Sunday, September 24, 2006

What We Knew

William snapped, "Drop it; we're looking for a Greek book!"

"This?" I asked, showing him a work whose pages were covered with abstruse letters. And William said: "No, that's Arabic, idiot! Bacon was right: the scholar's first duty is to learn languages!"

"But you don't know Arabic either!" I replied, irked, to which William answered, "At least I know when it is Arabic!"

--Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Like most people who opposed the Iraq war, the Pithlord is constantly accosted by chastened righties I argued with back in 2003 who cry, "You were right! The Iraq war was a terrible idea! How do I correct my worldview so I don't make mistakes like that again?"

We at Pith and Substance are always anxious to help. And since everyone who can be convinced has now been, I am willing to let my rightie bretheren in on a secret: I didn't really know anything about Iraq either! I talked to a few emigrés -- I read Makiya. But I don't know Arabic. I had never been to Iraq. My grasp of Shi'ite theology is superficial. For reasons that escape me now, I did read the Ba'athist constitution once, but sub-Leninist blather is not very informative.

I'm sure I wasn't alone among those skeptical of the war. Indeed, a few of my comrades in the anti-war movement were astonishingly ignorant even by my standards.

So how did we get it right? We couldn't read the folkways of Iraq, but we knew that, whatver they were, they were the folkways of Iraq, of an alien culture in a civilization with good reasons to dislike and distrust us. In the unlikely event democracy held there, it would necessarily be in conflict with external occupiers.

The great benefit of conventional morality --compared with utilitarianism, for example -- is that it tells you what to do under uncertainty. Grand schemes have many more ways of going wrong than going right. Don't back down from a fight, but don't start one either. It isn't much to know, but it would have been enough.

No comments: