. We disagree not just out of "ignorance, selfishness and prejudice," but because we are free people and that's what free people do. It's comforting to believe that that those who don't agree with us are ignorant, selfish, and prejudiced, but they probably think the same way about us. I think that Mr. Ash would really like to see people who agree with him--liberal internationalists--have more power and people who disagree with him have less. Since I tend to share most of Mr. Ash's liberal prejudices myself, I'm all ready to sign up--there's a spiffy website, I see--to his agenda, which includes more foreign aid and the spread of democracy. There remains, however, one particular fly in our liberal internationalist ointment. We don't have much political power.

Mr. Ash notices (in a more recent article) that we have just lost an historic election to a bunch of right-wing yahoos. Indeed, one way of reading his book is to see it as an extended answer to the question: "how ought Britain/Europe respond to a unilateralist and right wing US administration?" While I think that this is the right question for a liberal internationalist to pose. Mr. Ash's answer is remarkably weak and spectacularly impractical, as Mr. Fukuyama in a recent review (Commentary Dec 2004--unfortunately behind a subscriber wall) has commented. I think the answer is for Britain/Europe to come together--on the model of a United States of Europe--and throw their collective weight onto the scales that balance global power. Mr Ash is horrified at this proposal. "Euro-gaullism," he calls it. But whats wrong with "Euro-gaullism" as a means to a liberal internationalist end? A strong united Europe would be in a better position to shape the future, than a weak, divided and dependent Europe. Mr. Ash's own proposals appear--as Mrs. Thatcher would say--decidedly "wet". No exhortations from a pink-shirted man in cuff-links will turn the Bush administration into liberal internationalists. To pretend otherwise is silly. We liberal internationalists would do better to rally under the banner of a United States of Europe.

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