The art of moral hegemony, bad logic, and Jeet Heer - blog by Gurdur


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The art of moral hegemony, bad logic, and Jeet Heer
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Posted 13-Feb-2016 at 02:55 AM (02:55) by Gurdur

I was interested in some recent tweets on the Vietnam War by @HeerJeet, who is Jeet Heer, a senior editor at the American New Republic. What interested me was the one-sided view of things. I hold that his worldview is a set of rather close-set blinders, so it's really up to me to justify that view of his own views. It would also be upfront to list what other claims I am making here (which I will then back up below in this post).
1) The view that Jeet Heer espouses of the Vietnam War is a hidden moral judgment, and one so one-sided as to make Heer ironically guilty of the same faults he ascribes to Nixon.

2) The modern usage of the word "hegemony" was largely influenced by, and vastly increased in usage by, the Russian and Chinese communist regimes, who wanted a handy excuse for their own actions, and a propaganda stick with which to flog the Americans. It was then eagerly taken up by some on the left in the West for much the same reasons.

3) All of this fits into what can be broadly classed as theology - and we shall see why below.
The most recent tweet to trigger my interest was this:

Now that above tweet was in the context of Kissinger being invoked in the present Democrat primaries in the USA, but Jeet Heer himself evolved it into a general judgment of the whole Vietnam War, citing LBJ, after having cited Nixon, and having cited Kissinger as a war criminal. There is very obviously a moral judgment involved in all that; a moral judgment of Kissinger, but more covertly a moral judgment of LBJ, and of the USA's role as a whole in the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, it's also illogical. Much of bad logic stems from cherry-picking one's premises, the conditions under which one makes one's argument. More of bad logic stems from not having the argument actually flow logically from the premises one chose. Jeet Heer felt it necessary to declare the Vietnam War "a war of choice by hubristic hegemon", and by that he means - and condemns only - the USA. Jeet Heer also only holds (only, with small mention of even LBJ) foreign policy by Nixon & Kissinger responsible for the loss of "millions of lives".

It's an unfair view, and terribly one-sided; American reasons for entering the Vietnam War were many and mixed. There was a good deal of blindness involved, a Manichean worldview in which successive American governments saw Communism as a monolithic threat controlled (mostly) by Moscow. The fact that Red China had very different aims did not become clear till very late to American policy-makers. In defence of those American policy-makers, they were largely products of their era, and blinkered by it. Stalin's overweening ambitions to actively dominate much of Easter Europe were well-known. Successive Russian regimes would seek much the same until Gorbachov came to power. Mao had invaded Tibet, and had tried to invade Taiwan, the last refuge of the odious Chiang Kai-shek. With Russian actions in Europe, and Chinese actions in Asia, it was hardly unthinkable that American policy-makers would see a coordinated threat extending around the world. That smaller actors, such as Ho Chi Minh, could and would also push their own agendas, conflicting with the Russians and Chinese, must have seemed implausible to many of the best and brightest of American policy-makers till too late, when as Barbara Tuchman so well described, pride became a downfall. Nevertheless, many American policy-makers were motived by a love of democracy, and by horror at Stalinism/Maoism. That they should end up supporting firstly French colonialism in Vietnam, and after that various authoritarian and highly corrupt regimes in South Vietnam, in an effort to defeatn what they saw as Communist hegemony, was of course one of the tragic ironies of history.

It remains to add that the South Vietnamese regimes very much had their own agendas. They were not puppets of the USA, as the USA's own frustrations with them throughout the Vietnam War made only too clear. In the end it was the actions of successive South Vietnamese regimes who brought about their own downfall; too few South Vietnamese supported the regimes because of corruption and dictatorial methods. So much for all the history.

To blame Nixon and Kissinger almost solely for the loss of millions of lives is to ignore the actions of the North Vietnamese regime. That regime for one thing threw away the South Vietname VietCong in the Tet Offensive; that sacrifice consolidated North Vietnamese control of that side for the rest of the war and of Vietnam after it. It's also to ignore the actions of the Russians and Chinese who for their own reasons supported the VietCong and North Vietnam through most of the war, supplying a great deal of weaponry and some financing. The moral judgment to only really talk of Nixon and Kissinger in this, and to only attach moral guilt to them, is symptomatic of a worldview, one that can only talk of one villain in the scene, a view that brooks no dilation of guilt, no widening of moral responsibility, and no mitigation. Such an over-reaching worldview is itself like a religion, again a Manichean one, where the world is divided into good and evil, or at least divided into the named evil, and the rest not talked about. It is in short a theological view, one of gods and demon-like gods (with the USA being given God-like powers in allegedly controlling the South Vietnamese regimes).

Left over is the discussion of the word "hegemony". It is hardly any secret that successive dictatorial regimes, many though not all of them Communist ones, have invoked "internal affairs" as some magical antidote to criticism of abuses of human rights within those countries. Any support of human rights by the USA was then painted as just one more weapon of hegemony aspired to by the USA. Jeet Heer accused me of thinking the term hegemony to be "Maoist"; what I actually said was that Mao was one among many in roughly the same period who pushed the term a good deal. To pretend "hegemony" is always a disinterested, impartial, academic term is to willfully ignore the obvious biases in much of its usage.

It does not help that occasionally the propagandists actually had a point; the cynical invocation of human rights as an excuse to mount military action became evident in the Second Iraq War. Nonetheless, various US goverments have also idealistically promoted human rights elsewhere without attempting gains for themselves. To deny such idealism, to claim the subject of criticism and/or propaganda must always be only motivated by self-interest and/or evil, is again a quasi-religious view. Not to mention it itself is also often a very cynical evasion of moral responsibility and ethical issues, such as human rights.

Was usage of the word "hegemony" much increased and driven by such Russian and Chinese Communist cyncism and propaganda? Heer Jeet pointed out that the word itself usually means as referring to actions by nations in attempting to dominate other nations; I pointed out to him on Twitter that that is not a exclusive meaning. Insisting on only seeing things such as the Vietnam War in terms of such a restricted use of hegemony is itself a view purporting to be moral, but one which is ethically bankrupt in the end. If all nations only struggle in terms of dominance (ask the Hmong how they feel about the North Vietnamese dominance), then there is no moral reason whatsoever in the end to support any particular nation against any other. There is no moral basis to liberation, if dominance/subservience is the only thing you can see. After all, it's damned difficult to make any good case for the morality of the militia-types who occupied a Federal park in Oregon, or for the actions of the South Carolina government in the 35 years leading up to the American Civil War. Thus I use hegemony in a wider sense to mean the dominance by one group over other groups, both within diverse nations as also between nations. It's moral hegemony to insist upon one view that is a not-so-hidden moral judgment, and to be unable or to refuse to brook depth let alone dissent. But back to my contention about how the usage of the word has been driven? Google Trends is of small use, since it only goes back to 2004. Here the Google Ngram Viewer is very useful, since it looks at books and other texts dating back to 1800.

This is what the Google Ngram Viewer shows:

From the 'English' total corpus from 1800 to 2000 A.D. (click here for a larger version of the same picture; click here for the actual Google Ngram search on its own page):

So we have a very small spike in usage around 1835-1840, another larger spike in 1914-1918, and an even greater spike in usage roughly 1936-1950. The reasons for those spikes are largely historically self-evident. What is interesting is the sudden and large climb in usage from 1960 to 1980. What do you think the reason for that might be?

That pattern of a large climb after 1960 to roughly 1980, and a slower climb thereafter (further searches show an actual drop in usage after the year 2000), is even more starkly shown by looking at the Ngram for the adjectival form "hegemonic". Click here for a larger version of the same picture below; click here for the actual Google Ngram search on its own page.

With the Vietnam War, even when looking at how Kissinger has become a sudden factor in the Democrat primaries, to deride LBJ as only acting out of hegemonic aims, to only talk about the guilt of Nixon and Kissinger, is bad logic. It's an argument that purports to show the moral guilt of Kissinger (as war criminal), without examining all necessary sides to the question. It's an imposition of artificial, arbitrary boundaries on what is allowed to be considered. It's also an argument that presupposes its conclusion in its premises - i.e., Kissinger and Nixon are guilty because when looking at the Vietnam War, only Nixon and Kissinger are really considered, with LBJ brushed off with an unsubstantiated claim, and JF Kennedy not even considered. As to why the form and content of that illogical argument, enough has been shown about the competing moralities. I feel that that is enough evidence for my claims at the moment to start with.

Before I get lumbered with even more false accusations about my own motives, let me say straight out I think Nixon belonged behind bars, and possibly Kissinger too. I also have always thought the West should never have intervened in Vietnam. Australia also sent a great many troops to fight in Vietnam; a pity that Jeet Heer and others talk of the war as if it was somehow always and only about the USA. That does not mean I will abide bad arguments, or amorality posing as ethics.

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