Thursday, February 01, 2007

The language of liberty

Johann Hari, even by his standards, advances a truly extraordinary argument for bringing back conscription to the armed forces:
" for the draft boils down to two arguments. First off, a draft would change the attitude towards war back home: we would need a lot more persuasion to allow a war to be launched, and we would follow its course much more carefully."
The 'first off' point can be dismissed as simply ahistorical, with the assumption that it would be to insult the intelligence of the reader to illustrate this with examples.

Johann's second point has something to do with the truly bizarre idea that conscript armies are better than professional ones because the former are more easily disposed to mutiny.

It's an odd argument that depends very heavily on a moral calculus that rules out activity on the grounds that you wouldn't want you children to do it.

This won't do. Would you be happy if your child decided teaching in Glasgow was the thing for them? I certainly wouldn't and according to Johann's logic, it follows that there should therefore be no schools in Glasgow...

Hang on, maybe he's got a point here.

No he doesn't. I'm digressing anyway because the more substantive point is the one that has been raised by Chris Dillow in two posts about the way in which the language of liberty is used. I deliberately omitted a word from Johann's original article to reinforce the point: would you believe that he calls his argument for conscription liberal? Chris boils down this 'liberal case for conscription' a little further than Johann and rightly concludes that there isn't one:
"There may be a pragmatic case, a conservative case, a socialist case, whatever. But to pretend there can be a liberal case is...a debasement of the language of liberalism."
It's not just a question of sematics because it is important if liberty is to be defended there should be some kind of understanding of what it actually is. The tendency for the word liberty, because of its positive connotations, to become porous and take on meanings that really have to do with justice, equality, welfare or whatever has long been recognised. But it does seem to be getting worse. Look at the way 'libertarian' is used by people who are anything but.

One would hope not but perhaps it's reached the point where it's irretrievable - this being signified in the way that 'liberal' seems to be increasingly used by politicians, pundits and bloggers after the fashion of the American right. For my own part, while I often say things on this space that could be variously, and accurately, described as conservative and social democratic as well as liberal, whenever comments and conversations descend to insults and name-calling, it tends to be the last of these that is used in this way.

Thing is, I'd be happy to accept the compliment - provided it's done accurately.


dearieme said...

Ah, we liberals, Shuggy - dying breed.

Frank Partisan said...

Charles Rangel the Democratic Party senator, along with his party, have raised the idea of conscription in the US. They have brought stupid arguments as the army would be fairer, and it would cause opposition to unjust war. Under all that nonsense, the Democrats are dead serious about conscription.

Anonymous said...

Hari is a fucking idiot and a prick of the highest order.

Always has been. After all he used to post as a contributor at HP Sauce - that tells you all you need to know. Bunch of fratboy cunts the lot of them.

dearieme said...

Today's Telegraph has what might be the perfect quotation on this area, attributed to the late Frank Johnson. "They can't nationalise companies any more, so they've decided to nationalise people."

Anonymous said...

A bit off-topic, but I taught in Glasgow once (Garthamlock) and it was a great experience.
Great kids; very bright.

Anonymous said...

Advocates of National Service rarely if ever consider the effects on the services which would be almost wholly detrimental.

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