I’m Explaining A Few Things

My review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke appears to have degenerated into a debate about Iraq, as every debate on the antiwar left eventually does. It’s a truism, also, that the antiwar left can’t say anything about Iraq without resorting to tones of hyperventilating pomposity. Mark Thwaite has criticised my response to Stephen Mitchelmore. I have a lot of time for Mark, particularly his pieces on the capitalist crisis, so it’s a shame to be denounced so severely on his website.

Mark says it’s instructive to draw parallels between WW2 and Iraq, particularly ‘to someone who supported the slaughter in Iraq, as Max did.’ Now, my position on Iraq would take a whole new post to set out but, for the sake of argument, I will outline it briefly. I marched on February 15. I was concerned about civilian deaths and convinced that Saddam would simply be replaced by a more compliant dictator. Later, I came around to supporting the invasion on the grounds that Iraqis wanted rid of Saddam. I still think some good has come from the war but considering the amount of bloodshed and horror I find it hard to disagree when Mark says that ‘the outcome of the Anglo-American adventure in Iraq has been chaos and death on a huge scale.’

Mark takes exception to my claim that it’s outcomes, not motives, that matter. This is not to forget ‘how and why wars occur, how we got into Iraq, how the invasion was sold to us’. It is not to forget ‘the anti-semitic nature of much Anglo-American domestic discourse in the 20s and 30s’ (and today). It’s just an acknowledgement of how actions affect consequences and the relationship of means to ends. I’ll say again. Most of us are aware that – who’d have thought it? – the government is up to no good. Of course people have to be held accountable for their decisions but I think the antiwar left has suffered, and is suffering, from an obsession with the purity of motive, prioritised over solidarity with struggling people in another part of the world. Put Bush and Blair on trial for war crimes. Pull troops out of Iraq. Then what? It strikes me that Mark’s side of the argument has not really thought beyond this.

Mark tells me that I have misrepresented Steve, who was making a ‘factual equivalency’ not a moral one. I’ll accept that. But given that Steve has, in the past, drawn comparison between an NYT critic and a fictional SS officer, and between a book blogger and Leni Riefenstahl, it’s surely an easy mistake to make. If Godwin’s Law was on the UK statute books Steve would be looking at ten years by now.

Finally, Mark reiterates Steve’s claim that reviewers have blood on their hands:

Well, sadly, those who clamour for war from the safety of their front rooms don’t have to take responsibility for their words, but they should be reminded that they help create the conditions that make war acceptable and that they thus bear some of the responsibilty for the death and destruction that war brings.

It’s strange that Mark and Steve spend so much time going after literary critics, or novelists, or fictional characters, for their alleged responsibility for the war, and so little time going after the politicians and businessmen who actually made this war happen. The act of writing is not a hyperdemic needle. This very exchange proves that people are just as likely to reject as to accept a written argument. Or perhaps Mark thinks that critical reading is beyond the masses of men and women who vote and pay taxes? Some words from Christopher Hitchens come to mind: ‘No political coalition is now possible with such people and, I’m thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.’

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2 Responses to “I’m Explaining A Few Things”

  1. Drawing clear lines « Poumista Says:

    […] Max Dunbar has been taking up the metaphorical cudgels against Baker (here, then here and then here). Terry Glavin has taken note: I’m happy to see that Max Dunbar has now joined Anne […]

  2. Human Smoke, yet again « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] Human Smoke, yet again By maxdunbar Richard Crary adds to the keyboard fury surrounding my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. He offers nothing new to the argument but he does include a chronology with which you can follow the debate so far: I’m thinking of John Self’s positive review, including the related comment thread to that review, and Max Dunbar’s generally negative review , which Steve Mitchelmore addressed here, Mark Thwaite entering the fray here, in the midst of which Dunbar produced two follow-up blog posts [1, 2] […]

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