Skepticism versus Nihilism versus Ideological Dogma: The “Left’s” Response to Aleppo, Syria, and the Assassination of a Russian Ambassador

“Debates” over the last month triggered by events in Syria have been almost unbelievable. Not because reasonable people cannot disagree about facts, about ethical priorities, and about the efficacy of different strategic and tactical options. They can and they should. But rather because logic itself, and a commitment to seeking out empirical truth – no matter where it might lead, no matter whether it “fits” with our ideological paradigm or not – seems to have gone out the fucking window. The “tone” of these debates has also gone down the drain (and that’s saying something for the Left), but when facts become irrelevant, tone is a tertiary concern.

There is a great deal of good, nuanced, informed, thoughtful writing on Syria. I encourage people to read it. We don’t have to agree with all the claims or conclusions or the framing of these narratives for us to recognize their value. I am not going to try to duplicate the efforts of people far more informed about Syrian history and politics than myself. Instead, I want to talk about skepticism and truth, with a couple illustrative examples – to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions about the Left’s problematic relationship to solidarity.

When the human rights violations, and the resultant refugee crisis, again reached a level that they became “newsworthy” in the west, and the plight of ordinary people in Aleppo was getting coverage in both the mainstream and alternative media, people on the Left seemed to divide into at least three broad currents: 1) those who were critical of the Assad regime’s human rights violations, and supported some kind of Syrian “revolution” (without necessarily supporting the so-called “rebels” – or perhaps being selective about them); 2) those who thought that Assad had a measure of popular support and was defending the Syrian people from “opposition Islamist terrorists” (with Russian help); and 3) those who were unsure what all the relevant facts were, and who was to blame, and were not necessarily wedded to any particular “heroes” or “villains,” but were concerned about the humanitarian crisis and wanted to know how to stop it and/or how best to aid civilians caught in the middle of a “civil war”.

Obviously, this is simplified a bit, and these categories can overlap, but I think they reflect three broad dispositions or currents in terms of how “Leftists” have approached and interpreted the conflict. In practice, reasonable people could find themselves initially supportive of one current, and shift to another, based on what they have experienced or read, based on weighing evidence and making judgments, filtered but not necessarily asphyxiated by their own ideological framework and presuppositions. A reasonable person could express agnosticism or skepticism about many things, and try to seek out evidence and answers to their questions. They could change their mind.

I do not wish to over-generalize, but in my opinion, the above has not been the tendency on the Left. All too prevalent has been an anti-intellectual approach: to pick a side and then discount all evidence to the contrary. To hurl invective at those who take different positions. To fall back on, when people offer counter-perspectives, the tactics of the internet troll: ad hominem, non-sequitur, and as a final refuge, a banal, “post-modern,” “post-truth” nihilism that the Left used to mock.

I am someone who is perhaps old-fashioned when it comes to history, current events, human rights violations, and revolutionary struggles. Old-fashioned in the sense that I think we can actually know some things about the world. You know, facts, truth, that sort of thing. We can’t necessarily know everything. It takes effort. But we can know a lot of things with a high degree of certainty – if we care to. For me, personally, this comes from probably a mixture of Enlightenment positivism, and my own personal commitment to anarchism. I won’t go into details about that here, but anarchism taught me in some important ways NOT to have heroes. Or at least, not to put anyone on a pedestal, beyond criticism. Not to put a “party line” ahead of the truth. Not to be wedded ‘a priori’ (i.e., in advance) to a particular empirical fact – because it is not so much a particular set of ‘the facts’ that we must commit ourselves to, but rather a commitment to find them, and the ethical ramifications of what we do find.

On Syria, to listen to the Left argue, is to be left wondering if Assad is a butcher or a saint, a dictator who ought to be overthrown by his own people, or a popular leader defending them with Russian aid from both Islamist terror and / or Western imperialism. Yes, there are people with more nuanced positions, but the range here is extreme. It’s no wonder that many people are confused.

But do facts matter? Can we not know anything? Let’s take three examples: 1) the Sarin gas attack on Ghouta in 2013; 2) the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo (including but not limited to chlorine gas attacks on civilian neighborhoods); and 3) the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey. To listen to the Left argue about these kinds of things this past month is to be filled with despair at the decline of reason. Not because skepticism is a problem. But because seeking out the truth seems to have become irrelevant.

I have read people who insist that the Sarin gas attack didn’t even happen, and if it did, could not have been perpetrated by the Assad dictatorship. It was “fake” or “staged” or committed by the U.S., or its allies, or any number of other things. I have read people who have said there are no crimes being committed by the Syrian government and Russia in Aleppo – it is all, or primarily, the work of Islamist terrorists. Anyone who says otherwise is apparently an apologist or stooge of U.S. imperialism. I have read people who describe “the opposition” in similarly homogenizing and apologetic terms, failing to distinguish between the many opposition groups, armed or otherwise, Syrian or foreign (some of which have committed war crimes of their own, and some of which are more moderate and representative of the “Arab spring” in Syria). To listen to Eva Bartlett speak, they are ALL “terrorists” opposed to a popular and legitimate Assad government. To listen to Bartlett speak, she is a valiant and lone voice in the wilderness, challenging the lies of every mainstream media journalist in the world (except for the Russian ones) and also, apparently, every single human rights organization on the planet, and ordinary Syrians who take a different view of things in Aleppo to boot.

I wrote the other day that judging from what passes for debate on the Left these days, Israel just needs to get Russian help next time it bombs Gaza, and significant numbers of “Leftists” would suddenly become quiet, disappear altogether from Palestine solidarity work, or re-brand Israeli state terror as the “true anti-imperialism.” The hypocrisy would be stunning to watch unfold. Suddenly, all those reports from human rights organizations, from Amnesty to B’Tselem would become “suspect.” Suddenly, the voices of Palestinians voicing their direct observations would become “suspect,” in precisely the way that apologists for Israel’s crimes (and Assad’s) already suggest. How are those supposedly poor and oppressed people in Gaza on the internet at all, let alone speaking in decent English? How are they buying food and water if the occupation is so bad? Why are they sometimes smiling or laughing or holding weddings and going to the marketplace? Obviously their lives are just scripted propaganda that “real” anti-imperialists can ignore.

I’m almost embarrassed to be telling people to go read some Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Red Cross/Red Crescent, and United Nations reports on human rights violations in Syria over the last six years. Embarrassed because this ought to be one of the first things that a leftist and / or a person of conscience regardless of their ideological worldview, unsure of any actual facts, might do to help inform themselves. I’m embarrassed to tell people to read and listen to the personal testimonies of ordinary Syrians caught up in this conflict – because personal testimony, even though it can often have limitations, is one of the building blocks that is actually required to form an accurate picture about the crimes of any State actor. Can one imagine trying to understand the nature of Nazi Germany without the testimony of Jews, Poles, Roma, dissidents and others who fought them, or simply survived them? Can one imagine trying to understand apartheid South Africa by only reading the press releases of the white supremacist government, and those journalists it trusted to support the regime? Can one imagine trying to understand the dispossession, racism, and violence experienced by First Nations in Canada without listening to and reading indigenous peoples’ own testimony and perspectives? The notion is absurd, and yet many on the Left are doing just this when it comes to Syria.

This is turning into more of a long-winded rant than intended. Which is saying something – as I am not known for my concision. I’ll end with a brief mention of the photograph of the Turkish assassin who recently killed the Russian ambassador in Ankara. Immediately, many people began to question this photograph and this event, and some were quick to call it “fake news.” And I think it’s indicative of the way many on the Left (if we want to keep using such an inadequate term) have become anti-intellectual.

I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest this photograph was “manufactured.” I have already read several people commenting that the picture is “too perfect” — the framing, the gunman’s pose, his fantastic suit, and so on. The implication, of course, is that the ‘evidence’ that it’s fake is simply that it’s good.

Of course, then, no one suggests that all the other photos and video taken that were “not good” (and there were many with the gunman in the background, at different angles and distances, with different degrees of focus, that were also taken) constitutes evidence that this was not fake. Unless we are supposed to believe that these other photos were deliberately “taken badly” just to throw us off? That must be it!!

I am seriously in awe of the willingness to disbelieve. I really am. I mean skepticism about many things, including media narratives and politicians’ statements (particularly those urging nations to go to war) is generally a good thing in my opinion. But just because the public has been lied to many times about many things does not mean everything in the corporate media is fake. I find myself in the odd position of defending the corporate media — which I know is abominable in so many ways — against straight-up “post-truth” conspiracy nihilism.

Skepticism requires us to weigh relevant evidence, assess competing narratives, assess sources of information, not throw it all to the wind and say “nothing can ever be known.” This is something we learn in first year philosophy class. And yet it seems to be the view of a great many these days, and in my opinion, it is dangerous and irresponsible (to be polite about it). It is not a “revolutionary” or “radical” position to say we can’t know anything. It is lazy, and it is ultimately reactionary. It lends itself to paralysis and political irrelevance.

The reason there were so many photos and videos, and one or two of them turned out to be ‘fantastic’ from a purely aesthetic standpoint, is the simple explanation. If ever there was an argument for Occam’s Razor, this is it. It was already a public event that drew large amounts of press, so when Karpov went up to the podium to speak, journalists and art gallery attendees already had their cameras and cell phones handy, if not rolling. From all sides of the room. It’s as simple as that.

Making an informed judgment about human rights violations in Aleppo and Syria as a whole, and who is culpable in them, may not be quite as simple as talking about a single photograph. But it can be done, if we actually care to. Lost in all the filth and fury, though, has been the thing that ought to matter most: solidarity and stopping human rights violations. In the midst of all the crap, many people have been having serious discussions about what meaningful solidarity ought to look like. Some people have argued for support for various unarmed, democratic civilian and grassroots organizations. Some people have argued for arming some of the better opposition groups so that they can defend themselves from the dictatorship and from Russian AND U.S. airstrikes. Some people have argued that a “no fly zone” ought to be imposed to prevent Russian airstrikes, and debated whether or not the U.S. or NATO or the UN could even be trusted to do that in a way that would not further one or another State’s imperial interests, and not *worsen* the situation for Syrians. The debates often hinge entirely on one’s interpretation of facts on the ground, and upon interpretations of how interventions have gone in the past (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya being the obvious discussion points).

But it’s amazing to me how little of the discussion about what ought to be done seems to hinge on assessments of what ordinary Syrians themselves might actually want. Few seem to care about asking or learning.

It seems to me that the questions we ought to be asking and answering are — whether we are leftists or not — are the following: What kind of “solidarity”? And solidarity with *which* Syrians? What are the predictable consequences of our proposed acts of solidarity? What do ordinary Syrians (the ones we presumably wish to help) think of these proposed acts of solidarity? And perhaps most importantly of all, are the people most affected actually calling for them or opposing them?

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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