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May 05, 2008

Words: Do They Mean Anything?

I dig Matthew Yglesias of the Atlantic. First, he's pretty funny, which goes a long way with me. And second, he's an interesting and encouraging case study in recent structural changes in America's political economy. Not long ago, there would have been no room at fancy magazines for someone with his perspective. Now things have changed enough so there's a teeny-tiny foothold. If he were fifteen years older he would have either had to change his perspective in order to have a career, or keep his perspective and have no career.

And because I dig Yglesias, I found this, from the beginning of his new book Heads in the Sand, to be discouraging:

[O]ne should avoid unwise extremes and hew to a soundly moderate course of action...

Unfortunately...though backed by the teachings of Aristotle, the Buddha, and Goldilocks alike, [this view] offers little in the way of practical guidance. In a world where one conservative author's proposed response to Islamic violence is to "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity" and a non-trivial number of people are committed to blanket pacifism, the middle ground turns out to be an extraordinarily broad patch of terrain.

To begin with, the ritualized execration of the Dirty Fucking Hippies is gross. But what's worse is that it's completely untrue that "a non-trivial number of people are committed to blanket pacifism." Or at least it is if words have any meaning.

I assume what Yglesias is trying to say is that a fairly large number of Americans believe in non-interventionism; ie, that the United States shouldn't attack other countries and should generally stay out of their affairs. But that's not pacifism. Pacifism, people with access to dictionaries know, is

1: opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes; specifically: refusal to bear arms on moral or religious grounds

2: an attitude or policy of nonresistance

In other words, pacifists don't just refrain from attacking others. They also don't defend themselves (violently) if attacked.

So how many genuine pacifists—ie, people who wouldn't resist if the United States were invaded—are there in America? I'm not sure, but I bet they could all fit in my apartment.

To get a sense of how extreme this position is in US politics, let's ask Noam Chomsky whether he's a pacifist. Noam?

CHOMSKY: I'm not a pacifist.

I don't think there are a non-trivial number of people committed to a political perspective to the left of Noam Chomsky. What I do think is that hundreds of years of imperialism have damaged our understanding of what words mean. ("Pacifism is extreme and crazy! America not attacking other countries is pacifism! America not attacking other countries is extreme and crazy!")

It's too bad Yglesias is contributing to this, rather than using his talents to combat it.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at May 5, 2008 07:22 AM

to the left of

Is it really accurate to characterize pacifism as a leftist ideology? I sort of don't think so, though pacifists I've met (mainly Quakers) have all been liberals or left of liberal.

Posted by: The Modesto Kid at May 5, 2008 08:43 AM

The Anabaptists -- Amish, Mennonites, etc. -- are also pacifists, and they certainly wouldn't qualify as leftists.

But since the non-interventionists at the beginning of WWII got all tarred with the Nazi-lover brush, being non-interventionist has become pretty unpopular.

Except among the wacky pacifists, of course. (The Ron Paul types are tarred as Nazi-lovers, so they're taken care of.)

Is there a single mainstream anti-interventionist in America?

Posted by: Svensker at May 5, 2008 08:54 AM

I don't think there are a non-trivial number of people committed to a political perspective to the left of Noam Chomsky.

I don't think pure pacifism is a leftist phenomenon at all. It's a religious thing, obviously.

Posted by: abb1 at May 5, 2008 08:59 AM

Pacifist? Never saw one, don't believe they exist in AMERICA 2008. I mean, YOU might find someone who would "turn the other cheek", but WE ALL willingly kick down that dollar to bomb the neighbors. (April 15 2008 and Iraq)( I pay at the pump)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 5, 2008 09:22 AM

unfortunately, the word "nice" Jon, used to mean "foolish and ignorant".

Posted by: En Ming Hee at May 5, 2008 09:22 AM

Svensker has you on that one -- there are more Mennonites in one Pennsylvania county than can fit in your apartment, I'd wager.

I had some regrets over Yglesias a few years ago, but I've gotten over it. He seemed to be pretty smart and insightful (though he can't spell to save his life). As he charted his path from Harvard into paid punditry, though, he seemed to get a case of reasonablitis. That affliction seemed to play a large role in his decision to support our Enlightened Assistance to the Iraqi People. He has repudiated that stand, but he's still infected.

While I'm assassinating characters, let me add that I think Ezra Klein's reasonablitis has reached a fever pitch as he has received more attention for his health-care wonkery. I guess I still have a little hope for him, though.

Posted by: Jay at May 5, 2008 09:26 AM

This is what I'd call a secondary point, but yeah, there are a lot more pacifists than you realize, but probably most of them are Mennonites, Quakers, and the like. And Jonathan Schell wrote a book "The Unconquerable World" (which I intend to read someday) advocating nonviolent resistance and arguing that it has been much more effective against brutal regimes than people like to admit. Probably I'd sympathize with what he says, if I ever get around to reading it, while remaining a non-pacificist.

Your primary point is correct--Matt is conflating non-interventionism with pacifism.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 5, 2008 09:42 AM

I don't know what you see in Yglesias. He's always seemed to me a prototypical (neo)liberal with views similar to Samantha Powers. Maybe you misread him before?

Posted by: Pepito at May 5, 2008 10:16 AM

I used to think of Yglesias as one of the smarter moderate liberals - one of the first of the "liberal hawks" to flip on the war, one of the first moderate-libs to call for withdrawal from Iraq, occasional recognition that America's imperialism is a systemic problem and not merely an issue brought on by a couple crazy PNAC think-tankers at the Bush administration - in a way that gave me occasional hope that he might eventually get it, at least on foreign policy. But of late - and especially since the book rollout started - he's fallen increasingly into the camp that attempts to isolate Bush-era policy entirely from the policy that came before it, seeing Iraq as some curious aberration rather than a logical extension of policies pursued by Clinton, Bush I, and throughout the postwar era. That's a remarkably comforting delusion for liberals to embrace, because it doesn't require any hard reassessment of America's role in the world, but it's also one that guarantees the same stupid mistakes and atrocities will be repeated over and over again, all while the Yglesiases of the world scratch their chins and wonder why we don't just "return" to good ol' liberal internationalism.

Posted by: strasmangelo jones at May 5, 2008 10:48 AM

You know, Dude, I myself dabbled in pacifism once. Not in 'Nam of course.

Posted by: IOZ at May 5, 2008 11:10 AM

I don't think there are a non-trivial number of people committed to a political perspective to the left of Noam Chomsky.

The level of violence for which one will play apologist to espouse one's politics does not diminish to the left of Chomsky.

Posted by: Ashley at May 5, 2008 11:45 AM

I assume what Yglesias is trying to say is that a fairly large number of Americans believe in non-interventionism; ie, that the United States shouldn't attack other countries and should generally stay out of their affairs. But that's not pacifism.

I don't know Matthew Yglesias from a hole in the wall, but I assume that's not what he's trying to say. When mainstream authors invoke "pacifism" in this context it's intended to dismiss those who (for example) got Iraq right, by reducing their reasoned opposition to a reflexive, unconsidered response: "Sure, they were right to oppose the invasion, but they're against all wars." And that's why it's still necessary to exclude these people from the foreign policy debate, despite their having been 100% correct—they may have been right, but they were right for the wrong reasons.

Yglesias's enhancement of the slur with "blanket" makes it pretty clear that this is just what he intended.

Posted by: John Caruso at May 5, 2008 01:47 PM

I like Ashley's comment. I'm pretty sure Chomsky is not a pacifist so he can support the legitimacy of leftist insurgent movements, and for no other reason.

Posted by: saurabh at May 5, 2008 01:53 PM

I think you're misunderstanding your dictionary, Jonathan. I think the dictionary means that there are two different meanings of "pacifist" (A and B). Sometimes "pacifist" means A, sometimes it means B. Not -- as you seem to imply -- that "pacifist" means both A and B.

Posted by: Seth Roberts at May 5, 2008 01:54 PM

"I like Ashley's comment. I'm pretty sure Chomsky is not a pacifist so he can support the legitimacy of leftist insurgent movements, and for no other reason"

It's the the politically loaded word "insurgent" that gives you away I'm afraid. Exchange it with "resistance" and we're making progress.

Posted by: Coldtype at May 5, 2008 02:18 PM

Yglesias needs to take his strawman about pacifism, soak it with kerosene, light it with a match...

...and shove it WAY up him ass.

What a lying little fucktard!

Posted by: Jelperman at May 5, 2008 02:35 PM

Maybe he means someone who enjoys the fruits of OUR hegemony but ain't about to pick up a rifle to get some of it.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 5, 2008 02:45 PM

I agree, but I think we're saying pretty much the same thing. Against all wars=non-interventionism.

Non-interventionism != against all wars; you explain the difference well in the original article. And I don't think we're saying the same thing. You're saying that Yglesias is misusing the term "pacifist" when he really means non-interventionist, but I'm saying that it seems likely to me that Yglesias (like so many other mainstream commentators) really does believe that the anti-war movement is filled with genuine, dictionary-defined pacifists. So it's his perception of reality that's wrong, not his word choice.

But I agree that we probably agree.

Posted by: John Caruso at May 5, 2008 04:35 PM

Jonathan Schwarz

Maybe he is just pointing out what he sees as the two extremes, the Ann Coulter view on the one end and pacifists on the other. In between is "an extraordinarily broad patch of terrain", people like himself who (at first) supported the invasion of Iraq but who never really shared the Ann Coulter, non-interventionists who are not actually pacifists, etc...

Do you know the guy? Could you ask him for a clarification?

Posted by: cemmcs at May 5, 2008 06:56 PM

Sorry, Jonathan. I should have read your comment here more carefully before I posted mine.

Posted by: cemmcs at May 5, 2008 08:42 PM

This is another issue (which I brought up indirectly by mentioning Schell's book), but the term "pacifist" is also used, even by some on the left, as something that is synonymous with idealist dreamer who could never be effective in the real world. People, for instance, seem to think appeasement and surrender are the same as nonviolent resistance and they also think that nonviolent resistance only works against nice civilized oppressors.

I'm not a pacifist, and doubt it would always work, but I think it's dismissed far too quickly.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 5, 2008 08:45 PM

when I was a boy my mother was going through a spiritual crisis for a bit, and she announced one day that we were Quakers.

I went to school and said I was a Quaker, and a couple of boys made fun of me, so I got in a fight with them. (The irony was not apparent to me until many years later.)

But as far as Iglesias goes, I agree with the commenters who are unimpressed with him, and see him as being of Sam Power's ilk. I say this even thopugh I like visiting here and think you and the other guy are both really perceptive and interesting.

Posted by: Martin Biddlebaum at May 5, 2008 10:51 PM

TGGP - your article, to be blunt, sucks. Lindbergh was a Nazi apologist, not a mere pacifist. As that old King quote goes: Peace is not the absence of violence - it is the presence of justice.

Posted by: saurabh at May 6, 2008 06:30 PM
...someone who enjoys the fruits of OUR hegemony...

Mmmmmmmm....fruits of hegemony....

It's odd, because I was just looking at Yglesias' damn quote from an entirely different link when saw this posting. I haven't seen the whole book yet but the parts I have looked at seem a bit off.

There sure are a lot of bloggers mentioned in the index.

Posted by: darrelplant at May 6, 2008 07:36 PM