The most striking feature of the reactions to Chronicle 308 is how unexceptional it has become to characterize the endorsement of an incumbent president supported by somewhere around 50% of the American population as naïve, prejudiced, callous, irresponsible, revealing to former adherents that Generative Anthropology is a dead letter and/or that its founder is no longer, if he ever was, the man they thought him to be.
Alas, political decisions, unlike philosophical arguments, are choices among available alternatives. One can stand above the fray and let everyone else decide, or one can choose for oneself. To read some of the replies, only one choice lies within the bounds of decency; to support Bush’s reelection is to defend violence and thereby to violate the very principles that I presumably learned from René Girard. Or else, to take either side is to become engaged in one of those symmetrical combats of frères ennemis that are inevitably delusive and self-defeating. True Girardians, in this reading, do not vote.
One reader reproaches me with taking “straight out of the GOP playbook” my criticism of Kerry’s remark that terrorism should be reduced to a “nuisance” such as prostitution and gambling. He then quotes the original text in full:
Whatever John Kerry’s personal convictions, and it is hardly unfair to say that these are unclear at best, the Democratic Party today is very much the party of Michael Moore. Even an intellectually respectable publication such as The New Republic–with the exception of its editor-in-chief, of which more below–is filled with articles whose tone goes well beyond the merely polemical. Jonathan Chait, who has also been writing of late in the LA Times, is unashamed to describe his sentiments toward the current president in terms such as “hate” and “loathing,” and he is not alone. I would venture to say that anyone who uses this kind of language when discussing politics is expressing pathology rather than opinion. That Bush has aroused this kind of hatred is unfortunate, but it is anything but proof that his policies are faulty. No doubt there is much in Bush’s style that is made to infuriate the liberal intellectual, even more than Reagan did–and it is easy to forget how similar the liberal contempt for Reagan when he was in office was to that for Bush–but hatred is something else again. That the present White House doesn’t leak information and refuses to engage in the give-and-take that made someone like Clinton so attractive to journalists, that it presents its policies in an oversimplified manner that provokes cries of deception and “lying”–as though Democratic hands were any cleaner–still does not explain hatred. The October 17 LA Times listed opposing examples of the extremes of negative campaigning: the Republicans’ worst offense was claiming that the US would be more in danger from terrorists if Kerry were elected, an assertion that hardly strikes me as out of bounds, whereas the Democratic example was an ad comparing Bush with Hitler.
This intense antagonism reflects the fear provoked in many by policies that they perceive as irresponsibly generating hostility to the US. The Iraq war is the critical bone of contention between the two candidates, and my own support for Bush is inseparable from my conviction that this war, whatever its obvious negatives, will ultimately be shown to have been a good thing. War is a violent action that arouses violent reactions. Underlying the pros and cons of this war is the “anthropological” question of how to keep the level of resentment in the global social order at a tolerable level. There is no simple formula for this. It cannot simply be assumed that a display of force increases the degree of resentment, or that increasing it in the short term means increasing it in the long term. The matter at issue is whether it can be legitimate or wise to impose by force what one perceives with some justification to be the interests of humanity as well as of the United States, in the absence of an immediate threat–not that we should simply dismiss the conflicting prewar intelligence reports about Saddam’s nuclear program, his support for Palestinian suicide bombers, or his sponsorship of ongoing research into biological and chemical terror weapons; the powdered anthrax that caused such commotion in the months after 9/11 may well have originated in Iraq.
It would be nice to think that hostility to Bush’s willingness to go to war even without incontrovertible evidence of WMD is dictated by love for humanity and hatred of violence. But the imperative to respect the sovereignty of Saddam’s regime reflects not some general law of morality but a traditional conception of international law. So the question becomes: is this notion still valid after 9/11? For the Democratic Party and John Kerry, the notion is indeed still valid. Clearly the Bush administration thinks not, and I agree. The “hatred” of Bush reflects this fundamental opposition, the reason for its particular virulence being that Bush, not Kerry, is perceived as changing the rules.
The crucial question being decided in this election is whether the situation since 9/11 warrants changing the rules–whether or not the limitations on the exercise of our “asymmetrical” power have been lessened by this new situation. What is ultimately being put in question is the future of victimary thinking, a matter of particular interest to students of generative anthropology.
The events of 9/11, we should recall, were not motivated by anything like the American invasion of an Arab country. Their ostensible justification was the presence of American troops on the “holy” soil of Saudi Arabia–where they had of course been invited. But the underlying reason for these attacks, as for a number of earlier ones to which our response had been anything but overwhelming (see Norman Podhoretz’ September Commentary article for details), is an invasion that is cultural and economic rather than military: the expansion of Western and especially American consumer and popular culture that is known as “globalization.” The status of globalization at any given moment is characterized by the same asymmetry that we find in our relationship with Osama and al Qaeda, or for that matter with Iraq. Although the unique power of the United States relative to other nation-states is the most obvious example of political asymmetry, the really significant contemporary asymmetry is the relation between those who participate in the world market and those who remain in its margins. The foreign policy of Europe, which attempts to realize its own resentment against American hegemony, begins with this asymmetry, the resentment for which the Europeans want to remain focused not on the “first world” but on the US alone.
The events of 9/11 realized the dreams of the “victims” of this asymmetry. It would have been inconceivable for these attacks to have been carried out by the army of a nation state, Iraq or any other. What is opposed to the United States, and through it, the entire world market system, is not the interest of any state or group of states, but that of the “traditional sphere,” for lack of a better term, that considers itself victimized by the world system, not because it is excluded from it, but on the contrary, because it feels itself invaded by it. That this sense of violation and the resentful desire to strike back is expressed today predominantly in Islamic terms is more than a historical accident, but it is not something that the intrinsic nature of Islam suffices to explain.
Under these conditions, any retaliation on our part is itself asymmetric, since to respond in force to the attacks of al Qaeda we are obliged to attack a nation-state, not an amorphous terrorist group. The very existence of a protector state that provided an address to Osama and his band was fortuitous, not to say fortunate; it might well have been possible for al Qaeda to have organized the hijackings without such protection. As it happened, the transfer of hostilities from the terrorists to the national government of Afghanistan was clearly justified by the sanctuary afforded by the Taliban to Osama and his friends. But before taking this transfer simply for granted, we should reflect that taking over the country and driving out its political leadership was an act clearly asymmetrical to the attacks we suffered on 9/11. The only symmetrical response in such a case is that of criminal punishment, the model we had previously applied to terrorist acts. It is not the numbers of dead alone that determine the model’s aptness. No one finds it unacceptable that Timothy McVeigh was convicted in a court of law of the “terrorist” bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City that caused 168 deaths. In contrast, trying the perpetrators of the first Trade Center bombing on criminal charges seems in retrospect inappropriate. They were not criminals but agents of a hostile power.
A similar asymmetry applies on a smaller scale to the so-called “extrajudicial” killings practiced by the Israeli military against the leaders of terrorist groups. These killings are “extrajudicial” because terrorism is not a civil crime; it is a military operation and must be dealt with as such. Those who condemn Israel for this policy and for the collateral damage it causes in the Palestinian community are in effect denying Israel’s national right of self-preservation in the face of attacks whose aim is explicitly to destroy it.
To consider the invasion of Iraq a proper action in the absence of incontrovertible evidence of WMD is to accept the proposition that 9/11 justifies a proactive military policy predicated on the goal of reducing the potential base of Arab-Islamic terrorism. Those who reject this proposition claim that the invasion in fact creates more terrorists and thereby makes us less rather than more safe. The current debate opposes two ways of dealing with the extreme resentment that produced 9/11: reduce the space in which this resentment can express itself with impunity, or try to avoid provoking it; raise our profile through military action, or lower it by relying on the UN and other international agencies. The goal of military action in the first case, and presumably of diplomatic activity in the second, is to create a more favorable situation on the ground in the region that is the symbolic and political center of anti-Western resentment. However well a President Kerry could extract a favorable result from “the wrong war at the wrong time,” his ensuing policy would certainly be not only to avoid similar wars in the future–for that matter, there is little prospect of a “similar war” in a second Bush administration–but to mitigate rather than assert the global visibility of American military and political hegemony.
The question comes back to one alluded to in the preceding Chronicle: the post-9/11 legitimacy of white guilt, the application to social life of a model in which success of any kind is presumed to depend on victimization. Ultimately what infuriates Democrats most about Bush is his unblushing dismissal of white guilt. We see this in his friendship toward Israel and refusal to deal with Arafat–to the point where Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of the New Republic and an enthusiastic supporter of Al Gore in 2000, finds himself obliged to declare Bush the preferable candidate (see his front-page article “Kerry the Clueless” in the October 17 LA Times Opinion section). We also see it in Bush’s refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court, or to sign the Kyoto global-warming treaty, a position inevitably explained by Democrats as pandering to sinister big-business interests, but which is more simply understood as a refusal to be blackmailed into accepting as “science” an environmentalist agenda that has a long track record of apocalyptic prophecies of ecological disaster.
As 9/11 showed, the crucial moral dilemma of our time is how to deal with victimary thinking and its corollary, white guilt. An excess of self-assertion may well be called arrogant, but how does one know where to stop in the other direction? The situation Nietzsche foresaw well over a century ago became the dominant mode of interaction in the postmodern era that followed WWII: resentment as the guarantee of morality. The “Bush doctrine” is the first statement of policy to openly defy this postulate. Its core principle is not one of simple national self-interest; it emphasizes rather the United States’ responsibility to vigorously promote the values of liberal democracy, of which it is the sole globally capable defender, against the resentful forces that produced 9/11. Our enemies are emboldened by weakness, and Kerry’s promised efforts to court Europe and the UN will only embolden them further–without in all likelihood generating more than symbolic cooperation in Iraq or elsewhere.
The difference that separates the liberal supporters of Senator Kerry, so assured of being on the side of progress and enlightenment, from the “red-state” electorate of President Bush is the difference that separates the postmodern, pre-9/11 world from the world we live in today. On this issue, as on so many others, it is the former, not the latter, whose ideas are out of date.