Moral outrage. It’s not one of the first things I always think about in terms of the Decent Left, but I do think it’s an essential part of their group psychology. Hence, I suppose, the appellation. They are the only decent people around, the only moral people, the only people capable of compassion, solidarity or empathy. That’s what they would like to think, anyway.
It’s a bit like Mr Tony Blair’s faith-based approach to governance. For Mr Tony, the fact that he lied about WMD in Iraq is neither here nor there. The fact that the invasion has turned out to be a disaster is neither here nor there. What’s important is that he acted with the best of intentions. It’s all about the purity of motives, you see.
On the other hand, it’s a bit like Peter Tatchell, who’s not actually part of the Decent Left – he draws the line at actually supporting foreign wars – but is pretty close to them. Peter’s strength, as has been pointed out before, is also his weakness. He can’t be aware of an oppressed minority without running a solidarity campaign, and he has enough nervous energy to keep thousands of these campaigns on the go. Most of them are entirely worthy, but many are so obscure that, while you’re happy Peter is doing something, you yourself would take some convincing to do more than sign a petition. But Peter believes that his hobbyhorse of the moment should be everyone else’s top priority. So he’ll launch a campaign for gay Tibetans, and about five minutes later (with jabbing finger in play) start demanding to know why the left isn’t mobilising for the gay Tibetans. Could it perhaps be their deeply ingrained homophobia? Eh? Eh?
Sometimes, as I said recently, it’s just the normal positivist response of getting extremely irate when confronted with scepticism. In philosophy, this has a lot to do with the perception that sceptics are simply destructive in their criticism, which has a lot of truth behind it.
But transpose that into an emotionally driven view of foreign affairs. It tends to lead to the Yes, Minister fallacy of “Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it.” But it also leads to a tendency to see one’s antagonists as being corrosive cynics devoid of humanity. This is what Daniel was saying on CiF the other day: if you put hard questions to Decents about what, in practical terms, the American and British armies could do to make things better in Zimbabwe or Darfur or Tibet or Chechnya, they don’t want to have that discussion. They just get red in the face and start shouting about Henry Kissinger and Douglas Hurd. You see, practical politics is a distraction from the important business of being outraged.
The obsessive vilification of Hurd, who left office a whole thirteen years ago, is interesting in itself. You’ll recall the rather embarrassing chapter of What’s Left? wherein Nick Cohen tries to prove that Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind are co-thinkers of Noam Chomsky, a proposition that might make sense in those rarefied circles where people think Marko Attila Hoare is a superhuman genius. But Hurd, whose political thought I am rather familiar with, is very far from being a peacenik, let alone a Chomskyite. Actually, he’s a rather run-of-the-mill Palmerstonian. Douglas doesn’t object to military action when it’s in the British national interest. He doesn’t even object to the projection of military power for humanitarian ends, if a sensible plan can be put forward that is likely to make things better rather than worse. What he is adamant about – and this enraged a lot of people over Bosnia – is that the British government shouldn’t be bounced into precipitate military adventures so as to make celebrities, do-gooders and campaigning journalists feel better.
Chomsky is another revealing target. I suspect most of the antipathy to Chomsky comes from his consistent application of the mote-and-beam principle, his insistence that you don’t win moral brownie points for loudly denouncing official enemies, and that it displays much more courage to take on your own rulers. Not to mention, the British journalist has much more chance of doing something about the abuses of the British government than those of the Chinese or Zimbabwean governments. But I also suspect that tone comes into this. Chomsky’s political writing, deriving in style from his academic writing, is cool, dry, dispassionate, often pedantic and often surprisingly sarcastic. This can be guaranteed to annoy people whose yardstick of morality is how very, very angry they are.
And, you know, there is a case for being cool and dispassionate. I think it says a lot that one of the great trailblazers of Decency has been the Dude, a man who’s always – even in his Trotskyist days – always played fast and loose with the facts, and relied on panache and rhetorical hotdogging to win arguments. This can be entertaining, up to a point (and the Dude passed that point long ago). But I do have a strong streak of empiricism in me, probably from that chemistry background, that doubts that emotion can be a real basis for good politics. Of course you bring values and beliefs to bear – but when anger (synthetic or otherwise) is your measure of virtue… well, you’re almost predestined to get bad policy resulting. And that’s even assuming that you get to the point of hard policy. Many of our Decents seem to prefer sticking at the stage of ostentatious displays of outrage.