Monday, March 27, 2006

The Mark of a Dogmatist

Sadly Oliver Kamm's latest post isn't in itself very interesting. It's perhaps worth commenting on, though, just because it is a model for Kammology.

First, the reference to a current event – the hook. In this case it's Norman Kember, and his apparent slowness or unwillingness to thank the brave military men who stormed a building devoid of kidnappers to rescue him.

Then we have the segue into a tangential discussion of what Oliver read in his Big Book of 20th Century British Politics. “[T]he fact that gratitude is late and grudging is not in itself a reason to begrudge it”, Oliver pronounces, throwing on his schoolmaster's gown. “What seems to me more interesting than the etiquette is the insight afforded into modern pacifism.”

Oh, and it is! For it allows him to name check his hero, the “great” Reinhold Niebuhr (a pro-war theologian), and to flash some entirely irrelevant factoids about earlier pacifists and the CND. The only price was spewing forth an entirely incoherent argument, but who's going to notice that among all the fussy verbiage?

The Christian Peacemakers, according to their own statement, hold to a commitment to non-violence. This is somehow transmuted, via Kamm's tortured analogies, into support for totalitarianism. Note that this isn't de facto support, deriving from non-opposition to totalitarians. Kamm draws a distinction between that and what he accuses Kember et al. of when he suggests that Albert Hassler and Norman Thomas were, in spite of their pacifist stance, opponents of totalitarianism, even in spite of Thomas's endorsement of Charles Lindbergh and involvement with the America First Committee (which campaigned against fighting Nazi Germany).

“Something”, we're gravely told, “went badly wrong with the pacifist movement in the 1930s on this side of the Atlantic, when it was infected by a stance of neutrality towards despotism.” Later we learn that “[t]he same happened in the US after Thomas's death in 1968.” This is all by contrast, in Kamm's world, with the America First people, even though they explicitly campaigned for enforcement of the 1939 Neutrality Act.

If what Kamm says means anything at all, he is suggesting that those ungrateful Christian Peacemakers are, by virtue of their tardy thanks to the military, on a par with what he diagnoses to be a pro-Soviet element among the CND (and later, a pro-Iranian element), and secondly that that tendency was in some way qualitatively different from the pro-Nazi element among American isolationists.

But nowhere is it made clear why helping the Soviets or Iranians was dramatically worse than helping the Nazis. At most some vague attempt is made at drawing a distinction between “personal” and “political” pacifism, but this founders on the fact that the American isolationists were, by any reasonable definition, political pacifists (that's the bad sort, apparently). Nor is it made clear just what the relation is between a slow thanks and a campaign against fighting a totalitarian state.

All that matters is that Oliver can employ his stock of pub quiz knowledge, show everyone he's read a bit of Niebuhr (he even gets to fling out a favourite quote), and reach one of those wearingly pompous conclusions. The final paragraph comes with all the usual pretence at fine grain scholarship, blotted by a desperate bid to relate the preceding witterings to the story at hand:

I cannot but think that the moral compromises (I use the weakest and most generous term I can find) involved in this type of politicised pacifism have their counterpart in the response of the Christian Peacemakers to the rescue of their comrades. Servicemen took personal risks to free the pacifist captives; tardiness in expressing thanks has the mark of the dogmatist. That is a politer term than bigot, but in this case the difference is a matter only of degree.

What could it all mean? Since Kamm makes such a token bid for the tag “rational analysis”, the two remaining explanations I see are a) it's all a joke or b) it's a sort of psychological therapy for Kamm.


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