Thursday, September 26, 2002

The Unbeauty of South African Sophistry

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a new book written by French journalist and academic Jean-François Revel dealing with the ideology of anti-Americanism. The merit of the book was that it not only dispelled the catalogue of myths used to denigrate the United States, but it laid out the will to distort that lies behind the myths and connected this will to the ideological imperative found in twentieth century totalitarian political movements.

But it’s rather rare to find an article, speech or interview that presents this whole range of myths in one place, that demonstrates clearly and unabashedly the connections between the illusions and the will to distort. But this is exactly what I found on the Toronto Star website in the form of an interview with Nobel Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Now I realize that criticizing Tutu is dangerous considering his high moral standing. And yet, his views as repeated in the Toronto Star interview are classic anti-American ideology. His distortions of fact, his leaps of logic, his historical misrepresentations all fit the pattern laid out by Revel. Originally, I thought I would go through each line of the interview in order to highlight Tutu’s ideological commitments, but it soon became clear that this would take substantial time and space. Instead, I’ll leave it to the reader to peruse the interview for him or herself.

For my part, I will simply point to a few key elements:

Tutu follows a typical strategy as detailed by Revel. He starts by misrepresenting the American political and media debate about military action in Iraq. This allows him to cast aspersions on American democracy. Then come the old saws: McCarthyism, war-mongering, might makes right and the US doing what it wants simply because it’s a superpower. All these are used to avoid real discussion about the relative merits of American power and democracy, as well as the need for action in Iraq. From here, Tutu is able to move to his ultimate objective: moral equivocation. Following what I consider a typical neo-Kantian form of moralizing that abstracts from the actual context of the issue under examination, Tutu talks simply of the equivalence between those killed in the attacks on New York and Washington and possible deaths in Iraq. He completely ignores the moral character and political intentions of those involved. He talks of international law but speaks as though there is an equality between those who create the possibility for international rules and those who destroy that possibility.

As the interview goes on, Tutu continues with passing allusions to historical events in order to draw lessons that are actually contradicted by a more thorough consideration of the events involved. His approach mirrors Revel’s descriptions to a tee. As I’ve said, I don’t want to dissect each phrase, though this would be helpful in order to see the complete breakdown of logic and thought. What I do want to emphasize once again is the ideological mind at work here and the manner in which it masquerades in high-minded moralism. And perhaps most important is the procedure by which real discussion and deliberation are pushed aside using misinformation, while concrete moral and political concerns are subsumed under abstract rationalizations and equivocations parading as moral imperatives. It’s the mental world of Kant gone bad, where deliberating human nature is made the slave to a legislating and abstract humanity that cares nothing for the good, the true or the beautiful.

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