What is it about England that still breeds such a lot of condescending, ignorant upper class twits who believe they occupy a superior moral and intellectual platform from which they can patronisingly lecture the rest of the world? I mean if there is one country whose 20th century history ought to induce a little humility in its citizens it is surely the United Kingdom in general and England in particular, but somehow the lessons of the Dardanelles and Flanders and Dunkirk and Greece and Singapore and Suez and the untidy collapse of the British Empire and the decline and fall of the pound sterling seem not to have affected Victorian attitudes at all, at least amongst a certain class of Eton’n'Oxbridge graduates.
One such is Paul Johnson, fervent Thatcher apologist and one of those cranky old pricks that the Brits seem to love for some weird reason. In a recent piece for Forbes, Johnson indulged himself in the kind of mendacious revisionism that makes one despair of ever getting public policy grounded in some approximation of reality.
Johnson makes the following deus ex machina observation:
But if a great nation such as the U.S. believes in freedom, practices democracy, accepts a Judeo-Christian sense of morality as an ideal, honors human rights, and deplores and denounces all the evils of the totalitarian state–imprisonment without trial, torture, suppression of all freedoms and the slaughter of opponents, their womenfolk and children with artillery, tanks and bombers–then that nation cannot allow a dictator, before the eyes of the world, to violate all the principles of justice and humanity if said nation has the means to prevent it.
It is hard to know where to start in pointing out the utter absurdity of this pack of lies. I suppose one could note that far from ‘deploring’ imprisonment without trial and torture, the US has embraced them enthusiastically as legitimate tools of the state in the endless Global War on Terror. Moreover the US has been doing a fair to good job for the last 10 years, in the same cause, of ‘slaughtering opponents including their women and children’. Presumably Johnson has either not noticed these things, or has somehow banished them from his consciousness as trivial points that can’t be allowed to interrupt the grand sweep of his exercise in fantasy. But these ridiculous misrepresentations are are nothing compared to the central argument that Good Countries ‘cannot allow‘ dictators to be beastly if they have ‘the means to prevent it’.
Note this isn’t an enabling proposition, it’s cast as a moral imperative. It’s also meaningless self-indulgent bullshit. Margaret Thatcher would blush to mouth such tripe. Would Johnson like to pause for about 10 seconds to ponder all the totalitarian states that have been allowed to survive and prosper – and still are, to this day – without any effective intervention or even objection by Good Countries such as the US and his own (presumably he includes the UK amongst the ‘great nations’ he praises so fulsomely, although perhaps not and he is prostrate before the self-proclaimed exceptionalism of the USA)? He doesn’t explain where this moral obligation to rid the world of totalitarian regimes came from, or how long it has existed, but let’s assume it’s comparatively modern. Does he really believe that the US and its satellites should have spent the last 100 years actively trying to get rid of governments that they didn’t approve of? I mean I know neo-conservatives get hard-ons at the prospect of endless war but even for them, Johnson’s proposal is absurd.
He doesn’t stop there. In an even greater piece of moral irrationality he refers to the massive military machine at the disposal of the USA and writes:
These forces are provided at huge expense by the American taxpayer and are staffed by thousands of dedicated young American men and women whose express purpose is to protect civilization from barbarism. That, as they see it and have been taught to see it, is precisely what America stands for; it is the principal moral justification for their nation’s immense power and riches.
Words fail me in trying to condemn how completely silly and ahistorical this is. The American military’s purpose is ‘to protect civilization from barbarism’? Aaw come off it Paul, you’ve been at the single malt again. But that’s not as stupid as the second sentence. Since when did a nation need a ‘moral justification’ for being powerful and rich? What does such a ridiculous notion even mean? It’s Old Testament Chosen People superstition recast as a moral parable for the 21st century, laid down in florid didactic language as if it was revealed to Johnson by Higher Authority.
The whole piece is full of lies and flawed assumptions. Examples include that the US ‘pioneer[ed] the construction of international agencies such as the League of Nations to defend [civilisation] permanently’ (ummm Paul the US never joined the League of Nations). He claims ‘[t]he current long period of peace without a general war–more than 65 years–is the longest such period in recorded world history’. Ummm, WTF? There have only been two general wars in recorded world history – or one, if you adopt the view of many historians that the 1939-45 conflict in Europe was really a continuation of the conflict that began in 1914. General wars are the product of global imperialism, which is a comparatively recent development. Maybe his conception of ‘recorded world history’ coincides with the emergence of the American Empire, and nothing before then counts; or his notion of a ‘general war’ is one which includes proper places like Europe and the USA and overlooks nonentities like Asia and Africa. Moreover appalling failures of US policy, such as the disastrous Korean situation that has endured since 1953, are lauded by Johnson as ‘necessary, just, lawful and, in retrospect, successful’. Jeez Louise … maybe he should ask the North Korean people, whose interests never seem to be taken into account, how they feel about that one.
Johnson’s rousing peroration is that ‘America is not obliged to right every wrong committed or respond to every scream of pain from six continents. However, some atrocities are beyond the power of civilized endurance to tolerate.’ Great, except that this is a bit hard to reconcile with his earlier statement that nations had a moral obligation to topple totalitarian regimes if they had the means. But it doesn’t matter I guess as long as we have moral philosphers and ‘eminent British historians’ like Johnson (oh FFS Forbes he’s no such things, he’s a journalist) to explain where our duty lies.
None of this would matter if it was just the ranting of a bitter old man (which Johnson clearly is, if one is at all familiar with his writing … he’s a kind of upper class pommie Paddy McGuinness). Unfortunately however his work is typical of the kind of bombastic rhetoric that has come to replace evidence-based reality in conservative discourse. When so many people engage in this kind of mass delusion and misrepresentation, led by acknowledged public so-called intellectuals, there is no prospect whatsoever of arriving at sound, realistic public policy.