Scott Lucas replies

Scott Lucas replies


There has been quite a discussion about the Scott Lucas book ‘Betrayal of Dissent’.

There has been plenty of comment on this site, including this item by Johann Hari and on their own blogs Paul Anderson and Norman Geras have made their own criticisms.

Only fair then that, when asked, we gave Scott Lucas the chance to reply. This, by the way, is an example of how we intend to continue discussion until such time as registered comments are online.

If you have a response you wish to make feel free to email it in to us.

Its a lengthy post so click on the MORE button at the bottom to carry on reading it in full:

Scott Lucas writes:

First, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. I have thoroughly enjoyed the debate over The Betrayal of Dissent.

1. I think the terms “Right” and “Left” are, at best, obsolete and, at worst, labels which are used to set up a straw-man attack, e.g., the “Right” are warmongers, the “Left” are naïve or deluded. The striking feature of the debate over military intervention, especially over Iraq, was that both support for the war and opposition to it covered the spectrum of political opinion — Hari,Cohen, Aaronovitch, Walzer, Packer, etc. for the war, Anthony Zinni, Pat Buchanan, Brent Scowcroft, even the elder George Bush against it. We are — or should be — beyond Right and Left.

2. The book makes two references to attempts to silence dissent — in the introduction with respect to the cases of Orwell’s List and Hitchens’ post-9/11 roll-call of unacceptable writers/activists and in the conclusion with respect to the specific case of the attack on Susan Sontag in September 2001. I stand by the allegation re Sontag, who received so much abuse and vitriol (with no respect given to the actual argument that she made) that she effectively retreated from debate on 9-11 for the next 12 months.

On reflection, I still stand by the specific allegation re Hitchens. From 19 September 2001, he offered no direct response to any of his supposed foes except, debatably, in the case of the exchange in The Nation with Chomsky and, even more debatably, in his caricature of Sam Husseini’s September 2001 comment regarding Palestine and Al Qa’eda. He came close to libelling Harold Pinter and John Pilger and he also put the label of “liberal masochist” on Howard Zinn and Norman Finkelstein without offering one word of explanation. He called Robert Fisk “a reactionary simpleton” (again, no word of explanation) and said Nelson Mandela was speaking “garbage” without addressing Mandela’s specific point regarding Iraq.

His bitter resignation from The Nation never dealt with the opposing viewpoints of other columnists (the basis for the resignation was a series of readers’ letter that the journal published); when Katha Pollitt challenged to make his case re the anti-war Left, Hitchens resorted to outright misrepresentation and distortion of her comments. So, yes, I think Hitchens since 9/11 has not engaged in debate but has tried to render those who raise questions about military intervention as beyond acceptability.



On Orwell, I think the allegation of “silencing” needs further consideration.
What bothered me about the List was that he passed it to British intelligence with no reflection on what might happen to those named. The end result that those named did not suffer from McCarthy-style retribution was due more to the handling of the list by British intelligence and other agencies, who did not set out an official “blacklist” (even if some institutions like the BBC did have a discreet vetting system). What bothered me beyond this was that Orwell, who had been distorted and vilified by outlets like the Daily Worker for years, had often distorted and caricatured the arguments of others on the “Left” since Part II of The Road to Wigan Pier.

3. I realise now that the debate over “silencing” may have been sparked by the back cover of the book, which uses the “silencing” quote from the introduction on Orwell and Hitchens but links it to “leading journalists and commentators”. I accept that a later edition should be much clearer with the marketing sound-bite.

The book is concerned with the attempt to render dissent unacceptable, in particular through the caricature and misrepresentation of the questions and challenges to military intervention and US and British foreign policy since 11 September 2001. I stand by the numerous cases cited in the book, despite Paul Anderson’s fury. To return to a specific case: in the columns of those commentators supporting military intervention in Iraq, e.g., Aaronovitch, Cohen, Hari in the UK, Gitlin, Hitchens, Packer in the US, , there has been little attempt to engage with the content of the opposition. When, for example, did any of the British-based columnists consider Jonathan Freedland’s call for “coercive inspections”? When did any respond to the February 2003 column of Matthew Parris, not exactly known as a Leftie, explaining carefully that anyone who opposed the war better be able to justify that opposition if WMD were found and if many Iraqis welcomed “liberation” (Parris’s objection was to the war as an extension of American power, an argument which I do not think those favouring “liberal intervention” have yet to confront — see below)? When did any respond to George Monbiot, Polly Toynbee, Hugo Young, Simon Jenkins, Madeleine Bunting,Arundhati Roy, Julian Barnes, et al.?

Instead, the refrain again and again was that opponents of immediate military intervention were “marching with Saddam” or would welcome his staying in power,that somehow these opponents must be followers of “Islamic fascism” because the Muslim Association of Britain also opposed the conflict. In the anti-intervention writers whom I quoted in the book, I cannot recall any instance of opposition to the war based on either of these positions. (I’m open to any cases that others can put, especially if they go beyond George Galloway.)

Did dissent exist in the US and Britain? Of course. In the US, it was much more difficult to get a dissenting position into the “mainstream” until several months after 9-11 and the rush to war in March 2003 again limited the consideration of those dissenting positions. Here, there was always a broader spread of opinion in the “mainstream” — the book’s concern was not that opposing arguments were never present but that those arguments continued to be caricatured rather than considered by those who supported military operations inAfghanistan and Iraq.

4. I’m sorry to take up so much space responding to the question of “dissent” because Johann’s review fairly points out that we need to be considering “liberal intervention”. Unfortunately, I don’t think his review deals with the book’s contention that the US Government sought war with Iraq from January 2001 and used the notion of “liberal intervention” as a pretext (as an example, consider the bizarre repetition of the mantra that Paul Wolfowitz has been a life-long advocate of US intervention for “freedom”). I don’t think those who supported the war have dealt with the argument that US strategy, as early as 1992, was based on achievement of a “preponderance of power”. And I certainly don’t think that these supporters have dealt with the argument that the
consequences of the Iraq war — a worsening of tensions in the Middle East, reinforcement of Al Qa’eda and other terrorist organisations, the de facto breakup of Afghanistan into regions often run by warlords, alliance with very un-free regimes in Central Asia, a blind eye to Russian activity in Chechnya, etc. — had been foreseen before March 2003 and are very much with us today.

So, to be clear, I think crises such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo made this a central question of where we go in the 21st century. And I agree with the need to consider intervention rather than issue a blanket prohibition against it.

But, as George Monbiot recently pointed out, that intervention needs to be based on international rather than national definition of the crisis, of the operations to be pursued, and of the postwar settlement. (Beyond Iraq, has anyone reflected that the US de facto ruled out such consideration of “intervention” with its rejection of the International Criminal Court?) No one, for or against the war, is shedding a tear over Saddam’s downfall — the question was always what would happen once he was gone. And there, with respect, I think the question of whether this particular “intervention” was the right one should be debated. Not as a debate to score points or for intellectual exercise but to see if there is a better way of coping with the crises that will continue to face us.

Thank you again for the chance to respond in this discussion.

Scott Lucas

Update: There are also a series of exchanges between Scott and Paul Anderson on Paul’s blog Gauche.