Sunday


Boko Haram

Contemporary terrorism perpetrated by radical militants who self-identify as Muslims constitutes not only a police problem and a military problem (which of the two it is, or properly ought to be, is itself a matter of debate), but it is also a social problem and a political problem. Recent spectacular terrorist attacks — for example, the Peshawar school massacre, the massacre of staff at the Magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and an attack on Kukawa by Boko Haram that may have resulted in 2,000 killed — show this sociopolitical problem in an especially glaring light.

Europe in particular faces a problem in how to respond, and, as I wrote above, this is as much a social and political problem about the response to Islamic terrorism as it is a police or military response. Politicians would be greatly relieved if something so socially problematic could be carefully circumscribed as a police matter without wider social consequences, but this illusion cannot be sustained. Sustaining the illusion does not address the underlying problem, but allows it to fester and to grow from a problem into a crisis. It is better to address the problem when it is still a problem, albeit a thankless problem.

An organization in Germany, Pegida (Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been organizing demonstrations to protest what it calls the Islamization of Europe, and these demonstrations have been met by larger counter-demonstrations intended to frame Pegida as a xenophobic, right wing fringe movement. The counter-demonstrations against Pegida have been organized by government bodies, and cannot be characterized the spontaneous outpourings of grassroots German sentiment. In other words, we see here Europe wrestling with his own demons from its past. The political leadership of Europe is painfully aware of Germany’s Nazi past, and they are willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid targeting a minority that could be used as scapegoat for public discontent. The situation is similar in France, having its own and different demons from the past. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French President Hollande said, “Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”

Elite opinion in Europe is at one — the same message comes from the governments and major media outlets — that spectacular terrorist attacks committed by self-identifying Muslims are not to be attributed to Islam nor to the presence of Muslims in Europe (at present, about five million or 7.5% of the population in France, four million or 5% of the population in Germany, and three million or 5% of the population in the UK). However, this unity of elite opinion comes at a cost, and with a danger. Recently in The Technocratic Elite I wrote about the yawning divide between those who hold power and those who are subject to power in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. When elite opinion is perfectly unified, it looks contrived and controlled by the public. Moreover, anyone who speaks out against unified elite opinion is immediately cast in the role of a lone outsider who is speaking unwelcome truth to power. This in itself is a powerful rhetorical position, and those who would protest the influence of Islam and Islamic values in Europe willingly take on the mantle. Elite opinion would probably prove itself to be more effective if it allowed for some latitude, and co-opted the most radical voices by giving them an official outlet.

The problem of elite opinion in Europe is partly the above-mentioned demons of Europe’s past, which suggest the ever-present possibility of plunging into another savage conflict with genocidal overtones (as the Europeans tend to do every century or two), and also partly a result of the fact that the nation-state system has its origins in Europe and it is in Europe that the nation-state is still strongest. That is to say, the political entities that constitute Europe are states based on a national ethnic identity, and despite the attempts by Europe to constitute their contemporary states as diverse liberal democracies, they are nothing like the nation-states of the western hemisphere. Identity matters in Europe. Anyone can become an American. Almost no one can become a German, a Frenchman, or an Italian unless you are born to it. Elite opinion knows this, but still attempts to put a brave face on a pluralistic, diverse, and democratic society.

The larger background to this problem is the demographic imbalance between Europe and its Islamic neighbors. European populations are static or falling, while the population of neighboring Islamic nation-states are growing. Conflict in these Islamic nation-states creates refugees, and the attempt to maintain the facade upon which elite opinion trades in order to maintain its legitimacy requires that Europe take in refugees from anywhere in the world (to “prove” they are not racist or xenophobic). These burgeoning Islamic populations can easily send millions into Europe without affecting population growth in their nation-states of origin. These refugees have no interest in assimilating into European society, and even if they did have an interest, European society cannot realistically pretend that Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, or Mesopotamia can pass as Europeans.

This is not the first time that this has happened in the Old World. If you visit the cities around the Mediterranean Basin, which was once all the Roman Empire, you will find classical temples and Christian churches with contemporary Muslim populations flowing around them like a stream flows around ancient rocks embedded in its course. In some small towns on the coast of Turkey, you can literally find rock cut tombs preserved in the middle of streets, with traffic flowing around them — a reminder of a world that is now utterly lost. Europe knows this story as well as anyone, and even if elite opinion cannot speak of it in public, the idea of the great monuments of European civilization surrounded by a alien population with a different tradition of civilization cannot be far below the surface.

What is to be done? Can elite opinion, steadfastly maintained by elite discipline, allow Europe to negotiate these troubled waters and continue to put a brave face on a politically impossible situation? After all, everything in life is mere temporizing if you look at things in the long term. Europe can temporize a bit longer — for a few hundred years, or a few thousand years. The Europeans are good at this, as the example of Byzantium demonstrates (though the Byzantines were mostly Greek, and Greece is not now in a position to assert its rule over even a rump of Europe). If you can temporize longer than anyone else, you have done all that can be expected of any political entity.

And what of grassroots opinion in Europe? Do we even know what it is? The efficacy of elite discipline in Europe shrouds public opinion in euphemisms that prevent it from being expressed in the ugly forms it took under twentieth century fascism. If elite opinion capitulated to the masses, what would the result be? We don’t know. The post-WWII period in Europe has been so effective in De-Nazification and re-education that we do not know at present that Europeans would do if not guided by the liberal internationalist vision of elite opinion. If elite opinion fell away, would we instantly see an anti-Islamic Kristallnacht unleashed in Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, and Copenhagen? Would we see the beginnings of a new holy war between East and West?

I have several times discussed the views of Reza Aslan on Islamic terrorism as a form of cosmic warfare. Unlike French President Hollande and most public figures of elite opinion, Aslan openly acknowledges that Islamic terrorists are inspired by religious zeal, but maintains that the only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight it. However, as I have observed, one may get dragged into a cosmic war against one’s will. The eschatological dimension of human experience cannot be avoided. If we pretend it does not exist, others will foist it upon us — sometimes in the form of a massacre (cf. my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception).

Sam Harris, like Reza Aslan, frankly recognizes the religious roots of Islamic terrorism and has discussed this unmentionable fact (unmentionable, that is, for elite opinion) of Islamic terrorism repeatedly, claiming that Islam as a religion is uniquely well-adapted for inspiring suicidal terrorism. I’m not sure if Harris has any solution other than to imagine a world without religion, so that, presumably, advancing programs of secularization might be on the table. However, such top-down measures are vulnerable to all of the same problems that how beset elite opinion in Europe. Sometimes it seems as though the more well-intentioned a policy is, the more likely it is to be denounced as malign social engineering.

The critics of Sam Harris, especially in the Arab world, have noted his Jewish background (a fact unmentionable in other contexts) and his lack of criticism of Israel (a religiously-constituted nation-state, presumably an appropriate target for someone like Harris), more or less assimilating Harris’ position to an anti-Islamic prejudice. But Harris is right that there has been no outpouring of revulsion from the Muslim masses over repeated spectacular terrorist attacks by self-identifying Muslims shouting “Allāhu Akbar” as they kill innocent children. You will not often find the governments of Islamic nation-states organizing protests against the killing of Christians in the way that anti-Pegida activists are organizing protests against protests against Muslims.

The problem of Islamic terrorism is not going to go away any time soon. Elite opinion, not only in Europe but the world over, is careful to dissociate such terrorist acts from Islam, but does so at the cost of its intellectual integrity. There are approaches like that of Reza Aslan and Sam Harris that possess intellectual integrity, but appeal as little to mass opinion and mass man as does elite opinion. Elite opinion at least has the virtue of being fired in a political crucible that makes it credible as a mass movement, even if it lacks grassroots appeal. At the grassroots level, we really don’t have any good, non-politicized data to form a judgment as to what might occur if elite opinion capitulated to popular opinion.

The one thing of which we can be certain is the fear. There is the fear of what will become of Europe as European populations dwindle and Muslim populations expand. There is the fear of what will happen if popular sentiment against Muslims living in Europe gets out of hand. There is the fear of what becomes of Western civilization if Europe becomes Islamicized, however slowly and gradually. There is the fear on the part of Muslims of the influence of Western civilization and Western ways upon Islamic civilization. There is the fear of Muslim residents in Europe and elsewhere beyond the Islamic world of what will become of their lives as coreligionists conduct massacres that causes them to live under a cloud of suspicion. There is the fear that civil wars in Nigeria and Syria will spread instability to other parts of the globe. There is a surfeit of fear in the world today, and perhaps this is a sign that it is the fear we should address and is perhaps the most tractable of this cluster of intractable problems.

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The Philosophy of Fear

26 December 2011

Monday


One of the distinctive developments of twentieth century philosophy was a cultivation of the awareness of impure philosophical motives — that is to say, the discovery of extra-philosophical motives for philosophical claims. This had much to do with the “masters of suspicion” — Paul Ricouer’s collective name for Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud — but even Anglo-American analytical philosophers got into the act. Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled, “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives.”

While this would seem to be a healthy development, and a movement in the direction of greater honesty, the trend was inevitably hijacked, and there were subsequently a great many ideologically-inspired readings of philosophy that attributed impure motives to philosophers that had little or nothing to do with their work. Controversial public figures like Russell were often the target of such tendentious criticisms, and more recently Foucault noted that he had been criticized from almost every imaginable point of view, politically speaking:

“There have been Marxists who said I was a danger to Western democracy — that has been written; there was a socialist who wrote that the thinker who resembled me most closely was Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. I have been considered by liberals as a technocrat, an agent of the Gaullist government; I have been considered by people on the right, Gaullists or otherwise, as a dangerous left-wing anarchist; there was an American professor who asked why a crypto-Marxist like me, manifestly a KGB agent, was invited to American universities; and so on.”

Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, “Politics and Ethics: An Interview,” p. 376

Among the non-philosophical motives for philosophical claims, I think that there has been an insufficient recognition of fear. Throughout history fear has been a strong motive for dissimulation. There is an obvious explanation in evolutionary psychology for this: the ability to deceive others (i.e., not to be honest with them) is often crucial to survival and reproduction. When one’s ability to survive and reproduce is threatened, one feels fear. One response to this fear is to employ dissimulation to survive and reproduce. In civilized contexts, this fear for survival and response by way of dissimulation can become so sublimated that it can take the form of manipulating the most subtle concepts of metaphysics.

Let’s take the low-hanging fruit first. What classic philosopher could be more classic than Descartes? Descartes is remembered for his method of utterly radical doubt — the attempt to doubt absolutely anything that can be doubted — and his response to this doubt, which was proving his own existence by the incantation, Cogito, ergo sum. In his famous Discourse on Method (Part Two), Descartes lays down four precepts of his philosophical activity, the first of which is:

“…never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”

These four precepts are well known. Less well known are Descartes’ follow up to his four precepts in Part Three of the Discourse on Method. Descartes here very reasonably observes that:

“…it is not enough, before commencing to rebuild the house in which we live, that it be pulled down, and materials and builders provided, or that we engage in the work ourselves, according to a plan which we have beforehand carefully drawn out, but as it is likewise necessary that we be furnished with some other house in which we may live commodiously during the operations…”

And to this end he then lays down four moral precepts for himself, starting out with this:

“The first was to obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.”

Is it even possible to expose everything in one’s experience to radical doubt while clinging to one’s childhood religious beliefs? Like I said, this is low-hanging fruit. Later, things get much more sophisticated and subtle, and therefore much more difficult and elusive to discover.

Freud, one of Ricouer’s “masters of suspicion” wrote of the motivations of philosophers who say such things:

“Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.”

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, section VI

And again in another book:

“…if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.”

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, section II

I have always thought these remarks of Freud to be inadequate, because they fail to distinguish between those who are consciously fearful and acting to protect themselves, those who are only unconsciously fearful and therefore unconsciously protecting themselves, and those who have gone so far into self-deception that they truly believe themselves to be acting in their own (intellectual) interest even while they are expressing how compromised their thinking is. A longish essay might be written by unraveling all the strands implicit in this tripartite distinction.

Of course, it was not only in religious matters that philosophers let their fear triumph over their philosophical reason. During the Cold War, Eastern Europe was dominated by political regimes that employed heavy-handed ideological coercion, and philosophy was perhaps the most compromised of all intellectual enterprises, since philosophy inevitably overlaps with any sphere of thought subject to ideological control.

In his famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel described this ideological control by appeal to the example of a green grocer:

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer X, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

What Havel here expresses in terms of green grocers is no less true for philosophers. On the contrary, it is more true for philosophers. In other words, philosophy is far more compromised by ideology than the green grocer business.

The philosophy of fear is a deeply compromised philosophy. Today, when the vast majority of philosophy is the product of institutionalized scholars, the fear is every bit as existential as it was for Soviet Bloc philosophers during the Cold War. While non-conforming philosophers are not sent to gulags, they do lose their position within institutionalized philosophy, and when this happens one must earn one’s bread by some other method. In other words, one must go to work. In other words again, one is sentenced to hard labor. One’s labor may not be confined to an actual labor camp (i.e., a gulag) but it is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind.

Institutions are organized along ideological lines, and ideologies, when “successful,” foster institutions that seek to put the ideology in question into practice. In other words, ideologies imply institutions and institutions imply ideologies. And, as Havel has said, “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

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Fear of Death

3 February 2011

Thursday


Last night, for only the third time in my life, I experienced a vivid and visceral fear of death. This experience was markedly unlike my first two experiences, which were the results of carelessness and accidents. In one instance (I can’t say the first, as I don’t remember which preceded the other) I was falling a tree and things didn’t go quite right. The tree did what loggers call a “slab,” which is when the tree, instead of falling at the point where the undercut lines up with the upper cut, splits vertically up the center. This happens so quickly one has no time to react. Suddenly, matters are out of your control. However, it did not happen so fast that I was not able to experience a split second fear of death.

In another incident, I was mowing the grass on a steep hillside on a riding lawnmower. This will sound a bit ridiculous, but it was in fact quite frightening. I fell off the riding lawnmower on the downhill side in just such a way that the mower appeared to be heading directly for me. Once again, for a split second, I feared for my life. I was lucky, since I got out of the way in time. I have had many accidents that have left me physically injured, but only these two accidents made me fear for my life.

In an accident, one’s survival is largely a matter of luck. When the tree I was falling got away from me, I was simply lucky that I was not in the way. In the film based on the Ken Kesey novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the Henry Stamper character is killed by a tree that goes slab. Once you’ve experienced it, it is all-too-easy to understand how such accidents can be fatal. In fact, logging is one of the most dangerous professions (and has one of the highest worker’s compensation insurance rates) in the world today.

Not all incidents in which the fear of death can be experienced are of this variety, and my experience last night was not of the split second kind. I was exercising in my usual vigorous fashion, using a speedbag, jumping rope, and doing sit ups on an inclined board. When I rested between sets at one point, my heart began to beat in an irregular rhythm. Of course, I have many times experienced an irregular heart rhythm following vigorous exercise. What was different about last night was that, as I felt my heart beating oddly, at the same time I felt a fear of death coming over me, increasing as time passed. It lasted perhaps a minute, which was much longer than my previous episodes of fear of death — longer by many orders of magnitude. I discovered that fearing death for an instant is a very different experience from fearing death for a minute or so.

My fear did not manifest itself intellectually or emotionally. I did not say to myself, “I may be dying.” Nevertheless, I am old enough to have experienced fear many times, so I know physically what it feels like, and this is what I experienced: the visceral symptoms of fear, coupled with an instinctive, intuitive knowledge that it was my own death that I feared.

It occurred to me later that, if I am conscious when I die, some future iteration of fear of death will not be followed by survival and relief at the consciousness of that survival, but by my death, a fading consciousness of the reality of my death, and finally the peace that surpasseth all understanding.

Tonight, instead of exercising, I took a brisk walk.

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