24 September 2013

Is neutrality on Syria heartless?

Enraged by the thought that Bashar al-Assad will go unpunished after using chemical weapons against his own people, Leon Wieseltier laments that Americans "are becoming heartless" and that the President's "brain is where his heart should be....In the name of 'nation-building at home,' we are learning to be unmoved by evil." He believes that opponents of military intervention are telling the Syrian rebels, "Go back to your disgusting little country and die." He equates perceived indifference to the fate of the rebels to Republican indifference to poor people.

We grow inured to the victims, the way the rich grow inured to the poor. The Syrians, the Libyans, the Egyptians, the Iranians, the politically aspiring peoples of the tyrannized world—they are the global 47 percent, taking, taking, taking. Or they would be, if we were giving. Atrocity fatigue is our fatigue at their atrocity: imagine how atrocity-fatigued they are! The impatience of the fortunate with the unfortunate is not a pretty sight.

The falsehood of the supposedly shaming analogy is apparent the moment you actually think -- using your head instead of your heart -- about responsibility. American liberals, progressives and leftists have at least a plausible reason to criticize the apparent indifference toward poverty and inequality of their fellow Americans who happen to be Republicans. That reason is the belief that citizenship confers responsibility on each citizen for the well being of all. Republicans may dispute the premise, just as the anti-interventionists on their side have questioned the need to intervene in Syria, but the reference point of citizenship on which the domestic debate hinges does not exist when we debate war against a foreign country. No one is a citizen of the world in a legal sense, regardless of how some humanitarians see themselves. Wieseltier might argue that there is a moral imperative to aid rebels against tyranny just as there's a moral imperative to aid the poor, but the lack of a true world polity deprives his appeal for Syria of the force any nation's appeal for its poor would have.

So do we simply dismiss bleeding-heart liberals like Wieseltier in the international sphere the way Republicans dismiss them in the domestic realm, and do we affirm that we don't care whether one side or another wins in any conflict around the world, or whether innocents suffer in the process? We need not, but we do need to reconcile heart and head rather than opt, as Wieseltier urges in his agitated state, for the former over the latter. If we don't want anyone -- whether it's Assad or his enemies -- to commit atrocities like those in Syria, then the only remedy is for all of us to become citizens of the world. The only way that becomes meaningful is for us, the people of the world, to make a true world government, with one law for everyone. To claim for powerful nations the right to intervene in civil wars when they can is as much an assertion of arbitrary and ultimately lawless power as anything a tyrant does. If we can't stand seeing local bullies oppress the weak in faraway places, we have to push constantly for a world government to which our nation, and not just the wicked, will submit. It seems unlikely that we'll ever get that without a war (or wars) that will dwarf the Syrian conflict, but this course is what reason dictates if anyone wishes to make his or her humanitarian impulse the law of the globe instead of simply expressing distaste for one dictator out of many. Think of this as the more intellectual version of the "go fight yourself" argument; one that acknowledges that old men may still advocate revolution (Wieseltier is sixty-one) but holds them accountable for intellectual consistency. If you will the end, you have to will the means, and you had better calculate whether the end is worth the means. To put it another way, since everyone's compassion is in question: don't boast of your compassion unless it extends to everyone, not just the sufferers on the news.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wieseltier should feel free to grab his weapon of choice and go punish the evil dictator himself. What he should NOT feel free in doing is condemning the people of the U.S. for growing tired of being the world's police force and refusing to support any further (mis)adventures in the Middle East - or anywhere else - to assuage his own feelings of inadequacy and rage.