Much has been made in recent times of the supposed secular nature of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Since the U.S-led war in Iraq was justified in part as a preemptive action to combat Islamic extremism, commentators criticized the intervention as a red herring. The perpetrators of 9/11, they say, carried out their attacks in conjunction with a Wahabbi-influenced militant organization, while Iraq’s explicit orientation with regards to religion in politics was one of official separation. This paper seeks to demonstrate that, as early as the infamous Anfal campaign, Hussein’s regime had undertaken measures that supplanted the secular nationalism of Ba’thism with a distinctly religious nationalism. This religious nationalism was Islamic in its character and militaristic in its motifs.
But this is not merely an attempt to show that Hussein had begun to intone the battle cries of radical Islam as a ploy to capitalize on the growing popularity of the movement. I submit that Ba’thism itself contained in its foundations the seeds of religious nationalism—in other words, that it’s secularism was always in question. By assessing the testimonies of Iraqis who were persecuted because of their religious associations, analyzing the rhetoric of the Anfal campaign, and by examining The Mother of All Battles Mosque and Hussein’s speech commemorating said battle, I hope to show that what Mark Juergensmeyer calls ideologies of order have built into them the capability to meld into one another with ease. Religious nationalist movements utilize religious rhetoric, symbols and rituals to mediate meaning, to motivate followers and to sanction their violent activities. Hussein’s Iraq was no exception.
Iraq in the 1980’s could be interpreted as militantly secular, especially if you were an adherent of the Shi’i sect of Islam. Emad Abdul Latif, a lecturer at Mustansiriya University, was arrested in 1980 for suspected involvement with the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa Party. In his video testimonial, made available by the Iraq Memory Foundation, Latif describes his arrest as “an Intelligence matter,” which came around the same time he had proposed marriage to a girl whose relative had been arrested “after hosting a dinner on the anniversary of the murder of Imam Hussein,” the first Imam of Shi’ism. The Dawa Party, which poised itself as the Islamic ummah fighting against secularism was connected to the Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolution in neighboring Iran. At this time, as Latif says, “anybody who had Islamic tendencies was feared even by their own mothers.” During this period of Shi’ite persecution, Latif asks just before launching into his gut-wrenching descriptions of the tortures that he and others endured, “if a person could be arrested for merely cooking dinner on the anniversary of the killing of Hussein, how do you think it was for one accused of being a member of Dawa?”
In this particular instance, it was advantageous for Hussein to emphasize the secular aspect of Ba’thism, as Shi’ites were mobilizing politically around their religious identities and, by extension, mobilizing in sympathy with a neighboring threat in Iran. Kanan Makyia says that, “commensurate with the growth of Shi’i self-awareness…the Iraqi government began expelling hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ia into Iran on the grounds that they were ‘of Iranian origin’” (218). In this case, Saddam was able to graft the religious nationalism of Iranian Shi’ites on to Iraqis for his own purposes. No matter whether or not Iraqi Shi’ites overtly sympathized with the Iranian revolution (clearly, in order to escape torture and imprisonment, they had to be as covert as possible about it), Hussein could connect them to an enemy by merely catching them in the act of doing something Shi’ite. But only a few years later, Saddam would begin deploying plainly Islamic rhetoric in his persecution of the Kurds. What makes such a seemingly blatant contradiction possible? Makiya claims that, “Hussein invents and reinvents his enemies from the entire mass of human material that is at his disposal” (219). In order to make sense of the disjunction between the treatment of Shi’ites on secular grounds and the treatment of Kurds on Islamic ones, it is necessary first to explain the notion of an ideology of order.
Mark Juergensmeyer, in his book “The New Cold War?,” manages to bypass the debate on a proper theoretical definition of religion by defining both religion and secular nationalism as “ideologies of order.” This focuses attention on “conceptual frameworks that legitimate authority” (30). More than that, though, this term avoids the broadness of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as a cultural system and defines an ideology of order as “an explanatory system that is specifically ‘nonscientific.’” (31). Though Juergensmeyer acknowledges Geertz as closely connected to this conceptual understanding, the essential difference is that, in Geertz’s sense of the word, a cultural system could be scientific.
If both religion and secular nationalism provide “an overarching framework of moral order that commands ultimate loyalty” and “gives moral sanction to martyrdom and violence,” then it seems worth pointing out that each are immensely immune to critique since they don’t make any efforts at grounding themselves in the specific, the factual or the scientific. In other words, nobody can factually disprove or delegitimize a system of thinking that disregards facts from the start. One might even go so far as to suggest that this quality is precisely what makes the descent into what E. Valentine Daniel calls a “surreality of violence” quite natural.
So Ba’thism, even in its secular-ness, was structurally and functionally an ideology of order and thus hardly any different from religious nationalism. But in fact, Ba’thism was somewhat schizophrenic with regards to secularism. As Kanan Makiya points out, “Michel ‘Aflaq, the founder of the Ba’ath party, theorized fifty years ago that the Arab revolution of the Ba’ath was at bottom a reenactment of the Islamic revolution of fourteen centuries ago. It was not for nothing, he argued, that the Qu’ran was written in Arabic and revealed to an Arab” (157). It is against this backdrop that the discussion of Saddam’s increasing Islamicization of Iraq begins to make sense not as a contradictory move, but as a completely logical one.
For the sake of clarity, it should be said that Kurds are not Arabs. The al-Anfal campaign began in the mid 1980’s and culminated in the genocide of, according to Human Rights Watch, a minimum of 50,000 rural Kurds. The word Anfal enters the Arabic vocabulary from the eighth Sura of the Qu’ran—it translates to “The Spoils.” This Sura outlines the correct distribution of the spoils of war against infidels. The battle to which it refers was the Battle of Badr, which was a significant victory for Muhammad and his underdog community of Muslims against a larger force of Meccan non-Muslims. This Sura not only recalls the particular history of Muslims, it delves even deeper into monotheistic history. The Qu’ran says in Sura 8, “we will destroy them for their sins even as we drowned Pharaoh’s people. They were wicked men all” (131). The Kurds, by extension were then cast in the broader history of the Islamic battle against all kinds of unbelievers, even as far back as the Jewish predecessors of the ummah.
The marriage of Islam and Arabness is only different from what Michael Sells referred to as Christoslavism in the Bosnian genocide because of the differing ends that each notion brought about. Christoslavism was the doctrine that held Slavs to be “Christian by nature” (Sells, 36). But while the function of Christoslavism was to equate conversion from Christianity with treason, the function of invoking the Battle of Badr was to make the very ethnic identity of the Kurds synonymous with evildoers. The Iraqis carrying out the slaughter were then associated, by way of Ba’athist ideology simultaneously with the original community of Muslims and with Arabness. As such, it follows that Saddam Hussein was also elevated to the symbolic status of Muhammad. This construction of ethnic, religious and political identity created a constellation of meaning where ethno-religious violence could be sacralized and the mass murder of Kurds justified as the spoils due the righteous.
Whether or not this rhetoric actually inculcated nationalism or religious nationalism in Iraqis is another question entirely. Nationalism is, by definition a theory or an idea. A nation is a group that is defined by that idea and a nation-state is a territory where said group resides. Thus far, my investigation has focused on the creation of a nationalism, which can have many or zero followers and can exist independently of the actual nation or nation-state. Chances are, some took to Saddam’s religious nationalism but a majority of others did not. It is actually easiest to demonstrate this in the negative by taking note of the manner in which one Kurd actively transformed the religious discourse of Anfal.
Taimour ‘Abdallah, a Kurdish resident of the village of Qulatcho near the Iranian border, spoke of his experience as a survivor of the al-Anfal campaign. He said that, more than being known for being a peshmerga fighter (the Kurdish resistance army) which is a great honor to most Kurds, he wants to be known for Anfal. When his interviewer asked him what he meant by being “known for Anfal,” he replied, “I want the world to know what happened to me” (qtd. in Makiya, 199). In this simple gesture, Taimour denies the word “Anfal” all of its religious ammunition and defines it merely as that horrible experience he endured. Anfal in Taimour’s usage has no Qu’ranic implication, no otherworldly claim to divine goodness or eternal evil—it signifies the very reality of the atrocities he witnessed. It becomes simply “what happened.” The peculiar difference between this and Hussein’s usage is that the meaning of Anfal becomes available to a person based on their moral evaluation of “what happened.” Arabness, Islamic-ness, and Kurdish-ness, cease to be parts of the system of signification and meaning. Subjective compassion as it exists in the real world between real people becomes the key to understanding the term Anfal.
Saddam’s deployment of religious language was indicative of what Vincanne Adams refers to as the configuration of speech “in ways that end up erasing the possibility of seeing and talking about alternative views” and alternative subject positions (537). Taimour could easily have said, “Saddam is the infidel, Arabs are infidels and what he/they did to me was evil.” Some Kurds have done just this. But Taimour locates meaning neither in the discourse of Islam, nor in the discourse of Western human rights or morality. Instead, he lets his experience speak. Certainly, this functions as resistance against becoming subsumed in the discourse of the always-oppressed Kurds. It also avoids the perpetual Othering discourses that refer to Kurds or Arabs as infidels.
Since Iraq was already a territorial entity, one of the most common aims of religious nationalism, namely to give religious justification to territory claims, has yet to be discussed. While Saddam Hussein used religious imagery and rhetoric to justify political acts of internal repression and ethnic cleansing, he also used it to justify the invasion of Kuwait. While preparing for the “Mother of All Battles” (the confrontation between Iraq and coalition forces) in 1991, Saddam spoke piously to his generals. He said, “May God be my witness that it was God who wanted that which has occurred [the occupation of Kuwait], and not us. I mean, our role has been zero.” He went on to invoke Sura 105 of the Qu’ran, which describes the defeat of the “Men of the Elephant” at the hands of Muslim armies. Hussein explicitly linked the symbol of the Republican Party to the enemies of Muhammad. But given George H.W. Bush’s decision to reconfirm Saddam in power after his withdrawal from Kuwait, the Iraqi leader was able to spin his regime’s continued existence as a victory. Of course, he didn’t stop at that—he built a mosque in honor of his “victory:” The Mother of All Battles Mosque.
It would be hard to think of a more quintessential monument to religious nationalism than The Mother of All Battles Mosque. Its spiraling minarets are designed to resemble both Kalishnikov machine guns and Scud missiles, the primary weapons used to fight the first Gulf War. As Philip Smucker reported in the Daily Telegraph:
The Scud-shaped minarets (complete with launch platforms) on the mosque’s perimeter are 37metres (120ft) high; there are four more minarets next to the mosque’s dome that resemble huge machinegun barrels, each 28 metres (93ft) high. Taken together, the numbers 37-4-28 give the date of birth of the megalomaniacal leader.
This mosque represents an iconic, cumulative embodiment of the forces I have been speaking about thus far. The Ba’athist ideology of order, which conflated the Arab ethnicity with the divine Islamic past had no problems switching emphasis from secularism to religious mandate. It is a monument to the Arab nation’s struggle for the territory that God intended to be theirs, as well as to the loyal and faithful Iraqi soldiers who fought on in the name of Allah on behalf of the Iraqi nation against the Men of the Elephant—the infidels.
The Mosque is material (and almost poetic) proof of Juergensmeyer’s claim that, “the line between secular nationalism and religion has always been quite thin” (16). If there is any doubt as to whether or not this particular line of logic was coherently or explicitly maintained by the regime, consider these snippets from Hussein’s address on the 12th anniversary of the Mother of All Battles:
In the Name of God, The Compassionate, the Merciful…Great people in Iraq, the land of faith, Jihad, bravery and glory…Brave members of the gallant armed forces…Sons of our glorious Arab nation… a new Iraq, was born…its faith has been increased and deepened after the Grand Confrontation…Baghdad in its known history had played the role of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ pure eye. It was God’s spear on the earth, the Arabs’ skull…Long live our glorious nation…Long live Iraq with its brave jihadist army…Long live Palestine, free and Arab…Allah is the greatest.
The repeated invocation and quotation of The Qu’ran in the above instance (as well as those mentioned prior) has a particular significance within the context of an Arabic-Islamic national identity. It is an example of what Peter van der Veer has referred to as “the politics of language in theatrical and textual performance” (165).
Van der Veer demonstrates that, in India, “the epic of Ramanaya in its many forms [is] constantly invoked as a repository of images of the Hindu nation” (190). While it has become commonplace to think of the Qu’ran as a repository of images of the Islamic nation (in relation to both nation-states and transnational Islamist movements), Saddam Hussein’s references to the Qu’ran are one such example, and no less potent an example. The transition from “secular” Ba’athism can also help us see precisely what van der Veer means when he refers to the “production of a national text” (172). While Ba’thist ideology always served to channel Islamic-ness into Arabness, the language of Iraqi nationalism progressively becoming more Islamic shows a reverse process where being Arab equals being Islamic. But the fact that gradations are observable as time passes allow one to observe the how this kind of national language is constructed. During the times when Latif was being tortured for his suspected ties to Shi’ite political parties, Saddam’s speeches featured only minimal, ceremonial references to the Qu’ran—references that, if removed, would have no impact on what was being said. By 2003, however, these references were vital.
Some might argue that what I am referring to is not religious nationalism as much as opportunism—that Saddam Hussein was merely manipulating religion to suit his own ends. But this accusation relies on problematic premises—the first being that religion is a bounded, transhistorical, transcultural thing that exists in some pure form, and the second, that one may deviate from this true religion by lack of true belief. Talal Asad problematizes the first premise by forcing us to ask the question, “How does power create religion?” (45). Asad points out that “authorizing processes represent practices, utterances and representations so that they can be discursively related to general (cosmic) ideas of order” (37). Such practices and discursive formations are themselves the result of power relations that exist in historical and cultural contexts. In the case of Islam, Asad is echoing many scholars of Islam who have objected to the notion of a single “correct” Islam that is static, pure, and separate from the influences of the authorizing discourses of a particular time and place.
E. Valentine Daniel illustrates the problem with the second premise when he shows that sets of practices and beliefs that have traditionally been more fluid are transformed into religions of a prototypical nature by outside observers. Daniel’s prototypical religion is Christianity. Daniel traverses the history of Christianity to show that the characteristics of this prototype are “(1) belief in a God (2) a creed (3) a ‘church’ in the sense that a group partakes in collective worship in a given place, and (4) Holy Scriptures” (36). This is the point at which religion transcends “the place and time of traditio” and adopts believing and “the ocular metaphor of seeing as its injunction” (Daniel, 37).
The point here is that, when those who have internalized this tendency to think of all religions in the prototypical Christian form suggest that somebody doesn’t really believe what they are saying, they are effectively grafting a specific conception of religion on to a set of practices that don’t naturally conform to that prototype. Really believing in one’s heart of hearts, so-to-speak, is historically an outcome of the individualizing of religious practice that came about due to the Protestant Reformation. The question of whether or not Islam has had a reformation (or whether it needs one) is a question that still stimulates great debate. Therefore, the accusation that Saddam Hussein or any Iraqis who might have bought into his brand of religious nationalism didn’t ‘really believe’ what they said is debatable at best and conceptually incoherent at worst.
Still, it won’t do to simply reconfirm that the ideologies of order, religion and secular nationalism, are unscientific structures of legitimacy that mediate meaning, motivate people, and allow groups to imagine their cohesion and their group’s right to territory. Secular nationalism of the Ba’athi variety was clearly unscientific. But as evidenced in the case of Taimour, identity needn’t be articulated on the basis of unscientific, unreal narratives of history. It is possible, as some Kurds have done, to construct a non-religious national identity around the shared experience of real suffering. It is possible to do so without mythologizing one’s experience. But it is possible to pay heed to Talal Asad’s criticism of the secularization thesis without resignation to the religiosity of nationalism. Asad points out that “the concept of the secular cannot do without the idea of religion” and that “no movement that aspires to more than mere belief or inconsequential talk in public can remain indifferent to state power in a secular world” (100). These insights are no doubt salient, but they do not mean that an ever-greater emphasis can’t be placed in cultural systems that, unlike ideologies of order, establish respect for science and reality. Even the Qu’ran, so often believed today to be inimical to these notions, hoists truth and science on to a divine pedestal.
One of the founders of Ba’thism, Sati’ Husri, was a keen student of German Romantic thinkers like Fichte and Herder “who countered the French Enlightenment by promoting the notion of an organic volkisch nation, rooted in blood and soil” (Buruma, 146). Ba’thist ideologues were enamored of Fichte, a philosopher famous in part for his critique of Kant that claimed that there are no facts that exist in the world. Fichte believed that is-ness should be no concern to humankind. Fichte believed that humans alone create truth. Quite clearly this endeavor, when unchecked by reference to some notion of a real world, tends to lend itself to legitimizing a great deal of human suffering. But one can hardly think of the Arab asabiyya—the Ba’ath notion of blood solidarity—and the German volkisch without thinking of the Anfal and the Shoah. Bertrand Russell once wrote:
The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check on pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it, is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.
Postmodern and science studies commonly indict science for the mass murders of WWII. According to this way of thinking, a plea for realism and science are but pleas to a culturally and historically specific (not to mention imperialistic) form of truth production. But it mustn’t be overlooked that we refer to the evidence, both rational and scientific when we argue that ethnic cleansing is morally wrong. We point to genetics to dispel the notion of race entirely. As Eric Hobsbawm has said, we need reference to objective facts if we are to understand nationalisms that mythologize their histories, thus creating the need for purifications that confirm that history (Sokal, 271). Who would be satisfied with the epistemic relativism that would make a Holocaust revisionist’s mode of truth production no less valid than another? We understand eugenics as bad science. We understand reactionary nationalist myths as in conflict with the rigors of historiography. However, as Hussein’s “secular” and religious ideologies of order repeatedly produced brutality and mass graves, the answer cannot, as Asad makes evident, be a plea for more secularism. It can only be a plea for a return to reality in the midst of deception and illusion run amok.
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April 16, 2007
I considered erasing the posts below and statring anew here at End Credits. I feel the sense of a finally definable political persuasion and/or identity and its tempting to erase the traces of your past that might indict you in the present. But what’s the advantage? The journey is as relevant as the destination…
I’ve been nothing in the past eight years if not something of a political nomad, drifting from radical anti-globalizationist Marxism to radical anarchist pacifism to postmodern apolitical to Eustonista. Call it flip-flopping if you like, but considering how late in the game I came to taking politics seriously and to getting a reasonable political education, I like to think of it as the tumult of maturation. It’s safe to say that one should probably take the time to read something OTHER than just Marx, Zinn, Klein, Proudhon, Goldman and Chomsky before getting ready to take to the streets in a gas mask. I didn’t. So in the years following 1999, I ran the gambit: Kant, Locke, Spinoza, Paine, Jefferson, Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Habermas, Zizek, Bulter, Foucault, Tortsky, Baudrillard, Appadurai, Hayek, Hitchens, Said, Berman, Hobsbawm, Taylor, Cohen, Geras, Arendt, and even Sayyid Qutb.
My encounters at the New School with Nietzschians, Foucauldians, philosphers of mind, psychoanalysts, Middle East scholars and Christopher Hitchens make up the essential lineaments of my political education. Enter the radical Marxist, enamored of postmodern politics. My towering work in 2003 just before arriving at the New School was an examination of Foucault’s influence on the Nuclear Freeze movement. What followed was an absolute obsession with Jacques Lacan and my eventual transfer to New York where I intended to properly study Lacan.
At the New School I fell in with the Nietzsche Circle which brought me in close orbit with the Foucault Society. The Iraq War and the Kerry vs. Bush race were raging–the leftist protestors on campus gave me a creepy feeling that I didn’t engage with critically, but instead continued deeper into the world of Nietzsche, Bataille, Heidegger, and Foucault. I didn’t realize at the time how appropriate this was to my non-involvement in politics. Something began to unnerve me about the Foucauldians and Nietzschians, the way the scholars looked and dressed like the authors they were into. This was also the case with Lacan, where at a day-long seminar given by a South American heavyweight, I witnessed one of the most comical and disturbing dramaturgical re-enactments of Lacan’s speech patterns and mannerisms. Todd May, Foucault scholar extraordinaire, spoke at a symposium I helped co-oridnate and promote–in glasses, and with a shiny, shaven head. In a class on Bataille, a locally respected professor informed us that it was time for the “effacing of anthropos.” In other words, the human project was over, kaput.
Not only for intuitive reasons, but as the result of a long dialectical engagement, I broke ties with the radical left, the postmodern cliques and found myself around that time in a class with Christopher Hitchens, whose “Letters to a Young Contrarian” had become one of the only books that had spoken to me on the aforementioned gut level in any meaningful way. I had read “A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq” with a great deal of difficulty reconciling what seemed to me to be two different authors. But enagaging with the man, not the cardboard target of anti-Bush bloggers, and not the supposed ally of neoconservatism, was a paradigmatic experience. Not because I was destined to become a Hitchensist–there is, or at least should be, no such thing. It was the perspective one could gather from casually conversing with a person who had become a convenient ideological tool for both left and right by himself eschewing allegiance to one or the other. Seeing the way this played out in the media was, and still is, fascinating. Having occasion to disagree with Hitchens is quite invaluable, as one discovers–regardless of one’s differences with him–a person with ideas that have an astonishing philosphical and ethical continuity.
And so I come to the war. How many people can claim to have formed their opinion on Iraq by having spoken to someone who has visited North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and who is chummy with Barham Salih, or Kanan Makiya? Iraq was, is, and will be, I think, a sort of Krondstadt of the 21st century. There was a vaccuum for leftist internationalists in the wake of anti-imperialists taking sides with theocrats and mass murderers. We wanted to talk about human rights, liberal values, the separation of church and state and suddenly, the only people doing so were neoconservatives. Did we become neoconservatives for pointing this out? When ideas regarding humanitarian intervention can be published in The Weekly Standard, but not in The Nation, does it mean that a columnist who airs his views in The Weekly Standard has become complicit in neoconservative militaristic designs?
This was a moment for the left when some of us simply had to point out that ZNet and The New Left Review were being criminally silent while neocons were at least talking a good talk, if not walking the walk. But who wanted to jump on Bill Kristol’s ship? None of us. There grew a task of separating the rhetoric of liberalism emanating from neoconservtive quraters from our liberal left internationalist position of solidarity. Nick Cohen, Norm Geras, and Paul Berman, among others started charting that route. But many on the left only saw one thing: that Eustonistas and George Bush said some of the same stuff. So we were just in service of empire–the cruise missile left, as Ed Herman called Paul Berman.
Somewhere in all this, I developed a keen affinity for the story in Iran. Not only for the politics, but for the music scene. I wanted to think beyond Iraq, which had been lost due to American incompetence and arrogance. If the left’s main problem was myopic anti-imperialism that had resulted in its ability to stand in solidarity with Kurdish social democrats or Iranian students, then then key was finding a space where one could focus on solidarity while remaining critical of Empire.
I had the experience Danny Postel refers to in his “Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism.” Postel’s pamphlet explains in detail what I have been saying for over a year now–shifting one’s sights to Iran is the most fertile ground for asserting liberal values without talking like George Bush. Instead of the moronic ‘We Are All Hizbullah Now’ slogan, one might appropriate it and say ‘We are all DTV Now.” DVT (Daftar-e Takhim-e Vahdat, or, in English, the Office for Strengthening Unity) , though it was once associated with the students that participated in the hostage crisis, is now a sworn enemy of the regime and an advocate of democracy and secularism. Its spokespeople and secretaries have been jailed by the mullah regime for decrying their leaders as fascists–their words, not the PNAC’s.
Rahmin Jahanbegloo, also a political prisoner of the regime, has outlined the notion of non-imitative dialogical communicative action. This is a fancy way of saying that cultures should converse and share ideas without emulating one another or imposing on one another. It is an interaction that takes place between civil societies, where Iranians can discover the Iranian Nabakov and Americans can discover the American Khayyam. It’s not appropriation, but engagement with and adaptation to those things one wishes to embrace. He has spoken of a soft universalism that doesn’t fix the idea of self in any iron-clad sort of way.
In 2003, the students in Tehran rose up to protest a homophobic, sexist, fascist theocracy. ZNet, as Postel points out, was silent. The right wing National review was not. Jahanbegloo implores us to support and engage the dialog, the power of conversation and to give moral support to Iranians as they fight for the freedoms we take for granted. I have found this without a doubt to be the most satisfying and gut-level good feeling political project I’ve ever embraced. I learn about myself, my own freedoms, my own egagement with bourgeois democracy; I learn ever more how to separate my liberal values from their past entanglements with the ideology of Empire–not to mention their present-day ones.
And I’ve found, through my nomadism, coming finally to this place, the value of being uncomfortable–of having unpopular ideas. Making the liberal humanitarian case for war in Iraq, as Jose-Ramos Horta and Vaclav Havel did, can be profoundly unnerving. You find yourself almost entirely alone–which is, I think one of the great lessons the politicized citizen can have. It goes to the heart of Kant’s notion of Enlightenment–the exercise of one’s own reason without help from outside. I have to admit to being able to have it both ways on this, which I never intended, since I agitated against invasion in 2003, but entertained arguments as to the moral humanitarian quality of the invasion in the years following. But today I feel a great sense of hope and excitement for the future of being uneasy–because that is the essence of liberal society–of never being too sure about what you think. Jahanbegloo exalts this as a political principle and I agree with him. Today in Iran, it is the guiding principle. In a world enamored of ideologies–Islamism, neoconservatism, Marxism–Iranians’ main lesson from the 1979 Revolution was that overconfidence is suicide.
In 1999, the year of the ‘revolutionary’ actions in Seattle, Iranian students held a march called “From Revolution to Freedom.” They know all to well that revolution, like religion, serves only its architects. Whether or not America is lost to top-heavy hegemonic ambitions is up for debate. But if those who assert that case care about the future, they should turn an eye to Iran, where a liberal movement thrives that posits a positive political project. The radical left has become so good at defeatism–but one kind of defeatist proposition they might consider is the idea that, between Seattle and Tehran, Tehran won the race for progressive political vision. All eyes East…
January 30, 2007
Thus far, one might be correct in accusing me of basically recapitulating the arguments of Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Norm Geras, Nick Cohen et. al. But I wouldn’t be so humble as to accept the insinuation that these ideas therefore are not my own, or that I have not come by them honestly or through my own self-directed pursuits and sleepless nights. Rhetorically, my language might sometimes even echo their words in near unison. Frankly, I don’t have the patience to sift through the flurry of thoughts I have about these subjects and try to decipher which ones my brain synthesized and which ones it was merely recalling. I hope I do not take too much for granted when I expect that these gentlemen would understand that solidarity, not plagiarism is my aim here. And, speaking of which, I would like to make a stab at brevity and offer only a link and a short commentary for this post…
Despite my debt to the above scholars, it is a voice such as that of <a href=”http://www.workersliberty.org/node/577″>Barham Salih</a> that animates me. It is a voice like this that makes me choke on the myriad, rancid arguments offered by the peaceniks. Instead of arguing with me, or with any of us, I am just curious as to whether the many dedicated anti-war activists would be willing to defend their passionate pacifism to him. It’s easy to chop down the FOX News propagandists and it’s easy to mangle the arguments of Rush Limbaugh and Donald Rumsfeld. It’s apparently easy to applaud when Michael Moore paints Iraq as a once peaceful, secular neverland. But is it really so easy to enjoy your safe, narcissistic moral purity in spite of–and in contradiction with–the impassioned pleas that were coming from the Regional Government of Kurdistan in 2003?
I have seen, as most of us have, the pictures of those jubilant people Dr. Salih speaks about. At one time, I also dismissed those images as propaganda. Supposedly, the fury of the current “insurgency” is proof that such claims were false. But read carefully the bit about needing us to stick with them after the fall of Saddam. Why would they need us if they didn’t also know that there would be elements in the aftermath that would require ongoing support from some big guns? What we underestimated was only the degree to which fascism had infected the minds of certain fanatics. As with any infection, it must be completely, not partially healed, otherwise it will only spread and eventually kill its host. Why is this not a simple equation for the champions of peace and human rights to work out?
In the 1930’s, people of the left came from around the world to fight in solidarity with those who suffered at the hands of fascism. In our new mellenium, people of the left hinder their comrades’ attempts at revolution by organizing demonstrations that might have been scripted by fascists themselves.
January 30, 2007
In my recent posts, it was never quite accurate or fair for me to refer categorically to “the left” and to “liberals” as a unified whole with clear agendas and uniform positions. After all, I don’t consider myself to be a conservative or a neoconservative or any of that. I’ve always staked my efforts and sympathies with the left. But since I live in one of the most liberal cities in the world, have worked for the “model” third party democrats, etc., and came to feel like my liberal values weren’t getting their due, I did begin to feel like everybody who called themselves a liberal, a democrat, a leftist, or a progressive had to be part of the large group that had taken up with bullies, idiots and fascists. It’s time for a mea culpa.
Apparently, all along, I wasn’t alone, which means that the crowd of pro-fascist jerks wasn’t as big as I once thought. I wasn’t the only one feeling alienated or feeling confused as to why my attempts at debate with my colleagues in the field were being snuffed. Even beyond this continent, people were dealing with a left who wanted you to shut up or ship out… unless, of course, you could come to the job bushy-tailed, with a bag of anti-American slogans and half-baked theories about the imperialism of informatization. Some of those folks, seeing the dire need of a new statement of intent, have got together and published a document called the Euston Manifesto. It shows that there is a contingent of democratically minded folks who understand what’s wrong with terrorism and what’s right with the Enlightenment and all that jazz about Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. They prove that you can call for reforming the WTO, IMF and World Bank without cheering for fundamentalism. It’s heads over hearts, its real analysis, and it’s a genuine vision. I’m all for it.
January 30, 2007
Respect is a pretty big deal and has been, it seems, throughout human history. You respect your elders, respect religion, respect your fellow man, respect everybody’s opinion, etc. But what is respect exactly? Dictionary definitions turn up words like ‘deference’ and ‘obedience.’ Etymology turns up a Latinate root, ‘respectus’ which is the act of looking back or regarding (in each case, a certain distance is implied). I think in the previous examples, the appropriate synonym might be consideration, which implies both careful thought and esteem. Careful thought, I think most will agree, is virtuous. What about esteem? To esteem is to ascribe value relative to another thing (continuing to follow the dictionary paper trail). Value (as in we value opinions, we value religions, etc.) goes back to another Latin term, and I think it’s as far back as we need go: it means to be strong. So ‘respect,’ at bottom, is about giving deference to something or proclaiming its strength or relative worth. In each case, superiority is at least implicit. Herein lies the non-contradiction between today’s rhetoric of respect and the rhetoric, popular not so long ago of superiority. As with so many things, respect is only a softened version of superiority. When they aren’t required to think about it, people act as ‘respect’ been cleansed of it’s superlative qualities. Has it though?
I’m mainly concerned with this because I think it’s interesting to think of the way respect has changed over time and across culture. I think that the way that respect is ascribed pro bono nowadays without adequate justification is problematic. Do races and ethnicities deserve respect? Do religions deserve respect? Or do peoples and ideas, in our modern era, have to account for things like their value or legitimacy by way of merit and sound argument? Does a race exist? Plenty of people would say that it does not. Even if it did, what good does it do to offer deference or a tip of the hat to a group of people simply because they have certain physical qualities? Sounds suspiciously contradictory in terms of what we know to be the problem with the notion of race–precisely that it assumes that, because certain people have certain physical characteristics, they are better or worse than another person. People, we decided some time ago, only receive instant respect due to their being one of us humans–beyond that, all other forms of respect are merit based. Or, that’s what I thought…
I could even go one further and take up with the bigger picture, more Gaia oriented view of things–that we are all the same stuff, the universe as a whole. Respecting others and plants and animals and soil and water is like self-respect. It’s like your finger respecting your elbow. It’s a no-brainer. I’m treading dangerously close to hippie territory here, but just because I disapprove of the new-age, pseudo intellectual, wack-job spirituality that many hippies ascribe to doesn’t mean that this isn’t all just another version of Carl Sagan’s point in ‘Cosmos.’ That we are all just hydrogen atoms, given enough time to evolve. Everything. Couch this in a less flaky context (and hopefully a snazzier aesthetic) and it is a truth worth contemplating. This doesn’t mean we have to treat an ant as if its a 3 year old child–respect doesn’t equal preservation (another phenomenon of this universe is that it’s basically a crowd of organisms consuming one another–that is, for better or for worse the natural order). But, of course, some things should be preserved. Some things won’t survive. If I’m forced to choose, the child survives, the ant does not. Again, a no-brainer, but amazingly enough, these distinctions are still not apparent to many people. Judgment is currently out of fashion–but only in a sense. The ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ camp generally employs this adage in order to facilitate the espousal of their own brand of judgment. It is a disingenuous disarming ploy (much like the one often used when religious folks argue with atheists. Daniel Dennett described this as playing tennis with people who want to serve with the net down while you return with the net up.)
But once we’ve established that humans and nature deserve respect due to our sameness, when do we start entering into the world of judgment and when do we acknowledge our uniqueness and divisions? Basic scientific truths don’t necessarily convert to every manner of relativism. And a broader understanding of the vast spectrum of human traits, capacities, ideas and practices doesn’t vanquish the pursuit of ethics and need for judgment calls altogether. Saying so is a fundamental logical fallacy, since saying so is itself a judgment call. Scientific truths and broader understandings should inform our judgment calls. Which means that we can say that race does not exist and therefore no Caucasian, Arab, Jew, Innuit, or any other “race” deserves respect on the basis of their race. Nor does culture get a pass, simply because it belongs to somebody. Some cultures have been bloodthirsty and have instilled terrible characteristics in people. Some still do. Saying so shouldn’t be a crime. It also doesn’t mean they should be eliminated or put in ghettos, Pogroms and refugee camps. Doesn’t mean it’s time to dig the mass graves or prepare the gas chambers or keep them economically in a box. It’s time to make folks duke it out in the great battle of ideas. Let them validate themselves. Let them show by their merits if they deserve respect or if they don’t. The same goes for religions. Let them do it in an atmosphere of discussion, argument, and compromise whenever and wherever possible. And, when certain people make that impossible due to their hunger for power and bloodshed, let them hear from the rest of us loudly and clearly that their sabotage will not work and will not be tolerated. And if it’s a fight they demand, a fight they shall have. A short one, preferably.
All of this is still another reason why the United States and that pesky little Enlightenment still matter, no matter what the radical left says. The paper says “the general welfare.” And that thing about “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?” Our posterity we now know depends on the posterity of others. And if it is not the intended purpose of certain government activities abroad today, it should be. I’ve heard about Iraqi democracy not being “real democracy.” Ok. Maybe it isn’t. I for one have no authority to speak on the matter (though I do know at least that this disparity is overstated by the antiwar movement). But allowing for the democratic creation of several states hostile to civilization and hostile to certain methods of diplomacy and engagement hardly sounds like general welfare. And yes, yes, I know that those words refer to our nation, not to others. But are we to make no judgment calls at all? Are we to respect everybody’s way of doing things? It does seem that, prior to the postmoderns hijacking of the Enlightenment (they call it a “critique”), when a willingness to make judgments combined with the notion of general welfare and human dignity, something worthwhile sprang up–something that rejected old ways of inherited respect, whether they were racial, cultural, tribal or religious. Unless you were claiming to deserve respect for being part of “creation,” you had to earn it, prove it, argue for it. Walk the walk, as they say.
There is a reason we have the very legitimate conversations we have in college classrooms about how America isn’t the meritocracy or the democracy it proclaims to be–we have a taste of what those things might look like. It’s true that America isn’t perfectly democratic, the wealth remains in the hands of few who make decisions for many, etc., etc. But those moneyed people know that it’s best to be as silent as possible about exercising such power. It has become taboo and that fact is worth noticing. Nobody is supposed to think that their religion or their “race” gets special treatment. Interesting that it’s the left who always make the case that those things should be treated differently. Differently. Differently. Differently. Differently. Keep saying it. I’m as aware (and as sympathetic) as anybody of the notion “life chances” and of the historical perpetuation of the haves and the have-nots. But I’m also familiar with the contradiction in the rhetoric that proclaims sameness while demanding special treatment and some kind of ennobling. Doesn’t mean I’m for or against affirmative action, just means I see the contradiction. In this case, I am only tempted to suggest that one might be forced to choose between two choices that have both good and bad consequences. Eliminate entitlement and sectarianism or eliminate systemic poverty and historically inherited oppression. Is there a better choice here? I wouldn’t claim to know.
The world needs a lot more of a lot of things, but I’m not sure if respect, as an end in itself, is one of them. It’s almost as popular here as it is in the ‘Islamic world.’ People love to get respect. Well, sure–people enjoy superiority and being worshipped and applauded. But it is worth suggesting that perhaps people aren’t as inclined to misuse that which they have been made to work for, argue for, reason out and, as a result, understand. I’m sure this will be interpreted by some as a conservative diatribe. Not hardly–I am only advocating that the claims of both sides be subjected to a good deal of scrutiny. Where the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric, it should be forced to do so. So when Republicans talk about hard work as it equates to success, they should have to answer (a good answer–not the bullshit they usually try to pass off) to the very real question of systemic discrimination. And when liberals speak of respect and the glory of difference, they should have to own up to that fact that they are advocating a mere inversion of the existing problem.
January 30, 2007
Occasionally, for better of for worse, religion gets an overhaul. The Protestant Reformation might be considered the point at which the break with premodern conceptions of religion began in Europe. One’s relationship with the divine became a matter of personal belief, not merely a matter of ritual and decorum. The importance of earthly institutions was de-emphasized and the imperative of one’s personal, true belief came into view. Often times we forget this significant break and we assume that 12th century Christians were like us. But for the majority of its “golden years,” monotheism thrived on the ignorance and illiteracy of it’s adherents. It enjoyed a cozy relationship with all manner of tyrants and scoundrels, kings and sultans alike. This wasn’t because the rabbis, mullahs and priests had already discovered Darwin’s Dangerous Idea or because they knew, like the anti-capitalist philosophers of the 19th century would later point out, that religion is a powerful tool of control. They still believed that the watch needed a watchmaker. Even David Hume in the 1700’s conceded that he had no better explanation for the question “From whence?” The scholarly religious classes weren’t some heathen cabal, conniving to keep the people stupid and weak. There was no Grand Inquisitor Syndrome sweeping through Europe and the Middle East. The fellows at St. Catherine’s didn’t formulate celibacy as a means to absolute control. They really believed that sexual energies should be redirected into praise and service. They came from an era where supernatural explanations prevailed over scientific ones, because the natural sciences weren’t as well developed as the prevailing way of explaining complex phenomena: superstition. That various tenets of faith would turn out to be remarkably effective means of mind control was certainly welcome, but incidental nonetheless.
The Reformation wasn’t without it’s problems though, since it only replaced one religious ruling class with another and opened up the space for many more sectarian schisms to take root. In Britain, Catholics lost their foothold in the political sphere and found themselves oppressed by the new kids on the block. In 1605, a group of British Catholics decided to recapture their political superiority by attempting to explode the Houses of Parliament. Now audiences worldwide are learning of the Gunpowder Treason as if the plot had been engineered by Mikhail Bakunin himself (Bakunin, for those who don’t know, was a seminal anarchist thinker and an intellectual rival of Karl Marx). In order for this metaphorical respinning of Fawkes’ character to work, however, one must turn a blind eye to the fact that he was a conservative militant whose political motives were hardly inseparable from his religious ideology. Reviewers and viewers alike have proclaimed the subversiveness of ‘V for Vendetta.’ According to them, this film is radical and inspiring; a wake-up call for desperate times. The film should serve as a wake up call, but not in the way it hopes to be. ‘V’ purports to be a leftist tribute to revolutionary values, but the fact that audiences have uncritically taken its story to heart, well, let’s just say we’ve caught them Red-handed…
The twentieth century in the Middle East can be thought of as a time of reformation: social, political, religious, you name it.
Unfortunately, secular initiatives like those pursued by the PLO in Palestine or the Khalq Party in Afghanistan proved unsuccessful. There were all kinds of reasons for these failures. The Palestinian Liberation Organization became corrupt and self-interested. The Khalqi were essentially juvenile Marxists who expected Afghan tribal culture to be as enraptured with Marxist theory and rhetoric as they had been. After too many failures, certain Muslims decided that it was time to return to the better days–a time when Islam was the law of the land. From this rotting heap of failed reform, groups such as the Taliban militia, Hamas and Al-Qaeda were born. But, like the Protestants in England, Muslim militants have found that the weight of firepower and a standing army is not at their disposal. So they choose to attack symbolic targets, such as the World Trade Center. And worse, in the absence of hard artillery they choose to attack soft targets like children, non-combatants and fellow Muslims.
I can’t quite see the valiance in counter-reformationist terror. Nor do I see why I should respect militants that pursue a by-any-means-necessary campaign with an eye to reinstating the ways of a more pious past. I do not find any subversive character in a film that takes such a figure as its ideological figurehead. But what if we think of ‘V’ as a sort of subconscious cartoon confession from the spirit that calls itself liberal today. Maybe they’re telling us, in no uncertain terms, that they do indeed stand in solidarity with terrorists and against the forces that fight against religious fundamentalism. Maybe they’re telling us that they have only read the term “Orwellian” in Z Magazine and that they have not ever properly read Orwell himself. Maybe they’re telling us that they prefer aestheticized politics ready-made for consumption much more than they care for the tedious, unglamorous work of actual political activity. Perhaps they truly would like to have their history lessons narrated to them by the creators of ‘The Matrix.’ And maybe they do consider a film glorifying a 400 year old Catholic plot to be educational in the ways of political radicalism as opposed to, I don’t know, say watching a documentary tracing the history and motives of Islamism. After all, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad–they’re all the same, right? Warriors in the crusade against globalization! (Somebody should take a poll of those viewers who have been so moved by ‘V’ and find out how many of them fall into the demographic of the 52% of Americans that didn’t vote in the last election. Once such a number has been established, I’d like to know then, how many of them have cited the election results as reason for the “evil” of the Bush administration as if they were powerless to have made any difference in the face of such overbearing daemonia. All this is conjecture and fantasy, but the results would be interesting)
Now consider what would have happened if the filmmakers had chosen to remain faithful to Alan Moore’s graphic novel. I don’t claim to have read the thing, but it is my understanding that, rather than glorifying the actions of ‘V’ as revitalizing and revolutionary, Moore left the character and his actions morally ambiguous. According to him, the reader/viewer should be asking themselves hard questions about the use of violence in the name of revolution. Unfortunately, that’s a question none of the viewers of this film had to ask. It was answered for them, by those who adapted the screenplay and by those who swathed the film’s “hero” in an unambiguous cloak of piety. Kudos to Mr. Moore for condemning the film as “imbecilic.” And, for all the dumb nonsense this film poured into the brains of potential future allies in the ongoing fight against religious terror, I take consolation in the fact that my experience on 9/11 might be reproduced for some of them. At least they might have the comfort of knowing that, in a moment of naive idealistic ignorance, they cheered for a comic book hero, not for real casualties and real killers. Maybe some of them will realize the danger of lazy, uninformed radicalism. Maybe fewer will make the Khalqi mistake. Maybe even a few of them will end up on the good side of this fight.
January 30, 2007
I’m tired of hearing that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In August of 2001, I believed that statement wholeheartedly. At any given time, you could catch me quoting Proudhon or Kropotkin, proclaiming that ‘Government is Violence.” Maybe nobody remembers now, but the middle of that September was to mark the largest protest against the IMF/World Bank since the fiery streets of Seattle. The city of Washington had dedicated millions to extra security–the demonstrations were expected to be huge. I had my gas mask and I was ready to go. In fact, I couldn’t wait. I hoped for upheaval and uproar. I might, that week, have walked with the anarchist black brigades, were it not for some other “freedom” fighters’ well-conceived plan to make lower Manhattan live up to its moniker. I woke up early enough to see the first plane hit the World Trade Center and I thought, “The Evil Empire’s finally got its comeuppance.” I thought it was a victory for our side. I thought it was the beginning of the revolution. I even thought they were part of the whole anti-globalization movement. They had hit at the heart of it all, the symbol of U.S. economic hegemony. I thought it was brilliant–a military strike, Baudrillard-style. I thought the workers inside were casualties of a war they had been unwittingly waging against the poor of the world, from Nigeria to Palestine. Too bad, I thought, these are the consequences of sustained exploitation.
September 11th was significant for me because I will never stop being ashamed of those feelings, but it isn’t shame ill-spent. By September 13th, I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about terrorism anymore. I hold this moment close in my memory because it reminds me of how cozy the recent current of leftist sentiments are with the forces of nihilism. The fact is, some people fight for freedom and some people fight to repress it. When Al-Qaeda wishes fire and damnation on us, it isn’t because they feel indignant about the lack of rights and liberties in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is precisely the opposite–they believe our way of life is evil in the eyes of God. They believe that the freedom to think and act as one chooses is, in fact, wrong because it does not comply with (their reading of) the Qu’ran. According to them (and, interestingly enough, contrary to the Qu’ran) there should be compulsion in religion. The religious texts can be difficult to interpret and can sometimes seem contradictory. What I do know is that some Muslims read the Qu’ran and find a loving God and others find a bigot and a tyrant. It is the latter that jihadists fight on behalf of, which makes them something far different from a freedom fighter.
There is another lesson to learn, though, not just the one about the err of equating terrorism with some Underdog Justice League. The trend of militant Islamic conservatism is not the result of lack of modernizing forces in the Middle East–it is a response to precisely those forces. It was a response both to the advance of more authentic imperial encroachments and to the spectre of Soviet-style communism (if you care to separate the two). In Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the effort to reclaim a Muslim identity was a way of resisting the British and French influence in the region. Later, as the Soviet Union began expanding both territorially and ideologically into the Middle East, the recuperation of an Islamic identity was a reaction to the failures of godless tyrannies (which, to be honest, looked as much like a religion as any religion). So we have both the ‘West’ and the Left to blame, sort of…
…there still remains the fact that these people really do believe what they say. More tolerant Muslims would like to claim that terrorists are the pawns for politicians who use Islam to persuade young illiterate men to die for their power games. Does this negate their belief? I don’t think it does. I might respond that religion has served this purpose more often than not, no matter what name God took (although saying so wouldn’t be novel, since Mikhail Bakunin wrote ‘God & the State’ in the 1800’s).
And the Evil Empire. How Evil are we? Battle tactics on the other side are predicated upon the assumption that American troops will actually be trying to reduce civilian death tolls, not raise them. Can anybody find a more crucial difference between coalition and jihadist forces? I find it difficult to trust reporters and policy analysts, since everybody’s data seems to fit their politics, not the other way ’round. I choose to remain skeptical about what’s “really going on” over there unless I am speaking, as I have had occasion to do, with people who have been there. All I can say is that the people I have spoken to know that times are tough, that things might look more stable right now had we not gone forward. But the key word there is “look” more stable. We thought Brent Scowcroft was right when he told us that the Middle East was the most peaceful it had been in decades. Meanwhile, poverty reigned, we supported and funded terrorists and dictators–in short, we dug the trenches that became the cesspools. Cleaning them up is not going to be easy, but we, more than anybody, owe them a bit of cleanup.
And the cleanup shouldn’t have to look Western or Islamic. This binary is a false one. The fact is, that the Western Tradition owes its survival to Islamic culture. The separation of the two is a mistake. This “Western Tradition” did not hop from Greece to Rome to Spain to England to the Americas. No, it stopped off, for quite a long time, in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine. There, a culture flourished standing on the shoulders of the Romans and Byzantines that offered as rich an intellectual tradition as any. The influence of the Ottoman Empire on the so-called “Western Tradition” cannot be underestimated, from the zero to algebra to philosophy. Western thought owed it’s lifeblood to Greek philosophy, the records of which were preserved by the Islamic Ottomans, not by Europeans, who destroyed the texts in a Christian fervor. This is the story of a larger history. Our notions of modernity, all of these ideals about the freedom of (or from) religion, about self-determination and the evil of abject slavery, the glories of creativity, and those universal human rights–they do not exclude the Middle East, no matter how many Wahabbis would like to convince the people in the region that it does. Midnight Oil sang about the Aborgines, “it belongs to them, let’s give it back.” But do you give it back in the condition you took it? What if it has accrued interest–don’t you owe them a little of that as well? The impoverished populations in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve to have their legacy back, with interest, even if liars and killers have convinced them that there is some kind of divine vision that excludes all those modern values. They deserve an opportunity to hear the true story of great human progress where they are an integral part of it–not some fabrication of a hateful medievalist scoundrel. Making that known and acceptable is key to bringing down the curtain between “us” and “them”–even better, it is key to the realization that no such distinction exists. Tribalism and sectarianism won’t do, whether here or over there. This includes apologies for terrorism and nihilism in support of your local, radical team.
I’m sure I’ll be accused of supporting a new, improved version of Churchill’s “Empire on the Cheap.” Which is interesting to me since I feel that this conflict, with its tumultuous character, could actually be the beginning of undoing that policy. I’m quite aware of the degree to which United States business interests have been the beneficiaries of this war. But that doesn’t mean that I have to subscribe to the binary that proclaims that if the United States isn’t in this for absolutely selfless reasons, they must be in it for absolutely selfish reasons. There may be, as there almost always is, a more complicated way of portraying the scenario. I have heard repeatedly the claim that if the U.S. invaded every country and removed every dictator, we would have been at work long ago. The fact is, I agree. But this comes from the same lips that accuse the Bush administration of talking too tough with too many dictators. There is a consistency to this policy and it is one quite different from the days when the actions of Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon and the mullahs in Iran were only pursued softly and diplomatically through increasingly ineffectual institutions–when we didn’t rock the boat too much as long as we could come out on top. Now, we’ve rocked the boat, at risk of the lives of our soldiers so that a new order might take hold. And now the left chastises the action because rocking the boat is costing lives. Best to have left the wound (that we helped create) to fester, according to them. I can’t get behind that kind of criticism. It costs nothing, save for the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Palestinians. It lets the “radicals” keep their hands clean. They can Bike Against Bush or whatever the nonsense-of-the-day might be and call it compassion. They can keep saying, as Bill Maher joked last weekend, that re-confirming Saddam in Iraq is looking like a “viable option.”
The interesting fact is that many MoveOn.org sorts do, in fact, believe that the attack on the World Trade Center was part of the anti-globalization movement, even if they pay lip service to the idea that taking thousands of lives is unacceptable. Many of them–you can tell from their tone–sympathize more with jihadists than with coalition troops. They will expend more conversational effort admonishing the terrorists’ use of violence than they will acknowledging that our troops are, for once, fighting against the sort of forces that seek to repress freedom. That this change is not welcome by those who trumpet liberal values is, to me, a sign of very strange times, indeed.
January 30, 2007
History is a matter of drawing imaginary lines. One epoch ends or begins because enough people agree that boundaries give character to a period of time. History condenses countless stories into one single story. It sometimes draws lines in the sand where there are none–or, rather, the writer of history does these things. The writing is always up for debate and the authors are countless. Usually the most comfortable story wins, sometimes at the expense of the truest one. But having said that, I have suggested that there is a True Story; and here is where the blasphemy begins…
I never saw myself as a historian, but if we are the custodians of our own memories, and if memory is the bedrock of identity, then anybody with a personality is a historian. Everyone is guilty of confabulation. Brains rearrange and rewrite memories in order to conform to the present moment. They manufacture a continuity that isn’t actually there. But making the present moment mesh with the past–finding any reliable connection to the truth–is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. I take the position that the truest story and the best story are nearly always one in the same (art notwithstanding). History isn’t psychoanalysis. Psychoanlaysts think that confabulation is an important form of truth but I’m not so sure. The world is not a fantasy and, by the same token, subjectivity is not the only kind of reality. There is a world outside…lots of people have forgotten. Before something becomes a memory, it is light, sound and matter. And all material is the work of hydrogen atoms that have been given enough time to experiment with different combinations. Once something becomes a memory, it is still only a matter of molecules. People resist this–it’s humbling and frighteningly objective. But a world of glorified subjectivity is narcissism at its finest.
I called my last set of writings “Confessions of a Narcissist.” The joys and pains of a specific kind of adolescence are chronicled there. I should retitle it “Learning to Crawl.” Opening a weblog is a conceit of sorts and I understand. But if I’m allowed, I”ll categorize my vanity as little more than an expression of the “will” to survive. For the most part, you can have damn good time as a mammal on this rock but it’s getting dangerous out there. People who live by 4,000 year old mythologies control present-day weapons on both sides of Istanbul. Superstition is running scared, usually with a bomb on it’s back. It lives in our legislatures and households. It sends it’s advice to the corpses in Africa. It sends literary theorists to political debates. We live in a golden age of fascism where even the revolutionaries and radicals are sympathizers. I have been in their ranks and I left them behind for a reason. For Reason, I could even say. But in the classrooms and in the street protests, the People of the Book run the show. The fact that it’s another book hardly makes a difference. The Book is never Good enough. I never signed on for a life of professional apostasy but, as it turns out, turning your back on certain things is preferable to toleration and integration.
A world of glorified fantasy is death waiting to descend. Rock and roll has thus far been about fantasy and narcissism. If I have any shameless conceit, it is to be one of many assassins…putting an end to the Age of the Demons. The end credits are rolling and the heathens need new hymns. I know I do. That’s what Blacklist is for.
Everybody who makes an argument or sings a song knows to anticipate the argument of the naysayer. Why bother with all this? Politics and philosophy, they say, have no place in rock and roll (unless certain very esteemed music critics have dubbed your mode of presentation to be just subtle or clever enough.) But was there a time when the best rock music wasn’t political in some sense? Fashion and dancing can be substantive weapons but who’s fighting with them?
I’ve even grown less fond of those soundtracks for the collegiate literati; the post-punk politicians never got an ear. They saw fear and energy, heartache and exuberance, danger and darkness and that somehow equaled “pretention” as opposed to “authenticity.” None of this is new and the same flowers are wilting. This is about joining in and turning the volume back up…so far up that it blasts the fashionistas out of their droll slumber. And if it isn’t “clever” or “subtle” enough, that could be because I’d have authenticity mistaken for pretention by fools any day. Condensing that fear and energy into an ironic bit of melody so that it no longer quakes–that’s well practiced these days and it’s not what we do.
I write this mostly as an extension of the recordings. Actually, each is an expansion and reflection of the other. So, let the credits roll on. Somewhwere in the middle, as always, the end becomes the new beginning. Imaginary lines, maybe. But these are mine…