The Blanket

Index: Current Articles

It is the old practice of despots to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order.
- Thomas Jefferson



The Need to Talk Sense


Anthony McIntyre


Tariq Ali in a recent discussion of the issues facing critical writers and dissident thinkers who wish to remain both critical and dissenting in the post-September 11 climate, has warned of the dangers of becoming reconciled to the ideological construct of American might as 'the only emancipatory project ...(which)... has to be supported against all those who challenge its power'. He fears that in a number of cases those who formerly made their reputation polemicising against repression and imperialism have since 'found themselves trapped by the debris of September 11' and now use their considerable discursive talents against their old friends, in the process becoming 'the useful idiots of the empire'. What, for Tariq Ali, was one of the most attractive elements of American political culture - 'the layers of dissent that have flourished beneath the surface' - is now in danger of being snuffed out.

And beyond its borders recent events demonstrate there too that the US government seeks to snuff out dissent. The US thought police-cum-ambasssador to Venezuela, Donna Hrinak, called on Hugo Chávez, the leader of the country prior to his ousting and subsequent reinstallation, and told him, according to the Washington Post, 'to keep his mouth shut' on issues such as the war on Afghanistan. So, dissent internationally is clearly endangered by US hegemony, making it an issue of concern to a wider audience than US citizens alone.

Another way, of course, to snuff out dissent and smoke bomb structures of transparency is to do as Tariq Ali has and call those who dissent from your own view 'useful idiots' of the other side. And such dangerous demonising designed to shackle intellectual freedom has been a time-honoured tactic of the Left - so ably demonstrated by Tammy Bruce in her work on the new thought police - despite its calls for human emancipation. The world is to be liberated by the Left but only from that which the Left permits it to be liberated from. Dissent is fine providing it is not from the prescriptions of the Left. This reduces the function of dissent to the status of an instrument and not something to be valued in and of itself nor considered as necessary to attaining and maintaining democracy as the principle of consent is. The corollary is that those dissenting voices so essential to human progress - AJP Taylor said if it were not for them we would still be living in caves - may conclude that their dissent from the present structures of conservative power may lead to them being seen by the Left as potentially 'useful idiots' to be incorporated into its own oppressively totalising project. Thus many dissidents who may otherwise feel encouraged to push the boat out a little further because they believe that a democratic alternative project awaits them could become discouraged or, even less fulfilling, simply apply their energies and talents in a perhaps nihilistic manner to becoming nobody's fools.

Some of those subject to the wrath of Ali, such as Christopher Hitchens, can produce marvellous insights into political and social phenomena - his work on Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger underline the point. Hitchens, supported by one of his anti-war critics, the Marxist philosopher Professor Dave Schweickart, alleges the existence of a theocratic fascism behind the bombing of the USA on September 11. Ali, writing in The Nation, takes the view that this is a gross distortion of the picture and subsequently critiques Hitchens. Whatever the alleged weaknesses of the latter's position overall, it does help challenge some of our most deeply held values. But if those values are based on intellect, which fortifies them, rather than a prejudice that attenuates them then they should be able to critically absorb and neutralise the seemingly new standpoints adopted by people like Hitchens. Listening to him will hardly lead to us growing horns and tails.

Intellectually circumscribing environments rarely produce insight, nor are they meant to. And they are certainly never short on prejudice and weighted verdict. What is the point in holding a debate on the existence of God if those participating are restricted alone to believers in God?

One of the most potent turn-offs to people trying to understand the hegemony of structured disparity and then build a counter-hegemon is that, not infrequently, one of their first points of contact is with the Irrelevant Left. Their bible-like thumping, self-righteous posturing in tandem with shrill and restrictive attitudinising coupled with endless name-calling, while the norm for the 'true' believers of any sect, is debilitating. And like other sects those of the Left are to a large degree fuelled by strategic and political impotence grounded in the self-inflicted paucity and subsequent marginalisation of their own arguments which increasingly seem to have little currency among the 'natural' constituency of the Left. Terry Eagleton in his book The Gatekeeper claimed that there are more people who believe in alien abduction than hold to what the left wing sects ordain. Yet some groups seem neither to notice nor even to mind that their grand membership of three is sustained solely by their own irrelevance. People free mass-movements seem to satisfy them. 'Cultic idiocy' on the Left rather than 'useful idiocy' of the empire poses a bigger obstacle to devising strategies which can actually persuade people on the basis of intellectual merit. At least there is something active about the cry of protest Hitchens and fellow travellers prompt rather than the sigh of despair which invariable greets the sects of the Irrelevant Left.

Why then get so annoyed about Hitchens? It is hardly unreasonable to imagine that there is a more pressing urgency for tried and tested long-haul advocates of resistance to repression such as Tariq Ali to engage Hitchens and if necessary destroy his arguments (no easy task) rather than fuel the totalitarian delusions of the sects. He should remove rather than insert obstacles in the way of any emerging pluralistic discourse which seeks to apply its energy in all its forms (many of which will be abhorrent and distasteful such as constructing arguments that America is primarily motivated by global human rights concerns, or is well meaning but mistaken)) to understanding September 11. He should endeavour to lubricate the structures of dissent with a voluble challenging discourse rather than encourage others to stiffen its joints through the application of turgid doctrinaire cement.

While Tariq Ali's words should serve as a wake up call to all those who fall victim to the notion that in politics 'there is no alternative', this is something that must equally apply to the Left which seems to think that the 'no alternative' argument applies to every one but themselves. No one owes the Left any allegiance because they talk radical - that will come only when they talk sense.



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives