Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

What should we take responsibility for?

By Jonathan Ferguson

In today's armchair activist age, where online petitions abound, and many students, presumably with little knowledge of the Middle East or China, hawk formidable petitions, often with several sheets for good measure, the question of Western 'responsibility' in international affairs is at the forefront of many people's minds. This being the case, it is all the more crucial to distinguish between a 'zeal according to knowledge,' and mere zealotry.

Sometimes, when pressed, students who support NATO 'intervention' in the affairs of other nations will resort to the pretext, "We can't just sit there!" This, of course, begs the question; why should we intervene? Because... well, because we should intervene.

Probing beneath this superficial assumption, more convincing on emotional grounds than for any rational basis, we can nevertheless find some key assumptions. First, the West is presumed to have a superior capacity for moral judgment, in which we are all of us (especially students) are entitled to pass judgment on 'foreign' governments, without regard to their history, or current objective circumstances.

Second, it is presumed that we are entitled to act upon our alleged superior insight. What all this amounts to, is the 'bad side' of our European and American heritage. Theodor Adorno, in "the Dialectic of Enlightenment," spoke of how the Enlightenment desired to deliver humanity from fear, but ever risks bringing us under the servitude of myth; a true follower of Hegel, Adorno feared that Enlightenment and Myth were neither absolutely the same thing, nor absolutely distinct. In the desire of NATO to constantly 'save others from themselves,' the myth of superior insight from the rational 'man' (note the gender) is still alive. Needless to say, this tendency, inherited from the Enlightenment, is associated with the atrocities of budding 18th and 19th century imperialism. The so-called 'White Man's Burden' is as much a premise of the young and 'progressive' as it ever was.

However, there is at least one way in which we ought to accept responsibility in the international arena, but to realise this, we have to accept some unpalatable truths. We need to accept responsibility for our share in the crimes committed by governments or nations that we have marginalised. One key example is the victims of the Holocaust. Quite rightly, the Nazis have been forever discredited by their various atrocities, for which no excuses or mitigations can be made. We owe no apology to the Nazis. However, the Allied Powers have a certain degree of responsibility for the atrocities of Hitler. Why is this? Simply because the inexcusable Treaty of Versailles, which was intended to keep the German people in eternal servitude to the victors of World War One, contributed greatly to the chaos of the Weimar Republic, to the anomie and simmering resentment and hatred which made it possible for a monster like Hitler to rise to power.

Another example is the use of Agent Orange against the civilian population and soldiers of Vietnam. No nation who has committed such war crimes has any prerogative to point the finger at another government. When Saddam Hussein used sarin gas against the Kurds, this ghastly crime was all the more abominable for being an imitation of the nation who placed him there in the first place.

Third, it is the easiest thing in the world to point at Stalin's gulags or the Kim family's concentration camps as a negative object lesson in governance. Yet few would stop to consider to what extent the reactionary barracks mentality exhibited against the Prague Spring or other movements have been a product of Western isolation of socialist regimes. The sanctions against North Korea and other nations, serve as a means of revenge for those who are unwilling to submit to the pagan glory of the almighty markets.

Then, what should we do? First, refrain from making mealy-mouthed apologies, a common tactic which, at any rate, does not convince its intended targets. Second, act in a manner that acknowledges "let he who is without sin cast the first stone;" if allegiance to the teachings of He who said the latter means anything more than a political ploy to win votes.  However, as not only Jesus, but many of our heroic thinkers and activists in our past have exhibited well: setting a good example is accomplished not saying fine things (not even mealy-mouthed apologies such as Blair's patronising absurdities towards victims of slavery), but by governing in a manner that shows responsibility and rational concern for others.  That is, not by the sort of 'concern' that supplies 'freedom fighters' (read: terrorist hooligans) with arms in order to subvert sovereign nations and their fragile freedoms; but a sincere open-heartedness which loves what is good for being good, and not for the sake of its monetary value. 

Jonathan Ferguson