Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Beyond the Pale

Emanuele Ottolenghi announces that he has no patience with “root-cause talk,” which he sees as an especially dangerous form of intellectual inquiry.

He blames the West's alleged interest in the “grievances” of the oppressed on the Enlightenment, and accordingly makes the shocking suggestion that the Enlightenment had a dark side:

[T]here is the dark side, not of Locke and Montesquieu...but of the French terror, of the tyranny of ideas over the liberty of men, of the totalitarian regimes that sprang out of Enlightenment philosophy no less than liberal democracies did.
I can see a pretty clear connection between Locke’s right of rebellion and the “French terror,” so I wouldn’t oppose them quite so diametrically as Ottolenghi does. But disagreements between us go, it’s barely worth mentioning.

Ottolenghi's gripe is that the Enlightenment’s legacy of cockeyed optimism about human rationality leads people to assume that the situation in Palestine contributes, somehow, to Islamic terrorism. As he puts it:
The logic of cause and effect is at work....
Heaven forbid! Ottolenghi does his best to steer clear of this logical pitfall, but it retains a certain magnetic pull on his mind. Here’s his response to the argument that ordinary Muslims feel as though they're being targeted for forced conversion or extermination:
Maybe it means they are delusional, or maybe it means that their leadership is cloaking [sic] the mantle of victimization in order to hide the fact that radicalization and unwillingness to embrace Western values are at the root of the problem.
In other words, those goddamn Muslimanians better stop claiming BushCo’s launched a new Crusade, and start embracing Western values, or else!

Which they can’t actually do, of course, ‘cause they’re all completely insane:
It is a legacy of the Enlightenment that we find it so hard to deal with madness and fanaticism. We are always inclined to seek an alternative explanation: There is a cause — our policies — there is an effect — their anger — and there is a solution — our change of policy.
In his attack on the Enlightenment's worship of rationality, it seems to me that Ottolenghi runs the risk of taking down the Free Market along with Islamofascist apologetics, but never mind about that.
Western impulses to explain away the threat of terror and seek a solution to the problem are empowering in a way. We have a diagnosis and we have a cure.
Why this argument doesn’t apply to the Bush Doctrine is beyond me. Ottolenghi says that “the ‘root-cause’ argument boils down to excusing the inexcusable.” Can’t the same criticism be made against those who use 9/11 as a root cause for BushCo’s extraconstitutional antics and deranged foreign policy?

Even if one grants that the root cause of Muslim extremism is much more complex than anger over the plight of Palestine - even if one grants, in fact, that it's completely insane - there’s still no compelling argument for supporting Bush’s obviously radicalizing, obviously failed policies, except inasmuch as one feels empowered by his offer of a simple diagnosis (they hate freedom) and a gratifying cure (bombs galore).

Ottolenghi next resorts to the ancient conservative cliche that Westerners are unable to look evil in the face and call it for what it is. I really haven’t noticed any hesitation on the part of the West to denounce countries or people as evil. But even if I had, I’d be curious as to which culture Ottolenghi thinks we're supposed to emulate. If Westerners don’t look evil in the face and denounce it, then who does? The Malaysians? The Senegalese? Hezbollah? Who?

The evil that Westerners can’t look in the face tends to be their own. Not because they’re Westerners, mind you, but because they’re human beings and, as Simone Weil noted, they tend to experience the promptings of evil as the clarion call of duty. (In 1677, Charles de Saint-Evremond defined a cruel person as “One who enjoys doing harm to others, without the intention of making them better”).

Next comes a fairly standard (in wingnut circles) explanation for the term “Islamofascism”: Muslim extremists want to remake the world in the name of an Idea, which makes them fascists. That's hogwash, of course, but I’m not going to get into that debate. I’m much more interested in this delirious explanation of Hitler's rise to power:
Just as the failure and inadequacy of liberal governments to face the Communist threat after World War I empowered the fascists, so will the failure to treat radical Islam as a brutal totalitarian ideology end up empowering Europe’s extreme right.
Aren’t you glad we’ve left “the logic of cause and effect” in the dust? Seriously, if anyone has any idea what Ottolenghi’s talking about here, please fill me in. I can’t make heads or tails of it.

For his grand finale, Ottolenghi offers us a diagnosis, and a cure:
As for those who have “unaddressed grievances,” one thing should be made clear: as children of the Enlightenment, we believe that some values are universal, both rights and duties. Therefore, we believe in reciprocity. Those who renege on this social compact and choose not to play by the rules are beyond the pale. They must be treated accordingly.
So the Enlightenment left us unable to perceive evil as such, and simultaneously obliges us to exterminate people we’ve designated as “beyond the pale.”

It’s no wonder that, as Adorno and Horkheimer said, “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”


Phila said...

In other words, I'm wrong because I don't understand the nature of the Eternal Muslim. Fair enough.

But you unsuccessfully challenge his central point which is this - that 'our' indigenous population across Europe is decreasing, while 'their' population

Would you care to point out where I challenged this point? What I said was that his assumptions about what that demographic shift will mean for "our" culture are debatable at best. That goes for your assumptions, too...all your racialist boilerplate notwithstanding.

I like how you argue that the people who thought the Chinese couldn't assimilate were wrong, based on their "excellent track-record" (as viewed from 100-odd years the road). I think we both know which side you would've been on back then.

Muslims do not assimilate well at all - because Islam is more of a way of life than Christianity or secular Judaism. (Both of which under-went 'Enlightenments' and recognised the need to be governed by laws

Sure, pal. Tell that to the Christian Dominionists the next time they start shrieking about "activist judges," or "snowflake babies," or abortion. Fundamentalists are fundamentalists are fundamentalists.

And Muslims have been immigrating here for decades...I went to school with dozens of 'em. They all seemed pretty goddamn assimilated to me. Granted, that may be changing nowadays, as family members back home in the old country get blown to smithereens and the rhetoric on both sides becomes ever more polarizing. I guess that means it's time to exterminate the brutes, eh?

insists that the Koran is taught side by side with the bible

Sounds perfectly OK to me, as long as it's in a comparative religion course. I know it's predictable, but I'm more bothered by people who want to teach the Bible alongside biology textbooks.

Honestly, there's nothing sillier than racism when it strides around on the stilts of pseudoscience. Nothing less worth arguing with, either. There are tons of websites where your ideas will be applauded...I suggest you seek them out. "Stick to your own kind," as the song says.

echidne said...

I have some thoughts on this exchange of comments but I have to think about it a little more. Maybe tomorrow. Or in ten years' time. :)

Phila said...

Aloysius, you're a knucklehead. Here's you:

The whole implication of your piece was that steyn is wrong to cite a demographic shift - because there isn't one apparently.

Here's me, in the piece in question:

That's not to say that demographic transition won't have profound effects on Western countries; it almost certainly will. But there's no good reason to believe that these effects will dovetail neatly with Steyn's paranoid ideological assumptions.

Once more, with feeling: You're a knucklehead. Learn to read, for Christ's sake.

racism, which you talk of with painful regularity, is sadly a part of human nature - bizarrely humans seem to prefer their own.

I just searched my archives for the words "racism" and "racist." "Racism" appears in 19 out of roughly 800 posts written over almost three years. "Racist" appears in 13 posts, and most of them are duplicates from the earlier search. And of course, not all of those posts are discussions of white racism per se; some are mentions of an Arican-American fringe group that calls bans on DDT "racist," and others are discussions of Nazi Germany. Without re-reading every post, I'd estimate I've probably discussed the role and effect of white racism in the "WoT" maybe eight times, at the very most. Probably less than I should've, really.

That you see this as "painful regularity" says a lot more about you than me.

Let's look at this a bit more closely. What set you off in my "Too Many Targets" post, IIRC, was a single mention of "racial animus." You found that "tedious." Here, however, you inform me that racism is a part of human nature. Well, point exactly.

And yet, I'm not supposed to discuss this "part of human nature," which you yourself confess has a powerful effect on politics and culture, for fear of being called "PC."

Why on earth does this make sense to you?

you wouldn't much like living in saudi arabia, syria, iran, lebanon, egypt outside of a gated community i can assure you. They make even better racists than the hicks in your part i promise.

Maybe, maybe not. But none of that explains why I shouldn't discuss how white racism affects - for instance - the reporting and perception of terrorism and terrorists.

You then highlight your persistent delusion - 'Fundamentalists are fundamentalists are fundamentalist'. Hello! they're just not - nowhere in the bible or the torah is killing considered a justifiable act of 'conversion',

Which would explain why Christian extremists have absolutely no history of violence or persecution whatsoever. Absolutely no history of torturing or killing heretics. And no interest, here and now, in waging a literal Holy War against Islam.

The Rapture's not in the Bible, either. That doesn't stop people - millions of them - from believing in it. The whole point of fundamentalism is that it's a harsh, tribalistic interpretation of sacred texts; it embraces and intensifies the brutal parts (or invents them altogether) and downplays or eliminates the compassionate parts.

(How many people have the fearful 'religious right' these days have strapped any C4 to their chests and wandered into an abortion clinic?)

Does the name "Eric Rudolph" ring any bells?

Look, my point isn't that there aren't Muslim extremists, obviously, nor that they don't mean us harm, nor that they're not fanatics, nor that they shouldn't be stopped. The point is that there's a right way to deal with this problem, and a wrong way.

You make the vulgar error of assuming that critics of the "War on Terror" don't accept that fundamentalist Islam poses a threat; in reality, we do accept that, but we also know that the corrupt, incompetent, stupid way in which that war is being waged poses an additional and more serious threat to democracy here at home, and to the lives of people all over the world.

Believe it or not, the fact that terrorists are wrong does not make anything and everything we do to fight them right, let alone effective. To the extent that racism is one of the things that's clouding people's minds, it needs to be addressed, whether or not hysterics like you find it pleasant.

Anyway none of this is going to alter your Weltanshauung one little bit because your guiding tenet is 'racism' - real, but more often illusory.

Again, a reading of my site doesn't really bear this out. You're just obsessed, it seems, and any mention of it even in passing sets you off.

The problem here isn't that you're challenging my liberal orthodoxy with your higher truth. The problem is that outside of a few lucid moments, you come across as an incoherent buffoon who issues absurd moral/aesthetic restrictions on other people's discussion of "a part of human nature," while ululating about political correctness. No offense, Aloysius, but that's pretty fucking nuts.

That said, thanks - sincerely - for your comments. While I don't agree with most of what you say, you're fairly personable compared to your American co-religionists.

Ripley said...

Sweet Jesus in a dune buggy.

Hello! they're just not - nowhere in the bible or the torah is killing considered a justifiable act of 'conversion', and nowhere in either of those do you find laws equivalent to the dhimmi laws;

Let's nitpick semantics, shall we? 'Conversion'? Maybe not. But the Bible is filled to the point of bursting with God's Word that the gay/adulterers/non-believers should be stoned/killed/enslaved.

Fundamentalism isn't the problem. Believe in your religion and knock yourself out. The issue is that there are certifiable people in the world, religion is an easy fix for bigots, and the Bible and Koran are full of 'suggestions' for 'taking care' of the non-believers.

When you've killed all the Muslims, will you go after the Buddhists? It's not really a religion, you realize, but it's so very 'not-Christian', right? I'd like a heads up so I can toss my Zen 'paraphenalia' and hang a crucifix on the wall before you get here.

Yay, whatever you believe in! Boo, me! Fucking tosser...

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting blog, Phila. It makes me wish I were back in school and being the intellectual sort I once was.

Keep up the good work.