[A few words in defence of the "Yes, but..." reaction to the events of 11 September 2001 follow. If you think that no defence is possible, you may want to stop reading now.]
The second anniversary of the atrocities of 11 September 2001 has come around, and there has, of course, been a lot of media coverage. There’s also been a bit of coverage in the media I read (other people’s blogs, really) critical of what we might call, because it has often been called, the “Yes, but…” response to the attack on the World Trade Center from many on the liberal and left end of the political spectrum, at home and abroad.
Many people, it is charged, said things like this, that “Yes, the attacks were awful, but we shouldn’t forget that the Americans have done bad things in the world before then”. And it is often contended that saying things like this has the effect of mitigating the atrocity, explaining it away, excusing the perpetrators, blaming nobody, blaming the victims, and other bad things. These attacks on the “Yes, but…” crowd are often – not always – meant by those who make them to constitute an indictment of what is sometimes called “the Left”, by drawing attention to its moral blindness, relativism, postmodernism, pathological anti-Americanism, and so on (fill in various other failings here).
Amid the more polemical contributions on this subject, there’s some reasonably temperate discussion of the matter today over at the Crooked Timber blog, in response to one of Chris Bertram’s characteristically thoughtful posts, and it is reading this that has prompted me to write this. (His new Rousseau book, by the way, is a fine piece of work: I’ve read a little bit more than half of it, and I’ll have more to say on this subject, probably, soon).
For it seems to me that if we’re to pick over the contextualising “Yes, but…” language that was around — and it was around — in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 (some of it, I am sure, falling from my own lips) we need to do some work in turn to remember the context in which that kind of language was itself used.
In the days following the Twin Towers atrocity, there was an awful lot of talk in the press and from the politicians which had the effect of decontextualising the shocking events of that day: “The planes came out of a clear blue sky”, we were told, repeatedly, as if the attacks themselves came out of the blue; there was a press discourse of America’s “innocence” being shattered by the violent destruction and loss of life; commentators were quick, too quick, to say that “everything changed” on September 11, and so on.
This kind of discourse was politically highly useful to a White House which decided very quickly to reverse its hitherto reasonably isolationist policy and adopt a new and highly interventionist foreign policy stance — one which has brought us the War Against Terrorism, the attack on Afghanistan and, more recently, the war against Iraq (as well as the US Patriot Act, etc.), and all of whose effects, for good and ill, are yet to be felt. The President, furthermore, had his own explanation for why what had happened had happened: “They hate our freedom; they hate our democracy”, he told us, in his speeches which set out and sought to justify this new American foreign policy.
Thus it was only to be expected that those who contested the policy — and there were lots of reasons for contesting the policy, as we all know — also sought to contest the underlying series of claims and justifications underpinning that policy, which included already-politicised claims about the causes of the events of 11 September. Against a President who rested content with over-simplistic (if not entirely stupid) public explanations for what happened, his critics had to explain that things were, as they saw it, a bit more complicated than that. But, in the circumstances, that was something which was very hard to do without saying things that could, either at the time or subsequently, be considered a piece of “Yes, buttery…”, for the “but” marked, as it were, the moment when the speaker began to set out at least part of the grounds of his or her political disagreement with the Administration’s view of things.
And that’s how, it seems to me, that troublesome “but” needs to be understood in most cases: not as the product of a morally defective desire to excuse atrocity, but as part of an (as it turned out) politically ineffective attempt to resist the drumbeat of war.
Of course, in the circumstances, some people on both left and right did say some pretty stupid things, and some people, both for and against the Bush administration, said some things which some of those who heard them found offensive. But that’s what happens in a politics of high stakes, and the stakes were extraordinarily high in September and October 2001.
UPDATE: Marc Mulholland has some sensible words on Yes Buttery, too, over at his Daily Moiders.