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In Praise of Precision By: Theodore Dalrymple
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Confucius famously said that the first thing he would do to reform and rectify the state was to make sure that things were called by their right names. For if you don’t call things by their right names, how can you hope to maintain morality and probity?

Whenever I am in France, I read Le Monde, which is a better newspaper than any known to me in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, it makes mistakes, some gross, some subtle, some of fact and (worse by far) some of terminology.

For example, recently it reported the discovery of a supposedly contemporary portrait of Shakespeare, and began the article by saying that for a long time even the existence of a man named William Shakespeare had been in doubt.

This, of course, is wrong, an error of fact. No one has ever doubted that there was a man of such name: only that he wrote the plays attributed to the man of that name. (This is a controversy into which I do not want to enter, for it is one of those – so I have learned by experience - that immediately excites an extensive and vituperative correspondence. People feel an opinion different from their own on this subject as an attack on their intelligence, learning and character.)

An error of the second, altogether more insidious and serious kind crept (for such errors are of the creeping kind) into its reporting of the funeral of the late assassinated dictator of Guinea Bissau, Bernardo (‘Nino’) Viera. It was the more serious because it served to render serious thought difficult or impossible, and prevented, by verbal means, important questions of political philosophy from being even recognised, let alone actually asked. The power of a single word to achieve this end is astonishing.

The passage in question from the story with a headline Guinea Bissau:

Obsequies in the country of violent death, went as follows:

The ex-hero of the war of liberation against Portugal, the ex-dictator who was twenty-three years in power, divided into two periods, and who himself eliminated so many of his rivals, was very far from having made Guinea Bissau take off economically.

It continued:

This West African country, one of the poorest in the world, is known only for its exports of cashew nuts, its low life expectancy (47 years) and for the fact that South American drug traffickers have established themselves there to use it as a distribution depot for exports of cocaine to Europe.

What is the misleading word of which I complain? The answer is: Liberation. In what sense can a war be said to have been one of liberation which resulted in prolonged dictatorship, the routine murder of political rivals and the transformation of a country into a transit camp for criminals?

It is unlikely, from what the article says, that the situation was worse before the so-called liberation, either from the material point of view or that of personal and intellectual freedom.

The only point of view from which it represented a liberation was that of the provenance of the oppressors. After the so-called liberation, the oppressors came from within the country rather than from without. But if that is a difference so important that it deserves the appellation of liberation, then it is to admit something that is rather troubling, at least for political philosophers who think that political philosophy is a matter of finding principles that apply to all men in all places at all times: that the race, nationality or culture of the rulers as compared with those of the ruled has an importance that precedes, or if you like trumps in importance, what they actually do with their power. Personally, I suspect that this might be so: that we would prefer to be misruled by people like us than well-governed by people who are not like us. But where does this leave what one might call the Enlightenment Project?

Of course, it might be objected that the results of the Liberation War, so-called, were not predictable. The war was undertaken with intentions that were very different from its actual results. There is, after all, an ineluctable law of human action, known as the law of unintended consequences, according to which all human actions whatsoever have consequences that are unpredictable and may very well be unwanted.

But if the existence of such a law truly and totally absolved people from the consequences of their actions, then we should have no reasons for blaming anyone for anything, once his intentions were certifiably virtuous. And since there is hardly anyone alive who is incapable of fitting his actions, ex post facto, to supposedly virtuous intentions, this does not get us very far.

In any case, the appalling results of the so-called liberation were not entirely unpredictable, even if they were not a hundred per cent certain, because nothing human is a hundred per cent certain. By the time of the war of liberation’s triumph, however, enough was known about newly-independent African countries to know that it was likely that the liberation would result in economically-disastrous tyranny, and not in freedom in any recognisable sense.

There was another reason for suspicion: the support given to the war of liberation by the British expert on Africa, Basil Davidson.

Davidson was a brilliant linguist and officer in the British army during the Second World War, posted largely in the Balkans. There, he supported Tito’s Partisans, and immediately after the war published a book in support of the late Marshal in his most repressive and violent phase.

He then extolled the joys of Chinese Central Asia under Maoist rule, before becoming an Africa hand, his books on the continent selling very widely and being used in universities both in Britain and America. It might be said that he never saw a communist-inspired and supported liberation movement that he did not like the look of. He liked the communists of Mozambique and Angola, and loved those of the Cape Verde Islands, about whom he wrote a book called The Fortunate Isles, just as the population was decamping en masse for Portugal and France.

He wrote a book in the course of Guinea Bissau’s war of liberation called For the Liberation of Guinea. At great discomfort and danger to himself, Davidson had joined the Marxist, or marxisant, guerrillas. Any alert person, or one with a reasonable degree of intuition, would have realised that this was very bad news indeed for Guinea Bissau. The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse had spoken.

I point this all out only make an appeal on behalf of the sacred cause of calling things by their proper name. If the article in Le Monde had said that the late president had been prominent in the anti-colonial power struggle (here I point out that I am no fan of European colonialism in Africa), I should not have objected in the least. But the word ‘liberation’ in ‘war of liberation’ was what was wrong: for it closes down all discussion not only of disputable assessments of historical phenomena, but even of the desiderata of political action.

This helps in part to explain the continued appeal of Che Guevara, in so far as it lies deeper than Korda’s photograph. The syllogism goes as follows:

Batista was a dictator. [True]

Ernesto Guevara helped to overthrow him. [True]

Therefore, Ernesto Guevara was a liberator. [False, and how!]


Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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