by David Greenberg
There's something inescapably irksome about intellectuals signing petitions. Maybe it's the self-serving implication that our florid, somber enunciation of weighty moral tenets will (or should) be taken seriously by the public--when it's usually only other intellectuals who even hear about these manifestoes. Maybe it's the self-congratulation in imagining that this relatively effortless act of affixing our names to noble sentiments counts as an important exercise of democratic responsibility. Or maybe it's my sneaking suspicion that the stands we take on some issue--Bush's support of torture, the impeachment of Clinton--are, at some level, bound up with the kinds of partisan loyalties and visceral emotions that we profess to be rising above.
To be clear: I don't condemn intellectuals who sign petitions. I've signed a few over the years, such as to protest the Supreme Court conservatives' power grab in Bush v. Gore. But even then I did so with ambivalence, sensing the inadequacy of a petition in the face of that travesty of justice.
Yet I feel hope, comfort, and reassurance in reading about the Euston Manifesto and its American counterpart, which Jeffrey Herf has discussed on this blog and which Michael Kazin and Casey Blake have greeted somewhat skeptically. These statements haven't made the splash stateside that they seem to have in Britain, but I sense that they're slowly making an impact.
There are some false notes in the American document, such as this comic juxtaposition: "We agree ... that the Geneva conventions concerning treatment of prisoners of war should apply wherever the United States is holding prisoners captured in the effort to contain, thwart and defeat the terrorism inspired by Islamic extremism. We support higher mileage-per-gallon requirements for cars and a national gasoline tax (with relief for low-income drivers) ... " And other lines, such as those insisting on the need to use military force against jihadists, strike me as protesting too much. In fact, in contrast to the Euston statement, the American corollary seems to focus too much on Islamist terrorism at the expense of other issues.
Yet looking at both statements I find it heartening to see the broad willingness to stand up to the anti-Israel and (in some cases) anti-Semitism gaining traction on the left. At a time when sympathy for Israel's plight increasingly comes from the right, many of the signatories are liberals or leftists who remind us that supporting the Jewish state is fundamentally a liberal position, even when its government veers farther to the right than many of us would like. It's also good to see that many self-described socialists (as well as liberals) still share these sentiments.
One also would have thought it obvious that we can fervently oppose the Bush administration's encroachments on human rights while continuing to decry tyranny and terrorism of the left, right, and Islamist varieties. Still, it's bracing to hear it said so confidently.
Finally, in reply to Casey and Michael's criticisms, I actually think the Eustonites' lack of a party line on Iraq is not only justified but probably necessary. All along Iraq has divided liberals of good faith and decency. There were sound liberal arguments for supporting the war--arguments I didn't ultimately find persuasive (for reasons best enumerated elsewhere), but which nonetheless shouldn't excommunicate their champions from a new liberal alliance. Those of us who opposed the war should recognize as comrades-in-arms people like Paul Berman, Peter Beinart, and George Packer--and even those who remain dubious about a rapid withdrawal today, such as Peter Bergen.
I encourage our Open U faculty to discuss the Euston Manifesto--as well as the Gitlin-Ackerman statement in The American Prospect that Casey mentioned--in the weeks ahead.