I’ll return later this week to my narrative on Israel/Palestine, but before I do, a quick update/digression on Syria. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post against involvement in Syria, citing David Bromwich‘s “Stay Out of Syria” in The New York Review of Books. Among the authors Bromwich had criticized was Dexter Filkins, who’s been writing an implicitly (or quasi-implicitly) pro-intervention column in The New Yorker. Filkins has responded to Bromwich in the most recent issue of NYRB, and Bromwich rejoins. Here is the exchange:
To the Editors:
In his review of my piece on the Obama administration’s choices in Syria [“Stay Out of Syria!,” NYR, June 20], David Bromwich accuses me of “looking” for reasons to intervene in Syria and of being “drawn to the idea” of a military solution to the conflict. In fact, not a single word in the article offers anything remotely approaching a policy prescription. The essay examines the pros and cons of a possible American intervention in Syria, and in the course of doing so considers a number of points of view and possible scenarios. This is known as balanced journalism. Only the most willful sort of ideologue, for whom the prospect of 80,000 dead Syrians matters less than having the right political line, could read the piece and conclude anything any other than that American options in Syria are deeply sobering. If Mr. Bromwich is going to continue to stray from literary criticism and into the realm of foreign affairs, he might consider doing some reporting of his own.
The New Yorker
New York City
David Bromwich replies:
Dexter Filkins has been a courageous and resourceful combat journalist. But his article on Syria was an attempt at political analysis: a different kind of writing. The article asked a question—should the US back rebel forces in Syria?—yet it never paused to wonder: Why are we asking this question? It offered no account of the prehistory or the aftereffects of American engagements in the Balkans and Iraq, and gave only a minimal sketch of the rival forces in Syria. It relied very heavily on conventional experts, whom it did not characterize adequately. Thus James Rubin, a partisan of intervention in Syria, is introduced as “a Clinton-era official at the State Department,” but Rubin was also an influential advocate of the Iraq war: a piece of history that matters. “Last year,” Filkins recalls, in a conspicuous first-person aside, “…I stood near the Syrian border and watched one of Assad’s gunships strafe a group of rebels.” Political analysis, too, has a use for evidence that comes from watching and testifying. But first-person narratives are not always enough; and it is not forbidden to think.
Bromwich wins this argument, hands down. In fact, he’s understated his case.
Bromwich had, correctly, accused Filkins of “looking” for reasons to intervene in Syria. (Here’s a link to the Filkins article under discussion. There are more at The New Yorker’s website.) Filkins responds–both irrelevantly, and to my mind disingenuously– that “not a single word in the article offers anything remotely approaching a policy prescription.” This claim does nothing to rebut Bromwich’s criticisms. An author can look for reasons for intervention, present the case for intervention while claiming merely to report on them, fail to present the case against intervention (while making pro forma reference to it), offer no explicit policy prescriptions (in his own voice), and then pretend that the result is even-handed or objective political analysis. That, in fact, is exactly what Filkins does. In the pagination I’m using, the relevant Filkins essay is about fourteen pages long. Less than half of one page of the article discusses reasons against intervention. The remainder presents reasons for intervention, many of them of the “If we wait any longer, it will be too late!” variety.
What we have here is really just a journalistic-military bastardization of Peter Singer‘s tired old “toddler drowning in the pool” pseudo-argument, first offered in his famous “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (and recycled in trivially different form, decade after decade thereafter). The argument in its original form is: surely if a child is drowning before your eyes, and “nothing of comparable moral concern is at stake,” it is self-evident that you should save the child. In its bastardized military form, the argument is: surely if mass murder will take place, and some relatively low-cost intervention will stop or mitigate it, it is nearly self-evident that you should intervene. (A friend of mine once aptly dubbed this “the argument-by-‘surely’-operator.”) Missing from both arguments is any articulated standard of costs and benefits. What counts as “nothing of comparable moral concern”? Could the appeal to emotions involved in the argument not itself involve a moral cost? Suppose that evil may not be done that good may come. Here’s a corollary: fallacies may not be committed so that true conclusions be reached. If the “argument” is fallacious, that fact by itself could justify its rejection even if the conclusion (in the drowning child case) were correct.
To be more explicit: Even if we should save the drowning child (as per Singer’s thought experiment), even if it indicates a serious defect of character not to save the child, the argument/thought-experiment does nothing but appeal to the emotions, and an appeal to the emotions is a fallacy, not an argument. Such an appeal offers, at best, an incentive to reflect on one’s emotional reaction to the hypothetical situation, to understand the judgments behind them, and then to produce an argument for saving the child–an argument, with identifiable premises leading validly to a conclusion. A sheer description of a terrible situation (followed by a loaded question) is not itself an argument, and should not be regarded as one.
I’ve seen many horrible things in my day, but I wouldn’t dream of emotionally blackmailing anyone into agreement with my verdict on those things simply by painting a horrible picture of them and then inducing a guilt-trip about the proper conclusion to reach. Unfortunately, this approach to “argument”–describe something terrible, then intimidate your interlocutor into your preferred conclusion about it by suggesting that he’s immoral if he doesn’t reach the conclusion on his own–has by now become commonplace, with little push-back by philosophers, whether the subject is assistance to others in need, abortion, animal rights, or “humanitarian intervention.” Filkins is cashing in on it, as are some of the pro-intervention people quoted in his article. (One ingenious philosopher who has pushed back is William Sin, of the Hong Kong Insititute of Education, who gave a paper on the subject at the Felician Ethics Conference this past April. I’ll try to blog his argument when I get a chance, but I don’t even think William has gotten at the essential problem.)
Filkins has, as Bromwich says, been a courageous and resourceful combat journalist. But he lacks even a rudimentary grasp of the requirements of objectivity in political argumentation. His “reporting” on Syria in The New Yorker is, in my view, little more than courtier journalism, emotionalism, and outright propaganda. No one should be fooled by it into intervention in Syria. The interventionists will have to do better than this. But I strongly suspect they won’t–because I strongly suspect they can’t.
P.S. Apologies for the delay in putting up Kirsti Minsaas’s Romantic Manifesto bibliography as promised–we have to settle a few technical issues before we do, but it’ll definitely go up this week.
P.P.S., July 16, 2013: Over the weekend, James P. Rubin, who’s mentioned in the Bromwich quote above, emailed IOS privately to take issue with the characterization of his views in the Bromwich quote. I should perhaps take a moment to clarify: I don’t know anything about Rubin’s views, whether about Iraq or Syria, and in quoting Bromwich, hadn’t intended to be commenting on Rubin. I was siding with Bromwich against Filkins on the more general point Bromwich was making about Filkins’s New Yorker essay–that the Filkins essay made little or not attempt to lay out the case against intervention. I cut and pasted the whole of Bromwich’s response to Filkins in the interests of completeness, not because I necessarily agreed with every sentence in it. But Rubin’s worry is a legitimate one–a reader could easily take my excerpting the whole passage to indicate agreement with the whole passage, especially since I agree so vehemently with Bromwich against Filkins. Hence the need for clarification. I should probably make the reverse clarification as well: since I don’t know anything about Rubin’s views, readers shouldn’t assume that I would necessarily disagree with Bromwich’s characterization, either. I’m simply agnostic one way or the other.