Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Sophist's Revenge

I'm not quite sure what to make of a recent screed against Christopher Hitchens on the BTC News website. I believe it's supposed to be funny, or at least clever, filled as it is with winks and nods at the Hitchens-Juan Cole spat that's been all the rage in Weblogistan. The premise of the article, as its title suggests, is that Hitchens is an "anti-American apologist for terror."

Weldon Berger justifies this claim by relying on this quote from a 2002 Hitchens article:
Terrorism, then, is the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint.
Here's Berger's exposition:
You'll already have recognized the problem here: the US demanded the impossible from Iraqi society — the installation of a secular, westernized, Israel-friendly democracy — and did so at the points of a great many guns. And Hitchens was behind the adventure all the way.
The fact that Berger half-jokingly replaces "al Qaeda" with "the Bush administration and their supporters" in one of his mock (and mocking) quotes is a clue to where he's coming from. You see, the United States government is an instrument of terror and Hitchens, thanks to his "unambiguous opposition to...critics of the American state", is guilty of supporting terror. To quibble, one might argue that Hitchens joining a lawsuit against the NSA over the domestic spying flap might throw a slight shadow of ambiguity over his opposition to critics of the government.

The context of the Hitchens quote about terrorism is that al Qaeda has no real demands that are achievable (unless we want to wipe ourselves off the planet, say) and, unlike the PLO or the IRA, has no political or state structure to which we could capitulate, if we so desired. That's the "impossibility" to which Hitchens refers. Berger's impossibility is another thing altogether.

First of all, his definition of the American aims in Iraq is slightly self-serving. There is no requirement that Iraq be somehow "westernized" (what exactly does he mean by that term?), but our government would certainly like to see a secular democracy evolve there (as opposed to a secular society, which is a totally different animal, and one that we can't even claim to have here in the States). We've never asked or hoped for an "Israel-friendly" state, per se. Our goal would be an Israel-tolerant state.

Now, Berger, in true Bernard Lewis form, takes his straw man argument and claims the U.S. aims are impossible. I mention Lewis because Berger's argument amounts to little more than crude Orientalism. In what way are Iraqis incapable of democracy? It can't just be that they haven't managed to secure such a government yet, because the argument is not that such an end is unlikely, but that it is impossible. It must be something innate in the Iraqi soul that makes them unfit for enlightened self-government. As for his claims regarding Israel, modern and widely known history makes a fool of him. Doesn't the decades-long detente between Israel and Egypt show that such an arrangement is perfectly plausible (if not exactly easy to achieve)?

Berger seals the deal by accompanying Juan Cole down the lowest road available in debate: the ad hominem attack. He refers to Hitchens at one point as "obviously intoxicated" and makes another faux-deft reference to single malt whiskey, both sneers at Hitchens' alleged alcoholism. Allow me to pose this question to Berger: if Hitchens is a slobbering drunk unfit to hold the pen, then why is it necessary to use the ad hominem attack at all? You should, from your sober and superior vantage, be able to dismember his arguments without bringing out those particular guns.

As it stands, the humor falls flat and the argument is nothing more than sophistry. The ad hominem slight is merely a sideshow to the sordid main event.
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