Thursday, January 27, 2005

Religious War: East and West

The underground diplomats at the New Sisyphus make an eloquent case for listening to those who want to kill us, something which the Munich generation neglected to do to Adolph Hitler.

One of the most common observations about World War II was that if only Western leaders had heeded what the National Socialist Worker's Party and its leader Adolf Hitler were saying, they would have known of the grave danger facing the world. After all, it's not as if the Nazi Party or its frenzied Fuhrer tried to hide what they were about.  On the contrary, in speech after speech, newspaper after newspaper and book after book, Hitler and other senior Nazis laid out in some detail their plans for European domination, the destruction of parliamentary democracy and the elimination of the Jewish people.

But when we ourselves have supplied the rationale for our own condemnation then listening to the indictments of the enemy is a waste of time. To the question 'why does Bin Laden hate us', there are those who unhelpfully suggest that we ask Bin Laden. Besides being unacceptable it is also unnecessary because some already know why we should be hated. There is no need to listen further. The New Sisyphus observes that while there are two competing explanations for Islamic extremism, only one explanation is provided by the Islamic extremists themselves.

The first group, the "Muslim Rage School," believes that the source of Islamic Terrorism is the wide-spread anger in the Muslim world directed at the West and at Israel. For partisans of this school, US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, US support for despotic Middle Eastern regimes, Western economic outperformance of the Muslim world and anger towards US responses to the 9/11 Attacks, all add up to one thing: a seething mass of justifiable rage that presents itself, though a minority of those affected, as radical Islamic Terrorism.  ... As a rule, this school's policy preference for defeating Islamic Terrorism is to reduce the generators of the anger. Thus, the US must bring and end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, atone for past actions against the Muslim world, and generally radically change its long-standing foreign policy towards the Middle East. Only then will there be peace. ...

The second school of thought, the Clash of Civilizations School, argues that the source of Islamic Terrorism is the Muslim world's seething hatred of the fundamental values of the West, and, since the U.S. is the standard-bearer for the West at the moment, especially those of the United States. Adherents of this school, like Victor Hanson and most neo-conservative thinkers, argue that the value system of modern Islam produces a culture that is violently at odds with Western values and, because of this, it wages asymmetric war against the West when and where it can.

What is surprising is that Abu Musab Zarqawi categorically belongs to the second school, which holds that America is to be destroyed for what it is. In an audiotape released on January 23, 2005, Zarqawi puts forth a view which he has repeated many times in the past, but which, like Mein Kampf, some are determined never to hear. In the audio Zarqawi cursed democracy because it promoted such un-Islamic behavior as freedom of religion, rule of the people, freedom of expression, separation of religion and state, forming political parties and majority rule. Freedom of speech was particularly evil because it allowed "even cursing God. This means that there is nothing sacred in democracy."

While these are not the only reasons for extremist Islamic hatred, clearly if the fundamental characteristics of American society are sufficient to mark it for destruction, then nothing will deflect the hatred of the enemy. But Joe Katzman at Winds of Change argues that to some extent, the facts don't matter, because the public debate over the War on Terror within the West is in many respects as twisted as Zarqawi's. The debate, Katzman says, is dominated by activists who are incapable of seeing anything outside the prism of their own fantasies.

Al Qaeda may not be the only ones out there with a fantasy ideology ... If you see activism as the default mode of politics, goes this thesis, you shouldn't be surprised when it leads to anti-intellectualism, tolerance of extremists, retreat into fantasy, and a self-defeating kind of partisanship designed to make people feel better about themselves rather than produce meaningful change. ... There's a strongly religious quality to a lot of supposedly secular activism, in part due to the baby boomers' cultivated sense of grandiosity.

Katzman uses Lee Harris to illustrate how people saw what they wanted in the September 11 attacks, as if it were a giant Rorschach test. Harris knew it would never be regarded as anything so simple as widebodied airliners killing thousands of people.

I would like to pursue a line suggested by a remark by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in reference to 9-11: his much-quoted comment that it was “the greatest work of art of all time.” ... Stockhausen did grasp one big truth: 9-11 was the enactment of a fantasy -- not an artistic fantasy, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless.

Visions like Stockhausen's arose from a particular form of secular religious exaltation, one that had nothing to do with practical politics. In striving to explain it, Harris recalled an argument with a friend during his Vietnam protest days over whether it made sense for demonstrators to block a commuter bridge and alienate the public.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason -- because it was, in his words, good for his soul. What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy -- a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view -- for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

Katzman shrewdly points out that "The Right is not immune to this kind of 'activism as ritual worship'", though he suggests that what we are really worshipping is ourselves.

it seems that my generation is an extraordinary mixture of greatness and narcissism, and that strange amalgam has affected almost everything we do. We don't seem content to simply have a fine new idea, we must have the new paradigm that will herald one of the greatest transformations in the history of the world. We don;t really want to just recycle bottles and paper; we need to see ourrselves dramatically saving the planet and saving Gaia and resurrecting the Goddess that previous generations had brutally repressed but we will finally liberate.... We need to see ourselves as the vanguard of something unprecedented in all history: the extraordinarywonder of being us.

Bin Laden's vision of  a Global Caliphate and the Left's Worker's Paradise have found a worthy foe in President Bush's campaign to bring freedom to the world. Perhaps we should have expected that the new century would resurrect the eternal questions. Fyodor Dostoevsky wound have understood the Boomers.

"Answer: why have we met here? To talk of my love for Katerina Ivanovna, of the old man and Dmitri? of foreign travel? of the fatal position of Russia? of the Emperor Napoleon? Is that it?"


"Then you know what for. It's different for other people; but we in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first of all. That's what we care about. Young Russia is talking about nothing but the eternal questions now; just when the old folks are all taken up with practical questions. ... Of the eternal questions, of the existence of God and immortality. And those who do not believe in God talk of socialism or anarchism, of the transformation of all humanity on a new pattern, so that it all comes to the same, they're the same questions turned inside out. And masses, masses of the most original Russian boys do nothing but talk of the eternal questions! Isn't it so?"