The Real Friends of Terror -- Reviews of Ted Honderich's television programme

First here there are words on the programme by regular television reviewers giving viewers advice on what to watch. After that there is a piece from The Philosophers' Magazine, by Julian Baggini, a selection of comments on the programme by four philosophers. If the inconsistency of the reactions in and between the two categories makes you wonder about the programme, you can turn to a transcript of it or watch the video. For Ted Honderich's views unmediately and more fully expressed, there is the book from which the programme came, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7..., of which you can go to excerpts. He has also written on the two programmes.

(1) Regular Television Reviewers

In the last of five diatribes that give Five so much bang for its bucks, the philosopher Ted Honderich attacks the 'war on terror' for not addressing the roots of terrorism, which he argues include the West's unswerving support for Israel in its subjugation of the Palestinians.
The Independent

After the witterings of Ann Widdecombe and Selina Scott, this slot finally comes of age with a nicely argued film about terrorism, written and presented by the philosopher Professor Ted Honderich. He contends that we all share degrees of moral responsibility for the terrorism that afflicts our modern world and that "it's not just the terrorists who need to change or be changed". He sets his sights firmly on Tony Blair and George Bush as "friends of mass terror", but, unlike the recent Stewart Lee programme, he at least brooks some opposition to his thesis.
Sunday Times

Ted Honderich offers his view of who are 'The Real Friends of Terror', and there are no prizes for guessing who he thinks they are. Of course not everyone would or could agree entirely with Honderich's provocative arguments, but impressively he grants air-time to those who disagree with his conclusions, and it is worth tuning in if only to be familiarised with his Principle of Humanity.
Financial Times

Trying to divine a clear line of thought through Ted Honderich's polemic in 'Don't Get Me Started' (Five) was like trying to find your way while swimming through minestrone. Honderich, a professor of philosophy at London University, essentially traces all cases of Muslim-inspired mayhem in the world -- terrorism, suicide bombers, 9/11,7/7 -- on what he sees as the raw deal Palestinians have got. Further, he argues that this can morally justify suicide bombing.
But was Osama bin Laden really fired by the Palestinian cause to bomb the World Trade Centre? Or did he jump on the Palestinian bandwagon only after he realised how much mileage and publicity he could get for al-Qaeda by doing so? When someone in one of his audiences suggests to Honderich that he struggles to see how 9/11 was a manifestation of Palestinian unrest, Honderich replies: "The idea that 9/11 had nothing to do with Palestine seems to me absurd. It's not a proposition that deserves respect." Is that how philosophers argue these days? Still, if Honderich is right, then here's the good news: the minute Hamas recognises Israel's right to exist, peace talks resume and a Palestinian state is formalised, then, logically, there will be no more Islamic terrorism anywhere in the world.
Joe Joseph, The Times

The series of polemics continues and the man stepping up to the soapbox tonight is Ted Honderich, a professor of moral philosophy, wo argues that there is a connection between the situation in the Middle East and modern-day terrorism. Duh? This is being billed by Five as 'maybe the most controversial programme of them all', when in fact the argument is as obvioous and well-rehearsed as a nursery rhyme. Marshalling evidence from Helena Kennedy and Tony Benn, among others, the prof argues that Israel's invasion of foreign territory, beyond the borders established in 1948, and the sense of helplessness felt by the Palestinians, have sent waves of anger and alienation to Muslims across the world. Couple that with the illegal invasion of Iraq and the current situation is inveitable. So far, so obvious. The only time this begins to say something remotely controvesial is when the prof dallies with the notion that suicide bombing may be justified if it's the only means of making your voice heard, and suggests that the USA and Israel have to take their share of responsibility for putting the Palestinians in that position. It's an idea that Cherie Blair got into trouble for expressing, so hardly radical thinking. In the absence of anything for your mind to chew on you might find yourself pondering on how much Honderich looks like Eric Sykes in a granny wig.
Time Out

Not merely a rant this week as philosophy professor Ted Honderich offers his thoughts on the causes of terrorism. He suggests the West's support of Israel encouraged the violence seen on 11 September and in subsequent attacks, before discussing suicide bombers with Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge.
Independent on Sunday

This entertaining series of rants comes to an end with moral philosopher Ted Honderich's controversial assertion that Israel is ultimately to blame for the events that led to 9/11. More likey to get you hot under the collar than earlier editions, his argument is fascinating, but, to my mind at least utterly flawed.
The Observer

Riculous polemic by philosopher Ted Honderich, whose response to the rhetorical question "Who are the real friends of terrorism?" is an exemplar of the "root causes" view so fatheaded as to verge on caricature. Honderich blames Islamist terrorism on almost everyone but Islamist terrorists. Like all proponents of this absurd line, he won't acknowledge that fundamentalist militancy is not a reactive phenomenon -- he implicitly holds that Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular, are incapable of moral judgement or independent thought, and only respond to provocation." Andrew Mueller, Guardian

"Professor Ted Honderich, a moral philosopher, presents this edition of this first-rate soapbox series. He proposes what he calls 'the Principle of Humanity', which states that everyone has basic human rights and that politicians are obliged to take rational steps to rescue people from lives filled with deprivation and misery. It is not enough merely to condemn suicide bombing and terror — anyone can do that."
Channel Five billing

(2) SCREEN TEST: Did the Ted Honderich Show prove TV and philosophy can mix?
The Philosophers' Magazine, 4th quarter, 2006

Earlier this year, the head of Five, the UK terrestrial TV channel, Dan Chambers, told The Philosophers' Magazine about his commitment to putting more philosophy on the screen.

In September, we had a chance to judge the value of his claim with the screening of the documentary "The Real Friends of .Terror" in which Ted Honderich brought his controversial ideas about terrorism to the screen.

Honderich argued that "The Palestinians have a moral right to their terror." His justification for this derived from his "Principle of Humanity", which he defined in the programme as: "We must take actually rational steps to getting and keeping people out of bad lives". Such bad lives are ones "deprived of six fundamental human goods", namely, "A decent length of life; bodily well-being; freedom and power; respect and self-respect; the goods of relationships; and the satisfactions of culture."

Honderich's argument is that this moral imperative justifies Palestinian terrorism, because given the inability to mount any other kind of resistance to Israeli "neo-Zionism", terrorist acts are "actually rational steps" to getting Palestinians out of their often bad lives.

So was this a good example of how philosophy could be brought to the masses via our most powerful medium? To answer this question, The Philosophers' Magazine invited four philosophers to a preview screening of the programme.                              ,

Over wine afterwards, all agreed that, whatever the merits of the programme, the philosophical content was minimal. As Jonathan Webber put it, "He wheeled out the principle and drew conclusions from it, but he didn't make much attempt to justify it."
Was this Honderich's fault or is this just unfortunately a limitation of the medium? "If you're going to make a 40-minute TV show you can't go into a lot of depth," conceded Webber. And it was the lack of any real depth that really irked our panel of reviewers.

"He objected to 9/11 on the grounds that it was an ineffective means to its end," pointed out Chris. Bertram, "which rather raises the question, what if it had been an effective means to its end?"

Honderich made his opposition to the 9/ll attacks very clear. "The attack on America on 9/11 was monstrously wrong," he said. "It was wrong, according to the Principle of Humanity, because it was a monstrously irrational means to an end that was partly defensible, I mean support of the Palestinians and resistance to neo-Zionism."

But as Bertram said, that leaves open some troubling questions: "Would it be OK to deliberately kill a lot of innocent people to help bring about the fulfilment of the principle of humanity? He didn't really deal with that question." Without the detail that was lacking in the film, it is impossible for the viewer to know whether Honderich bites that bullet or has a good response to this.

"I had.a thought watching the film of a similarity between Honderich and someone like Alan Dershowitz and his ruminations on torture," said Bertram, "that if we need to torture people to stop.things happening, we ought to torture people. This is a very simple consequentialist calculation, and I think the same thing is going on with Honderich. If it were true that appalling terrorist acts such as blowing up innocents advanced the principle of humanity, it would be OK.

"Various people said that in order to pursue their ends, which were quite unspecified, Palestinians had no choice but to engage in terrorist acts," continued Bertram. "That raised a whole series of issues which weren't addressed, namely: Are the ends worth pursuing? Is it in fact true that those were the only available means? If they were, should one then give up on the ends?"

These failures to interrogate the nitty-gritty of the Principle of Humanity were disappointing because if there was a philosophical core to the programme, that was it. Only one philosopher discussed the principle, Dr Brian Klug. Rather than interrogate it, however, he simply praised it. "I think you have made an original and genuine contribution to moral philosophy and the political debate with this Principle of Humanity," he told Honderich.

On the basis of this programme, our panel could not concur. To them it looked simply like straight consequentialism with a slightly different spin on what consequences should actually be pursued.

"His six principles are thought up by a philosopher in his armchair and don't seem to originate from talking to people about what they value in life," observed Bertram. "Martha Nussbaum has at least done a good deal of empirical work and spent time with women's projects in India and so on."

"He says nothing about the issue of how you trade those off against each other," added Oshaka.

Webber pointed out that it may well be that Honderich does say more in his written works about these tough questions. This could clearly be true about all the apparent deficiencies in his position identified. But viewers can only judge the philosophy presented on the basis of what they're shown.

Havi Carel thought he didn't "give us any insights we couldn't have had otherwise." Oshaka suggested that was because "intelligent discussion of the issues he's discussing doesn't require great philosophical expertise. That would only be pessimistic if we thought that philosophy really, genuinely had something to say that any intelligent person couldn't have come by, and I 'm not convinced of that. I'm not saying that I thought anything he said was wrong or crazy -- in fact I'm in sympathy with most of it -- but I don't think his standing as a professor of philosophy makes him particularly qualified to do that."

"If there is any truth in the liberal conception of how democracy ought to work," suggested Bertram, "then the capacity for exchanging reasons and arguments ought to be pretty widely distributed in all the population and not be the specialist province of philosophers."

Even as a political polemic, however, our panel saw deficiencies. For Carel, "It was a very flat depiction." Zionism -- which Honderich supports -- was defined simply as "the founding of Israel in roughly its original borders". But as Carel pointed out, "Zionism didn't start in 1948. Zionism was a socialist movement that started in Russia, Poland and certain parts of western Europe in the 19th century."

Despite the pretty negative overall verdict on the programme, it is impossible to know how much of this is down to Honderich and his philosophy and how much is the result of the programme's editors and the limitations of the medium. Our panel certainly found it hard to think of a better way to do philosophy on TV other than essentially filming conversations.

"Philosophy's good and TV's a good medium but that doesn't mean TV's a good medium for philosophy," said Oshaka. "I don't see how you could improve on radio."

"If you're talking about how to do philosophy on TV," added Bertram, "those old Brian Magee series probably did it better than anybody's done it since. And that was just one person talking to another." Until that can be done in a truly visual way, our panel is unconvinced that Dan Chambers' Five has found the formula for other philosophers to follow.

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