Rad Geek People's Daily

official state media for a secessionist republic of one

Posts tagged Glenn Greenwald

Against National Relativism

It’s not every term in meta-ethical theory that gets taken up into burning public-policy debates. But due to a complex series of cultural events, the term moral relativism has. The problem is that nearly every use of the term moral relativism in common political debate has more or less nothing actually to do with the subject of moral relativism. Here’s some notes from a recent Glenn Greenwald column on u.s.-American responses to the Israeli government’s bombing of urban targets in Syria:

. . . [T]he claim is being hauled out that Israel’s actions are justified by the “principle” that it has the right to defend itself from foreign weapons in the hands of hostile forces. But is that really a “principle” that anyone would apply consistently, as opposed to a typically concocted ad hoc claim to justify whatever the US and Israel do? Let’s apply this “principle” to other cases, as several commentators on Twitter have done over the last 24 hours . . .:

Imagine if, say, Iran had unilaterally launched a strike on Salafi Syrian rebels overnight? Would we all be okay with that? #lawofthejungle — Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan)

. . . As soon as Hasan tweeted his question, he was instantly attacked by a writer for the Times of Israel and the Atlantic, dutifully re-tweeted by Jeffrey Goldberg, on this ground:

Israel’s strike on Syria has been a revealing moment. Some, for example, seem to view Israel as equivalent to Iran –Liam Hoare (@lahoare)

One could say quite reasonably that this is the pure expression of the crux of US political discourse on such matters: they must abide by rules from which we’re immune, because we’re superior. . . . The ultimate irony is that those who advocate for the universal application of principles to all nations are usually tarred with the trite accusatory slogan of moral relativism. But the real moral relativists are those who believe that the morality of an act is determined not by its content but by the identity of those who commit them: namely, whether it’s themselves or someone else doing it. . . . Today’s version of that is: Israel and the US (and its dictatorial allies in Riyadh and Doha) have the absolute right to bomb other countries or arm rebels in those countries if they perceive doing so is necessary to stop a threat but Iran and Syria (and other countries disobedient to US dictates) do not. This whole debate would be much more tolerable if it were at least honestly acknowledged that what is driving the discussion are tribalistic notions of entitlement and nothing more noble.

–Glenn Greenwald, Israeli bombing of Syria and moral relativism
The Guardian (May 6, 2013)

The view that moral relativism is actually supposed to signify is, roughly, the position that one and the same action, taken in the same context, can be both right and wrong at the same time; that is, the position that questions of morality can rightly be answered only relative to a frame of reference[1] which can change from one judgment to the next. (So, for example, some people have believed — wrongly — that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the moral judgment has a feeling of approval or disapproval towards it; other people have believed — also wrongly — that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the judgment lives in a society in which the action is generally praised, generally tolerated, or generally condemned. For an excellent discussion of, and critical reply to, actual moral relativism, see the third chapter of G. E. Moore’s Ethics [1912].)

Now it is no sin not to know meta-ethical theory. It’s a branch of technical philosophy, and not the least recondite of the branches you could study. But if you’re going to use the terms, you ought at least to know what they mean. Moral relativism is a real thing; and even kind of a common personal stance or cultural phenomenon (it’s common enough for people, when challenged to justify their actions or to ground their moral pronouncements, to retreat into a sort of relativism, whether with a seemingly sophisticated philosophical defense or with a dull Well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.). And it’s something that’s worth pointing out; I think that the retreat to relativism is not only a cognitive or intellectual mistake, but really itself a kind of ethical lapse. But in public political debates, when the word moral relativism is thrown against a position, it is rarely being thrown at a position that’s actually relativist. In fact, because the word has become a watch-word of the cultural Right — and because u.s.-American militarism draws so much of its intellectual basis from the watch-words of the cultural Right[2]relativism has come to be very frequently used in order to defend the crassest sorts of exceptionalism and militarism in foreign policy debates. But when moral relativism is used polemically this way in debates about war and foreign policy, the word is almost always being used to attack positions that are exactly the opposite of relativist — it used to attack views precisely because they insist on principled ethical judgments being applied across the board, and demand that moral actors be held to the same ethical standards regardless of who they are, regardless of their politics or the government they are part of or the nationality they claim to represent. When someone condemns the Israeli government for taking exactly the same actions that would have been condemned from the government of Iran, the person condemning those actions (whether they are right or wrong to do so) is explicitly demanding a universal standard of moral judgment, and thus rejecting the sort of national relativism that tolerates behavior from our government while condemning it in others, simply because they are on the other side of a political boundary.

When moral relativism is used polemically in foreign-policy debates, the position being attacked is almost always being attacked because it makes a moral argument which is actually the exact opposite of moral relativism. And that’s too bad, because words mean things. Or at least they ought to.

Also.

  1. [1]Depending on the version of relativism in question, the frame of reference might be the frame of reference of the person acting; or it might be the frame of reference of the person evaluating the action and responding with praise or blame.
  2. [2]Both in terms of the people who advocate militarism, and also in terms of the conceptual framework that even liberal hawks routinely make use of.

This is what a police state looks like. (Part 2 of ???)

Show me what a police state looks like…

This is what a police state looks like!

August 30

Protesters here in Minneapolis have been targeted by a series of highly intimidating, sweeping police raids across the city, involving teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets. Last night, members of the St. Paul police department and the Ramsey County sheriff’s department handcuffed, photographed and detained dozens of people meeting at a public venue to plan a demonstration, charging them with no crime other than “fire code violations,” and early this morning, the Sheriff’s department sent teams of officers into at least four Minneapolis area homes where suspected protesters were staying.

. . . In the house that had just been raided, those inside described how a team of roughly 25 officers had barged into their homes with masks and black swat gear, holding large semi-automatic rifles, and ordered them to lie on the floor, where they were handcuffed and ordered not to move. The officers refused to state why they were there and, until the very end, refused to show whether they had a search warrant. They were forced to remain on the floor for 45 minutes while the officers took away the laptops, computers, individual journals, and political materials kept in the house. One of the individuals renting the house, an 18-year-old woman, was extremely shaken as she and others described how the officers were deliberately making intimidating statements such as “Do you have Terminator ready?” as they lay on the floor in handcuffs.

. . . There is clearly an intent on the part of law enforcement authorities here to engage in extreme and highly intimidating raids against those who are planning to protest the Convention.

— Glenn Greenwald, Salon (2008-08-30): Massive police raids on suspected protesters in Minneapolis

August 30

This is Eileen Clancy, one of the founders of I-Witness Video, a NYC-based video collective that’s in St. Paul to document the policing of the protests around this week’s Republican National Convention.

The house where I-Witness Video is staying in St. Paul has been surrounded by police. We have locked all the doors. We have been told that if we leave we will be detained. One of our people who was caught outside is being detained in handcuffs in front of the house. The police say that they are waiting to get a search warrant. More than a dozen police are wielding firearms, including one St. Paul officer with a long gun, which someone told me is an M-16.

We are suffering a preemptive video arrest. For those that don’t know, I-Witness Video was remarkably successful in exposing police misconduct and outright perjury by police during the 2004 RNC. Out of 1800 arrests, at least 400 were overturned based solely on video evidence which contradicted sworn statements which were fabricated by police officers. It seems that the house arrest we are now under and the possible threat of the seizure of our computers and video cameras is a result of the 2004 success.

— Eileen Clancy, I-Witness Video Blog (2008-08-30): i-witness video emergency press statement from the RNC

August 30

The work of the I-Witness Video collective was interrupted this past Saturday, August 30, 2008, when St. Paul police detained 7 members of the group (along with an assortment of other individuals) for several hours. The NYC-based video collective is in St. Paul to document the policing of the protests at the Republican National Convention.

The incident began in the late morning when an FBI agent and a Wisconsin Deputy Sheriff showed up on the doorstep of the house in which members were staying (on Igelhart St.), interrupting a collective planning meeting. The officers left after a short conversation with members through a locked front door. Two hours later, around 30 police surrounded the house. Two people who left the house were detained in handcuffs; several others, who were inside, were told that if they left, they would be also be detained. Around the same time, three other I-Witness Video members who had left the house on bikes and two others who were riding in a car across town were also detained by police.

Two hours later, after the search warrant arrived, police at the Igelhart Street house stormed in, pointing an automatic handgun at the people inside. They handcuffed all the individuals inside, collected their personal information, and corralled them in the back garden. While police held the media activists and their friends there, members of the media, who had gathered in an adjoining backyard, interviewed I-Witness Video member Eileen Clancy from behind a fence. After completing their search, the police finally uncuffed everyone and departed. Within about two hours, the other I-Witness Video groups–who had been detained on bikes and in a car, all of whom also had their identifications verified and had undergone searches of various kinds–were also released.

During the raids, members of I-Witness Video managed to send out several email and text messages to supporters, legal support, and press. In response, hundreds of people called the office of the St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

Among those individuals detained was Democracy Now! producer Elizabeth Press, who had her camera with her throughout the incident. This morning, Democracy Now! ran a news segment on the many preemptive raids that police have launched against activists in St. Paul this month, including the raid that I-Witness Video suffered on Saturday.

This was a clear effort to intimidate and undermine the work of I-Witness Video–a group that was remarkably successful in exposing police misconduct and outright perjury by police during the 2004 RNC. Out of 1800 arrests made that week, at least 400 were overturned based solely on video evidence which contradicted sworn statements by police officers.

— Rachel Mattson, I-Witness Video Blog (2008-09-01): I-Witness Video Members Detained En Masse by St.Paul, Minnesota Police in Advance of the 2008 Republican National Convention

September 3

At about 2:45 this past afternoon (Sept. 3), police wielding batons and a battering ram entered the professional office building on Selby Avenue in St. Paul where I-Witness Video is renting work space.

Geneva Finn, an attorney with the National Lawyer’s Guild went to head off the police. After the police left, she made this statement at an impromptu press conference on the street:

A few minutes ago, one of our legal observers called me to the door. I saw the St. Paul police unloading a bunch of equipment from their cars and they saw me at the door. They saw me at the door, they motioned me forward. I came forward to their cars. They told me that they had reports that somebody was holding somebody hostage in the building, that there had been a kidnapping. They told me that somebody, an undercover had told them, that the anarchists were holding people hostage in our building.

I work for the NLG [National Lawyers Guild] here, we have, we’re working at one of our lawyer’s offices, I said, “Is it in our law office?” They said “No, it’s upstairs.” They then came into the building with me, I showed them what was going on upstairs. They did a pull-up on the frame of I-Witness’ door, looked in, saw that there was people in there, nobody was being held hostage. I then asked the police to leave, since no one was obviously being held hostage here, and they refused. Eventually their head sergeant came here, and decided that they could leave the building.

Anarchists taking hostages? Kidnapping?

This is extraordinary, folks. The St. Paul police came after us with unfounded allegations that we were engaged in criminal behavior. This harassment has interfered with our ability to do the work of documenting the policing of protests that we have come to St. Paul to do. They were able to put pressure on the landlord to do something that they could not force under the law. We were informed that, as a result of all of the commotion, our landlord wanted us to leave the premises immediately.

We packed up our belongings as quickly as possible and were welcomed at the offices of Free Speech TV in St. Paul, for which we are deeply grateful.

— Eileen Clancy, I-Witness Video Blog (2008-09-04): St. Paul Police use bogus “hostage” claim to seek entry to I-Witness Video office

While reporting from a protest at the Republican National Convention, Utne Reader intern Chelsey Perkins captured footage of police launching gas canisters at protesters and chasing them down the banks of the Mississippi river in St. Paul. . . .

Having seen protesters and police clash in the distance, Perkins asked an officer how to get away from the conflict zone. She was directed toward a river walk with a large group of people including both protesters and bystanders. The police followed closely behind, until multiple groups of officers on bikes, horses, and on foot surrounded and detained everyone in the area.

Once surrounded, Perkins was told to get on the ground with her hands on her head. Some of the people were placed in plastic cuffs, and a large bullhorn announced that everyone in the area was under arrest. Members of the media were eventually told to leave, because the area was deemed a “crime scene.” Perkins tried to explain that she was a member of the media, but without credentials, she was unable to leave.

After some 45 minutes of being detained, Perkins was told that she was no longer under suspicion and could leave if she wanted. When she agreed, she was surrounded by a group of police who escorted her away from the area.

— Bennett Gordon, Utne Blogs (2008-09-01): RNC: Police Tear Gas and Arrest Protesters

Before the protests, police from several different government agencies repeatedly used hyperviolent paramilitary SWAT assaults in order to harass, intimidate and disrupt protest groups even though there was absolutely no evidence, other than wild speculation, that anyone posed a threat of violence against the cops sent to serve the warrants, and even though no crime had yet been committed. The cops attacked not only protest groups but also journalists. Then, once the demonstrations had begun, heavily-armed riot cops repeatedly surrounded nonviolent protests, attacked them with batons, ordered them to disperse and then blocked off all possible routes of exit, and fired tear-gas cannisters into crowds of retreating protesters and bystanders.

Remember that so-called electoral democracy — in fact, nothing more than an imperial elective oligarchy — never means that we (meaning you and I and our neighbors) are respected as sovereign individuals or left alone to manage our own affairs. What it means is that a highly organized, heavily armed elite insists on the privilege of “representing” us, ruling over us, and ordering us around, on the excuse that, once every several years, we are given some minimal opportunity to select which of two tightly regimented political parties will take control of the ruling apparatus. It is, in other words, not freedom, but rather a Party State, in which we are given only the choice of which of two bureaucratic political parties might control our lives and livelihoods, with their authority supposedly justified by the ritual of elections and the mandate of popular sovereignty. And if the people (again, meaning you and I and our neighbors) should dare to think that we might challenge the authority of the regime supposedly “representing” us, you’ll find that it’s the people that go out the window, not the rigged electoral system or the parties’ grasp on the authority supposedly derived from those people.

More to come.

In Their Own Words, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” edition

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, meeting with troops in Qatar, 28 April 2003:

And there have not been large numbers of civilian casualties because the coalition took such great care to protect the lives of innocent civilians as well as holy sites. … When the dust is settled in Iraq, military historians will study this war. They’ll examine the unprecedented combination of power, precision, speed, flexibility and, I would add also, compassion that was employed.

General Tommy Franks, Bagram Air Force Base, 19 March 2002:

I don’t believe you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of 1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered. You know we don’t do body counts.

Donald Rumsfeld, interview on FOX News Sunday, 9 November 2003:

Well, we don’t do body counts on other people ….

Gilbert Burnham, Shannon Doocy, Elizabeth Dzeng, Riyadh Lafta, and Les Roberts (principal authors): The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study, 2002–2006:

A new household survey of Iraq has found that approximately 600,000 people have been killed in the violence of the war that began with the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

The survey was conducted by an American and Iraqi team of public health researchers. Data were collected by Iraqi medical doctors with analysis conducted by faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The results will be published in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

The survey is the only population-based assessment of fatalities in Iraq during the war. The method, a survey of more than 1800 households randomly selected in clusters that represent Iraq’s population, is a standard tool of epidemiology and is used by the U.S. Government and many other agencies.

The survey also reflects growing sectarian violence, a steep rise in deaths by gunshots, and very high mortality among young men. An additional 53,000 deaths due to non-violent causes were estimated to have occurred above the pre-invasion mortality rate, most of them in recent months, suggesting a worsening of health status and access to health care.

Methods: Between May and July 2006 a national cluster survey was conducted in Iraq to assess deaths occurring during the period from January 1, 2002, through the time of survey in 2006. Information on deaths from 1,849 households containing 12,801 persons was collected. This survey followed a similar but smaller survey conducted in Iraq in 2004. Both surveys used standard methods for estimating deaths in conflict situations, using population-based methods.

Key Findings: Death rates were 5.5/1000/year pre-invasion, and overall, 13.2/1000/year for the 40 months post-invasion. We estimate that through July 2006, there have been 654,965 excess deaths–fatalities above the pre-invasion death rate–in Iraq as a consequence of the war. Of post-invasion deaths, 601,027 were due to violent causes. Non-violent deaths rose above the pre-invasion level only in 2006. Since March 2003, an additional 2.5% of Iraq’s population have died above what would have occurred without conflict.

The proportion of deaths ascribed to coalition forces has diminished in 2006, though the actual numbers have increased each year. Gunfire remains the most common reason for death, though deaths from car bombing have increased from 2005. Those killed are predominantly males aged 15-44 years.

Deaths were recorded only if the person dying had lived in the household continuously for three months before the event. In cases of death, additional questions were asked in order to establish the cause and circumstances of deaths (while considering family sensitivities). At the conclusion of the interview in a household where a death was reported, the interviewers were to ask for a copy of the death certificate. In 92% of instances when this was asked, a death certificate was present.

White House Press Conference, 11 October 2006:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. Back on Iraq. A group of American and Iraqi health officials today released a report saying that 655,000 Iraqis have died since the Iraq war. That figure is 20 times the figure that you cited in December, at 30,000. Do you care to amend or update your figure, and do you consider this a credible report?

George Bush: No, I don’t consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died, and that troubles me and it grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate. And it’s now time for the Iraqi government to work hard to bring security in neighborhoods so people can feel at peace.

No question, it’s violent, but this report is one — they put it out before, it was pretty well — the methodology was pretty well discredited. But I talk to people like General Casey and, of course, the Iraqi government put out a statement talking about the report.

Q — the 30,000, Mr. President? Do you stand by your figure, 30,000?

Bush: You know, I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life — 600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just — it’s not credible. Thank you.

Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (1986/2005):

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. …The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.

Further reading:

Anticopyright. All pages written 1996–2018 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.