‘DOUBLE-ENTRY MORAL BOOKKEEPING’
New York City
Sam Moyn is correct. It is indeed tempting to tell a tale of human rights in isolation: to excavate the origins of our current fascination with rights, illustrate their growing acceptance and application, structure the resulting story as a Whiggish narrative of progress–and call it history. I have no idea whether Lynn Hunt succumbs to this temptation (I have not yet read her book), but she certainly wouldn’t be the first [“On the Genealogy of Morals,” April 16].
However, I would like to offer two minor amendments to Professor Moyn’s account. The first concerns his description of my own “conversion.” I did not once upon a time excoriate French left-wing intellectuals for their “failure to champion rights.” I could hardly have done so–they actively defended the rights of others on many famous occasions. I did, though, charge Sartre and many of his contemporaries with double-entry moral bookkeeping. When they looked West they saw repression, exploitation and the inexcusable violation of inalienable rights; but when they looked East they saw only the collateral damage of Historical Necessity. This seemed to me both ethically inconsistent and politically irresponsible. It still seems that way to me today. Indeed–fifty years on–André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Pascal Bruckner and other prominent contemporary French intellectuals have uncritically acclaimed Washington’s war on Islamic Fascism, displaying the same taste for dogmatic abstraction over local knowledge that I diagnosed in their predecessors. Surely Moyn would agree?
Second, I have never supposed that “rights talk” alone could constitute a sufficient language of politics. In 1988, well before I made my name “excoriating French left-wing intellectuals” (!), I wrote (in Eastern European Politics and Societies II, ii) of Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, George Konrád and others that if they wished to be taken seriously in a post-Communist world they would have to abandon “antipolitics” and begin to “think politically.” The extent to which some of them have failed to do so may be seen in their enthusiastic, naïve backing of Bush’s war.
Some people, myself included, advocated foreign intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo while opposing our adventure in Iraq. Sam Moyn might find this inconsistent, but (on this occasion at least) it is the world that is inconsistent, not us. During the Balkan wars individuals’ rights were under ascertainable threat in real time. Outside intervention could make a difference, and it did. This was not the case in Iraq. We should always be suspicious of the invocation of universal “rights” as a cover for sectional interests. But it doesn’t follow from this that talk of rights is “really” always about something else. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. How, then, should we adjust our response? Well, there is a serviceable Keynesian answer to that: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
New York City
No reader of Tony Judt’s Past Imperfect will fail to recall his bracing attack on the double standards of French intellectuals who denounced the injustice of Western society while ignoring or rationalizing the crimes of the Soviet bloc. But Judt’s indictment went far beyond the accusation of inconsistency, reproaching French intellectuals–indeed, the French nation–for having lost the ability even to think in terms of rights due to worries about their abstraction and partiality. In an entire chapter of his book, as well as a separate article, Judt examined the reasons for this collective philosophical error. “For much of the past two hundred years,” Judt concluded, “the French did not take rights seriously” (“Rights in France: Reflections on the Etiolation of a Political Language,” The Tocqueville Review, 1993). Whatever one thinks of the argument, it makes Judt’s sweeping recent dismissal of rights, precisely for their formalism and mystification, even more striking. Far from restricting his ire to this or that invocation of rights, Judt’s criticism of the language for its “abstract universalism” targets rights as such. It is the precise cynicism about rights put on trial in his earlier work.
To judge from his letter, it was only a matter of careless formulation. It is good that Judt has now clarified that the value of rights claims depends after all on who invokes them, in what circumstances and to what ends. But that was as true during the cold war as it is in the age of the global war on terror.
As I mentioned Judt in my article only to point out this specific inconsistency–one of appearance only, it turns out–I need not respond to the other remarks in his characteristically thought-provoking letter.
ALL THE LEAD PAINT IN NEW YORK…
David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s “Getting the Lead Out” [April 23] took me back fifty-four years to when I was a pediatric resident at NYU’s Bellevue Medical Center. We admitted a little girl in convulsions who turned out to have lead poisoning. Her mother said she loved to chew on the window sills. Would it really be possible to remove all the lead paint in New York City, let alone the state, as ordered in Rhode Island? Are there any good alternatives?
LEON HOROWITZ, MD
HARIRI–THE GOOD & THE BAD
New York City
Annia Ciezadlo’s book review “Sect Symbols” [March 5] is disconcerting and full of contradictions. She seems to be unaware that Lebanese Shiites are a socially and politically diverse community. Her article robs them of this diversity and denies them agency by representing them as a homogeneous group, oppressed and discriminated against. This allows her to explain, quite seamlessly, their allegiance to Hezbollah. Furthermore, she claims that Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s ex-premier who was assassinated on February 14, 2005, was both an entrepreneur and a politician who transcended sectarianism in his practices and appeal. Then she claims that he is a zaim, the epitome of the sectarian chieftain and warlord in the Lebanese context.
It is important to keep in mind that Hariri is remembered for many things–some are good, some are bad–but murder is definitely not one of them. For the author to begin and end her article by invoking Hariri as a murderer is erroneous at best. At worst, this gesture is quite problematic at a time when the debate over the trial of his assassins rages in Lebanon, as it could be interpreted as “death to the tyrant” and as justice having been served through his murder. In her attempt to do justice to the “oppressed” Shiites, she turns them into Hariri’s assassins, justified in their act. This mode of representation is misleading and journalistically irresponsible.
In a country where Shiites are denied voting power according to their numbers, consigned to the care of a religious militia and live in areas that experience routine outbreaks of typhoid, I can hardly claim credit for robbing them of their diversity or denying them agency; Lebanon’s confessional system of government has already handled that job quite well. Hariri did not start out as a product of that system, but he ended up as its apotheosis–a zaim whose parliamentary seat was passed on to his son through patrilineal privilege rather than merit or skill. If this evolution is a “contradiction,” then unfortunately politics, like human nature, must be full of contradictions.
As for the bizarre claim that I accused Hariri of “murder,” mujrim means “criminal” in Arabic, not murderer. Whether Hariri bears any responsibility for the thirteen people Solidere crushed to death is a legal and philosophical question, not to mention a moral one; but to allege that I charged him with murder is quite simply a misrepresentation–or a misunderstanding–of the facts. (The suggestion that I am trying to justify his murder by “the Shiites” is an even more alarming misinterpretation.)
To imply that criticism of Hariri constitutes an attempt to “justify” his murder is to follow the kind of totalitarian logic I might expect from his killers themselves. It equates critical examination of one’s leaders–a cornerstone of democracy–with murder. And it proves my point exactly, which is that Hariri evolved into a leader who commanded unthinking, unquestioning loyalty, regardless of his actions–the quintessential zaim.
DID SWANK FILER MISS HIS CHANCE?
I rarely see letters in the magazine regarding your cryptic crossword puzzle, but I have to voice my displeasure that the clue in Puzzle 3076 for 7 Down (“One will eventually be a Girl Scout to have something like cheese around it”) had nothing about doing a heckuva job.
The clue might indeed have said, “Did he do a heckuva job to have something like cheese around it?” (answer: Brownie). But fifty years from now, anyone working the collected puzzle classics of Frank W. Lewis would, mercifully, not get the reference. Time heals. –The Editors
CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
The War on Lebanon: A Reader (Interlink, forthcoming), which was mentioned in Philip Weiss’s “AIPAC Alternative?” (April 23), was edited by Nubar Hovsepian.
Because of an editorial glitch, Gary Younge’s “Beneath the Radar” column last week referred to “Ed,” rather than E.D., Nixon. Although his name is Edgar, he is best known as E.D.
Eyal Press, in “The New Suburban Poverty” [April 23], stated that the poverty rate in the three counties surrounding Greensboro, North Carolina, is 14.4 percent, just below the rate in New Orleans. This statement is true of the New Orleans-Metairie metropolitan area, which has a poverty rate of 17.8 percent, but not of the city of New Orleans, which has a poverty rate of 24.5 percent.