Public policy: discovery and bargaining or applied knowing?

By Lorenzo

Is public policy a discovery process which takes into consideration the diverse interests, experiences and perspectives of the political nation (however defined–in a democracy, that is supposed to be the entire citizenry) or is it an engineering problem, an application of applied knowing?

There is, of course, a lot of engineering at the implementation level of public policy. To take some obvious examples, such things as roads, bridges, dams, etc are engineering problems in their construction. But policy in general is full of aspects where technical knowledge is important. Which can easily encourage the belief that policy problems are engineering problems all the way up. But the further up the policy process such a claim is made, then the greater the claims of knowledge, understanding and normative authority one is making for the policy makers.

Conversely, the more sceptical one is about such claims, then the more comfortable one is with the notion that public policy is embedded–and rightfully embedded–in discovery and bargaining processes. Which encourages confidence in multiple levels of government, so that such discovery and bargaining processes can take place in varying jurisdictions among varying players.

The irony of opposition to federalism is that by implying one or more levels of government are redundant, one is making strong claims about the knowledge, understanding and normative authority of the remaining level(s) of government. The implicit notion is that there is a correct policy, which is easily discovered and reliably implemented.

Thus, scepticism about government and political processes encourages belief that there should be more levels of government, not less. (Unless one is so sceptical that one believes there should be none at all: but that entails elevated confidence in non-governmental mechanisms.)

Bargaining and confidence

The more confidence one has in people in general, the more one is likely to endorse broad consent and bargaining mechanisms. The more confidence one has in a specific group of people relative to the wider population, the less so.

The more belief on has in knowledge being dispersed, the stronger sense one is likely to have that policy has to be understood as a discovery process–remembering that social bargaining is itself a discovery process. Noting also that politics is not the only discovery process, nor the only general process for achieving social ends.

The more belief one has in the level of understanding of a specific group or a specific framework of ideas, the more belief one is likely to have that policy is a process of applied knowing which bargaining gets in the way of. In this conception, diversity of policy is simply multiplying error.

Intellectuals and centralised uniformity

It is hardly surprising that intellectuals in general have a tendency to see policy as applied knowing and be impatient with social bargaining and policy diversity. Their life and identity is bound up in their sense of being the people who know more than others, with a strong tendency to also flatter themselves as folk of superior virtue–including the notion that it is their greater knowledge which leads to their superior virtue.

The long arc of history is not flattering to such pretensions, but they are so natural to the work of intellectuals, and so inherently self-flattering, that they retain a perennial appeal. Flowing from these tendencies is their recurring tendency to sneer at the profit-seeking of commerce, so lacking in grand pretensions to virtue and with its lively ordinariness so failing to apply to whatever grand moral schema intellectuals dream up. The claimed grounds and content of virtue have varied enormously, as have the grand moral schemas; but the disparaging contempt for commerce is a hardy perennial across time and space.

The (very) long arc of history has tended to favour policy as discovery-and-bargaining processes, but the temptation to retreat into “but this time we just know!” is also a hardy perennial.

Economics and public policy

The development of economics has tended to point in both directions at once. Mainstream economics tends to be favourable to markets, including markets as discovery processes. But the sense of understanding how things work can lead to deprecating political bargaining as something that gets in the way of good (i.e. economically informed) policy.

An amazing amount of nonsense has been written by academics about “neoliberalism”, typically because they never seriously interact with folk who might be in any way sympathetic to “neoliberalism”. Neoliberalism has come to mean not much more than “anything vaguely market connected that has been bad since 1980”.

If we define neoliberalism as (in the Western context) the application of mainstream economic policy so as to create a sustainable welfare state, then the neoliberal policy surge has, at times, been guilty of seeing political bargaining as “getting in the way”. Of providing an unhelpful obstruction to policy being just applied knowing. Not always–the Hawke Government, in particular, provided an excellent example of accepting that political bargaining was a necessary part of the process. Nevertheless, impatience with political bargaining has been something of a failing of the neoliberal push in policy.

Confusing projects

The polity which has done the most to give neoliberalism a bad name is the EU (European Union). Ironic, in a way, as its bureaucratic aggrandising is not what neoliberalism is supposed to be about. Still, creating a common market for the free flow of goods, services and people looks like a very neoliberal project. As does creating a common currency with a strongly anti-inflation central bank.

But looked at through the prism of political bargaining and policy as discovery process, and the European Union looks a lot less impressive–particularly compared to the European Economic Community (EEC) that proceeded it.

The EEC was a neoliberal project, and a very successful one. A particular virtue being the insistence that only democracies could join. The Common Agricultural Policy was regrettable: a form of political bargaining in a way, but one which seemed an iconic example of narrow, organised special interests triumphing over general interests. Nevertheless, the EEC had a deserved association with prosperity and international cooperation.

The EU, not so much. The EU has become a case study in policy over-reaching. Harmonising regulation has been an example of suppressing policy-as-discovery process and, at best, very narrow social bargaining. Worse, as the reach of the European Project has grown, it has had an increasingly invidious effect on policy making within the member states by becoming a means to avoid accountability for policy actions and consequences by muddying who is responsible for what and providing blaming cover for actions.

But the worst over-reaching has been in the Euro and the ECB (European Central Bank). The idea of the Euro was straightforward–a Deutsche Mark for everyone. Something with very strong appeal, particularly for those used to high inflation “soft” currencies.

The problem with the Euro is that it became a Deutsche Mark for everyone; the entire Eurozone had a monetary policy imposed on it that suited Germany first and others much less, with the greater the differences between a particular economy and the German one, the worst the consequences. The human costs of the Euro alone has made the EU a morally very dubious construction.

Between the costs of the Euro (including fiscal austerity, with the underlying problem being monetary austerity), the deep muddying of policy accountability, and the resulting adverse effects on the quality of policy and sense of popular control, the EU has managed to generate increasing levels of “angry votes”, including increasingly nationalistic political movements. How much in any particular country is still mediated by local political circumstances and levels of economic stress, but the wider pattern is clear enough.

Problematising people

Which comes back to the original sin of the EU–the original misdiagnosing of the problem of European history. The origins of the EU were based on the premise that the deep problem of European history was nationalism. This is false: Europeans have never lacked reasons to kill each other.

The deep problem of European history has been unaccountable power. Whether it was dynastically-grounded regimes using the weapon of nationalism to fight off the spectre of democracy (and then being consumed by the total war they could then not stop and failed to survive) or dictators wielding totalitarian power in megacidal projects, nationalism was a tool, not a cause.

But to make nationalism the great problem of European history is also to make the people of Europe the problem of European history, not inadequately accountable elites, given that nationalism is a sentiment among people. And if popular sentiments are the key problem, they cannot be allowed to be let loose. Hence the elite-dominated European project conceived as a restraint on the deemed problematic peoples.

Well, how has that worked out for them?

The notion of the EEC–to entangle the people of Europe so deeply with each other, and anchored in a common prosperity, that war became inconceivable–was a noble one.

The notion of the EU–to use ever-greater-union as ever-more-constraint-on-local-democracy–was not. It became a project of policy as applied knowing and (at best) very narrow bargaining. Not a project of policy-as-discovery process and broad social bargaining.

Clearly, more and more people have felt left out, ignored or worse. Moreover, as the policy reach of the EU has exceeded its actual knowledge and effectiveness, while having an invidious effect on policy accountability, it has become a mechanism for making policy worse, not better. Moreover, seeing the peoples of Europe as the problem has blocked learning anything from the resulting angry votes: treating voting patterns not as discovery process, but as confirmation of deeply problematic (indeed, profoundly counter-productive) assumptions built into the European project and oh-so-flattering to European elites.

The lack of a European demos is, of course, an advantage to evading accountability. But the consequence of that is poorer policy and more political alienation.

Entangling the people of Europe with each other should have been seen as a way of making certain sorts of politics less appealing, as a constraint on power holders, and those aspiring to the same. Not as a way to “manage” identities.

The original underlying structure of the EEC was a fine idea. The EU built on top of it, not so much. If one sees only the first while refusing to confront the second, one is going to continue to misdiagnose what is going on.

No, the peoples of Europe are not the problem. They never have been. Those who have seen them as the problem, they are the problem. What they thought they knew, they so didn’t. They urgently need to rediscover a sense of policy-as-discovery-process, one properly based in broad social bargaining, not in demonstrably overblown notions of applied knowing.

 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Free trade, expanding prosperity and technology dynamism are good things: but not everyone wins all the time.

By Lorenzo

The following things are very much good things: free trade, technological dynamism and expanding global prosperity. Free trade because it gives more people to sell to and buy from, to engage in gains from trade with. Technological dynamism because it allows more and more people to live longer and (in some very basic senses) freer and more prosperous lives. Expanding global prosperity, because it means living millions upon millions of people out of the grinding constraints of poverty.

But none of these good things happen without costs. Free trade expands some industries in some places and retards or destroys them in others. Technological dynamism creates new industries and devastates some existing ones. Expanding global prosperity effectively expands the global labour market (even without movement of people) and puts pressure on labour incomes in already prosperous societies–particularly at the bottom end of the skill level.

It is not enough to point to the good these things do, if that provides an excuse to ignore the costs they also create. It is true that their benefits are so great that it is easily possible to compensate losers and still make everyone materially better off. But that it is easily possible does not mean that it is actually being done.

Which where the need for attentive social policy comes in. Attentive in a range of senses: attentive to who is losing, how and why. Attentive to concerns of people disoriented by change. Attentive to how policy can make things better for those who are on the losing any of economic and technological change. Attentive to how existing policies may be getting in the way of doing that, or even exacerbating the negative effects of such changes.

Added to these waves of change has been social changes, particularly the Emancipation Sequence. This has been going on in the West for over two centuries now, but with considerable acceleration in recent decades. This adds to the disorientation, particularly through loss of previous assumptions and presumptions. Such changes take time to absorb and are not helped by folk on the side of such changes being vicious winners: that is, not showing some charity and accepting a reasonable transition period but instead insisting on full public endorsement of every possible aspect of changes by everyone while being extremely intolerant of any lingering commitment to previous patterns, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and belief such may be.

Migrating disorientation

Part of the accelerating social change has been a broadening of migration patterns into Western countries. In some places, notably Australia and Canada, such migration has been generally well-managed and led to remarkably little social angst, despite high rates of migration. In the US less so. In Europe, immigration has generally been managed quite poorly.

Well-managed migration is diverse in its origins, involves high level of border control, and does not adversely shift the labour/capital balance (mainly by importing people with relatively high level of human capital). It also involves making the case and in terms that resonate widely with voters. Moral hectoring is not making the case, it is self-indulgent posturing in place of the effort of persuading.

Poorly managed migration involves a lack of border control (giving many people the feeling of having no say over something with the capacity to profoundly change their society), imports large lumps from particular sources (making the resident culture less obviously dominant and more challenged) of people with lower human capital (shifting the economic balance to capital and away from labour, putting more stress on labour markets and welfare systems) and fails to make the case that resonates broadly with voters. How migration is, or is not, managed makes a huge difference.

Poison and block

But if migration is turned into a Virtue signal where one has to be “for migration” to be Virtuous, then the problems are exacerbated. The complexities are flattened out–by failing to differentiate between attitudes to legal and illegal immigration; deprecating considering costs from migration; refusing to consider that different sources and selection criteria make a difference, that migrants are not, in fact, interchangeable and undifferentiated. Rather than a public debate, one ends up with a public shouting match between an undifferentiated acceptance deemed Virtuous and any concern over any aspect being Vicious (and subject to the rhetoric of denunciation: racist, nativist, xenophobic, etc). Using, as I noted in my previous post, the shouting of bigot! as a weapon of bigotry (opinion-bigotry, but still bigotry). Worse, it encourages a tendency towards poor policy by inhibiting attention to social costs and concerns.

One can see this nicely illustrated by George Soros being dismissive of voices of opposition before the Brexit vote. He, at least, is being wise after the fact about the effect of mismanaged migration. Many are so attached to their markers of Virtue that they continue to shriek after the fact: Bourbons of Virtue, who forget nothing and learn nothing–“correcting” others, not themselves.

Connected to this, supporting multiculturalism has become a particularly strong Virtue signal. But the reality is that multiculturalism is a social and policy experiment, which may not work. Nor is it remotely a morally compulsory policy for every society.

The problem with using policies as Virtue signals is not only does that poison debate, it also blocks consideration of facts deemed to be Virtue-awkward (or even Virtue-hostile). This is both potentially disastrous in terms of social outcomes (facts do not go away merely by being deemed wrong to mention) and helps further poison public debate, since ignoring facts on the ground inevitably becomes a process of ignoring, or even demonising, those concerned by said facts.

Stripping away social ballast

What also doesn’t help is systematic attacks on common identities. A sense of national and cultural belonging can provide a sense of stability and even control: such things as, in the words of a recent post on the post-Brexit problems of the British Labour Party:

tradition, a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.

provide a ballast against the disorienting effects of change. Attacking such identities as irretrievably stained with past sins (but somehow not attached to past achievements) attempts to knock away a comforting and stabilising part of social order, increasing the costs of social change–particularly their disorienting effect.

Creating unfortunate opportunities

Attentive policy flows out of listening politics. A political Party relies on balancing three things–rhetoric used, policies delivered and attention to voter concerns. The US Republican Party has got itself into The Donald mess because (at least at a federal level) it failed to pay sufficient attention to actual voter concerns while failing to match rhetoric to actions and actions to rhetoric.

But the Republican Party was also operating within a wider political and policy debate dynamic: part of the problem may well have been that its cosmopolitan operatives were inhibited from seeing how things seemed to its more traditionalist voters. As economist Luigi Zingales notes, if trust has been lost, the trick is not to blame those who no longer trust you (that just exacerbates the problem), but to work to rebuilt trust.

Which requires paying attention. Using policy positions as Virtue-markers blocks bothering to pay attention to–both the listening and attending to awkward facts. The result is an increase in political and policy dysfunction and, in particular, an increase in the numbers of angry and resentful voters. Who will inevitably start looking for folk willing to pay attention and who do not sneer at, or demonise, their concerns. Given enough economic and social stress, that gives an opportunity for people who, in more normal times, with sufficiently broadly attentive politics, would not get their chance.

Once such political entrepreneurs begin to get traction, it is further gist to the Virtue-demonising mill. And so the cycle builds with another spiral of Virtue-signalling and Vicious-demonising.

Once the spiral is underway, it is easy to point to the political entrepreneurs of angry and resentful politics and say “the problem is those dreadful people”.  No, the problem is the refusal to pay attention by those whose proper role that is. Blaming others is so much easier than entertaining the problem that folk like oneself, folk with the beliefs which are so obviously Virtuous, are actually seriously problematic grit in the mechanisms of social adaptation via status-mongering and pseudo-comprehending contempt for those with different experiences and concerns.

Congenial framing as pseudo-comprehension

I say pseudo-comprehending because part of the game of Virtue is imposing a framing on folk and opinions which builds in dismissal of the opinion Other. It creates a crippled epistemology (pdf) which blocks attention and engagement with those outside the magic circle of the Virtuous. The illusion of knowing (and which deploying the rhetoric of denunciation expresses) blocks the capacity to genuinely see, let alone pay attention to: that’s how systems of bigotry work.

But framings provide comfort: they are our go-to ways of making sense of the world. The illusion of knowing is a very comforting illusion, particularly if it flatters one’s self-esteem. A British journalist’s mordant tweet:

Notice we in the press went from: “OMG we never saw this coming!!” right into “We’re experts on why they voted this way & what it means.”?

provides an illustration of the easy go-to comfort of our framings.

As journalist Damon Linker has noted, the contradiction of the secular faith of Progressivism–that history has a particular direction, which the Virtuous know and are leading their cognitive inferiors into–has taken a major knock, hence the outrage of frustrated faith. But it is a really bad idea to turn politics into your substitute religion, given how antipathetic dogmatic faith can be to the give and take of persuasion and reasoned debate. Just as it is not good to lose sight of how one’s sense of identity and attendant social experiences can be very different than other people’s: and if you are attached to your identity, why wouldn’t other people be attached to theirs?

Not everyone is a winner from the waves of globalisation and social change.  Refusing to pay attention to those who are not–demonising them for being, in effect, those disproportionately bearing the material and psychic costs of change–in itself, increases the costs to them and to the wider society. At little less smug moral self-satisfaction, and bit more open-minded attention, would go a long way to make things better.

But that would require giving up the psychic benefits of the aforementioned self-satisfaction, and its attendant sneering contempt for fellow citizens, in exchange for rather more moral humility and paying attention: thereby being better citizens and better participants in the wider society. Which requires breaking through considerable epistemic barriers and giving up considerable psychic benefits. Even incurring some social costs as one departs from (and so chips away at) the collective game of smug self-satisfaction.

And, as the song says, breaking up is hard to do.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Yelling “bigot!” as a tool of bigotry

By Lorenzo

A recent study concluded that Party and ideological animus in the US was significantly stronger than (pdf) racial animus in the US.

To put that another way, opinion-bigotry is stronger than racial bigotry in the contemporary US.

This is not all that surprising. While bigotry can extend in any direction socially (upward, downwards, laterally), the most powerful bigotry is typically the bigotry of the most powerful. Particularly, those who dominate the commanding heights of ideas and opinion.

In the US (as in other Western countries) those commanding heights (media, academe, IT, entertainment) have become increasingly dominated by a fairly narrow range of opinion. Opinion that delights in seeing itself as the embodiment of morality–particularly of understandingcompassion and inclusion–and contrary views as being ignorant, exclusory and offensive: in other words, as deeply bigoted.

A key point to remember is that bigotry is everywhere and always a moral claim: it is a claim about the (lack) of moral standing for others. Far from moral fervour being an insulation against bigotry, it is often precisely moral concern that fuels bigotry.

By this understanding-compassionate-inclusive framing of themselves and the contrary ignorant-exclusory-offensive framing of those who disagree, the accusation of bigotry has become itself an instrument of bigotry. The expanding rhetoric of denunciation (racist!, misogynist!, xenophobe!, homophobe!, Islamophobe! etc) has been wielded as a weapon to separate the Virtuous from the Vicious. And to block public debate-as-conversation and replace it with abusive self-involved collective monologues.

In the name of understanding, compassion and inclusion, there has been an ever-expanding war against “hate speech”. A deeply hypocritical war at so many levels (and pernicious in so many ways), but none more so than that using the rhetoric of denunciation is, itself, clearly hate speech when it is wielded against those who are not in fact racists, or misogynist, etc. Whether because that is simply a false characterisation of people’s views or a false generalisation from the views of some to the views of a larger category of people.

Tied in with this has become the notion of privilege, particularly white privilege. A central claim of such Virtuous identity politics is that white people should think of themselves as primarily white people: specifically, as belonging to an identity that is both privileged and stained with past oppressions and present inequalities. Now, if one is one of the Virtuous, and keeps up with Virtue’s moving moral goal posts, latest language taboos and ritual obeisances, one can functionally evade the moral burden of one’s whiteness.

Those who fail to do all this, of course, have the entire privileged oppressor identity dropped on them.

Since this is very much a game for the educated middle class, members of the working class are not likely to jump through the various hoops, leaving them with the burden of identity as white privilege oppressors.

Oh look!, an excuse for the educated middle class to sneer at working class folk as vulgar moral barbarians, we’ve never seen that before. (Sarcasm and irony alert.) Hence the return of virtue signalling, which was so very powerful in the Victorian era; the contemporary version being used by much the same sort of folk against, well, much the same sort of folk: but with whiteness as moral negative rather than moral positive.

Which leaves the white working class with so much of the blame for, well, just about anything, but very little actual social power. (Which, of course, makes them such splendid targets for status-mongering contempt.)

So, we have the white working class as bigoted privileged oppressors yet have remarkably little say and who, moreover, at clearly not entitled to any say if it involves disagreeing with their Moral Betters.  Any doubt about that, and that those moral betters typically regard the white working class with deep contempt, has been stripped away by the Virtuous outrage over the win for Brexit in the UK Referendum–especially the demands that referendum result be immediately overturned. (Though the online petition calling for same had some prank element to it.)

The rhetoric of denunciation is very attractive because it broadcasts moral concern, moral superiority and moral contempt all in one go. It is also utterly destructive of any breadth in public debate and useful engagement with those outside the Virtuous magic circle. But self-righteous sanctimony has such obvious and enduring appeal, and is such a powerful mechanism for collective epistemic blockage (pdf), that it is not likely to go away any time soon.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Brexit and EU failure

By Lorenzo

The 52%-48% win for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum has already been framed many ways, but what should be an obvious one (though for many it will not be) is how much of a failure for the EU this represents.

In June 1975, a deeply divided Labour Government held a referendum on the UK’s membership (then 2 years old) in the European Community (EC) as it then was (known colloquially as “the Common Market”). The then recently installed Conservative Opposition Leader, Margaret Thatcher, campaigned strongly for the UK’s membership. The UK electorate voted decisively for membership, 67% to 33% with a 65% voter turnout.

In June 2016, a deeply divided Conservative Government holds a referendum on the UK’s membership of what is now the European Union, the UK now having been a member of its various incarnations for 43 years.  The recently installed Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, campaigns (perhaps somewhat tepidly) for the UK’s continued membership. The UK electorate votes narrowly for leaving, 52% to 48% with a 72% turnout.

If one ignores the sort of special pleading which, for example, suggests the 1975 UK electorate was terribly wise and the 2016 UK electorate deeply stupid, then 41 years of further experience of the EU had shifted the opinion of the British electorate by 19 percentage points against the EU. That is a considerable shift in opinion.

The EU of 2016 does, and aspires to do, far more than the EC of 1975 did: clearly, more is, in fact, less; at least in terms of inspiring popular support and confidence–quite a lot less. Though that large shift in opinion will be treated as a failure of the electorate, not of the glorious European project, by many of the Great and Good who supported EU membership. Which, of course, will be an indicator of precisely why that shift in opinion has taken place. Significant majorities in provincial England and Wales has discerned that the European Project has become deeply intertwined with a deep contempt for folk like them and they have given the finger in return.

It is worth remembering that many of the same Great and Good who took the UK’s continued membership of the EU as the only proper policy were the same folk who thought it desperately important that the UK join the Euro. They were wrong on that: they will be wrong on this, and for the same reasons.

It is true that the narrowness of the result, and that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU, could presage problems ahead for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That immigrants seem to have voted strongly for Remain is perhaps another point of pressure. If, however, after a likely somewhat rocky transition period, the UK actually prospers, particularly relative to the EU, then the divisions will likely fade.

An outcome I am reasonably confident will occur. The reason for my confidence in this is quite simple: the UK has voted to improve the accountability of its institutions. The democratic deficit of the EU has given it a much less accountable governing structure which will continue to produce policies which reflect that lower accountability. Particularly as the EU tries to do too much with too little commonality between its societies and economies.

 The Euro has been a serial disaster because it is emblematic of all these problems — too little accountability, trying to do too much across insufficient commonality. Even just in economic terms, as Paul Krugman’s rather nice paper The Revenge of the Optimal Currency Area (pdf) points out. Nor is Britain the only EU country where popular approval of the EU is problematic.

Whatever political calculations may have been involved, David Cameron PM is to be congratulated for giving the British people a clear say on such an important issue. It is regrettable that it has also ended his Premiership, but given that the Tory electorate voted so very strongly for Brexit, and given the contestable intricacies involved in negotiating Britain’s leaving of the EU, and the difficulties of the transition, it is understandable that he has decided he is not the person who should be leading either Britain or the Conservative Party through what is to come.

We live in a time of elite echo chambers and a plethora of techniques for discounting (indeed, treating with contempt) the concerns and language of ordinary folk. So it is unlikely that many who really should will see how much a failure and condemnation of what the EU has become this result is. But that is precisely what it is.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The Donald is not a fascist; but the accusation itself brings dangers

By Lorenzo

Further to my previous post, the centrality of the ennobling effects of struggle and violence to fascism is demonstrated by its history, structures and rhetoric, but a particularly nice example of the latter is given in The Doctrine of Fascism, by Benito Mussolini and philosopher Giovanni Gentile:

Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it. All other tests are substitutes which never place a man face to face with himself before the alternative of life or death. Therefore all doctrines which postulate peace at all costs are incompatible with Fascism.

Whatever the The Donald is pushing, it is not that. The “The Donald as crypto/proto/actual fascist” is resorting to the rhetoric of denunciation: as such, it is a congenial substitute for understanding, and even more, a substitute for seriously grappling with, the phenomenon of The Donald (even just at a rhetorical level) and the support he has been able to generate.

The Hobbesian trap

But a deeper problem with misdiagnosing The Donald as fascism redux than getting the phenomenon wrong is that “The Donald is fascism now!” raises the political stakes in a dangerous way. It is already being used to justify violence against Trump rallies and supporters. (Bernie Sanders has made a particularly forthright denunciation of that violence.)

This is a dangerous upward (or, if you like, downward) spiral. But it is just the next step in a longer term pattern. The problem with virtue signalling via one’s moral positions (or, more accurately, moralised positions) is that if one signals virtue by holding that X, then one must signal vice if one holds not X. Demonising those who disagree is a natural consequence of such virtue signalling.

For being honest about those who disagree gets in the way of the ludicrous demonising (in order to self-elevate one’s moral splendour) of what are, taking a longer term and more global view, often quite minor differences in outlook. The demands of moral status-seeking regularly get in the way of the demands of accuracy and understanding. The Donald is just providing a more intense example.

Political correctness is often justified as “speaking for the underprivileged”. The fact that its adherents have generated increasing opinion conformity in the milieus they dominate (including entire industries) and have had great success in narrowing the range of acceptable opinion in the public space demonstrates how much it is an expression of power and dominance, not any sort of “under-privilege”. As with the (by now, ludicrously false) pretence of expanding civility, the claim to speak for the under-privileged has long since become far more status-seeking justification than reality; a secular religion-substitute piety.

Of course, like the rhetoric of denunciation (sexist, racist, homophobe, islamophobe, etc), such justifications become a great way of not dealing with problems and of blinding their adherents to how oppressive others can find their shrieking intolerance. It is part of their relentless “othering” of those who fail to conform to their moral, intellectual and language taboos which is also, as these things so often are, a pattern of self-blinding. Thus, the rhetoric of denunciation that the Virtuous are so addicted to is never, of course, hate speech, for “hate speech” is only ever done by Bad People and clearly the Virtuous are, by definition, the Good People. Even though they regularly used terms which imply or state that their opponents are, in fact, hateful. The accusation of “hate speech” has become another vehicle for delegitimising dissent, and another sign of the addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation.

Interwar analogies

Moreover, the accusation of fascism now! has implications regarding causality one doubts those so eager to bandy it around have considered (or are even aware of). Some are currently invoking the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany via electoral success as some sort of analogy to The Donald. Econblogger Scott Sumner commented:

… don’t make the “to know all is to forgive all” mistake. We could sit down and discuss all the reasons why millions of Germans voted for Hitler, and perhaps we could figure it all out. But that doesn’t excuse their votes in a moral sense.

Yet it is still a good question–what caused that to seem a sensible choice to lots of voters? Why were so many votes up for grabs in that way?

In fact, the interwar examples provide fairly clear key factors: how bad was economic stress?, how threatening did the local Left seem? basically sorts interwar Europe into those countries which experienced power-seizing Fascist/Nazi/Authoritarian Right outbreaks and those which did not.

The economic stress issue is fairly straightforward–if sufficiently severe, economic stress tends to undermine existing politicians and their political Parties while making outsiders look much more worth considering as vehicles for making things better. There was considerable economic stress immediately after World War I (when Mussolini achieved power) and during the 1930s (when Hitler and Franco did).

Spain had a much less severe 1930s economic experience that Weimar Germany; but it also took a civil war for Franco to achieve power.

The issue of how threatening the local Left seemed is a bit more complicated. A large Leninist Party (1920s) or Stalinist Party (1930s) was obviously threatening–particularly if conventional politics was looking unsuccessful and ineffectual. There was very little for any voter with any religious attachment or property which was not threatened by a Leninist or Stalinist takeover–not life, property, religion, family, freedom.

Italy, Spain and Germany all had significant Leninist or Stalinist Parties at the time of the Fascist/Nazi/Authoritarian Right seizure of power. That the democratic republic in Spain had only been recently established, and the failure to suppress political violence (including the mainstream Catholic Opposition leader being assassinated), added to the sense of threat and uncertainty.

But how the mainstream centre-left was behaving was also important. In particular, how they seemed to rural voters, as rural voters provided break-through mass support for Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Basically, in the countries with Fascist/Authoritarian Right/Nazi breakouts, the mainstream left largely ignored rural voters while doing little to allay suspicions that they were (also) in favour of rural collectivisation–i.e. stripping peasant farmers of their property. Which made rural voters ripe for recruitment and/or mobilisation by Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.

So, countries without large Leninist or Stalinist Parties did not have major Fascist/Authoritarian Right/Nazi breakouts in the interwar period. (One can exclude examples of normal political instability, such as royalist seizures of power in relatively new states.)

Where Leninist or Stalinist Parties were more than minor affairs, countries which also had mainstream centre-left Parties who did not seem property-threatening to rural voters, also did not generate equivalents of the Fascists or Nazis–except as fringe movements–or Authoritarian Right military seizures of power.

If you want to invoke interwar analogies, they may not lead where folk like. Are there any disaffected groups among current voters? is a good question to ask. How threatening to various political and other trends seem? is another one. It is remarkable how little people who are often fond of the term reactionary genuinely consider re-actions.

Though the analogies also remind us how much The Donald is not a fascist, as Mussolini and Hitler adopted Leninist modes of total politics for their national and race-greatness projects. Something The Donald has not remotely done.

Weaponising rebound

The Donald is, in many ways, a creation of the weaponising of morality and civility, the addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation. Going even further down that spiral is not going to make things better. (Particularly as there is no reason to suppose that anti-Trump folk are going to have a permanent monopoly of violence.) Trashing basic social protections because “oppressors have no rights”, “error has no rights” is a disastrous assault on what also protects those arrogant budding totalitarians who are riding their sense of moral entitlement and superiority to a wider social disaster.

 

[The post has been edited to increase clarity without changing content.]

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The rhetorical appeal of The Donald

By Lorenzo

The Donald is a demagogue and central to demagoguery is wish fulfilment politics. Demagoguery is not about believing in things, but in saying whatever the audience wants to hear. (The real trick is saying what they want to hear but haven’t articulated themselves yet.) Say it well enough and almost any amount of contradiction will work, as the wanting-to-believe audience will grab what they want to hear and discount what they don’t.

The fascist error

If we are to understand The Donald, we have to keep focused on the dynamics of demagoguery. The Donald is not Hitler redux, he is not Mussolini redux, he is not a fascist. He is not fascist in so many ways–no overt rejection of democracy, no paramilitary movement, no organised street violence (except by opponents), not in favour of a belligerent foreign policy, no fetishising of violence. (Indeed, a persistent theme in comments supporting voting for The Donald, is that The Donald is the less belligerent choice.) He does engage in Jacksonian rhetoric, but the notion that violence is the way the deep nobility of man manifests (a deeply fascist idea) is not what he is selling.

Moreover, fascism has an ideology (albeit somewhat protean one) and if you think The Donald has an ideology, you haven’t been paying attention. Looking at the list in Umberto Eco’s 1995 New York Review of Books piece on Ur Fascism (pdf) certainly shows The Donald’s rhetoric has some echoes of Italian Fascism, but rhetorical echoes are not enough. The Donald simply lacks the notion of purifying and ennobling violence which is so central to fascism in its various forms.

If you want an Italian model for The Donald, it is media billionaire turned recurring Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was not good for Italy.  (Though his scandals had a certain entertainment value.) Italian-American economist Luis Zingales previously (2011) pointed out the Trump-Berlusconi similarities, and has sensible and informed things to say about Italy’s in his conversation with economist and uberblogger Tyler Cowan. But the career of Berlusconi cannot be usefully analysed using the “fascist” metric.

The “Trump is a fascist!” rhetoric does appeal to those addicted to the rhetoric of denunciation. With the added appeal that no further thought is needed. (The Donald is Just Bad and Bad people support him.) Which is, of course, much of the appeal of the rhetoric of denunciation (“racist!”, “homophobe!”, “Islamophobe!”, “transphobe!” etc). But what if addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation is part of the problem?

Expressing appeal

So, what do The Donald’s supporters see in him? Start with academic, philosopher and blogger Keith Burgess-Jackson:

My support for Donald Trump is easy to understand. I am sick to death of Republicans standing idly by while Democrats destroy them. Think back to the way John McCain and Mitt Romney campaigned in 2008 and 2012 (respectively). Neither defended himself against the vicious attacks from the Left; both lost (and deservedly so). I saw early on in the 2016 presidential campaign that Donald Trump is a street fighter. To put it in the vernacular, he doesn’t take shit from anyone. He will smash the Clintons in their faces, as they so richly deserve. This tit-for-tat response is long overdue, and it is discombobulating not only the Clintons in particular but the Left in general. George Neumayr touches on this issue in his latest column. What excites me is that Trump hasn’t even begun to hit Hillary. By November, she will be staggering, if not knocked out. Get right with Donald.

This is echoed by academic refugee, philosopher, author and blogger John Pepple:

This post by Keith Burgess-Jackson pretty much sums up why I will vote for Trump, even though he is not my ideal candidate. Trump will fight against the Democrats as hard as he can. Trump also seems to have more control over the media than the other Republicans, though I’m sure that is not what the media intended. They intended to show how ridiculously un-PC he was, but it didn’t work. Their attention just drew more voters for him, and then they couldn’t stop because it would mean lower ratings. I remember a liberal expressing the hope last summer, as Trump began gearing up, that the Republicans would nominate him because I’m sure he thought of Trump as unelectable. I have the feeling he is having second thoughts about it now.

So, The Donald is good because he is rhetorically effective, which is certainly easier to be if you are also rhetorically shameless (see demagoguery).

Then there is retired US diplomat and now active blogger W. Lewis Amselem:

My reason for voting Trump is probably very similar to that of millions of other Americans. I will explain why I think so many of us vote for Trump–let me know if I have it wrong. As the military say, however, “bottom line upfront” (BLUF.) After all the verbiage I will spew, it comes down to one thing: I am tired, sick and tired, of seeing my country, our country, our laws, our history, our values, and our very civilization spat upon, kicked around, and degraded by hordes of low-information, pampered cretins allied with malevolent criminal thugs both at home and abroad. …

If one seeks to defend the values of America and the West, one gets labelled a racist, a xenophobe, a supremacist, a patriarch (see here, for example). The assault on dissent, on diversity of opinion, on individual freedom is unrelenting. The truth must remain unspoken.

So, The Donald is good because his rhetoric celebrates America (and he drives those who don’t wild).

Here is retired academic, philosopher and blogger Bill Vallicella:

Whatever you say about Donald Trump he did us all a great service by dispatching low-energy Jeb! early on. Jeb Bush and the rest of his family are decent people. His brother and father are gentlemen. No one could confuse Trump with a gentleman.

Unfortunately, in this age of post-consensus politics we need fighters not gentlemen. We need people who will use the Left’s Alinskyite tactics against them. Civility is for the civil, not for destructive leftists who will employ any means to their end of a “fundamental transformation of America.” For ‘fundamental transformation’ read: destruction.

It’s a war, and no war is civil, especially not a civil war. To prosecute a war you need warriors. Trump is all we have. Time to face reality, you so-called conservatives. Time to man up, come clean, and get behind the ‘presumptive nominee.’

Don’t write another article telling us what a sorry specimen he is. We already know that. We are a nation in decline and our choices are lousy ones. Hillary is worse, far worse.

Consider just three issues: The Supreme Court, gun rights, and the southern border. We know where Hillary stands. We also know where Trump stands. Suppose he accomplishes only one thing: he nominates conservatives for SCOTUS. (You are aware, of course, that he has gone to the trouble of compiling a list of conservative candidates. That is a good indication that he is serious.) The appointment of even one conservative would retroactively justify your support for him over the destructive and crooked Hillary.

Jonah Goldberg recently made the point that his vote doesn’t matter. True. Each of our individual votes is vanishingly insignificant. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether conservatives as a group should support Trump. The answer is obvious: of course.

The alternative is to aid and abet Hillary.

Are you a conservative or a quisling?

So, Hillary is identifiably worse and The Donald is rhetorically effective against the progressivists. (Nowadays, I am not keen on the use of the term “the Left” because the fading modernist Left is a rather different thing from increasingly dominant postmodern progressivism.)

Here is well-known, and mildly prolific, SF author Jerry Pournelle:

It’s official. Trump has enough delegates to win a majority on the first ballot, so barring an assassination – not an impossible event – he will be the Republican nominee. The Republican Establishment got both houses of Congress and a majority of Governors, but was a miserable failure at opposition. The deficit rose and rose, the budget grew and grew, the size of government went up and up, government workers got more and more pay, and meanwhile the Depression continued. Unemployment officially went down to manageable levels, but only because definitions were changed, so that those who just gave up and stopped looking for employment were no longer “unemployed” and were not counted in figuring the unemployment rate.

So we don’t have long lines of people looking for work; instead they sullenly stay home, or a few joyfully take the dole, food stamps, and all the other entitlements. Most Americans don’t like doing that. They want jobs. But the jobs are gone, sent overseas along with the equipment they worked with, and the economy settled into one of opening containers of goods from China, and “paying” for these cheap goods by borrowing the money from China to give it to the not-unemployed people who used to have jobs but don’t any more. And the deficit grows, the economy stagnates, people get more angry, and many of the Republican establishment long for the old days when nobody expected them to WIN for heaven’s sake. They were the permanent opposition, always employed with great benefits and retirement, and no ambition to be much more. They ran the only man Bill Clinton could beat in 1996, after which the defeated candidate made Viagra adds.

It may be that Mr. Trump can’t put America first, but he says he wants to. No one else even thinks it is a good idea. At which point I conclude that what the Republicans want to conserve is their jobs as opposition leaders who don’t have to govern. Maybe I’m just bitter. Of course for a while they did govern. They invaded the only real opposition Iran faced, hanged the former leader, disbanded his army, set an oppressed majority up to govern after disarming their former master, were shocked when the Shia began to oppress the Sunni – shocked, I tell you. But it was done democratically, wasn’t it?

Any business run the way the government conducts its business wouldn’t be in business long; fortunately they have an infinite capacity for borrowing money. Each of us owes north of $50,000 so far. You say that’s not that bad, and I point out that each means just that: a family of man, wife, and two children owes more than $200,000, each baby born owes $50,000. Sand that’s this year. Four years from now it will be well over $60,000 each. And the debt goes ever upward.

Salve, Sclave.

Mr. Trump is not an ideal candidate; but when we did run what looked like good candidates, they grew in office, and the budget went up, the deficit went up, the Depression continued, we entered wars in which our interest was not easily discerned and certainly was not served. I guess I had better get me a Trump hat. (Emphasis added.)

So, we tried conventional Republicans, which did remarkably little good, both at home or abroad, with the White House or without it. At least The Donald has positive-about-America rhetoric.

Jerry Pournelle’s endorsement is rather less fulsome than the previously cited, but does cite the rhetorical appeal. It also picks up a strong recurring secondary theme in support for The Donald that is even clearer in this post by academic and blogger Gene Callahan:

Our foreign policy over the last couple of decades has wrecked the lives of millions and millions of people in the Middle East. It has reduced country after country to anarchy in the bad sense: starvation, lawlessness, civil war. And surprise: all of this chaos enriches American corporations that sell weapons and “security” to foreign governments.

There are many important issues dividing the American electorate: SSM, gun control, abortion law, etc., etc. I don’t wish to downplay the significance of the debates on these topics, except to note that every one of them, on a global scale, pales in significance to the moral necessity that we stopdestroying the lives of millions and millions of people in the Middle East.

And it is clear to me that Hillary Clinton will eagerly continue to pursue the policies that create this destruction: indeed, she was the prime architect of some of the past destruction.

Donald Trump is not my ideal candidate for president: I would like to resurrect Dwight Eisenhower and vote for him, if I could. I agree that Trump is a wildcard, and we don’t really know what he will do once in office. But we do know that Clinton is the bought candidate of the merchants of death, and gambling that Trump is not so beholden to them is not really much of a gamble at all.

Let us put aside our differences on who is entitled to poop in what bathroom, and defeat the military-industrial complex’s attempt to profit off of creating continual chaos in other countries!

So, the The Donald is less about interfering militarily in other countries, because his opponent has a proven track record and all we have to go on (shameless rhetoric) suggests he will not be. (Though, to be fair, so does The Donald’s set piece foreign policy speech.)

Now, whether anything can be inferred about what President Trump would do from what The Donald says is a very good question (because, hey, demagogue) but the claim that he is the less belligerent candidate than Hillary is far from self-evidently false. If The Donald was actually a fascist, even a “fascist for the C21st”, it would be.

Notice, these are all intelligent, informed men of accomplishment (though it is also possible to find women who support The Donald). One may, of course, quibble about, for example, some of the economics. But they are not knuckle-dragging grunts. What they have in common is a profound sense of cultural alienation.

Cultural alienation

Reading posts and online pieces of the “I will vote for Trump because …” variety, the overwhelmingly dominant theme is cultural alienation. What they are culturally alienated by is fairly clear: relentless and ever-expanding moral bullying; rhetorics of denunciation pretending to be politics of compassion; a civilisation portrayed as if it was without achievements only crimes, a culture as if it was without virtues only sins; bearing lots of blame yet having little power; being the only folk with cross-generational guilt, and so on. With the abusive syllogism of:

we do X in order to achieve Y,

you are objecting to us doing X,

therefore you are against Y

being constantly deployed against anyone who arcs up. The rhetoric of denunciation so relentlessly employed is fundamentally based on both assuming, and attempting to impose on the public sphere, the illegitimacy of disagreement. It is the weaponising of morality and of (pretend) civility.

Nor is the cultural alienation surprising, as the information industries (media, entertainment, academe, IT) are overwhelmingly dominated by a narrow ideological range, increasingly disfigured by the pathologies that ideological echo chambers create.

And I mean the weaponising of morality and civility. The ludicrous lie that political correctness is about civility expresses either the deep duplicity or the deep self-blindness of its adherents. There is nothing “civil” about point-and-shriek (as Sir Tim Hunt and comet scientist Matt Taylor found) or the rhetoric of pc denunciation.

The concluding sentence of a Crooked Timber post against Jonathan Chait’s mild critique of political correctness–“Seriously, fuck right the fuck off, Chait”expresses the actual dynamics of pc splendidly. As this piece expresses particularly clearly the deep, pervasive disregard, indeed blindness, to achievement involved. (Boris Johnson gets the point.) But, then, landing a probe on a comet is hard; inciting and joining an online/public space moral sneering mob is easy: even inviting, as it drowns status from achievement with status from collective moral sneering. (And those who delight in attacking other people’s motives are typically outraged when someone questions their’s.) This plus crybullies blocking speech, no platforming, disinviting and all the other deeply uncivil abusive nonsense.

This is weaponised morality, weaponised civility, which extends all the way down, via “codes of conduct“*, to your local workplace. In other words, not civility at all. Instead, what is being run via the moral bullying, rhetoric of denunciation is a moral caste system, where you are allowed to hold someone’s race against them–if they are white. You are allowed to hold someone’s gender against them–if they are male. You are allowed to hold someone’s sexuality against them–if they are heterosexual. You are allowed to hold someone’s religion against them–if they are Christian. (And you are allowed to hold the existence of another country against them–if they are Jewish.) Treating Western civilisation as if it is not one of achievement and emancipations, but of crimes and oppression, and Western cultures as if they were without virtues, only sins. All the while bleating about heteronormative white male supremacy and being shockedshocked, when those whose civilisation, culture, country and identities are under serial attack arc up.

The notion that only “good people” would play identity politics was always a remarkably silly one.

Of course, when they do arc up, it gives you millions of fellow citizens to sneer at and feel superior to. No wonder, as historian Niall Ferguson points out, there is something of a turn to populism across the West; in cultural politics alone there is so much for them to work with.

Destroying civility

It turns out that, if civility and morality are weaponised, that removes important constraints within the body politic which — surprise! — has unfortunate implications. And those implications are likely to keep turning up as long as the underlying causes continue to operate.

And all this without considering the Alt Right, who are also obviously a product of cultural alienation and the toxic public culture of weaponised morality and civility. (Though prominent Alt Righter Vox Day’s blog commentary turned out to be much more accurate about The Donald’s Republican primary prospects than almost any mainstream media commentary.)

Online supporters of The Donald support him because of his rhetoric, his refusal to bow to the moral bullies that have so poisoned the public sphere. The shouts of “racism! racism!” and “fascism! fascism!” in response to The Donald’s rhetoric are using the rhetoric of denunciation against someone whose success is fundamentally predicated on a revolt against the very same rhetoric of denunciation. That is not likely to be a successful strategy.

But nor is copying populists the way to undermine them — that just legitimates what they say. The trick is to steal the underlying issue(s) in a way which leaves the populists with a lot of associated negatives. None of The Donald’s Republican opponents were clever enough to do that — partly because they did not take him sufficiently seriously until too late and partly because they were conventional politicians who did not understand the nature and level of angst in significant sections of the electorate and, when it did dawn, did too much implicit or explicit agreeing with The Donald, rather than stealing the underlying concerns his rhetoric played to.

Then Australian Prime Minister John Winston Howard provided a classic example of how to steal while undermining. In response to the populism of Pauline Hanson and One Nation he did not steal any of their policies or their specific rhetoric; he captured the underlying issue of control, of having a say, with the brilliant line of “But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.  All while running a high immigration policy, and the least Eurocentric migration policy Australia had ever run.

Yes, he may win

I am, however, not convinced that Hillary is clever enough politician to adapt to a situation where past rhetorics are the problem not the solution (“vast right wing conspiracyreally isn’t going to work).

So, those who don’t want President Trump are going to have to hope he alienates enough of the electorate by his rhetoric to get Hillary over the line. But The Donald is a shameless rhetorician, a demagogue, that the media cannot look away from because he is such good copy/viewership.

The Donald is also, as Dilbert author Scott Adams has been explaining for months, a very effective rhetorician. And Hillary is such a good target for a shameless rhetorician.

In a fight between the two most disliked candidates in US Presidential politics for decades, fighting over a public sphere poisoned by the rhetorics of denunciation and the weaponising of morality and (even more problematically) basic civility, the media-savvy shameless rhetorician who represents a revolt against the dominant culture of denunciation has a much better chance than those who have no clue about the politics of cultural alienation, or why it has such power, are likely to realise. In which case, we better hope that this is not just a puff piece and there is someone of substance under the shameless rhetoric.

 

 

* How can one object to codes of conduct? When they create ideological sins not remotely subject to precise definition empowering the politics of denunciation; especially when accompanied by dubious complaint procedures. They are, as suggested here, easy weapons for budding little totalitarians.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

What starts in Palestine does not stay in Israel

By Lorenzo

Years ago, in answer to the question about why gentiles should care about what happened to the Jews, an answer was that the Jews were “the canary in the mine“; one needed to pay attention because the Jews might be first on the hit list, but others would follow.

A similar question could be asked now: why should sensible folk be concerned about the obsession with Israel and its alleged sins that disfigures so much of postmodern progressivism? The answer is, because the Jewish state is also a canary in the mine: the pathologies that Western reactions to the Israel-Palestine disputes have given rise to do not stay confined to that issue.

Pathology petri dish

Those particular pathologies include wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial, fantasy Islam.

Wicked facts are straightforward–things which are true, but only Bad People mention or give significance to. That Palestinian media and schooling are saturated with crude Jew-hatred is a wicked fact, for example. That there have never been any serious Palestinian peace proposals is another wicked fact. (Especially if conjoined with there having been serious Israeli peace proposals, notably by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmurt: the Palestinian Authority did endorse the Arab Peace Plan, but was hardly in a position to refuse to do so.) The Palestinian insistence on the right of return, a “right” with no equivalent for any other case of population transfers, essentially blocks any serious possibility of an agreement, another wicked fact.

That Palestinians are the only refugees to be denied citizenship by their ethnic confrere state(s) (because the Arab states wanted stateless sticks to beat Israel with) is a wicked fact. That the current state of Syria, Iraq, Libya and the past history of Lebanon might raise issues about what a Palestinian state would be like, or the virtues of Israel, is another wicked fact (or wicked implication, strictly speaking). Other wicked facts are that a majority of Israel’s Jewish population is of Middle Eastern origins, or that Jewish refugees from Muslim countries outnumbered Palestinian ones from the creation of Israel.

They are not the same level of wickedness, but they are all things Good People don’t mention, or pass over as quickly as possible.

A classic wicked fact is that Israel is the most stable democracy in the Middle East with the most liberal society. This wicked fact is also a case of achievement avoidance: one is absolutely not to see Israel as any sort of achievement. Thus, referring to Israel’s vastly superior performance on queer rights to the rest of the Middle East is pinkwashing. If Israel does not represent any sort of achievement, then no awkward issues are raised by, for example, proposing the abolition of the most stable democracy in the Middle East with the most liberal society (aka the One State Solution).

The lack of serious Palestinian peace proposals, the corrupt failures of Palestinian politics, the systematic stoking of the politics of hatred, these are more wicked facts which are also cases of responsibility denial: as an “oppressed people” Palestinians are not to be held responsible for their own situation or their actions–even those that if done by Westerners would lead to furious denunciations.

Finally, there is fantasy Islam, not merely in the sense that Islam is not to be seen as in any way a causal factor in the Arab-Israel or Israel-Palestinian disputes (both a wicked fact and a contradiction of responsibility denial) but the reason it is not to be seen as such is that Good People adhere to a fantasy version of Islam and Islamic history.

That Palestinian politics and society is rarely, if ever, subject to anything remotely resembling critical scrutiny by the mainstream Western media means, of course, that Israel is always in the wrong and the cause of everything that goes wrong: the sins of Israel become THE story–indeed, the only possible story, given enough adherence to the notions of wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam.

Not quarantined

The problem is, there is no quarantine that stops the pattern of wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam being applied elsewhere. On the contrary, Israel-Palestine because a sort of petri dish, where these pathologies can be tested, developed, dry run and before being extended to other issues, and to Western societies themselves. If applying such is acceptable, indeed “good reporting”, on Palestine-Israel then it is acceptable more generally. It is not that these notions were invented to apply to Palestine-Israel; it is that Palestine-Israel provides a media realm to prove their acceptability and develop their application.

Thus, that African-Americans (around 13% population) commit half the homicides in the US is a classic wicked fact. (If you doubt that, try using it as a response to Black Lives Matter.) Similarly, the current buzz term of white supremacy is an exercise in responsibility denial (due to the oppression of white supremacy nothing negative in the situation of African-Americans is in any way a responsibility of African-Americans). While Western civilisation has become, in postmodern progressive parlance, an entire zone of achievement avoidance.

One of the bridges from Israel-Palestine to the West in general is how issues to do with Muslims (particularly Muslims in the West) are framed. Thus, the depth of Jew-hatred in the Muslim (particularly Arab) world (wicked fact) and how embedded it is in Islamic Scriptures are not things Good People mention (fantasy Islam).

Which makes the Holocaust something of a problem. As James Kirchick points out in a recent essay, the push is on to universalise the Holocaust so that it in no way provides any shielding to Jews in general, or Israel in particular. In Europe especially, this is pushing at an open door because it has long been obvious that much of the European elite can never forgive Israel for the Holocaust, as the Holocaust tarnishes European elite pretensions to being the moral arbiters of the planet.

Underlying wicked facts, achievement avoidance and fantasy Islam is a wish for a simple framing that buttresses moral pretension. The complex idea that yes, other folk were subject to the Holocaust and yes other genocides have occurred but the specific targeting of Jews was at the heart of the Holocaust is apparently too complex an idea: the diversity of real apparently just doesn’t work for ease of Virtue. While dismissing the Holocaust as white-on-white crime points to the intellectual degradation identity politics naturally leads to.

But the last is so far from an irrational move, it is a natural part of the pattern. One way the Jews are so awkward is that they demonstrate that a group which is oppressed and excluded from political power can nevertheless achieve considerable social success. (They are hardly the only group that demonstrates that, but they are a particularly salient group that does so, especially from a Western perspective.) So they seriously get in the way of blaming everything bad that happens to any group on white folk. Declaring them to be white folk (who therefore don’t count in the oppression stakes) is a natural move to block that bit of inconvenient complexity.

If one bothers to become seriously knowledgable about the history of European Jew-hatred, then the strength of Jew-hatred in the Muslim world is hardly a surprise. Essentially the same patterns apply as applied in C19th and early C20th Europe–angst over modernity that seems threatening and foreign, hostility to a historically despised group that seems to be doing “unnaturally” well, religious hierarchies acting as gatekeepers of righteousness encouraging Jew-hatred as a tactic to buttress their own authority. The factors that led to rampant Jew-hatred (indeed, exterminatory Jew-hatred) in C19th and early C20th Europe are alive and well in contemporary the Islamic world.

They are, indeed, if anything stronger in the Islamic world. Modernity was at least created within the West; Islam experiences modernity even more as a foreign intrusion. While the Catholic Church’s investment in encouraging Jew-hatred (though continuous and extensive) could never reach the level it does among contemporary Islamic clerics because there are barriers within Christianity to full blown exterminatory Jew-hatred–the most obvious being that Christ and His disciples were Jews and that Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself was originally preached by a Jewish man to Jewish audiences. However far Christian Jew-hatred could extend, one had to take steps beyond Christian doctrine to embrace exterminatory Jew hated. (Which, over the centuries, plenty of folk calling themselves Christians did.)

Islam has no such internal barriers–Muhammad and his Companions were not Jews, his audiences were (mostly) not Jews. Worse, Jews were specific targets of homicidal retaliation by the Prophet and the Quran has many negative references to Jews, which a famous hadith takes further (also).

Taking Islam as a belief system seriously (rather than concocting a fantasy version of it), taking a critical look at patterns within Islamic societies (rather than treating such as a collective aggression against Muslims) and taking Jew hatred itself seriously, all give grave grounds for concern about where the level of Jew-hatred within Muslim countries leads. But if one is committed to the deep stupidities of wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam, then all this becomes invisible. For the Virtuous, Ignorance is Strength.

But, having been tried and tested and shown to be completely acceptable in reporting on Israel-Palestine wicked facts, achievement avoidance, responsibility denial and fantasy Islam are all now coming to a media outlet near you. What starts in Palestine does not stay in Israel.

 

ADDENDA Richard Landes points out a quite different and, at the sharp end, murderous effect of such journalism back in Europe.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

(Not) coping with the diversity of the real

By Lorenzo

The heterosexual/homosexual distinction is relatively recent, being coined in the mid C19th. Like all binary classifications, it is somewhat problematic in dealing with the diversity of the human. That being said, it is not merely a social construct: there is a real underlying diversity in human sexuality that it tries (somewhat clumsily) to grapple with.

The attempt by Michael W. Hannon in his essay Against Heterosexuality in the Catholic magazine First Things to employ the works of queer theorists and Michel Foucault to entirely dismiss the concepts of heterosexual and homosexual fails on various levels, but its most basic failure is simply not acknowledging any aspect of the sexual diversity of the human that the distinction tries to grapple with. (It is hardly surprising that the term bisexual does not turn up anywhere in the essay. [In contradiction to a famous study of a few years ago, it appears that bisexual males do exist.])

But there are a lot of problems with the piece. First, Michel Foucault is a notoriously unreliable source for historical facts. Second, just because the terms heterosexual and homosexual are relatively new, does not mean that a sense that people differed in sexual orientation was not much older. Rictor Norton’s The Myth of the Modern Homosexual is a good source for that (see also here).

The reality of diversity

Third, there is now significant scientific evidence of diversity in sexual orientation. Such as differences in reaction to the smell of sweat, to visual stimulation (the more so among men than women), and in cross-gender brain structures and cognitive traits. (Really, is anyone surprised that lesbians tend to have more typically “male” cognitive features and gay men tend to have more typically “female” cognitive features?) This is still a developing field. There may well be problems with the heterosexual/homosexual construction as it has developed, but it is an attempt to grapple with a real phenomenon–human sexual diversity.

(Oh, and a tip for female authors in particular: gay men are not girls with penises, they have testosterone; it makes a difference. For example, gay and straight men may look at different porn, but they use porn in essentially the same way.)

If, as our author alleges, the matter is all social construct and not any underlying awkward reality, then one does not have to struggle with why said social constructions popped up in the first place, let alone why there has been a decades-long queer rights movement. Nor any awkward questions about why it has succeeded as much as it has.

The author does make reference to:

Over the course of several centuries, the West had progressively abandoned Christianity’s marital architecture for human sexuality. Then, about one hundred and fifty years ago, it began to replace that longstanding teleological tradition …

The older teleological view measured morality against man’s rational-animal nature; in the sexual realm, this meant evaluating sex acts by reference to the common good of marriage, which integrated spousal union and the bearing and rearing of children.

If the reality of human sexual diversity is ignored, then the long persistence of said “marital architecture” is completely unproblematic. Conversely, if humans are, and always have been, sexual diverse, then how did such a tradition persist for so long?

The short answer is brutality: it was brutally enforced. Somewhat intermittently, and with periodic moral panics and purges, but the basis of its maintenance was brutality. As the necessary enforcing brutality faded away, the reality of human sexual diversity began to emerge into the light, so to speak. Why the movement for gay rights? Because people were able to connect who were tired of being treated like crap. (There was also a much broader resistance to the very narrow and controlled conception of family the Church pushed that has won out.)

The growth of science provided non-religious grounds for knowledge and authority; the interaction with other cultures created an awareness of the diversity of human gender taxonomies and sexual ethics; the growth of transport and communication technologies allowed smaller and smaller minorities to connect; mass urbanisation allowed folk to congregate together. In other words, much the same patterns as underlay the other steps in the Emancipation Sequence. And you cannot put the genie back in the bottle without the necessary enforcing brutality.

Sodomising Scripture

But this does not exhaust the problems with the essay. The author tells us that:

The Bible never called homosexuality an abomination. Nor could it have, for as we have seen, Leviticus predates any conception of sexual orientation by a couple of millennia at least. What the Scriptures condemn is sodomy, regardless of who commits it or why.

Well, that is not remotely true, because sodomy is not a Scriptural concept; for the New Testament predates development of the notion of sodomy by centuries, much of the Old Testament by about a millennia.

Of course, later translations inserted sodomy into Scripture, but that does not make sodomy a Scriptural concept, no more than inserting homosexuality into Scripture does.

Moreover, using Leviticus as an authority hardly works–Leviticus repeatedly insists that its proscriptions are an all or nothing matter: you have to either enforce the lot or none, you cannot pick and choose. (So tattoos, for example, are right out, as are priestly tonsures.) Every Christian, and every denomination of Christianity, is in breach of Leviticus.

If you are picking and choosing which bits of Leviticus to take notice of, your authority is not Leviticus, it is whatever basis you are using to pick and choose. Nor does Leviticus condemn same-sex relations per se, it condemns a man taking the female role in sex. The point, fairly clearly, is to enforce strict gender differentiation–more specifically, to not have men “unman” themselves by taking the female role. Women lying with women is, apparently, fine.

Sodomy refers, of course, to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain, in Genesis 19. A good exercise is to read the Scriptural story closely and clearly without the imposing the since-traditional “it’s all about butt sex” interpretation on the text. Does that interpretation make any sense from the actual Scriptural passages?

Put it another way, how do you turn attempted group rape of visiting guests who were messengers of the Lord into any sort of condemnation of any sexual practice as such? Especially given there is no divine intervention until it comes to saving Lot’s daughters and the messengers are there to warn Lot that God has already given up on the cities. (Does, for example, the brutal group rape and murder in Judges 19 mean that there is something wrong with opposite sex sexual relations?) The answer is, you can’t. You have to add to the text to elevate same-sex relations to being the key issue.

Note that seeing the key issue as vile treatment of visitors and guests, of the stranger among you, is very much in accord with other Biblical passages, such as Exodus 22:21 and Exodus 23:9. The notion that the most important thing was the butt sex that didn’t happen, is supported nowhere.

So, how did the since-traditional interpretation arise? By an intellectual applying an academic theory to the text in order to score points in a cultural war. The intellectual was Philo of Alexandria (c.25BC-50AD), the academic theory was Greek natural law philosophy and the culture war was between monotheist Hebrews and polytheist Greeks.

Here is Philo the culture warrior, condemning a pagan religious parade:

At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet. (Special Laws III, VII, 40)

It could be any contemporary Christian, Jewish or Muslim cleric condemning the Gay Pride parade of your choice.

Since Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain, were the premier examples of God’s specific wrath (apart from small matters such as the Flood), a range of (often not very specific) sins were attributed to its inhabitants in Scripture. Philo, however, focuses particularly on the consequences of prosperity:

As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence. (On Abraham, XXVI, 135-6)

The concern for strict gender roles comes across very clearly. But it is also an introduction of the (Greek) notion of the “laws of nature” which the inhabitants of the cities of the plain sinfully discarded. It also establishes the utility of denying human sexual diversity, for such denial provides the best of both worlds: on one hand, by pretending anyone might do it, same-sex activity is turned into a huge moral threat bringing with it social sterility; on the other, by condemning something most people are uninterested in doing, you are selling very low cost virtue.

There is, in fact, a curious insecurity about opposite-sex attraction involved. (Though if being female is such a desperately inferior state, then perhaps the resilience of being attracted to them is something to be insecure about.) An insecurity there is no biological or social basis for–in no society, not even in societies where same-sex relations are a compulsory adolescent experience (yes, there have been some) do men give up having sex with women, or having children. Opposite sex desire is a reliable feature of human affairs. Merely not a universal feature of actual humans.

Philo was not conforming to the rabbinical oral tradition concerning the cities of the plain, which held that they were not immoral, but anti-moral: that is, they actually punished people for displaying moral behaviour towards the weak and vulnerable. Which has the virtue of making the both their punishment, and its extent, congruent with the moral message elsewhere in the Old Testament: it certainly makes much more sense than fearful insecurity about the power of opposite sex attraction or the apparently enormous moral significance of butt sex. (To the extent that sodomy has a precise theological definition, it means any non-reproductive sex to the point of ejaculation; but anal intercourse has always been the archetypal version of sodomy.)

Philo’s conception was, however, an intellectual winner, winning converts outside Judaism, extending to Christianity and Islam. The Qur’an incorporates the notion that the cities of the plain were destroyed for their homosexuality, even claiming they were the first to engage in such.

Editing nature into convenient form

When one looks for the original argument that demonstrates same-sex acts to be unnatural, one comes across much assertion, but precious little argument. The original source seems to be Plato’s The Laws. In Book One, the Athenian asserts that:

Now the gymnasia and common meals do a great deal of good, and yet they are a source of evil in civil troubles; as is shown in the case of the Milesian, and Boeotian, and Thurian youth, among whom these institutions seem always to have had a tendency to degrade the ancient and natural custom of love below the level, not only of man, but of the beasts. The charge may be fairly brought against your cities above all others, and is true also of most other states which especially cultivate gymnastics. Whether such matters are to be regarded jestingly or seriously, I think that the pleasure is to be deemed al which arises out of the intercourse between men and women; but that the intercourse of men with men, or of women with women, is contrary to nature, and that the bold attempt was originally due to unbridled lust. The Cretans are always accused of having invented the story of Ganymede and Zeus because they wanted to justify themselves in the enjoyment of unnatural pleasures by the practice of the god whom they believe to have been their lawgiver.

The implied argument, from the citation of animals, is that it is contrary to nature because we do not see same-sex activity amongst animals. In Book Eight, the Athenian says:

For if any one following nature should lay down the law which existed before the days of Laius, and denounce these lusts as contrary to nature, adducing the animals as a proof that such unions were monstrous, he might prove his point, but he would be wholly at variance with the custom of your states. …

Our citizens ought not to fall below the nature of birds and beasts in general, who are born in great multitudes, and yet remain until the age for procreation virgin and unmarried, but when they have reached the proper time of life are coupled, male and female, and lovingly pair together, and live the rest of their lives in holiness and innocence, abiding firmly in their original compact:-surely, we will say to them, you should be better than the animals.

So, the argument seems to be that animals follow nature, animals don’t do it, so it is against nature. If nature is the measure of the natural, then the argument is way out of luck, for nature is an incredible array of sexual, gender and mating diversity. Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity provides chapter and verse.

As for the purpose of sex being reproduction, nature is not helpful there either, as sex is used for a much wider range of purposes in nature than merely reproduction. Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People provides considerable detail on that. The Athenian of Plato’s Laws is not a very good, nor a knowledgeable, observer of nature.

Folk became aware that nature did not live up to the alleged restrictions of the natural: animals such as hares and hyenas were identified as letting the side down. This was coped with in the way teleological conceptions normally cope with uncooperative diversity–the conclusion was used to police the premises. That is, evidence in nature which contradicted what was declared to be the natural order was declared to be unnatural–outside the “proper” order of nature. If one is allowed to simply exclude the contrary cases, then one is fine. (Marxists turned this into a fine art with respect to the social order, but natural law theorists were perfecting the technique centuries earlier.) Of course, one’s theory then rests on nothing but itself, but that has never proved to be an insuperable difficulty for any faithful concerning the teleological apparatus of their devotion.

Based on nothing but assertion and a deemed license to exclude contrary cases it may be, but the classing of same-sex activity as unnatural had grim consequences when tied to monotheism. For the notion that same-sex activity is unnatural is then turned it into an act of treason against God, as nature’s Creator. As early as the C4th, St John Chrysostom (c.349-407), the patron saint of preachers, is assuring folk that same-sex activity is worse than murder. (It being treason against God and all.) For:

All passions are dishonorable, for the soul is even more prejudiced and degraded by sin than is the body by disease; but the worst of all passions is lust between men…. The sins against nature are more difficult and less rewarding, since true pleasure is only the one according to nature. But when God abandons a man, everything is turned upside down! Therefore, not only are their passions satanic, but their lives are diabolic….. So I say to you that these are even worse than murderers, and that it would be better to die than to live in such dishonor. A murderer only separates the soul from the body, whereas these destroy the soul inside the body….. There is nothing, absolutely nothing more mad or damaging than this perversity.

One notes again the concern for male status and standing. Apart from St Paul in Romans, there is no Scriptural basis for claiming that women can commit “sodomy”, and precious little Patristic support. (St Paul’s wording fairly clearly shows the influence of Philo.)

By the medieval period, in the medieval best seller The Golden Legend, compiled by an Archbishop of Genoa later beatified for his editorial and compilation efforts therein, we are told that a miracle of the Nativity was:

And it happened this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame. Whereof S. Austin saith that, it lacked but little that God would not become man for that sin.

The Christmas day massacre–God kills all the sodomites so that Incarnation can happen and the Gospel of Love can be let loose on the world.

So, sodomy is not Scriptural; the claim that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was all (or even primarily) about same-sex activity is, to say the least, weak; the it-is-unnatural argument is based on a complete misreading of how nature actually is and the whole thing rests on an insecurity about opposite sex attraction which also has no basis.

(Though Christianity is a very broad tradition–St Aelred of Rievaulx suggests, in his Spiritual Friendship, that Jesus and John were married in Heaven.)

Having someone to pick on

So, what gives?

Several things. If entire sections of nature can be excised as “not counting”, then a minority of humans can easily be so. The conspicuous thing about arguing that sex-is-only-for-reproduction, reproduction can only be properly done within marriage, it is all about human flourishing is that it relies on excluding the same-sex attracted–their flourishing clearly doesn’t count. And that exclusion is the point.

I said there was no cost to most folk in banning something they have little or no interest in doing. But there is a cost: the cost is treating fellow human beings badly; which is actually the point–having a very vulnerable group to so easily and (mostly) costlessly pick on.

Queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus. It is hard to think of any group that it is easier to isolate and pick on; particularly as it is hard to think of a group that it is easier to drive into hiding and not speaking up for themselves. They make such a splendid target–and that is the point.

For where do priests and clerics get authority most easily and graphically? From being gatekeepers of righteousness; from telling you what is righteous and what is not. And the more unexpected the markers of righteousness are, the more the “expertise” of the priest or cleric is need.

We don’t need priests or clerics to tell us that murder is wrong, that theft is wrong–cultures either come to those conclusions or they don’t get off the ground. But we do need a priest or cleric to tell us that heaven hates ham, that God hates butt sex, that dogs are unclean. It is not morality, but moral taboos that are priests and clerics distinctive stock-in-trade. (As it is, for that matter, for secular clerisies.)

A consequence of turning the archetypal instance of God’s specific wrath into being all about butt sex meant that picking on this incredibly vulnerable group was “necessary” to preserve social order from the wrath of God. Which made it a desperately important issue–so much so, that discharging semen into someone’s anus was apparently worse than murder. Well, it had to be, otherwise God was being pathological. Of course, if the story of the cities of the plain was really about systematically picking on the weak and vulnerable, then … (One might also stop to note that the Gospel Christ has very little to say about secular authority, but a great deal to say about religious authority being used in cruel and oppressive ways.)

It is very clear that there are plenty of believers who are outraged that queers are being treated as “real people” not the targets of oppressive, no-voice repression that is how any Godly society should treat such folk.

Moreover, the queer (the sexually and gender divergent) are a natural target for monotheistic religions. First, because the One God is not a sexual being in the way polytheistic deities are. In animism and polytheism, sex connects us to the divine. In monotheism, it separates us from the divine. Except in one form–reproduction, because that connects us to God the Creator. So, reproductive sex becomes the OK form of sex. Second, because such targeting provides a splendid point of divergence from polytheistic and animist religions; it being very clear, very low cost for most folk and picking on such a vulnerable group.

Third, because monotheism comes only from the Middle East, so only from plough-and-pastoralist societies–that is, patrilineal and patrilocal societies. If there is only one Ultimate Authority, that Authority is bound to be conceived as Male and with Male authority priests. (Polytheism tended to include third gender priests, animism third gender shamans: so another point of differentiation.) Which naturally encourages a very strict gender dichotomy.

All of which leads to monotheism’s history of murderous hatred of the queer.

The various monotheisms do not use the same set of scriptures, they do not use the same set of justifications, or, in the case of Zoroastrianism, come from an entirely separate scriptural tradition, but they keep coming to the same conclusions.

But the reasons for the recurring pattern are not reasons anyone is going to use as justifications. Hence the need to create various legitimating theories when talking to non-believers (as Jews and Christians were). A need which way overshoots the actual scriptural and philosophical supports claimed for them.

Missing the irony

It turns out there is also another cost. What you do to others, others can do to you; especially if you have already set up the patterns and justifications. So Jews justified picking on pagans as against God; Christians picked that up and justified picking on pagans and Jews as against God; Muslims picked all that up, and justified picking on pagans, Jews and Christians as against God. The dhimmi, Pact/Conditions of Umar elements of Sharia are the anti-pagan, anti-Jewish laws of the Christian Roman Empire extended to Christians, theologised and generalised.

And they have all agreed about picking on the queers and never, ever saw any irony involved.

Now, in the increasingly intolerantly secular West, it is believing Christian and Jews who are on the receiving end. Folk being outraged by political correctness yet failing to see any parallels with previous gender and sexual correctness are, once again, not seeing the irony. (But, then, nor are the purveyors of political correctness at all grasping that moral fervour, far from protecting folk from being oppressive, is a great motivator and justifier of oppression.)

Though I wish queer folk would learn the lessons of history better and not join in. But it seems folk simply don’t so learn, because their moral fervour is (always) true righteousness personified. Selling belief in collective moral narcissism is demonstrably a perennially easy sell.

And they always have a theory. It is just never a good one.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The Perfect Soldiers

By Lorenzo

LA Times journalist Terry McDermont’s study Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers, Who They Were, Why They Did It goes into the otherwise unremarkable lives of the 9/11 hijackers, firmly establishing that family background had nothing to do with their suicidal jihadism. Most did not come from particularly religious families; one, Ziad Jarrah from Lebanon, apparently did not realise he was a Muslim until he was 12. (His Christian nanny used to take him to Christian services on a Sunday: his deeply secular Sunni Muslim parents apparently did not object.)

The linking thread in their (short) lives was going to college. The notion that education is some solution to the problems of jihadism and Islam-derived animus towards apostates, “immodest” women, queer folk or followers of other religions is revealed to be utter nonsense by simple examination of the biographies of the 9/11 hijackers themselves, who were typically highly educated. (Mohammad Atta, the oldest, did a PhD in urban planning, for example.) Equally nonsense is the notion that poverty has any role: as you would expect from people engaging in university education, they overwhelmingly came from comfortable middle class or even wealthy backgrounds.

What made college life a common thread is that it took them away from their families and local communities. So they were confronting the “who am I?” question as isolated young men in foreign lands–they were mostly studying in the West.* Which made them excellent recruitment material for those pushing an intense Islamic identity.

Militancy, not radicalism

Including those often described as “radical imams” pushing “radical Islam”. But radical is the wrong word. Australian political scientist David Martin Jones expresses nicely the problematic nature of the “radical” moniker:

Rather than being radicalised, young Western Muslims are attracted to what a more religious age than our own recognised as enthusiasm, zealotry or fanaticism.

… any analysis of jihadism’s self-confirming zealotry suggests that those labelled “radicalised” are not really radicals at all. Ideological radicalism, properly understood, requires a clear break from traditional religion, of whatever form, in order to achieve a pluralist, secular modernity.

By contrast, a scriptural literalism based on the message of the Prophet Mohammad and the hadith of his rightly guided seventh-century successors, the Rashidun, fuels Islamic State’s thought and practice. They look to past models purified by purificatory violence today to build tomorrow’s religious utopia. … Today’s jihadi is an enthusiast as defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, namely, one who is “possessed by a god” or in “receipt of divine communication”. No matter how deluded their actions appear to modern secular sensibilities, in their minds they are directly engaged in a divine mission to re-create the caliphate.

In other words, jihadis have very little in common with the radicals of any Western tradition. They are far more like the Reformation and Counter-Reformation religious “enthusiasts” of the C16th and C17th that C18th Enlightenment folk so strongly reacted against. They have even more in common with the original Jewish Zealots: true believers homicidally enraged that human law is permitted to trump God’s law and whose murderous ire falls particularly intensely on “wickedly compromising” fellow believers. The issue is not radical Islam, it is militant Islam.

The book is clear and highly readable, as you would expect from a veteran journalist. It is also extensively footnoted.

About half way through, the link between the hijackers biographies up to that point and their suicidal mass homicides was still unclear. It was all very well to say that they sympathised with the Palestinian cause or were unhappy with the US giving up on the squabbling Afghani factions after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (particularly as their Pakistani allies systematically undermined any secularising groups). But how does one go from being unhappy with Israel over the situation of Palestinians, or the US over its support for Israel, or the US’s disengagement from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, to suicidally killing thousands of random strangers?

The answer that emerges from McDermott’s narrative is very clear–intense cultivation of an Islamic identity; particularly a mainstream Sunni Islamic identity. It was that intense identification with Islam which lead them to existing jihadi networks and their mass homicide of random strangers in planes and buildings.

What is also very clear as McDermott follows the lives of the hijackers-to-be is that seeing Islamic militancy as some product of Western foreign policy is a ludicrous simplification. If anything Soviet foreign policy (the invasion of Afghanistan) and Russian foreign policy (the Chechen wars) was more important. Similarly, blaming the Iranian Revolution of 1979 on the CIA-SIS organised Shah’s 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh is equally specious. Particularly as the Revolution was a joint Islamic-Leftist revolt–it was only later that Khomeini turned so successfully on his former Leftist allies. Khomeini’s triumph was a success for Islamic militancy, demonstrating that political Islam could triumph; nevertheless there was limited cross-over to Sunni Islam, precisely because intense cultivation of a Sunni Islamic identity tends to intensify the distance from Shia Islam, as events in Syria and Iraq have been demonstrating.

Nor is Islamic militancy significantly explained, or even generated, by the Israel-Palestinian dispute. On the contrary, Islamic militancy (particularly via the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928) had a great deal with making the dispute so intractable in the first place, and the outbreak of war in 1947. Certainly, the success of Israel generates a lot of resentment, and is a favourite talking point, but it has had very little to do with the development of the jihadi networks.

Even considering jihadis who have fought Israel, Hezbollah was more a product of the Lebanese Civil War; while Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, with much of its success coming from reaction against the corrupt failures of Fatah. Indeed, the failures of the socialist-nationalist push within Arab countries have been much more important in generating support for Islamic militancy than any aspect of Western foreign policies: a larger pattern within the Arab world well on display in the Algerian Civil War.

Out of Islam

McDermott follows the future hijackers through their experience of the networks organising against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. This was a deeply Islamic milieu–as one would expect. Saudi Arabia and other Muslim backers provided two-thirds of the funding, Muslims provided all the fighters and even the US assistance was mainly channelled through the Pakistanis. The defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan is seen in the Islamic world as a Muslim triumph, and for good reason.

So, why does intense identification of an Islamic identity lead to suicidally killing thousands of random strangers? First, because of Islam’s valorisation, indeed sanctification, of violence. The archetypal Muslim martyr is one who dies fighting the infidel. This is very different from the Christian concept of martyrdom–one who is killed for refusing to deny their Faith.

Second, because of Islamic supremacism: the pre-eminent cause in which such violence is sanctified. Sharia is the law and path of God, the Sovereign of the Universe, and as such rightfully applies to everyone. Sharia mandates that believers should rule, and that conversion to Islam or acceptance of Islamic dominance are the only peaceful options open to non-believers (apart from temporary truces). Otherwise, the unbelievers should be fought until either they convert, they accept Muslim rule or they die. As ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)–scholar, jurist, pioneer historical sociologist–says in his Muqaddimah:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam by persuasion or by force. …To discuss or argue these things with them [the Christians] is not for us. It is (for them to choose between) conversion to Islam, payment of poll tax, or death (3:31).

This is standard fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, easily replicated from any number of even more authoritative sources (pdf).

Third, because of the systematic dismissive Othering that is pervasive in Islamic doctrine. The omnipresent success of kafir societies is itself an offence to intensely cultivated Islamic sensibility: it denies the truth of Islam and its proper dominance. It is hardly accidental that jihadi targets in the West include places and gatherings with cultural significance, such as the Two Towers themselves, or a rock concert in Paris.

Cultural reaction

Reading the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)–who has been deeply influential in motivating jihadis–it is very clear that it is above all the cultural omnipresence, the cultural pollution of the West, which he feared and reacted against (including the apparently outrageous sexual licence of a dance in small town 1940s US) far more than the comings and goings of Western foreign policy. (It is useful to remember that ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness is a key aspect of pious Islamic practise.)

The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers: so most Muslims just get on with their lives. But if one is young, unmarried, separated from kith and kin, and intensely cultivates an Islamic identity, the jihadi path is one that young men in particular are easily and naturally led to. Especially in mainstream Sunni Islam as (1) it has no sources of authority for religious reason other than inference from the Quran, the life of Muhammad (a ruling-and-conquering Prophet) and his sayings and acts and (2) it has the numbers to aspire to dominance.

Across Islam

McDermott includes several appendices, one of which lists key al-Qaeda personnel and connections; looking at the list it is clear that they came from across the Islamic world. The book also makes clear the Islam-spanning nature of jihadi networks and aspirations. The original notion for the 9/11 attack developed from a plan originally intended to operate out of Manila in early 1995.

The reason so many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, is that they were the ones who could get visas to the US: all the Yemenis who were originally picked were knocked back by US consular officials as potential economic migrants.

The 9/11 hijackers were remarkably ordinary young men, separated from kith and kin, who intensely cultivated an Islamic identity, turning themselves into, as the title says, Perfect Soldiers for that intensely cultivated Islamic identity.

Meanwhile, Europe has taken in thousands of young Muslim men, separated from kith and kin, for whom an Islamic identity is the easiest identity to reach for. What could possibly go wrong with that?

ADDENDA The power of the book precisely comes from its recreation of the lives of the protagonists. One gets to see what impacted their lives and a sense of the milieus they were immersed in that much more fully and effectively.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

* Given that treating Western civilisation as a source of achievement, and any positive notion of “Western values”, is regarded as impossibly gauche by so many Western academics, the notion that young Muslims studying in the West would be encouraged to have a positive view of matters Western by their educational experience is also somewhat contra-indicated.

Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses

By Lorenzo

The recent case of a Norwegian left of centre politician who is apparently distressed that his convicted Somali rapist is likely to be deported has caused a minor online stir. I was, however, particularly struck by this statement:

But perhaps the most notable lesson Hauken says he learned is that “rapists are from a world so different from ours.”

“In his culture, sexual abuse is about power, not lust,” Hauken said. “And it’s not considered a gay action to be the one who engages in power and violence.”

“I don’t feel anger against my rapist, because I look at him as a product of an unjust world. A product of an upbringing full of war,” Hauken said.

What this all means, according to Hauken, is that refugees need our help more than ever.

The culture in which the rapist was raised plus generic injustice provided a mitigating prism through which to view what the rapist did. To state the bleeding obvious, a Western male rapist would never be granted any such excuse. The principle here is clear: Western men have moral agency, Muslim men have excuses.

Now, any contemporary postmodern progressive, if directly challenged on this point, is likely to indignantly deny that any such principle is operating. Yet, it is abundantly clear in the pattern of postmodern progressive commentary and indignation that it does.

Especially some are entirely upfront about it, such as academic Miriam Cooke, active in “Middle Eastern Women’s Studies”, who has stated:

When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women.

and

Now there is a return of colonialism that we saw in the nineteenth century in the context of globalization. What is driving Islamist men is globalization.

(The great thing about the “globalization” bogey is that it means the stick of “Western imperialism” never goes away.) But Cooke’s claims are historical nonsense, since the patterns involved extend deep into Islamic doctrine and history: indeed, to when Islam was the great imperial civilisation.

When Cooke further claims that:

Polygamy can be liberating and empowering

she is showing considerable ignorance of a great deal of social science evidence to the contrary. But it is clear her claims are driven by the need to seem morally Virtuous, not anything even vaguely resembling close attention to history and evidence. One can only agree with writer Kay S. Hymowitz’s statement about the wider travails of contemporary Western feminism:

That this combination of sentimental victimhood, postcolonial relativism, and utopian overreaching has caused feminism to suffer so profound a loss of moral and political imagination that it cannot speak against the brutalization of Islamic women is an incalculable loss to women and to men.

Consider the (dreadful) term “Islamophobia” which operates to block critical examination of Islam, basically on the grounds that Muslims believe Islam, so a critical examination of Islam is unfair/hostile/the equivalent of racism (i.e. an act of collective aggression against Muslims). If Muslims were treated as full moral agents, no such argument would be entertained for a moment. How can we tell? Because any attempt to apply the same reasoning to Christianity would be dismissed with contempt. Christianity is the dominant Western religion, Westerners are moral agents, so their beliefs (particularly their religious beliefs) are completely fair game for critical examination; indeed, fair game for casual contempt. The beliefs of Muslims, on the other hand, have protected status.

So protected, that their religious beliefs are allegedly so central to the identity of Muslims that critical examination of Islam is a collective aggression against Muslims. Yet, if any particularly problematic element of Islam is raised, it is typically claimed that many/most Muslims don’t believe it. Islam becomes a religion without content–or, at least, without significant problematic content. It is, instead, an apparently no-problem-content marker of protected identity. Yet critical examination of Western culture, Western religion, Western history is de rigueur. So much so, that strong attachment to Western cultures and identities is treated as morally offensive and retrograde.

There is also a perverse numbers game played, where if something is not believed by some large number of Muslims (either all, a large majority, a majority, depending on rhetorical convenience) then it is not a basis for criticising Islam. Needless to say, no such protective numbers game is played with any other religion (particularly not Christianity) nor Western identities generally.

Philosopher Cornell West provides a nice example of the contrast between the protected and the resonsible. In the aftermath of murders in a black church, he argued for the removal of the Confederate flag, claiming that the problem is that:

the vicious legacy of white supremacy is still shot so deep in the culture

Later, reacting to comments on mass sexual assaults in Cologne (and elsewhere), Cornell West decides that, when it comes to Muslims:

every culture has good morality and bad

Flying a flag says something deep and nasty about American culture: mass sexual assaults say nothing about any Muslim culture.

In Europe, the “morally responsible” position that folk have been browbeaten and shamed into is that critical examination of Islam and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities is inherently racist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The locals have to adapt to the newcomers while insistence that Muslims adapt to the patterns of the (highly successful) societies they are coming to is inherently racist, colonialist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The Anglophone settler societies of US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are a fair way down the same path. The clear principle being that Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses: hence the former must adapt to the latter.

All the sins of Western civilisation and Western states must be at the moral forefront at all times. None of the sins of Islamic civilisation have any such relevance. Indeed, are almost certainly the fault of Western imperialism in the first place. Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

The contrast is particularly stark over hate crimes. If a non-Muslim Westerner commits a violent hate crime, then the postmodern progressive gaze is turned intensely and hostilely on the killer; indeed, on anyone who sounds, looks like or can be vaguely associated with the killer. If a Muslim commits a violent hate crime (a rather more frequent occurrence), then the postmodern progressive gaze is most emphatically not so directed: instead, the killers become moral cyphers in a narrative of Western guilt. Any number of Muslims can kill any number of people (overwhelmingly, of course, fellow Muslims: but that is a recurring historical pattern which goes deep into Islamic history) while shouting “Allah akbar!” and it is never about the shooters, or their beliefs. Hence the nonsensical claims that the Islamic State is “not Islamic”.

No one who is acquainted with Islamic doctrine and history could ever make such a claim in good faith. The problem with the Islamic state (indeed, with all the jihadists) is that they are intensely Islamic. If the Islamic State was obviously heretical, if it was obviously not-really-Islamic, it would be far less of a problem because the Muslim world would unite much more effectively against it. It is precisely because it is a manifestation of devout, Sunni literalism that it has such resonance. (On said literalism, see their online magazine Dabiq.)

Australian political scientist David Martin Jones makes an excellent (if very uncomfortable) point when he says it is highly misleading to talk of “radical Islam” and “radical Muslims”. First, because radicalism in Western history was a tradition of intense secularism. Second, because the jihadis, and those on the Caliphate curve generally, do not want to change the religion of Islam: on the contrary, they are literalists seeking to revive Islam in what they conceive of as its purist, most proper, form. They are zealots (and fanatics), they are not radicals.

Troublemaking Algerians

The true radicals of the Muslim world are the secularists; typically adherents of the modernist Left. But the modernist Left is dying in the West, taken over by the hostile parasite of postmodern progressivism. For the modernist Left was an Enlightenment project, and proud to be so. Postmodern progressivism is, by contrast, “post Enlightenment”, which turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment re-booted. And postmodern progressives either ignore Muslim secularists or, if they become too public, denounce them.

A recent example of this being the piling on by various Western intellectuals denouncing Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud when he critiqued attitudes to women in the Arab world. Daoud was demanding that Muslim men in particular be treated as moral agents, that patterns of belief and culture in the Arab world be subject to critical examination. This heresy could clearly not be tolerated, hence the serial denunciations. (Political writer Paul Berman and philosopher Michael Walzer wrote an informative defence of Daoud.)

Algeria is something of a stronghold of the modernist Left in the Muslim world. Originally because Algeria won its independence from France by a relatively standard revolutionary insurgency established a secular, at least notionally socialist, state. The experience of the Algerian Civil War–a violent and brutal struggle between military secularists and organised Islamic zealotry–subsequently re-radicalised many Algerian intellectuals because they were literally on the firing line, subject to death threats and assassinations by said zealots. As the struggle had nothing to do with Western foreign policy,* they tend to be strongly immunized against treating political Islam as some derivative phenomenon. Algerian-American academic Karima Bennoune’s Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is a particularly fine example of these Algerian troublemaking tendencies.

Moral panic

It is particularly revealing that a standard response of postmodern progressives to any hate crime by jihadis is to immediately start worrying about Islamophobia. Indeed, ever since 9/11, postmodern progressives have continually attempted to generate a moral panic about a backlash against Muslims. The issue that engages them far more than killing in the name of Islam is bad Westerners displaying their inherent racist/xenophobic/colonialist tendencies in treating innocent Muslims badly even though, by every empirical measure, it remains a minor issue.

Again, the contrast with Westerners engaging hate crimes is stark: there is absolutely no concern after such events that there might be a backlash against innocent Westerners (particularly not white Westerners). For Westerners have moral agency (indeed, automatically morally suspicious moral agency), Muslims have excuses.

It is now approaching 15 years since 9/11 and what is very clear is that any such backlash against Muslims resident in the West is hugely less significant than violence coming from Muslim communities in Western countries–not only jihadi violence, but attacks on Jews, attacks on queer folk and assaults on women. In the West, attacks on Jews (often by Muslims) are statistically much more sizeable than attacks on Muslims. But the violence by Westerners that doesn’t happen looms as a much larger moral bogey within the Virtuous/postmodern progressive worldview than the violence by Muslims that does happen.

It is not even a case of Westerners having moral agency and Muslims having excuses, it is much more a case of violence by Muslims being studiously ignored (particularly by much of the mainstream media) or, when that can’t be done, then treated as an exercise in Muslims having excuses.

In the case of attacks on Jews, the standard excuse is, of course, Israel: if Muslims were full moral agents Israeli policy would be absolutely no excuse for attacks on Jews as individuals, especially outside Israel; but Muslims do not have such agency, they have excuses. Yet Jew-hatred is rampant throughout the Muslim world–for example, 61% of Malaysians hold anti-Semitic attitudes compared to 13% of Thais–which is precisely why so many Jews fled Islamic countries to Israel and the West (around 850,000: they and their descendants making up a majority of Israel’s Jews).

Thus Muslim culture and experience are used as an excuse, when Western culture and experience never is: well, not at least if you are white. Which is where we came in.

Why?

Where does this blatant and deeply persistent double standard come from? (One which is particularly obvious in the tolerance of various levels of Jew-hatred, in contrast to hyper-sensitivity on other forms of racism.) Like most double standards, it comes from the defence of status. In particular, moral status as decent, concerned, compassionate persons with the proper level of intellectual sophistication.

Muslims, particularly Muslims in the West, have become what economist Thomas Sowell calls moral mascots or social psychologist Thomas Haidt calls sacred victims.

Globally, the equivalent term to Muslim is Westerner, since Islam is a civilisation in its own right, with a 1400 year history. A civilisation with some very strong recurring patterns.

Thus, in the C11th, the Al-Mur?bi??n (Almoravids), Berbers united by religious fervour, swept out of the deserts and mountains and conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Sound familiar?) They were supplanted by the al-Muwa??idun (Almohades), the “monotheists”; Berbers united by religious fervour who swept out of the deserts and mountains, conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Again, sound familiar?) The only thing new in Islam about the Islamic State is its use of technology. Yet we see again the pattern of blaming the Islamic State on the West (because Westerners have moral agency) and not seeing it for what it is; a contemporary example of a recurring pattern in Islamic history (because Muslims have excuses).

Haan history

Despite being members of a grand (indeed, historically highly imperial) civilisation, postmodern progressivism treats Muslims purely as a minority. In many ways, they have become (along possibly with transgenders) the minority; the central minority for postmodern progressivist moral concern. Even outside the West, the global dominance of the West turns the civilisation of Islam into an “as-if” minority. A dominance which is in no way to be understood as in sense a matter of Western achievement, merely of Western sin. Based on what econblogger Noah Smith usefully labels Haan history. In his words:

What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.

Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.

Many countries and civilisations were subject to Western imperialism, while the Middle Eastern experience of Western imperial occupation was relatively brief. Indeed,  in the case of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, a little over three decades (c.1919-c.1956), which are now six decades ago. Yet that, in the contemporary world, only Islam produces serious religious persecution and religiously motivated mass murder, and Muslims are the only migrant communities that generate networks of the homicidally religiously enraged, becomes a non-fact. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

That Islam has a much longer and more systematic history of imperialism than Latin-Christendom-cum-Western civilisation: over a thousand years of, mostly successful, jihad hugely outweighs in time and territory 170 years of ultimately failed Levantine Crusades; that the Saharan slave trade was every bit as horrible as the Atlantic slave trade (and lasted centuries longer, so was considerably greater in total scale of suffering); that Islam has Othering built into its fundamental premises: none of these burdens of history count, unlike their Western equivalents. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.

Full victims, excellent mascots

So why? Why the obsession with a hugely overblown “Islamophobia” while Muslim persecution Christians (much more serious) becomes a factor without significance?

We might also note in passing that the emptiness of the common progressivist excuse for not paying attention to non-Western sins–“we should concentrate on what we have control over”–is well on display, given the absolute lack of interest in looking a problems within Muslim communities in the West; the sort of “see no evil” response that was a significant factor in the years-long, massive, systematic abuse of vulnerable girls that is the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal.

Why these patterns?

Why? Because if you grant a group full moral agency, they cannot be full sacred victims. They are no longer simple moral objects in a grand morality passion narrative, but people like other people, who act and whose acts have consequences. They cannot be “struggled for” in the nice, easy, I don’t have to think awkward thoughts, way. For, as Noah Smith says of the appeal of the Haan history narrative:

What’s important seems to be the constant struggle. In a world pervaded and defined by injustice and wrongness, the only true victory is in resistance.

A feature, not a bug

But it is more than that. Because there is actually considerable cognitive ingenuity involved. Postmodern progressivism is all about queer rights, third wave feminism, opposition to Othering, denial of religious claims within the public space. Yet Muslim migration involves importing wholesale people with near zero commitment to queer rights (indeed, often strongly of the opposite opinion), deeply pervaded by patriarchal and misogynist ideas, with a deep tendency to Other folk (particularly Jews and ex-Muslims) and strongly inclined to make religious claims on the public space; indeed, among whom presumptions of Muslim supremacism are embedded. A religion which valourises violence more than any other contemporary religion and, more to the point, a global religious community which valourises violence more than any other.

In other words, a group profoundly pervaded by ideas which appear to be the opposite of everything postmodern progressivism is supposed to be for. Ideas, moreover, that members of said community have distinct tendencies to act upon to varying degrees.

But that does not make them problematic as sacred victims, it makes them even better sacred victims, even better as moral mascots, as markers of virtue.  How so?

If we adopt Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez’s theory of cults of personality (useful discussion here), we can see how so. In a time, particularly in social milieus, where morality is compulsory, and ostentatious morality a marker of identity and status, how do you show you are truly Moral, truly Virtuous? By embracing contradiction. The more awkward facts you are prepared to ignore or explain away, the clearer your commitment to being one of the Virtuous is (and the less cognitive dissonance you have to deal with). And no group of potential sacred victims generates more awkward facts to ignore or explain away than Muslims.

All that apparent contradiction to what postmodern progressives are supposed to stand for? A feature, not a bug. Indeed, by not “imposing” the Enlightenment values the modernist Left was committed to, one shows how virtuous Post-Enlightenment and postmodern progressive one is. And, especially given that the post-Enlightenment is the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted, the very non-Enlightenment religious identity of Muslims fits very well.

Systematic aggression

How to get the wider community to go along (to the extent it has)? Economist Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification allows us to see the mechanics of that. The combination of emotional fervour (since people’s sense of status and moral identity is so bound up in this) and moral abuse of dissent imposes reputational costs that people are deterred by–they don’t want to be seen as “bad people”. Especially when becoming sufficiently informed to see through the push takes effort. It is so much easier just to go along. So folk do.

The potential power of such status-driven tribalism is particularly strikingly displayed by the perversion of nutritional science where seizing the scientific-status high ground through (what turned out to be) empirically unsupported claims and sustained assault on dissent profoundly distorted the nutritional advice given by doctors and governments for decades.

Tribalism is a powerful driver of human actions and attitudes, particularly when identity is tied to status. Doctrines themselves can be powerful markers of identity and status (which does not, however, mean the content of doctrines has no effect: ideas still have consequences).

Econblogger Arnold Kling makes a pertinent observation:

I think that progressives are more prone to using the threat of scorn or excommunication, and it is hard not to respond to that. As a thought experiment, I believe that if I were to say, “I think gay marriage is ok” in a room full of conservatives, they would not hold that against me. However, if I you were to say, “I think gay marriage is wrong” in a roomful of progressives, they would give me what-for and never let me forget it.

The Virtuous advance in part due to their greater aggression; their greater intolerance of dissent and lack of civility. Conservatives, and folk more generally, have their identity connected to the wider society they inhabit: which includes folk having varying views. The Virtuous have their identity tied to their sense of being Virtuous, and against the wider society (being “subversive”). Moreover, holding view X is the more Virtuous the more holding view not-X is evil, which makes differing views Vicious and subject to “bad people think that” attack–and without any overarching broader common-social-identity protection.

As filmmaker Jamie Palmer points out, this tribalism undermines the willingness to make elementary moral distinctions, due to:

an insufferable belief in the Left’s own moral superiority, an article of faith the Left is extremely reluctant to question. To be on the Left, it is held, is to care about others; to be on the Right is to care about nobody but oneself. This assumed monopoly of truth and virtue carries the assumption that those who contest Left-wing axioms harbor debased motives. Meanwhile, organizations on the Left—particularly those in the NGO sector—are held to be above reproach and are consequently excused from any meaningful scrutiny.

This tribal reflex has sometimes prevented the Left from making the most important and elementary moral distinction of all, which is not between the political Right and Left, but between democrats and authoritarians. It has often given Left-wing dictators the benefit of the doubt while expressing furious indignation against those on the democratic Right who point out those dictators’ shortcomings. If the Right turns out to have been correct about something, then one frequently hears the objection that this is “for the wrong reasons.”

So, where does that all end up? With Westerners having moral agency–since status only really works if it status over others; thus focusing on the wickedness and evil of the West and Westerners allows one to morally lord over all those wicked Westerners who do not follow the Path of Virtue–while Muslims have excuses, in order to be the perfect moral mascots and sacred victims.

The entire exercise of status through Virtue asserted against Western society, as well as its history, and those who embrace its achievements, thus operates to generate contempt for fellow citizens and the wider society we share: not a pattern likely to be socially adaptive in the long run.

In reality, the Virtuous typically have far more in common with Western conservatives and libertarians, as well as the working class Westerners that they are so busy despising for their unreconstructed patriotism, than with the Muslims they are so ostentatiously solicitous for. (Though not with the ex-Muslims they ignore.) Indeed, nothing that cutting edge Virtuous academics or other activists produce is likely to be treated with other than contempt by most Muslims, who have their own rich traditions of intellectual endeavour to tap into.

But the Virtuous refuse to look under the black box of Islam, and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities, so that reality is not even on their radar. If Muslims have excuses, not moral agency, they cannot be a problem, can they? But it is a recurring blindness of the smugly arrogant throughout history to think that others will be their controllable pawns. [It is one thing to engage in the Curley effect with folk like oneself, it is quite another to do so with folk very different from oneself.]

There is a further awkwardness: looking at the problems within Muslim communities and Muslim societies may put the actual difficulties postmodern progressives face as well-educated Westerners in an unfortunate perspective. The more the modernist Left objective of a prosperity-and-rights-for-all is achieved, the less actual suffering or oppression the game of status-through-subversive-Virtue has to work with: hence the creation of ever greater mountains of moral angst out of ever small molehills (e.g. micro-aggressions) and the entrepreneurial search for more (Western) things to be outraged over (cultural appropriation, anyone?). The more Western achievements are acknowledged, the more pathetic their moral grandstanding becomes. And then where would they be?

The entire game of Virtuous status-and-contempt is deeply intellectually dishonest and increasingly socially disastrous. But you can’t be truly Virtuous by worrying about consistency and consequences. For, after all, being “subversive” means never having to take serious responsibility for anything; except one’s ostentatious moral fervour, however hypocritical and overblown that may become.

 

ADDENDA: Commenter Paul raises an excellent point, regarding the surge in commentary on Indian misogyny after the particularly brutal rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi. (See, for example, this Guardian piece.) What is striking is the space given to Indian women to strongly critique Indian culture: for example, this piece on CNN, this on the Huffington Post. The sort of local feminist critique that is studiously ignored when it comes to Muslim cultures (or even denounced) was given prominent platforms when non-Muslim men and social attitudes were at issue. The contrast with the reaction to mass sexual assaults in Cologne and elsewhere, the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal, is stark.(Leaving aside whether Indian men and culture have been slandered.)  So, apparently non-Westerners can have moral agency, not excuses; if they are not Muslims and so do not reach the apex of standing as moral mascots and sacred victims.

[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud]

* The struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan intensified Islamic militancy, provided experienced and energised recruits for the Islamic insurgency, but as the US provided only about a third of the funding (the Saudis matched US contributions and private fund-raising raised a similar amount again) while much of the organising was done via Pakistan or Islamic networks blaming the West for that is drawing a long bow, to say the least. After all, the original cause was the Soviet invasion.