Sunday, September 25, 2011

Collective punishment

Film director Michael Moore has called for a boycott of the state of Georgia following the execution there of a man many claimed was innocent. With his usual temperate rhetorical style, Moore pledged to donate a portion of his royalties from his current book to “help defeat the racists and killers who run that state.”

The execution of Troy Davis ought to make the most ardent death-penalty booster stop and think for a second; I don’t know of anybody who claims that the criminal justice system is infallible, so maybe it’s not a good idea to insist on irreversible measures to enforce its outcomes. But I’m not going to pile on; plenty of commentators are all over the death penalty.

Instead I’m trying to think through what it is about indignant calls for boycotts that bothers me so much. It’s not just Moore’s politics; I don’t share them but I’m generally in favor of muckrakers and gadflies because, whatever their politics, they occasionally turn up things that need to be brought to our attention.

It’s the blunt instrument that bothers me, Moore’s dismissal of “the murderous state of Georgia” and his apparent belief that hurting economic activity in that state will make matters better for the people who live there.

It brings to mind the disinvestment and boycott campaign against Israel, which has led a number of universities, churches and government bodies in Europe and the U.S. to withdraw investment from companies linked to Israel, cut academic links and even take measures that have a whiff of the bonfire about them, as when a municipal council in Scotland prohibited its libraries from acquiring books published in Israel.

You don’t have to support capital punishment and cheer Israeli bombing runs on Gaza to be bothered by these campaigns. It’s ironic that they are usually run by people who call themselves “liberals”, because I can’t think of too many things more illiberal than prohibiting academic exchange, banning the circulation of books, and trying to throw poor people out of work. (Who does Moore think will suffer first from a successful boycott of Georgia?)

A call for blanket sanctions is a call for collective punishment, and that’s what makes it wrong. Collective punishment ought to have been discredited by its extensive use by the Nazis, Soviets and other models of political virtue. (When the partisans hit your patrol, you wipe out the nearest village. That’ll teach ’em.) Unfortunately the Michael Moores of the world missed that lesson. When a small group of decision makers in a bureaucracy makes the wrong call, hit the whole state. If you disapprove of a nation’s policies (or its very existence), try to build a ghetto wall around it.

Collective thinking is a hallmark of totalitarianism, and too many on the political left still fall prey to the totalitarian temptation. (I’ll get to the right’s pathologies some other time). Collective thinking is easy, reflexive and emotionally satisfying. And it’s stupid.

When the U.N. imposed harsh and far-reaching sanctions on Iraq in the wake of the first Gulf War, leading to economic and infrastructure collapse and widespread destitution, liberals were properly outraged. Sanctions have gotten smarter since then; now they selectively target elites from outlaw regimes in attempt to hit them where it hurts while sparing the populace at large.

Michael Moore and the anti-Israel zealots need to get smart, too. There are identifiable people who made the decisions in the Troy Davis case. Work to get them removed from office and take it easy on the many Georgians who joined the campaign to save Troy Davis. There is a vibrant peace movement in Israel; try reaching out to it instead of demonizing an entire population.

Collective punishment is the reflex of small-minded zealots, an attempt to over-simplify the world. Don’t let them tempt you into helping them.

Sam Reaves