Power, Purity, And The Left
This question and answer from Philip Gourevitch’s interview with Thierry Cruvellier, a French writer who is the leading journalistic authority on international war-crimes trials, caught my attention. They’re talking about a trial in Cambodia of one of Pol Pot’s henchmen:
You make the key point that the Duch trial was the first international tribunal case to address the crimes of Communism. The Rwanda and Yugoslavia courts, like the prosecutions at Nuremberg and Tokyo, dealt with crimes of ultra-nationalist regimes, which you identify as ideologies of the right. Only the Cambodia tribunal has addressed the crimes of the left, and you say that made human-rights lawyers notably uneasy. You say they had great difficulty addressing the connection between Communist ideology and systematic mass murder. You say that much of the tribunal crowd preferred to imagine the Khmer Rouge as noble until it went awry and became vile—and that some were outright fellow-travellers. For instance, the woman hired by the U.N. to handle Khmer Rouge victims at the Duch trial was an unrepentant Maoist. Why was that? And how did this sympathy for the left affect the general atmosphere of the trial?
There is a historical lineage between the far left and the human-rights movement. In the nineteen-sixties, after Stalin’s terror was widely acknowledged; in the seventies, after Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of the Gulag; and then, finally, in the eighties, after the horrors of Pol Pot were fully revealed, many Western intellectuals moved from the discredited and disgraced Marxism-Leninism to the ideals of universal human rights. As opposed to the boredom of prosaic reforms, advocating for human rights is, in its own way, another grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron astutely noted, human rights, as a political philosophy, is based on a notion of purity. It’s not about taking responsibility for a decision “in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge”—that’s politics, said Aron. Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.
What was interesting to observe at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that former Western Maoists or fellow-travellers were not transformed, when they became disillusioned with Communism, into skeptical minds. They now presented themselves as human-rights defenders. The appeal of “pure” ideologies seemed irresistible to them. Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced. Interestingly, the moral indignation of human-rights activists can suddenly be silenced when institutions that they helped create and that were supposed to exemplify their ideals—such as international war-crimes tribunals—start violating the very principles they have claimed to stand for. They say that criticism would serve the “enemies” of justice. They begin to accept that the end justifies the means. Double standards widely apply. The drive that often made them efficient when they worked in a hostile environment now, when they are empowered, transforms into an intransigence that can make them very insensitive to realities that don’t fit their ideological paradigm. International tribunals can be a harsh reminder that injustice and unfairness are not incompatible with humanist intentions. [Emphasis mine — RD]
At the Cambodia tribunal, a surprising number of Westerners who did not come from the far left also showed a level of sympathy for the “good intentions” of the Communist project. As a result, the trial was never going to be a trial of Communism as a political philosophy. Instead, it was all about Pol Potism, circumscribed and vilified as a despicable betrayal of a genuine revolutionary ideal. Such leniency would not be seen at trials against ideologies of the right.
I am reminded of the tragicomic character Franz, the Swiss left-wing intellectual, in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. He sees all of European history as a Grand March, from one progressivist “liberation” cause to the next, following his idealism, and never thinking of the consequences. This is a fair enough description of the problem with American progressivism. They are never satisfied with the world as it is, and never think of the possibility that the world as it is might be the best we can hope for under the circumstances. Rather, they push and they push and they push for utopia, and consider themselves virtuous pilgrims on the Grand March.
(True, the problem with American conservatives is that we are too much enamored of the evils we have, and insufficiently motivated to imagine a better way to live and to work to achieve that end.)
If you read the boldfaced material in Cruvellier’s response, and think of the culture war in this country over same-sex marriage and gay rights, you will understand much better the Error Has No Rights phenomenon, and the Law of Merited Impossibility — and you will better be able to anticipate what comes next in the name of justice.
UPDATE: Along these lines, you really must read Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter’s mock commencement address to the Class of 2014, in which he thanks them for not disinviting him. Excerpt:
Then there are your fellows at Rutgers University, who rose up to force the estimable Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, to withdraw. The protest was worded with unusual care, citing the war in Iraq and the “torture” practiced by the Central Intelligence Agency. Cleverly omitted was the drone war. This elision allows the protesters to wish away the massive drone war that President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted now for more than five years, with significant loss of innocent life. As for the Iraq war, well, among its early and enthusiastic supporters was — to take a name at random — then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But don’t worry. Consistency in protest requires careful and reflective thought, and that is exactly what we should be avoiding here.
The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.
Now, before I close, I would like to address those members of the Class of 2014 who might think that it’s wrong to ban speakers whose views you reject. Your reactionary belief in tolerance and open-mindedness is truly distressing. I beg you to remember that every controversial question has only one answer. You have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions you dislike.