Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What's really amusing, Torq

... is that the Larison post Shea favorably cites flatly contradicts the point he seems to be fumbling to try to make.

I'm not even going to touch on Shea's complete inability to read Krauthammer for his actual content before immediately rushing to the straw-man caricatures -- "ingrates" -- that is the crack he apparently is addicted to. One reader says he misreads or mischaracterizes Krauthammer, and I believe him without looking at the column. To which Shea's only response is "read Larison," blissfully oblivious to its incompatability with his point.

Larison says upfront:

Observing the Iraqis’ lack of any history or habits suitable to the kind of government they were being called on to run is not condescension or chauvinism. It seems to me to be a blunt assessment of the unequal states of different cultures around the world with respect to having the necessary habits and history to cultivate a functioning representative government under a rule of law. There is nothing inherent in any particular people that makes them eternally incapable of such a political regime, should they for some reason actually want to create it, but there are a great many things in various peoples’ cultures or religions that will always take precedence (and, in some sense, absolutely should take precedence) over the question of how legislative bodies shall be selected or what kind of protections against the state will be enshrined in law. Sometimes this culture or religion will proscribe the attempt at having a representative government as we understand it all together, which would be rather normal and in keeping with most of human history. Perhaps it is regrettable, and perhaps it would be better in certain ways if that were not the case, but conservatives, at least, are supposed to be good at facing up to things as they are. Many have either become very bad at doing this, or they are revealing their lack of a conservative mind every day they continue to run away from a clear assessment of things as they are.

Now, there are several things to be said for and against this view. But Larison is at least speaking from a POV that I take seriously and cannot entirely dismiss -- that institutions build on cultures, which are unchangeable givens (at least within the time frames of pragmatic policy, compounded by the shortness of the American attention span and the perfidy of the Democrats).

But nevertheless, Mr. Larison is still cited in support of this point:

A few days ago, a cloud no bigger than a man's hand appeared in the punditocracy. Charles Krauthammer informed us that the problem with Iraq was not that we attacked the country, smashed it to pieces, and then didn't bother to give any thought to what happened to it after that. Nope. The problem is that the *Iraqis* are insufficiently grateful for the opportunity for democracy we generously bestowed on them. So, you see, at the end of the day, the fault lies not with generous us, who prosecuted a war whose tenuous relationship with Just War teaching grows more tenuous by the day. No, the fault lies with the Iraqis. They were a people who sadly proved themselves unworthy of the war we gave them.

I frankly doubt that Shea is even capable of seeing how incompatible Mr. Larison's point is with his. If culture conditions politics to the extent that the Iraq invasion was a fool's errand (which is Mr. Larison's point), then it's a doubleplus-fool's argument to claim that Iraq is screwed up because "we attacked the country, smashed it to pieces, and then didn't bother to give any thought to what happened to it after that," as Shea sarcastically implies. Further, if you wish to argue this POV, then you would never have been interested in 2002 in the narrowly-operational and contemporary questions of what WMDs may have existed or what ties to terrorism may have existed. The postwar status quo we have, regardless of Saddam Hussein's order of battle, would have been the same because nobody disagreed about the particulars of Arab-Muslim-Iraqi political culture. Or if they did, WMDs and terrorism wouldn't have been relvant to those disagreements over political culture.

Further, the difference between what Larison calls "bizarre" ...

that many Americans assume that what we were offering to the Iraqis ... was what all normal societies should want and which their societies failed to create because their societies were dysfunctional. (They may be dysfunctional in many important respects, but if so they are dysfunctional by our lights in ways that many societies have been dysfunctional.)

... and the sarcasm-boiled-away space from which Shea ridicules the claim in his inimitable style ...

The problem is that the *Iraqis* are insufficiently grateful for the opportunity for democracy we generously bestowed on them. So, you see, at the end of the day, the fault lies not with generous us, who prosecuted a war whose tenuous relationship with Just War teaching grows more tenuous by the day. No, the fault lies with the Iraqis. They were a people who sadly proved themselves unworthy of the war we gave them.

... is effectively nil. If Mr. Larison is right, and the Iraq war was just America's bid to impose an eccentrically liberal vision of the good that few societies, and certainly not Iraq, either should have taken to or could have been expected to take to ... then it isn't wrong to "blame the Iraqis" (set aside the negative connotations of the word "blame"). Mr. Larison's view is that Iraqis, did, should have and could have been expected to, refuse to or been unable to adopt liberal Western ways. In other words, it IS their "fault" (ditto last parenthesis). But Shea can't see that, rushing for the negative descriptors like a crack whore to the pipe she can't give up.

Aside: This is a rarely-remarked-on tension between (1) paleocon views of foreign policy, with its emphasis on the particular and the historical as defining politics, and (2) the Vatican's recent pronouncements and the Church's post-V2 teachings, which partake freely of talk of universal rights and a universal human nature. Either there is a politically-relevant human nature (the Vatican) or there is not (the paleocons). There really is no finessing this matter.

Or to put the same point another way: When Shea struttingly proclaims that "I have this bizarre notion that human rights are for humans" and proclaims his interlocutors to be the equivalent of abortionists (or at least, this is what he says when the subject is the Geneva Conventions and the claim to universal human rights can be cited against the US, the Bush regime and the End to Evil Neocons) ... I doubt that Shea even realizes that what he is saying is incompatible with a Larison-like claims that culture (not "human nature") sets the boundaries of politics. (There is one way out of this contradiction: Shea could be saying that free elections, free speech, equality of the sexes, the rule of law, etc., are not among the things meant by "human rights.")


Christopher Fotos said...

Not a few Iraqis have been saying for quite a long time that they're responsible for many of the problems we're witnessing, and that Saddam's reign of domestic terror gutted the foundations for a functioning, law-abiding country. Mohammed at Iraq the Model recently said, among many other things:

Now, our real problem in Iraq is that we do not have leaderships with patriotic agendas and like we said many times in previous postings; these leaderships that work according to partisan and regional-foreign agendas are the main cause of trouble because they are in power and they would not easily abandon the agendas of their masters and regional supporters and they will remain an obstacle in the face of building the state....

I don't expect Mark to be aware of this, or to have a serious interest in understanding it, because his guiding principle isn't to inform either himself or his readers about the maddening complexities of Iraq--a strange mission for a Catholic apologist in any case. His intention is to bash Bush and what he thinks "neocons" are. Logic, evidence and honesty have never been overly abundant in this quest and do not seem to threaten his latest intellectual misadventure.

Anonymous said...


Let's not overcomplicate why Mark opposes the Iraq invasion. John Paul II, Shea's Barometer of All Things Truly Catholic, opposed it and did so strenuously. If the late pope had supported it, we would not be having this discussion.

Protestant Fundamentalists often go by the following formula: THe Bible said it, I beleieve it, that settles it. No further thought required. Substitue "John Paul II" for "The Bible" in that sentence and you have Mark Shea. No distinction between prudential and non-prudential decisions necessary. No further thought required.

Mottramism, thy name is Shea.

Anonymous said...

Human rights come from our uncorrupted human nature and the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God, whereas the practical limitations Paleocons note stem from the fact that our human nature is fallen. So the contradiction is only apparent.


P.S. Mr. D'Hippolito, your theory seems to be falsified by the fact that Mark did support the war when it happened (albeit briefly). John Paul II never did.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous, if I recall correctly, Shea originally supported the war with reservations (concerns about whether it was a "just war"). If the late pope had not expressed such concerns, again, we would not be having this discussion.

If you've read Shea for any length of time, you know that he rarely criticizes any prudential papal decision (except for Benedict's remarks at Regensburg alluding to Islam) -- and almost never criticized any of JPII's prudential decisions.

Victor said...


But unless uncorrupted human nature (UHN) exists in history, which it doesn't, defining UHN that way doesn't get us very far in terms of what "human rights" include. A radical paleocon environmentalist can affirm that human nature exists, but because of sin, it is a concept without political salience or relevance. (I tend toward this view myself, I should note.)

Once UHN is acknowledged as having relevance within history, then it becomes possible to say that regimes are illegitimate based on abstract philosophy. That the paleocons will not do, and it is precisely what Larison is arguing against in the Shea-cited post.

That is not a stupid view by any means -- it has a long and distinguished history in Catholic thought. Indeed Joseph DeMaistre, the first great Catholic political philosopher of the counterenlightenment, made great sport of ridiculing the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the first of a slew of such declarations, all the recent ones of which the Vatican has endorsed and praised. He says he has never seen the "man" whom this is supposed to govern ... "In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians; I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian; but man I have never met." Burke and Kirk made similar points, and contemporary paleocons are singing off this songsheet.

Or in a phrase: The question isn't "is there a human nature absolutely" but "does a politically-relevant human nature exist in history." On the latter question, the Vatican and the paleocons (and I) give two different answers.