Monday, April 14, 2008

Is Niall Ferguson As Nazi As He Sounds?

Just as Leni Riefenstahl would have found Dick Cheney a poor excuse for a Fascist, Niall Ferguson doesn’t find Philip Bobbitt to be a Neo-Con, despite that writer’s advocacy for the Iraq war. No, in today’s New York Times Book Review, Bobbitt is just Ferguson’s kind of guy, what with his several professorships and trans-oceanic lecturing – they have that in common. They also seem to have in common a knack for disregarding brute facts in favor of academic arcana and facile contrarianism, or at least it sounds that way from the front-page review of Bobbitt's Terror and Consent.

Both Ferguson and Bobbitt were able to convince themselves that it would be good to follow the obvious criminal nincompoops of BushCo into an unprovoked war on dubious pretexts – pretexts since shown to be almost wholly counterfeit. Now that, with absolute predictability, the Iraq war has turned a multi-trillion-dollar debacle, Ferguson shrugs and falls back on such middlebrow revisionism as we might find on Powerline; it was good idea bungled in the execution. We somehow failed “to convert Iraq into an ally in the war on terror” with shock and awe. Who would have thought it? Perhaps one who studied the history of the American Revolution, Napoleon, the Boer War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, et cetera might have.

Well, never mind about all that, say Ferguson and Bobbitt. Think about how the people at “Royal Dutch Shell” have discovered that the future has become “futures” (a point perhaps more amusingly made in Terminator 2). We’re to think too about how “the traditional post-Westphalian ideal of the sovereign nation-state” has died off like the dinosaur, giving rise to a “market-state” wherein “This state’s relationship to its citizens resembles that between a corporation and consumers.” (Nothing Neo-Con about that.) Besides, we have other wars to fight now. And how shall we go about them? Bobbitt, Ferguson and the Neo-Cons all think it will be useful to think of all Islamic terrorists, as “Al Qaeda for short” – the better perhaps to facilitate the “kill ‘em all; let God sort them out” strategy.

Alas, it seems, we may have to institute some kind of Final Solution to prevail in this war against hook-nosed ‘parasites’ from the East. One might have thought a “historian” would be a bit more circumspect about using a vintage Nazi talking point in his New York Times defense of “homo atlanticus” – by which he means the white “men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End.” But Ferguson says:

The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the plagues in the 14th century were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world.

The difference, of course, is one of intent. The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based “terror-state” in the form of a new caliphate.

Compare then, this favorite trope of the Third Reich, in the narration from their quintessential propaganda film, The Eternal Jew:

In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, they spread from Eastern Europe like an irresistable tide, flooding the towns and nations of Europe - in fact, the entire world. Wherever rats appear they bring ruin, by destroying mankind's goods and foodstuffs. In this way, they (the rats) spread disease, plague, leprosy, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, and so on. They are cunning, cowardly, and cruel, and are found mostly in large packs. Among the animals, they represent the rudiment of an insidious and underground destruction -- just like the Jews among human beings. This parasitical Jewish race is responsible for most international crime.

Is it just coincidental that this sort of talk came before massive “extermination” of the Jews, a process ultimately perfected with I.G. Farben’s Zyklon roach powder, under the pretext of “delousing?” (Talk about relationships between “corporation and consumers”!) Perhaps we’d have to consult actual historians about this.

But, turning again to the “futures,” and how the fight the war on an “abstract noun,” Ferguson says:

Bush’s instinct was not wrong. In this war, we do need pre-emptive detention of suspected terrorists; we do need a significant increase of surveillance, particularly of electronic communications; we do need, in some circumstances, to use coercive techniques (short of torture) to elicit information from terrorists. The administration’s fatal mistake was its failure to understand that these things could be achieved by appropriate modifications of the law.

Ferguson finds it bad form that the divorce of national policy and criminal code from any notion of civil rights, human dignity, truth-telling, et cetera, wasn’t undertaken properly (John Yoo would disagree here). The proper procedures weren’t observed apparently, as perhaps they once were in certain old nation states intent on dehumanizing some of their citizens.

But Ferguson, and perhaps Bobbitt, miss several key points in their undying, yet abstract zeal for the “long war” against “Al Qaeda.” Wars are inherently extra- or supra-legal; ‘all’s fair’ in them. After all, what is a war without a great many non-judicial executions? When we apply the war metaphor (just as with the vermin metaphor) certain unfortunate things tend to happen; thus, for instance, the “war” on drugs necessitates, surveillance, infiltration, entrapment of the citizen by a secret police. In any war the citizen’s right to privacy becomes spurious the government’s right to secrecy becomes sancrosact. This is precisely how “war on terror” has allowed George Bush to claim absolute power, to do whatever he wants with impunity by classifying the evidence of his many crimes as war secrets.

Ferguson says, “By doing what indeed was needed, but doing it outside the law, the administration undermined the legitimacy of American policy at home as well as abroad. Bobbitt is emphatic: all branches of government must act in conformity with the Constitution and the law.” But what he doesn’t tell us is how we are to ensure that the government will ‘act in conformity with law’ when war secrecy effectively puts many agencies beyond the law’s reach.

Ferguson has said elsewhere (of the abuses at Abu Grahib), "But you have to recognize that power will corrupt inevitably. It comes with the territory of empire." He considered this a knock-down argument – ‘Boys will be boys’. What he doesn’t seem to consider here, or anywhere else, is how the absolute power of the war commander, the Decider, may lead to the sort of absolute corruption from which no nation can recover without bloody upheaval. No does he seem to consider what we will be saving from the Eastern Parasites if we surrender the Constitution in defeating them. Might not decent and freedom-loving people themselves rightly take up armed resistance against a system so noxiously transformed, and thus make the “war” itself self-defeating, and of course exponentially atrocious.

But no matter, all that. What’s really important here is the contrarian Niall Ferguson’s perfervid fantasy about the “dapper” Mr. Bobbitt, his vision of him in Washington as part of a power couple, “Perhaps — who knows? — this brilliant book may also be an application for the post of national security adviser. In times of war, stranger bedfellows have been known than a Democratic Texas lawyer and a Republican Arizona soldier.”

A sticker for facts might point out that McCain’s alma mater turns out sailors. But we should overlook this in view of Ferguson’s service to us. Not withstanding his effusions, he has managed to make Bobbitt’s book sound both utterly clueless and really dull. Soon may it be remaindered.


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