RIP Norman Geras

Norman Geras, prolific blogger and professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manchester has passed away at the age of 70. He had been suffering from prostate cancer. Norm was best known as a political theorist whose oeuvre included books on Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Richard Rorty. (He also served on the editorial boards of the New Left Review and the Socialist Register.)

I chanced upon Norm’s blog after he and I had a short online exchange in response to a minor quasi-theological debate triggered by Yoram HazonyI had written a post responding to  a piece by Hazony in the New York Times; so did Norm. Corey Robin sent me  Norman’s post, and I emailed or tweeted him, pointing him to mine.

On Norm’s blog, I found out that besides writing on politics, he also wrote on cricket. (As I blog on cricket too, and consider myself a pretty serious fan, I was immediately hooked.) In particular, Norm maintained a section titled ‘Memories of Cricket: a series of recollections of incidents, notable and not so notable, in the history of cricket, with each personal recounting supplemented by descriptions of the same event from books in Norm’s voluminous collection. Shortly thereafter, Norm asked me if I would contribute a memory of my own to the collection. I agreed, and contributed one of an event I had heard and read about for years before I ever saw it on video: David Hookes’ five fours off Tony Grieg in the Centenary Test. As a token of his appreciation, Norm offered to send me signed copies of his two books on the 1997 and 2001 Ashes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and am glad they sit on my shelves.

I never met Norm and so, did not know him personally, but did have some email contact with him, and felt like I had established a rapport of sorts. I knew there were some political differences between us. (For instance, our opinions on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and perhaps some of the claims of the Euston Manifesto.) But he always seemed to me to be infected with a deep concern for many of the same political ends that I was sympathetic to. He just had a different conception of the actions required to achieve them. Where I found myself disagreeing with him, I still found his arguments carefully constructed and often quite persuasive.

Because I found his writings thoughtful and provocative it was inevitable that I would respond to him on this blog. I did so a little while ago, with a post on the differences he had with Glenn Greenwald and Terry Eagleton on the question of whether the ‘explanation’ of a heinous act constitutes a ‘justification’ or an apologia of sorts for it. Writing it helped clarify my thoughts on an often  vexing topic.

In his last days, Norm, perhaps sensing the end was near, was on a tear on his blog. If you’ve never looked through its archives, you really should.

RIP Norm. I hardly knew you, but I’m glad we made contact, even if only for a little while.

Does Explanation Constitute Justification? Geras Contra Greenwald and Eagleton

And does it thereby also run the risk of shading into apologia when the event being explained is one that would strike some as a heinous act? In response to the Woolwich killing of a British soldier by machete-wielding assailants, Glenn Greenwald thinks not. Terry Eagleton agrees (in a fashion). Norman Geras disagrees. (As the links in that Geras post and his responses in this interview will show, this is not a new concern for him.)

Greenwald:

I know exactly how some people reflexively try to radically distort the argument beyond recognition in order to smear you as a Terror apologist, a Terrorist-lover or worse, all for the thought crime of raising these issues. To do so, they deceitfully conflate claims of causation (A is one of the causes of B) with justification (B is justified). Anyone operating with the most basic levels of rationality understands that these concepts are distinct. To discuss what motivates a person to engage in Action B is not remotely to justify Action B.

Eagleton:

It is rather because [those who would condemn apologia] imagine, in their muddled way, that to explain an event is to excuse it. Those who point to the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan are surely doing so as a devious way of justifying the slaughter of a young soldier outside his barracks.

Do they also think this about the crimes of Hitler or Stalin? Are they really suggesting that historians who delve into the origins of fascism are secret Nazi sympathisers, or that to lay bare the causes of the Gulag is to exonerate its architects? The problem for these commentators is that if an event can be explained, it must be rationally motivated, and that sounds uncomfortably close to endorsing it. To call an action rational, however, is by no means to justify it.

Geras:

First, Eagleton is right: you can explain a bad event without being an apologist for it. But, second, you can also purport to explain something precisely in order to excuse it. Or: To understand is not necessarily to condone, yet it just might be. The logic here isn’t difficult to grasp; not all people are academics, but some people are academics. Etc. It is also the case that what presents itself as historical explanation can sometimes have a plainly apologetic function. I recommend to Eagleton’s attention the so-called Historians’ Dispute – the Historikerstreit – in West Germany (as was) in the late 1980s, and the contributions to it in particular of Ernst Nolte.

Geras goes on to draw an uncomfortable analogy:

Imagine men who commit rape and say, ‘I did it because she was asking for it; you should have seen how she was dressed, and flaunting herself, etc.’ [But my interlocutor] says that one must concede some rationality to these men and to their explanation for their acts of violence against women, otherwise one has denied the possibility of rational explanation as such – even though plenty of men don’t rape women, however dressed, and even though those who do do so justify their actions by reference to a pernicious belief system…[my interlocutor] always quick to explain (without justifying) the likes of the Woolwich killing or of the Boston bombings, nearly never, if they ever, make any effort to explain (without justifying) the use by Western governments of torture and extraordinary rendition. They do not urge upon people the need to understand torture as a response to what the jihadists do, on the grounds that if we fail so to understand it, we’ll lose all grip on rational explanation…

But, you know, to explain is not to justify. Well, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes it is to condone or attempt to mitigate or get people to look away from what you don’t want them to notice.

Geras is right that some explanations function as excuses; after all our anger at a miscreant does often ebb once he explains why he did what he did. Why else would we offer explanations for actions of ours that meet with disapproval?  That said, the disagreement between Greenwald, Eagleton and Geras is perhaps at a more fundamental level.

To provide an explanation of something is to make it more comprehensible in the light of beliefs already held. An ‘explanation’ of a comet’s tail in language comprehensible to a graduate student in physics will not be one to a schoolboy untutored in the barest notions of astrophysics; an atheist looking for  an explanation of his beloved’s death will not find a theological explanation couched in terms of God’s ‘plan’ satisfactory.  This definition also implies merely providing the cause of an event will not be sufficient if that cause itself is incomprehensible; one convinced that a malevolent terror is on the loose will not be convinced that the medical cause for a loved one’s death provides any explanation whatsoever.  For these unsatisfied folk, the world retains its inexplicability even after the explanation is provided, one that might be satisfactory to someone else. The subject of an explanation has an active role to play in making that explanation a good one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Geras does not consider these particular recountings of the causes and motives of the Woolwich killer to be explanations at all: they do not locate the event in the proper or correct network of causes, motives and actions; the killings remain mysterious on their accounts. The correct explanation, for Geras, of the Woolwich killing must include explicit reference to a host of factors left out by Greenwald and Eagleton; it is the incompleteness, the lack of comprehensiveness of the explanations offered by Greenwald and Eagleton, that for Geras turns them into apologia. In the rape and torture examples, those who reject the putative explanations as apologia are doing the same; they don’t consider them explanations at all. Consider, for instance, that someone had ‘explained’ the Woolwich killings in purely biological/physiological/physical terms (if this was at all possible).  We would scarcely consider this an explanation; we understand the right language of explanation for this act will be drawn from elsewhere (politics, theories of violence, history and so on). That ‘explanation’ would sound like apologia to Greenwald and Eagleton.

If Not a Perfect God, Then a Imperfect God Maybe? Contd.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post responding to Yoram Hazony’s article at the Stone. In response, Corey Robin sent me the following comments by email:

I was thinking about yours and Norman Geras’s post about Yoram Hazony.  I don’t think there’s any question that you’re both right about what the implications of Hazony’s argument are for a structure of moral obligation. (Or for the atheist, for that matter, who wants some proof of God’s existence.) I wonder though if that question doesn’t matter for Jewish people because Jewish ethics are not really predicated upon there being a God so much as there being a set of rituals and practices that, a la Aristotle, inculcate in you a sense of ethical goodness. (Not quite virtue, but something like that.)  Hazony’s God — and I think it’s quite descriptive of how a great many Jews think about God — is not meant to structure obligation or duty. Our God is meant to do something else: to provide an opportunity for wonder (at the awesomeness of God’s inscrutability), gratitude (that we exist), and hope in transformation (I will be what I will be). Not just hope in transformation, but hope in God’s existence, that something so inscrutable and impossible — and all that it heralds in the Messianic — might in fact be. It’s a frame, a lodestone, more than anything else. Now of course you and Geras could reply that anything could do that — a mathematical proof, a Beethoven string quartet, the Rocky Mountains — and that’s probably true (though I don’t know if one thing can do all of those things at the same time.) But I’m not sure that anything could do that for a collective, which is the other part of Judaism: we’re a collective, not an individualist, religion. Getting everyone together once a week (and if you’re more observant, every day), setting time aside for Shabbat, etc. — all that might not be possible without that particular lodestone of God to attract the fillings.

This is an interesting set of observations. I have some disparate responses to make.

First, as Corey himself concedes, this role could be played by many entities. The mountains do that for many people, and the experience is rich and varied enough to induce talk of ‘spiritual transformation’ by them. (My time in the mountains is certainly the closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience.) It seems to me too, that one thing could induce all the experiences referred to above: mountains amaze, awe and frighten me, they make me grateful that I was born so I could have experienced them, and they have always promised me the hope for transformation. (As I note in this post on this blog some time back.) Indeed, I think the universe itself, with its mysterious expanse and temporal duration does this for many people. And again, it isn’t clear to me why this might only work for individuals and not for collectives. There are many examples of mass group followings of non-divine, non-spiritual entities (cults of all kinds for instance; dunno, Gaia?); individuals can communicate their experiences and shared feelings and come together under their banner to form collectives. If Corey is suggesting that the effect on collectives comes about only because of the peculiarly inaccessible or ineffable attributes of this entity, then it seems to me that somehow the standard theist notion of a God is being invoked, one whose expanse is unlimited, whose powers lie beyond our imagination or comprehension, his goodness unlimited. That is, while the suggestion is being made that the ‘God’ in question needn’t serve as a source of moral obligation, to have the particular relationships to it that Corey specifies, while also stressing its mysterious or inaccessible nature, is, I think, to draw upon the theist conception again.

More importantly though, I wonder why the term ‘God’ is being or should be used here. To ask this question is to engage in a losing battle, of course, because the term has often become hopelessly overloaded in debates about the existence of ‘God’. Hazony’s ‘God’ is a powerful, mysterious entity, one we only dimly understand, but whose rough contours are enough to induce in us the feelings Corey describes above. But why use the term ‘God’ to refer to this entity? In terms of antecedent theological usage, ‘God’ is generally used to refer to something far more expansive, more immanent. If it’s an imperfect entity we have in mind, why not come up with a new term?

I’m musing aloud here, so no permanent position taken. But it’s something I’ve wondered about myself a lot, and Hazony’s account of God tracks my own often inarticulate thoughts on this all. Of course, he and I are coming from a different position from the atheist: we’re trying to make sense of what we do (he much more than I).  It might be that the way he articulates what we do is the best we can come up with to make sense of the rituals, the holidays, etc. It’s not a knock-down argument against the atheist who says why? Or even the child who asks why too. It’s a way of making sense of the person who operates under the assumption, Why not?

I agree with this, but again, I wonder why we should not just retire the term ‘God’, one that is weighed down with so much baggage: creator, guarantor of the moral order, and so on. The qualities of the entity that Corey has in mind could be found in much else. Indeed, as I suggest above, knowledge of the seemingly infinite expanses of space, our being ‘made of stars’, the mysteries of time could do all of this, and we don’t need to use an overloaded term to describe them.

I’ve never felt like a child of the universe more than the time when my father explained to me just how far away the stars were from me and from each other, and how when I looked at them, I was seeing the past. That was magic. When I see the sun, it awes me to think it has borne witness to all of human history and much more before. These experiences are as close as I can get to spiritual ones. It doesn’t seem to me that I need to borrow the term ‘God’ to describe these objects of my reverence.