Platform Nine

Norman Geras dissects an objection to one of the manifesto’s elaborations.

In this post I deal with objections to the Euston Manifesto directed at the paragraph in section C in which we criticize two statements from Amnesty International:

The violation of basic human rights standards at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, and by the practice of “rendition”, must be roundly condemned for what it is: a departure from universal principles, for the establishment of which the democratic countries themselves, and in particular the United States of America, bear the greater part of the historical credit. But we reject the double standards by which too many on the Left today treat as the worst violations of human rights those perpetrated by the democracies, while being either silent or more muted about infractions that outstrip these by far. This tendency has reached the point that officials speaking for Amnesty International, an organization which commands enormous, worldwide respect because of its invaluable work over several decades, can now make grotesque public comparison of Guantanamo with the Gulag, can assert that the legislative measures taken by the US and other liberal democracies in the War on Terror constitute a greater attack on human rights principles and values than anything we have seen in the last 50 years, and be defended for doing so by certain left and liberal voices.

Not because he puts the point especially cogently—there is no cogent way of putting it—but because what he says is representative of much of the negative comment the paragraph has attracted, I will respond to Randy Paul’s version of such comment. He says:

First of all, they appear to be more concerned about AI’s abuse of metaphor rather than the torture abuse in Abu Ghraib.

I break this into its two constituent parts.

(a) Paul speaks of the now notorious Irene Khan statement—that Guantanamo is ‘the gulag [of] our times‘—as an abuse of metaphor. What it was as well as that was a piece of extreme rhetorical inflation, defended by Khan and other Amnesty spokespeople as a way of trying to grab attention. This was worthy of a political propaganda department, and unworthy of the reputation which Amnesty has deservedly gained for accuracy and care. It diminishes the colossal scope of the horror and suffering that the actual Gulag produced. (See 1, 2 and 3 for the more detailed argument on this that I made at the time.)

(b) Perhaps because he has no compelling defence of Khan’s statement, Paul adds the second thing, which is worse than just being uncompelling. It is his suggestion that supporters of the manifesto might care more about an abuse of metaphor than about the crimes committed by US personnel at Abu Ghraib. This is a serious allegation, because of course to care more about an abuse of metaphor than about the abuse and torture of people, you’d have to be morally lost, to put it no more harshly than that. One might therefore expect Randy Paul to have something substantial to go on in support of his suggestion. What he has, however, is only the pair of words ‘appear to’: we of the Euston Manifesto ‘appear to be more concerned’, he says, about the one thing than the other. He has, in other words, sucked this out of his thumb. Perhaps he thinks that by criticizing a couple of statements from Amnesty’s officials we make ourselves opponents of its work. He can try to justify that assumption, but he will fail. Especially supporters of the organization (as, speaking only for myself, I have been for longer than I accurately know) might want to hold the organization to its own best standards when it appears to slide into an unbalanced political rhetoric that is current on parts of the liberal-left.

Paul continues:

What I find downright offensive is this comment:

The violation of basic human rights standards at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, and by the practice of “rendition”, must be roundly condemned for what it is: a departure from universal principles[.]

Oh please. Talk about defining deviancy down. It’s not a “departure from universal principles,” it’s a crime against humanity

That is criticism in the same thumb-sucking mode as before, trying to produce something out of nothing. Yes, the violation is a crime against humanity; and, being that, it is also a departure from the universal principles by which this category of crime is defined. If the authors of the manifesto had said not the one but the other, Paul would have had better than his thumb. But he doesn’t, and so he manufactures the notion that we’re ‘defining deviancy down’. But if he’s not prepared to give some serious evidence for his ‘not/but’ interpretation, he might just as well go and sing it in E-flat.

It is a publicly known fact that the Euston Manifesto came out of a grouping that involved, among others, certain British bloggers. You want to know what we thought and think about Abu Ghraib vis-à-vis the offence of crimes against humanity? Or about torture? You can take a look:

It is not to the point to say that the abuses [at Abu Ghraib] were not, either in nature or scale, comparable to the crimes of the Saddam Hussein regime. The practice of torture, just as such, is an unmixed and inexcusable evil; it is an abomination. Correspondingly, the prohibition of torture should be a moral absolute in any civilized national polity, as it has over time become within the law of the community of nations. Along with the prohibitions of other core crimes against humanity—genocide amongst them—the prohibition of torture comes under the doctrine of jus cogens: it is a peremptory norm binding all states, and from which none may opt out; it protects a right from which derogation is not allowed even in war or national emergency. The prohibition of torture is not a moral and legal restraint of the kind which it is permissible to transgress just provided the transgression is not too ‘extreme’.

And you can take a look. And you can take a look. Yes, why not take a look?

Or else you might just as well go and sing it in E-flat. This isn’t intellectually or morally serious criticism, it is ungrounded animus; and it typifies the negative comment there has been about that paragraph in the Euston Manifesto.

Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester

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