Can the Left Disagree Without Being Disagreeable?
I have been a reporter for thirty years. During this period, I have been to many former war zones and to active war zones, including in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. I have seen things that I wish I had not seen and that I wish had not been seen by anyone, let alone experienced by anyone. The thing about war zones that is often not talked about is the noise: the loud noises of the military equipment and the sound of gunfire and bombs. The sound of a modern bomb is extraordinary, punctuated as it often is in civilian areas by the cries of little children. Imagine the trauma inflicted upon generations and generations of children by the noise itself, not to speak of the neurological fear of the adults around them and the great loss of life that they experience from early in their lives. There is no war that should be supported based on the catastrophic cost paid by humanity for the violence.
There is no war that I have experienced that has been as devastating as the war on Iraq, which snatched the lives of millions, devastated the lives of the entire population, and left the country scarred beyond belief. No doubt other reporters who are in Ukraine will come with their own stories. There is no comparison of warzones, one more deadly than the other, although the sheer destruction of Iraq compares to the pain inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bombs.
Wars are to be opposed and every effort must be made to prevent wars and to end wars.
So, to claim that I support the Russian war on Ukraine is against everything that I have said or done on the record. I oppose this war as I oppose every war, which is why I have written – since 2014 – for the need for negotiation and for the need for neighbours to find a way to live with each other. It is peculiar that a call for negotiation between Russia and Ukraine is now painted as a ‘talking point’ of Vladimir Putin rather than a gesture towards peace. That is the toxic nature of debate, including within the left, where anything that is not identical with what someone believes is pilloried as the absolute opposite position; the space for nuance and dialogue is being withered by this sort of attitude.
I posted a picture on social media about Zero Covid. Having lost family and friends in the COVID pandemic, beloved people who lived in countries that had failed their populations, I remain in awe of the three years of Zero Covid policy and practice of countries with efficient governments (such as in China). When I took that picture, I was in a hotel room, where I used the stationery and pen provided for me. I had to draw the Z for Zero twice, which made the Z darker. This extra dark Z was taken to mean support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is the absurd place we have entered, where such fantasies are peddled as fact, despite the public record of my arguments for an end to the war.
Second, the picture was interpreted as a sign that I am a full-scale supporter of the government in China and all its policies. To be sure, I am impressed by the Chinese government’s many policies, such as the way it handled the pandemic, the way it has eradicated absolute poverty, and the way it has managed the social development of the population. If you compare China with India, you will have no problem seeing the impressive developments in the former. There is a noxious way in which Western media claims about China are taken as completely correct, and then these claims – often exaggerated – are put before one as a litmus test: what do you think about this or that policy of the Chinese government, and based on one’s answer, one is measured for ones correct leftism. What is your view on Xinxiang? What is your view on Hong Kong? What is your view on Taiwan? I have never been interested in these kinds of litmus tests. I am interested in discussion and debate, not in treating left discourse as a multiple-choice exam where there is only one correct answer to every question. History is a bundle of contradictions; social policy is fraught with difficult choices: to believe that history is a sequence of questions with one pure answer is erroneous and it creates a fratricidal culture in the left. We need to be far more generous with each other, able to hold conversations without resort to insults and abuses.
Out of disagreement comes understanding. But out of malicious slander only comes disorientation.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).
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