February 16, 2007

A Phantom Tradition

Justin Katz

An idea that I've seen floating around the ivory tower is that America is more of a symbol than a nation, meaning different things to different people. Thus, citizens with opposite ideologies can be equally patriotic — even nationalistic — because they cast their own goals and preferences as the True America. There's clearly something to the idea, applicable in some respects not only to America, but to the West more broadly, although in recent history it might be more obvious in its negative aspects — in the opposite ways in which America and the West are held in contempt by their own people, with some despising their hedonism and others despising their puritanism.

The ways in which this quality of the Western personality manifests in debate are intriguing, and I noticed an example (not surprisingly) in the Corner's running discussion of Dinesh D'Souza's book (which links Western libertinism to the attacks of jihadists). Here's Andrew Stuttaford:

Mark, as your last paragraph implicitly recognizes, for you to say that Dinesh D'Souza's argument that "America’s worthless porno-sodomite-lapdance culture is the root cause of jihad has one very big hole in it" is to be very, very kind indeed. Only "one very big hole"? Good grief. While I have little doubt that our (splendidly) hedonistic ways have contributed *something* to jihadist rage, any suggestion that they are the "root cause" of our current problems with extremist Islam is simply absurd. To take just one example, Mr. D'Souza should take a look at God's Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and The Hidden Root of Modern Jihad by Charles Allen, a first-rate historian of British India. It's an excellent account of the widespread Wahhabist trouble-making in the 19th Century Raj, a time, I believe, somewhat before the lapdance era that he so bemoans.

And a bit later, here's Iain Murray:

I suspect there’s a case to be made that modern Anglo-American society embodies traditional values of freedom seen in Chaucerian and Elizabethan bawdiness and that the sort of Puritanism Dinesh and supposedly the Wahhabis would approve of is actually distinctly untraditional.

With this post, I'm not engaging the actual debate, but rather making a meta-rhetorical observation. And it's true that Murray goes on to point to the 18th century as more hedonistic than the 19th (the century that Stuttaford singles out for jihadist example). It's interesting, though, that, in the service of the same argument, Western hedonism is presented as both relatively new and essentially traditional.

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This whole idea of blaming American pop culture for jihad is completely misguided. It just seems one step away from justifying the 9-11 attacks on America on the basis that Islamic religious righties were entitled to be offended by Madonna or Howard Stern.

Posted by: Rhody at February 16, 2007 11:35 AM

Exactly. Or because God was punishing America for being too tolerant of gays. (Oh, hello, Reverend Robertson.)

Posted by: SusanD at February 16, 2007 10:07 PM

Now wait a minute.

Rhody is failing to distinguish between the various segments that ultimately contribute to a large-scale movement. I do not believe that the ringleaders — the central fomenters of jihad — are anything other than constitutional aggressors, meaning that they are not reacting to anything that the West has done. Those ringleaders are not, however, numerous enough to constitute a movement (and ringleaders are notoriously reluctant to undertake such rank and file roles as suicide bomber). It strikes me as deliberately obtuse to ignore the propaganda value that everything from Britney Spears to same-sex marriage represent to those ringleaders as they manipulate their captive populations.

That is absolutely not to say that we ought to construct our society in reaction to potential propaganda, but if secularist readers are willing to take an empathetic approach, it oughtn't be surprising at all that Christians who believe — as I do — that God's will manifests more as a rational consequence of our actions than as an otherwise inexplicable divine vengeance would also have a sense of missed opportunity when it comes to average Muslims' susceptibility to radical propaganda.

Plainly put, it doesn't help the argument that the West is a region of faithful balance when we export so much filth.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 16, 2007 10:48 PM

I don't like everything about Muslim culture, either, including its treatment of women. But I don't understand why we should have to live by the Taliban's rules out of fear that they'll attack us.
If we think we have to live our lives in such a fashion to convince Muslim fundamentalists not to attack us...well, why don't we just throw up the white flag and admit the terrorists won? If Britney and same-sex marriage piss them off that much, that's their problem, not ours. Unless there's an alliance between Muslim fundamentalists and America's cultural right that we don't know about...

Posted by: Rhody at February 17, 2007 4:34 PM

Nobody's saying that we have to "live by the Taliban's rules" (indeed, I stressed the opposite... do you even read the responses that people make to you?). My point is merely that there are consequences to exporting filth, and one of them is a vulnerability to schemers' use of us as a scapegoat.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 17, 2007 6:47 PM

The extremist leaders of Jihadism are opportunists of the first rank. It wouldn't matter if we exported no filth at all. We could even be trying to convince the rest of the world to embrace Islam and we would still be a target.

Posted by: smmtheory at February 17, 2007 9:06 PM

You're exactly right that the "extremist leaders of Jihadism are opportunists of the first rank." My point is simply that we do have an effect on the opportunity that they are able to exploit, that we lend those extremists' propaganda a sliver of truth, rather than ring of falsehood.

No one drives a father to aggressive defense like the man who would transform his daughter into a whore. I'm not saying that I agree entirely with fundamentalists who see that as the West's message, but in our wild libertinism and, perhaps worse, in the mainstream Left's equation of respectable piety and modesty with Taliban-style oppression, we sow the fields of their delusion.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 17, 2007 9:58 PM

And I say that our mere existence is enough to give them the opportunity they choose to exploit, and if we didn't (exist), it would be some other people they would be targeting. To that extent, we do to some degree give effect, but I disagree that we lend them or their propaganda a sliver of truth.

Posted by: smmtheory at February 18, 2007 1:16 AM

Well, I'm not trying to make a huge point, here. I merely think that there are cultural steps we could take to fight (and/or undermine) radical Islam, in part by putting a better face on freedom.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 18, 2007 8:30 AM

As I stated earlier, we could even be trying to convince the world to embrace Islam and we would still be a target. Freedom itself is what they object to, and it wouldn't matter how we present it. The better we make it look, the more strident they will become. It is true we can take cultural steps to fight and undermine radical Islamist Jihadis, but trying to put a better face on freedom is not one of the ways in my opinion. The far left goes so far as to paint freedom of speech as a tool of "oppression" used by those on the right side of the political spectrum. It wouldn't be much different with freedom in general.

Posted by: smmtheory at February 18, 2007 3:06 PM

As far as I'm concerned, Johnny Jihad can watch anything he damned well pleases on al-Jazeera. But if he can't handle what I watch on MTV, Comedy Central, Fox...
It's called being a grownup, Johnny. Look into it. Or drop a dime on Focus on the Family, mmmkay?

Posted by: Rhody at February 18, 2007 6:57 PM
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