What’s so great about “Ulysses”?

The Argumentative Old Git

For a novel that is jokey, playful and irreverent, that exalts the everyday, and is about as much fun as any book I can think of, Ulysses has a formidable reputation. It is, indeed, often seen as the ultimate in literary elitism, and claims to have read it – and, further, to have enjoyed reading it, and coming back for more – are sometimes regarded with scepticism at best, and, at worst, with downright incredulity, or even with open accusations of lying. For Ulysses is unreadable, isn’t it? Or, at least, excessively difficult. And can anyone really enjoy something that is at such a level of difficulty? Far from being an enjoyable reading experience, is it not rather the case that reading this novel – or, rather claiming to have read this novel – is a sort of admission ticket to an exclusive and highly elitist literary club, membership of…

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Apologists among us

By Norman Geras

July 13, 2005

OK, it’s more than time to nail this. Within hours of the bombs going off last Thursday the voices one could have predicted began to make themselves heard with their putative explanations for the murder and maiming of a random group of tube and bus passengers in London. It was due to Blair, Iraq and Afghanistan, illegal war and all the rest of it. The first voices, so far as I know, were those of the SWP and George Galloway, but it wasn’t very long – indeed it was no time at all, taking into account production schedules – before this stuff was spreading like the infestation it is across the pages of Britain’s oldest liberal newspaper, where it has remained for going on a week (and today as appallingly as ever).

Let’s just get by the matter of timing – of timeliness – with the brief expression of repugnance which it deserves. No words of dismay or regret, let alone sorrow, mourning, could be allowed to pass these people’s lips without the accompaniment of a ‘We told you so’ and an exercise in blaming someone else than the perpetrators. No sense of what an awful tragedy like this might call for or rule out. Just as if you were to hear from a distraught friend that her husband (or lover, mother, son) had just been murdered while walking in a ‘bad’ neighbourhood, and were to respond by saying how upset you were to hear it (or maybe even to give that part a miss) but that it was extremely foolish of the deceased to have been walking there on his or her own. We had all this in the early aftermath of September 11 2001, so in a way it was to be expected. But one constantly nurtures the illusion that people learn. The fact is that some of them don’t and, from where they think, can’t. It is a matter of interest to me now that there was even (some time during the last year, though I don’t recall where and so can’t link to it) a comments thread on which one or two of the participants questioned whether there had really been left and liberal voices after 9/11 making excuses for the crime of that day and proffering little essays in ‘understanding’. Yes, there really were then, and there have been again now.

It needs to be seen and said clear: there are, amongst us, apologists for what the killers do, and they make more difficult the long fight that is needed to defeat them. (To forestall any possible misunderstanding on this point: I do not say these people are not entitled to the views they express or to their expression of them. They are. Just as I am entitled to criticize their views for the wretched apologia they amount to.) The plea will be made, though – it always is – that these are not apologists, they are merely honest Joes and Joanies endeavouring to understand the world in which we all live. What could be wrong with that? What indeed? Nothing is wrong with genuine efforts at understanding; on these we all depend. But the genuine article is one thing, and root-causes advocacy that seeks to dissipate responsibility for atrocity, mass murder, crime against humanity, especially in the immediate aftermath of their occurrence, is something else.

Note, first, the selectivity in the general way root-causes arguments function. Purporting to be about causal explanation rather than excuse-making, they are invariably deployed on behalf of movements, actions, etc., for which the proponent wants to engage our sympathy or indulgence, and in order to direct blame towards some party for whom he or she has no sympathy. Try the following, by way of a hypothetical example, to see how the exercise works and doesn’t work.

On account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans who have been denied the right to remain in the UK. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this decision and they take out their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame, or even partially blame, this act of violence on the government’s decision to halt the deportations, or who would urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn’t happen, even though (ex hypothesi) the government decision is part of the causal chain leading to the violence in question. It wouldn’t happen because the anger of the thugs doesn’t begin to justify what they have done.

The root-causers always plead a desire merely to expand our understanding, but they’re very selective in what they want us to ‘understand’. Did you ever hear a Jenny Tonge who empathizes with the Palestinian suicide bomber also understanding the worries of Israeli and other Jews – after the Holocaust, after the decades-long hostility of the Arab world to the State of Israel and the teaching of hatred there against Jews, after the acts of war against that state and the acts of terrorism against its citizens? This would seem to constitute a potentially rich soil of roots and causes, but it goes unexplored by the supposedly non-excuse-making purveyors of a root-causism seeking to ‘understand’.

The fact is that if causes and explanation are indeed a serious enterprise and not just a convenient partisan game, then it needs to be recognized that causality is one thing and moral responsibility another, although the two are related. Observe…

Me, David and Sam are chatting. I make a remark to David, David gets cross because of the remark and he punches me in the mouth. Sam says ‘You had it coming’. In this story it is uncontroversially true – I can tell you this, being the story’s one and only author – that my remark to David and Sam is the cause of David’s anger. Is Sam, then, right to tell me in effect that I either share the blame for David’s punching me in the mouth or am entirely to blame for it myself? Well, the content of my remark was ‘I love the music of Bob Dylan’. David for his part doesn’t like the music of Bob Dylan. I think most people will recognize without the need of further urging on my part that, contrary to what Sam says, I didn’t have it coming, David is entirely to blame for punching me in the mouth and I, accordingly, am not to blame in any way at all. If, on the other hand, my remark was not about Bob Dylan’s music, but was a deeply offensive comment about David’s mother, then without troubling to weight the respective shares of blame here, I’d say it would have been reasonable for Sam to tell me that I must bear some of it.

In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthemore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame.

The ‘We told you so’ crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London last week. How do they know this, these clever people? Leave aside for the moment the question of rightness and wrongness – for, of course, there were many people (in London, in the rest of the UK) for whom the Iraq war was not wrong but right, and if they are right that it was right, then no blame attaches to those who led, prosecuted and supported that war, even if it has entered the causal chain leading to the bombings, by way of the motivating grievances of the ‘militants’ and ‘activists’. But, as I say, leave this aside. How do they know?

What they need to know is not just that Iraq was one of a number of influencing causes, but that it was the specific, and a necessary, motivating cause for the London bombings. Because if it was only an influencing motivational cause amongst others, and if, more particularly, another such motivational cause was supplied by the military intervention in Afghanistan, then we don’t have that the London bombings wouldn’t have happened but for the Iraq war. Now, I’m aware that some of the ‘We told you so’ people are of the view that the intervention in Afghanistan was wrong too. But others of the ‘We told you so’ people aren’t of this view; and that segment of root-cause opinion, at least, will have a hard time of it establishing that just the Iraq war, and not Afghanistan – or anything else, for that matter (Palestine, the status of women, modernity, sexual freedom, pluralism, religious tolerance) – is what has provoked the murderers to their murders.

As for those (the SWPers, Galloways, etc.) for whom the intervention in Afghanistan should also not have happened, I’m happy to leave them where they are on this. These are people for whom the crime of 9/11 did not constitute an act of war meriting a military response, people whose preferred course of action was to leave the Taliban in situ ruling that country and al-Qaida with the freedom to continue organizing there. This rather does help to establish what is one of the main objects of the present post, namely that the root-causers are very selective about the root causes they’re willing to recognize as relevant; and, attached as they are to an ethico-political outlook that has lately been (let us just say) indulgent towards anti-democratic forces, they particularly favour root causes originating in the vicinity of Washington DC.

To shift part of the blame for the London killings and maimings on to Blair and Bush – and also Parliament and Congress, and everyone who supported the war in all the coalition-of-the-willing countries – you not only have to guess at the Iraq war having been operative and decisive in the motivations of the actual bombers, you not only have to overlook anything that might have been right about that war, like seeing off one of the most brutal and murderous dictators of the last few decades, you further have to reckon that what was wrong about the war not merely caused the anger of those bombers but made their response, in some sort, morally appropriate rather than (what it in fact was) criminally excessive. Just think about the implications of this position. If on account of the Iraq war Tony Blair is to blame for four young British Muslims (as it now seems) murdering and injuring some large number of travellers in London, will he also be to blame if one or two members of the Stop the War Coalition for the same reason should decide to bump off a few people in, say, Dundee? Ever on the lookout for damning causes, the root-causers never seem to go for the most obvious of them, so visibly obvious a one that it isn’t even beneath the surface of things the way roots often are, it’s right out in the open. This is the cause, indeed, which shows – negatively – why most critics of the Iraq war and of other events, institutions, movements, do not go around murdering people they are upset or angry with; I mean the fanatical, fundamentalist belief system which teaches hatred and justifies these acts of murder, justifies them to those who are swayed by it but not to anyone else. It somehow gets a free pass from the hunters-out of causes.

So, there are apologists among us. They have to be fought – fought intellectually and politically and without let-up. What is it that moves them to their disgraceful litany of excuses? This is doubtless a complex matter, but here are a few suggestions. One thing seems to be the treatment of those who practise terror as though they were part of some natural environment we have to take as given – not themselves free and responsible agents, but like a vicious dog or a hive of bees. If we do anything that provokes them, that must make us morally responsible, for they can be expected to react as they do. If this isn’t a form of covert racism, then it’s a kind of diminishing culturalism and is equally insulting to the people transformed by it into amoral beings incapable of choice or judgement.

Then, with at least some of the root-causers, their political sympathies and antipathies naturally incline them towards apologia. Here are people for whom the discomfiture of the US is number one priority, who would therefore have been happy to see the Americans bogged down without reaching Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein, who have openly spoken their support for an Iraqi ‘resistance’ committing daily crimes against the people of Iraq.

However, there are others not of this ilk and who would be horrified and outraged – and rightly – to see themselves described as indulgent towards such ugly and murderous forces, but who employ the tropes of blame-shifting and excuse-making nonetheless. These people, one may speculate more charitably, are merely confused; and amongst the things they are confused by are more local political divisions and animosities, which can seem to loom larger before them than the battle for and against democratic societies, for and against pluralist, enlightenment cultures, being fought across the world today.

Whatever the combination of impulses behind the pleas of the root-causes apologists, they do not help to strengthen the democratic culture and institutions whose benefits we and they share. Because we believe in and value these we have to contend with what such people say. But contend with is precisely it. We have to contest what they say of this kind, challenge it all along the line. We are not obliged to respect their repeated exercises in apologia for the inexcusable.

(My thanks to Eve Garrard for discussion and advice in the preparation of this post.)

Ed.: The original post is here