Friday, January 04, 2008

Spectres that won't stop haunting

Daniel Davies writes:

I have a minor annual tradition (as in, I did it once) of beginning the year with a short list of arguments that I am no longer going to have. As I said when I produced the first such list, while not necessarily claiming to have the definitive truth on these subjects, my views

“Are no longer up for argument, pending absolutely spectacular new evidence. I’ve had a number of arguments on all of these points over the last year; I’ve heard all sides, and I’ve made up my mind. If anyone has an argument which they genuinely believe to be new, go ahead, but don’t expect much. Please note also that I am no longer interested in methodological debates over the merits of statistical studies which purport to prove the matter one way or another on any of these propositions.”

It’s basically a way of clearing the decks of old pointless arguments, leaving room for new pointless and bitter arguments (I hope to post next week a short list of things that I plan to argue about a heck of a lot more, being a list of tacit assumptions made by other people that I regard as highly questionable). If you want to have a last go on any of the short list below, now’s the time, but otherwise it is books closed, I’m afraid; I have made a reasonable donation to the Grice United Fund which ought to cover any genuinely deserving intellectual charity cases. So here’s the list – it’s actually shorter than previous years.

Communist iconography, such as posters and t-shirts of Che Guevara, the equivalent of Nazi insignia. Members and ex-members of Communist parties in Western Europe and the USA, the equivalent of war criminals. In general, the use of inflated rhetoric about Stalinist or Maoist massacres as a debating technique [DISAGREE].

I entirely disagree with Davies on the merits of this question (click through to read his defense of his view) but actually agree with him about the pointlessness of it as a debate, and have been thinking about that myself during the past year.

I have occasionally been struck, when reading about the French 19th century, by how long political actors remained stuck in symbolic fights about the French Revolution. With 1848 on the horizon, people's heads were still in 1789 or 1793. I think that some of the failure of the July Monarchy can be attributed to the fault line running through the liberal center over what were basically 1789 identity questions. The 1830s were four decades after the events that still had a stranglehold on their politics.

I don't know what the equivalent of 1848 is in this analogy. But I do know that (as Davies notes in a different context later in the post) we're four decades past the 60s. We're 6-7 decades past the Holocaust and the purges. We're a lifetime past Duranty and the New York Times and the Ukrainian famine. I get a little shudder of disgust at the Che t-shirts, but for that matter I still get a little shudder of sadness thinking about the failure of the July Monarchy. As much as possible I intend not to invest emotional energy debates about the iconographies of comparative evils.