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The grammar of war

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.

From a recent Al Jazeera report on remarks by Said Jawad — the ambassador from the government ruling Afghanistan to the government ruling the United States — about the death of five Afghan civilians, killed by the United States government’s military:

Said Jawad said that the deaths were a tragedy, but could be necessary if fighters were to be defeated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

This is a price that we have to pay if we want security and stability in Afghanistan, the region and the world, he said in Washington on Friday.

Jawad’s remarks come after the US military apologised for killing four civilians, including a child, in a raid earlier this week.

. . . A 13-year-old boy who survived the US raid on his home overnight on Wednesday told Al Jazeera that his mother, brother, uncle and another female family member were killed.

A woman who was nine months pregnant was wounded and lost her baby.

— Al-Jazeera English (2009-04-13): Afghan envoy defends US raids

He wants the political stability in Afghanistan, the region, and the world. They pay the price for what he wants.

If there is a proper apology, and there is a good explanation, and that’s exactly what we have been asking from our American friends in the past … then I think the people understand, he said.

He has American friends. He gets the apologies. He gets the explanations. They get the tragedy that he understands.

He ought to speak for his own damn self.

Here as elsewhere, half of human decency in political thinking is just learning to keep your personal pronouns straight.

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  1. Phil

    I didn’t think there could ever be human decency in politics because by it’s very nature politics seems more about groups of people without concern to any individual. It’s completely backwards in assuming the importance of the abstraction over the thing itself.

  2. Rad Geek


    Well, I’m sure that’s true for at least some meanings of the word politics, but I’m not sure that it’s true for all of them.

    I typically use the word politics to mean roughly what Aristotle meant by it (or rather, meant by its Greek cognate, politike) — that is, the art or science of living together as a community. There are many possible kinds of community, and some of them demand, either in principle or in practice, the subordination of the individual life to larger classes or to allegedly higher goals. But others do not; presumably, though, those other kinds of communities involve some form or organization. In order not to subordinate the individual life to that form or that organization, any shared pattern of living would have to be a consensual rather than a coercive pattern; and it’s likely that most of it would be more a matter of unplanned equilibration of interests rather than implementing conscious plans from some center outwards. But there are sorts of organization other than government coercion, and there are forms for living harmoniously that can grow up without being handed down by an authoritative law-giver. Given all that, I’m willing to call that the politics of a consensual society, at least according to one historically important meaning of the term.

    Do you mind if I ask what meaning you attach to the term politics, such that it would lead you to conclude that by its very nature politics seems more about groups of people without concern to any individual? Are you using the term politics to mean something like the business of governments, or processes for the organization of society through the authority of a unipolar legal system?

  3. Gabriel

    It seems like politics is largely used in the second sense you describe. I agree with you however that Aristotle’s usage is better.

  4. Phil

    Yes, I was using the word politics in the contemporary sense of what large organizations like governments, corporations, etc. engage in often for the purposes of legitimizing some coercive act with the apparent consent of the underclasses, or other wonderful things.

    But even if you mean it in the Greek sense – I’m not sure if any of the sensible Greeks wrote anything on politics, but I am familiar with Plato – Plato’s idea of the perfect society is rather like a totalitarian nanny-state utopia.

  5. Nick Manley

    I was the one who tipped you off to this, right? ( :

  6. Rad Geek


    I guess which sense is used more depends on who you hang out with. I agree that in, say, the mainstream media, politics is used more or less exclusively to mean the operation of government, or simply to mean electoral politics, the noisiest sideshow associated with it. On the other hand, I hang out with a lot of philosophers and activists, and among the activists, many who are to one extent or another immersed in the legacy and language of the New Left. (These people are, of course, atypical; but, then, so are the handful of people who make up the mainstream media.) There are certainly lots of people out there who use the word politics to mean stuff that goes on in civil society and not just in government — e.g., to mean anything that has to do with structured relationships of power, or anything that has to do with conscious plans for social coordination, or anything that has to do with any sort of living in public, etc. And I will say that even people who are not philosophers or activists can generally get some idea of what you’re talking about, with fairly minimal explanation, if you start talking about, say, the politics of housework.

    For whatever it’s worth, there’s some further discussion along these lines in the discussion of the authoritarian theory of politics in section 2 of the libertarian feminism paper I co-authored with Roderick Long.


    Well, it depends on how you read Plato. I think there’s a good case to be made that the closest thing to a perfect society presented in the Republic is in fact an anarchy (the so-called city of pigs in Book II). The totalitarian state that he famously describes through most of the rest of the Republic is presented as one in which the need for war and government arises because the society is fevered with desires that outstrip the human needs of both survival and comfort, and the resources available through honest labor. The totalitarianism comes about from reflection on (what Plato’s Socrates thinks is) the sort of education and social organization that the city’s guardians will need, if the city needs guardians. But the city that he describes as the true city and a healthy one is one that has no guardians at all.

    (This is not to say that I endorse either the Platonic Socrates’s view of anarchy or his view of the State, incidentally. I wouldn’t want to live in the healthy city he describes, and I certainly don’t think a second-best to anarchy of any kind is a totalitarian caste state like the one he later describes. But I do think it’s a mistake to read Plato, or the Platonic Socrates, as a straightforward totalitarian.)

    As for sensible Greeks, well, Athens was an imperialist slave society, organized into a brutal tyranny along lines of citizenship and sex (something which Plato was one of the few thinkers to systematically criticize, actually), so any sensibility that comes from them must come in a very selective form dealing with the relationships within the charmed circle of free male citizenship, that needs to be radicalized and universalized outside of that charmed circle. But bearing that in mind, Roderick Long has a couple of very good articles on the Athenian democrats and their conception of equality and individual freedom within the charmed circle: The Athenian Constitution: Government by Jury and Referendum and Civil Society in Ancient Greece: The Case of Athens.

  7. Gabriel

    Dare I suggest that Aristotle owned slaves and defended slavery?

  8. Rad Geek


    Indeed he did. Which was a terrible crime on his part. I admire many of his philosophical works (just as I admire some of Jefferson’s), but I don’t admire the man. And (as in his writing on slavery and on patriarchy) there are cases in which the man’s viciousness ends up producing bad philosophy.

    Like I said, any political virtues that certain Athenian thinkers may have had have to be recognized as extremely selective at best, and as a theory of equality that applies only to a privileged minority of the Athenian population. A wide supermajority of the people who lived under the democracy in Athens experienced the most brutal sort of dictatorship. If there are insights to be had from the Athenian constitution, they’re only to be had after they’ve been radicalized, universalized, and reset in a very different sort of socio-political context.

    And, while I admire many of Aristotle’s philosophical works, I think his work on politics specifically is not even the best stuff that was produced in Athens, for whatever that’s worth. You’ll typically get better from the Athenian democrats than from their philosophical critics, who typically opposed the democracy because it was not authoritarian enough for their tastes.

  9. Nick Manley

    If anyone is interested: http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/03/30/afghanistan/

    This ties into the post I just made on Sunday.

· November 2009 ·

· December 2009 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-12-22 – There’s no “I” in “Health Care Reform”:

    […] more on why (although, if you’ve been here a while, you might be abe to guess), you can read the whole thing at the Freeman’s website. The column will also be appearing in […]

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