The basis for the dialogue in this Chronicle is Chronicle 399, where I developed the idea of “Islamovictimism.” We suggest the reader turn to that Chronicle before tackling this one.
– AK & EG
There is certainly a lot to talk about in your Islamovictimism piece. I’ll single out a couple of areas where I’d argue things differently. First, the question of fear as a cause of the taboo on “offensive” representations of Islam. I have no doubt this is true on an individual level, at least in many cases–even here, though, I highly doubt that the publishers at Yale University Press are afraid of being physically attacked by enraged Muslims. I think that level of fear has been exaggerated–the bigger fear, it seems to me, is that Muslims will generate “instability” (riots and violence) more generally; and that leads us to what I think is the real fear: of what we will do once sufficiently provoked. That might seem counter-intuitive, and I know you rejected this argument a few years back, but now, perhaps, we have an occasion to revisit it. Roger Scruton has just coined the word “oikophobia,” which already seems to me to be getting picked up, as the opposite of “xenophobia”: fear of the familiar, which is to say one’s own people, their traditions, their prejudices, etc. For the Leftist or White Guiltist, the world is just barely held together by the various restraints placed upon the mobs with vast nuclear arsenals, especially in the US and Israel–if a few of those threads are cut, who knows what Gulliver might be capable of. I’d be glad to argue this point further, but if it’s just individual, physical fear, it’s not all that important from the standpoint of GA–maybe there is a more originary fear, of being lost, either as victim or perpetrator, in the lynch mob.
Second, it seems to me that what has been lost (and you are very close to this in your next to last paragraph) is the basic liberal (in the classical, 19th century sense) distinction between violent and non-violent modes of interaction. It’s remarkable what hard times that distinction has fallen on–victimary thinking as almost completely obliterated it. Violence committed by victims simply occupies a different category than violence committed by the “unmarked.” So, we have discursive violence, economic violence, cultural violence, etc. And the issue is not so simple: for GA, it is a certain kind of (potentially) cataclysmic violence that concerns us–not, say, a routine, but perhaps very brutal, barfight. Victimary thinking has a kind of originary insight here–words can be more dangerous than blows under certain conditions. But “dangerous” is still not the same as violent–we have institutions which preserve the freedom enabling us to counter the dangers of speech with other speech, and even the most vicious speech requires a series of mediations before the “danger” is actualized while physical violence must be contained by force if it is not to become uncontrollably contagious. Restoring that distinction, even if in a more complex form, is central to any “stepping back from the brink” and “rational reflection.”
Third, on the Ground Zero Mosque, a slight difference (I think). I’m less worried about “stirring up tensions” than you are–as long as tensions are stirred without violence, they can turn into little sites of experimentation in the devising of new gestures and signs. I think we agree about the likely intentions of Rauf, but I think the unsettled boundaries between Islam and the West, including within the West, needed to come to the surface at some point, and this might turn into a helpful manifestation. The demonstrators against the mosque have, despite all the slander directed at them, comported themselves admirably, in the best Western traditions: they state their objections clearly and forcefully, but always within the limits of the law, even, for the most part, conceding the legal right of the owners of the property to do as they like with it. To anyone with a drop of common sense, this is the demonstration of our openness and civility that Leftists always say we need to provide to the rest of the world. Rauf and his colleagues can now either respect that opposition and move the mosque (which, if he gets away with it in the face of the rest of the “Muslim World,” would be a huge step forward); or, he can proceed, in which case American Muslims will be put to the test of engaging non-violent, civil but overt hostility with some similar means of their own–because the demonstrations and oppositions won’t stop, even after (if) the thing is built. And that will have positive results as well: the effect will be either integrationist, in that Muslims will show themselves capable of participating in the give and take of American politics; or revelatory in displaying their incapability of unwillingness to do so.
I think oikophobia is a useful concept but it can’t replace fear of the Other. These people destroyed our tallest buildings! Lee Harris’s book, Civilization and Its Enemies (Free Press, 2004), which you recommended, talks about the degeneration of social order into mobs of young men. Look at northern Mexico today. I think the “fear” of rednecks using nukes a la Dr Strangelove, which reflected the Cold War fear of nuclear war, is today a mask for real visceral fears that you might end up like Daniel Pearl, mediated through various layers of international disorder. Victor Hanson talks about how powerful we really are when we get going. But I’m not sure that’s so true, and worry that the liberals are closer to understanding asymmetric reality; we can’t use our power in any useful way. Why do they hate Israel? Because they’re afraid that Israeli “violence” will touch off Muslim violence that will affect THEM, as in Spain, the UK, etc. The idea that if Israel disappeared the Muslims would be happy doesn’t express fear of Israeli power per se but of its potential to arouse the Others.
I should add to the jiu-jitsu analysis that it’s even better than that; riots take place at the mere announcement, so you can save money and not even buy that Koran (and in any case, no one is looking, so you can burn a remaindered paperback, free at the Santa Monica library bookstore, and say it was a Koran).
Yes, they took down our tallest buildings, but does anyone fear entering skyscrapers today? The only individuals who might be threatened seem to me to be those who either provide nice, fat targets inside Islamland (like Pearl) or those who really go out of their way to draw attention to themselves (the filmmaker Van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, the Danish cartoonists, etc.). Meanwhile, relentless critics of Islam, who merely write articles and books and give speeches, etc., like Andrew Bostom and Robert Spencer, who are by now fairly well known and widely reviled as Islamophobes, seem to have no problems–I have not heard of any attacks or threats directed their way, and I would have probably heard if they needed to go around with bodyguards or hide themselves. The same with the more flamboyant and by now omnipresent blogress Pamela Geller. Much more so for someone like Andrew McCarthy, a former prosecutor who writes for National Review and has decided that Islam, not Islamism is the problem. In other words, as far as I can see, people who uncompromisingly criticize Islam incur no danger–only those would make sensational targets. So any fear on the part of a leftist critic of suffering the fate of Daniel Pearl would be, I think, a very simulated one. Only a civilizational collapse of the kind you allude to would make that possible–but what do they think is most likely to facilitate that collapse? Not what they see as a few jihadis, but gigantic rogue states and their satellites, i.e., the US and Israel.
But, to revise my own argument, I don’t think that’s quite their fear either–their fear is that an effective, relentless and ultimately successfully campaign against Islamic violence and threats, and one that stayed within reasonable humanitarian bounds, would destroy their fantasy world, and they have no life outside of that fantasy world because it is also the world within which they act politically. That’s why I think the protestors outside “Park51,” who seem to have no problem telling the Islamists, even in their moderate guise, to get out and go to hell, have the better grasp on the asymmetrical reality. (There aren’t enough jihadists to go after 1/1,000 of them.) And regarding the asymmetrical jiu-jitsu, we’d have to see how many times that works–once it stops working, of course, and the rioters have to distinguish between the relevant and irrelevant, things might get interesting. In this connection, I heard a new twist on that today: Randell Terry, the guy from the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, staged the tearing out of several pages from the Koran. This was a bit more interesting because he tore out those pages demonizing unbelievers, Jews and Christians. I haven’t heard of any response yet.
Remember, we’re talking about the left, not all these “rightists” attacking Islam. And the fear doesn’t have to be immediate, one can see “the handwriting on the wall,” like the Swedish minister I quoted.
As I said, I think the Cold War fear of nuclear destruction a la Dr Strangelove is no longer significant. No doubt leftists “fear” things like the “religious right” but given that you must admit that Europeans at least do fear Eurabianization (remember the Spanish election after the terror attack), then you can’t really deny that Americans can see the “handwriting on the wall” even if demographically we’re less vulnerable. After all, the whole victimary era is about fear of the consequences of our actions on the Other; global warmism is a similar example, where we see ourselves drowning, diseased, etc., as a result of our crimes against Mother Nature. We fear “our” actions re the Muslims, not in the sense that we might blow them up, but in the sense that we might arouse them. I’ve already explained the left’s hostility to Israel on these grounds. And as for Yale UP, I’m not so sure they didn’t fear some incident, at least a fatwa a la Rushdie–who as I recall had to go into hiding because he offended “the Muslim community.” As we once discussed, it would take just one or two targeted murders of academics hostile to Islam to remind everyone of Germany in the 30s. Luckily they haven’t thought of this yet.
There are three kinds, or levels of fear involved, when we consider the Western Left’s phobic response to “Islamophobia.” One is the visceral, individualized, ever-present fear of being singled out as a target of violence–as Daniel Pearl, Theo van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonists and others have been. Obviously this fear that comes from having a “hit” on oneself is paralyzing, unless you are courageous and committed and willingly courted the danger. But it’s very interesting, and you note it casually when you say “Luckily they haven’t thought of this yet,” that the “profile” for this kind of targeting seems to be those whose “provocation” was ritualistic and/or sensationalistic. Along with the names I mentioned in my previous response, Christopher Hitchens, who regularly insults Islam and fundamentalist Muslims along with other religions and their adherents, doesn’t seem to have been put on a hit list, even though he almost seems to be trying. I don’t know whether the Islamists’ choice of targets is more religious (they are outraged, or pretend outrage, when prohibitions, like those on representing Muhammad, are violated) or media savvy (attacking targets with some kind of celebrity), but whether they have thought it through or not it seems that threatening or attacking those making “anti-Islamic” arguments would simply be unworkable. There are too many, there are too many shades and varieties of “anti-Islamism”–terrorism can’t be quite that nuanced, there would be ridiculous arguments amongst them over why Robert Spencer rather than Daniel Pipes should be killed (not to mention some third-rate academic in Indiana, etc.), and too many threats would go unfulfilled, ultimately making the blackmailers laughingstocks. So, if this is the motivating fear, it is very easy to quell it, without changing your convictions in the slightest: read the Koran, read the Hadiths, point out the totalitarian political logic there, show that Islamists don’t deviate from those canonized strictures in the slightest, make the requisite policy suggestions regarding military action, immigration law, and so on (I have read and seen hundreds of articles making such a case), and you will be fine. There will be times when one category crosses over into another–so, the Yale U Press book on the cartoonist incident (probably at least mildly Leftist) would have been fine, but publishing the actual cartoons puts it in the other category. I can’t prove there was the potential for danger here–it only takes one person, of course. But it’s also obvious enough that the problem could be solved by lots of people publishing them, in which case they couldn’t all be killed, and killing one out of many would have marginal impact. Maybe there’s a prisoner’s dilemma here–who goes first, and how do you know others will follow. A very good question–how do you know? But there are quite a few large institutions which would open the gates for others–the NY Times, Washington Post, the major networks, etc. (This would, perhaps, be a version of the jiu-jitsu you mention.) I don’t think the executives, editors or even reporters at these institutions have that paralyzing fear I described above–another explanation for no one wanting to go first seems to me necessary.
The second level or kind of fear, which you just allude to (when you reference the Madrid bombing), is that of large scale terrorist attacks. Those attacks certainly turned the Spanish elections in 2004, but was it really out of fear of more bombings? The Spaniards were already overwhelmingly against Spain’s participation in the post-war governance of Iraq, but liked the conservative government for other reasons–the bombing just gave the leftist media an opportunity to demonize the government. The objection raised against the government was not so much that they provoked the attack by joining us in Iraq, but that they “lied” by first suggesting that it might have been the Basque terrorists. In several days they were able to shift public opinion 6-7 points left in this way. Here I would mention something that applies to the first level or kind of fear as well–Islamic terrorism is very rarely that “clear”–blowing up a building is not exactly an unambiguous declaration; and the declarations that do go along with the attacks are not that clear either, ranging from the latest concerns of the Left to withdrawing from “Andalusia.” There’s no way to make a rational calculation based on the relation between the policies of your country, or the general climate of public opinion there, and the number and intensity of terrorist attacks. Why, for example, have the Netherlands not been subject to a rash of terrorism now that they have elected (more or less) the “Islamophobic” Geert Wilders? So, the “fear” that presumably gets translated into “become more conciliatory toward Islam or my chances of being blown up on a bus go up x%” is very mediated, and has somehow eliminated other ways in which one’s possibility of getting blown up might be decreased. Mediated by what?
The third kind, or level of fear you mention is that of gradual societal takeover–so, let’s be nice to them now so that they will be nice to us when they are the majority. If we take such a statement literally, and not just as a feeble PR attempt to persuade the serfs of the welfare state not to make trouble, then it’s unbelievably pathetic as a “plan” or “strategy.” There are many ways of thinking about resisting the emergence of large Muslim minorities (much less majorities) and of considering how such minorities might be successfully integrated into modern society. I don’t really think one can be afraid of something one anticipates happening a couple of decades down the road–we use words like “concern” and “anxiety,” even if “grave,” in such a case. Concern and anxiety don’t shut down the thinking process, and would not, therefore, interfere with a robust public debate over these various questions. The only thing preventing such a debate is the Leftists themselves. Why?
My answer is that we are dealing with the sacred and not the strategic here. The Left is a cult, not a coherent set of policies subject to deliberation. The way they talk about Islamophobia now is identical to the way they speak about racism, sexism, homophobia (the obvious origin for “Islamophobia”), global warming, etc.–the same cast of villains, the same uncontrollable mobs of the normal, the same need for speech rules and restrictions on freedom. We are seeing a template here, not an argument. The Left, in fact, is not worth that much time and trouble to explain–there’s almost nothing new to say about it. The vast, uncontrollable and unpredictable array of activities carried out in a free, technologically advanced society produce massive, irremediable violences, large and small, seen and unseen, short term and long term–if someone believes that, how do you convince them otherwise? They believe it because a large scale, shared event took shape for them in that way, and only another, similarly significant event could change their beliefs. The real question is why they dominate public opinion as they do, and need that be the case? This gets us into the decades long “march through the institutions,” but looking at the present, the Ground Zero Mosque may represent a breakthrough. There seem to be plenty of Americans who couldn’t care less about being seen as “Islamophobic”–Joe from Bensonhurst isn’t worried about a Pakistani assassin showing up at his door, and if they blow up a NY subway train, he’s going to look to the police and military to avenge it and prevent the next attack. Nor do the publishers, editors and reporters on tabloids like the NY Post and Daily News, who have been covering all this with relish seem particularly worried. The contamination, then, can be contained–whether it’s too late for Europe, I don’t know.
If we step back for a moment we can situate this whole set of issues in the context of the “final conflict” I spoke about between global, modern, “capitalist,” market society and the forces of resentment that have found in the pre-modern or traditional aspects of Islam their rallying point. The Left, as we recall, used to be at least in principle hyper-modernist, “socialism” being more advanced than “capitalism.” The failure of the command economy has broken the link between modernity and the resentment of capitalism. To be fair to the old left, there was at least some logic in the idea that planning could correct the inequities of the market system. But once the link is broken, the left becomes mired in “pure” resentment, which is another word for nihilism; hating “the system” is its only purpose. This requires, of course, that the system not be affected all that much by its complaints, but there is always in the mind of the nihilist a kind of death-wish whose fantasy is titillated by its vague possibility; for such people, events like 9/11 seem to be “works of art” or retribution for our sins.
In this context, fear is not easy to separate from desire. My point, which you contest, is that the victimary left since the Mau-Maued Flak Catchers blends White Guilt with fear of the Other’s power, and that in the case of Islamovictimism, the fear of displaying Islamophobia combines with a generalized fear of Muslim violence. With this in mind, let’s go through the three categories you have created, which I admit I lumped together rather carelessly.
1. The idea of being targeted. Ultimately you concede this point by speaking of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The fact is that the New York Times and other media outlets haven’t printed the cartoons. They have been intimidated. Maybe if they all met and decided, as the Danish king did during WWII, to “wear the star,” nothing would happen to them, but this isn’t happening, and when Yale UP doesn’t publish the cartoons, the only reasonable explanation is fear of some level of Muslim violence. And going back to our earlier conversation, if the jihadists assassinated one or two academics, they would cast a chill over all of academia. This is just the opposite of promulgating public threats, as you suggest above; the point would be, and we discussed this, to leave it as unclear as possible who might be next. As long as they don’t do this, all these anti-Islamists are free to act with impunity. But let me repeat, they aren’t the leftists I was talking about, and furthermore I’m not so sure how they would act if just a couple of arbitrarily chosen targets were selected. I shouldn’t insist on this here, however, for obvious reasons.
2. With regard to terrorist attacks, their effect of course wears off, but suggesting that the Spanish voters were really affected by the ETA red herring rather than being terrorized by the bombing is an unfalsifiable affirmation. It would seem more parsimonious to just assume that a certain number of people, rather than reacting with healthy defiance, preferred to withdraw from participation in a war that could be construed as subjecting them to further danger, and voted accordingly. Right after a bombing, one doesn’t have a very good idea of the next step. I recall being in downtown LA a day or two after 9/11, looking nervously at a (much lower) pair of “twin towers” and wondering if a plane would fly into them. You seem to be suggesting that terrorism doesn’t ever terrorize; why is that necessary? But since the effect does wear off, and we haven’t seen anything like a repetition of 9/11, this isn’t a real factor in the current “Islamophobia” campaign.
3. Here of course one can imagine all kinds of mediations, although Mark Steyn, whom I know you respect, never fails to speak of the Islamization of Europe with some urgency. There is also the factor of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons, which would at the very least risk changing the balance of power in the Middle East and elsewhere, and about which nothing seems to be getting done, although it’s possible that secret plans are being made that the New York Times hasn’t yet found a way to reveal to the enemy. The long-term fear/deathwish is both real and unreal. Where I think you’re right to object to my original analysis is that it’s not a simple matter of visceral fear, any more than Al Gore’s pictures of rising sea levels produce real terror. In both cases, there’s a kind of playing at fear that isn’t just playing, as the expression “playing with fire” reflects. All victimary thinking, with its sarcastic contempt for the real, has behind it the potential power of the Other to discomfit and eventually destroy the “unmarked.” I think that’s as true of feminism as of Saidian-Fanonian post-colonialism. Rather than the Marxist notion of the “proletariat,” which was part of the old system, victimary thinking situates the Other outside the system even if he/she/it resides within it, creating the “sublime” of nihilistic terror. And nuclear weapons make this kind of terrorizing hard to ignore. Of course you’re right that the normal should dominate all this nonsense, but should is not a useful word, except in the sense that we/you/I shouldn’t be encouraging the Left by attributing power to it; better to err in the opposite direction.
None of this contradicts your point that the protesters against “Park51” are not fearful of Islamist repercussions and that their conduct has been civil and constructive. And you may well be right that they may be creating a turning point by showing up the hollowness of victimary pieties; as James Taranto pointed out in a recent column you reminded me of, we may owe black Americans a priori respect for their resentments (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine their content afterward), but we have no such debt toward Muslims. Any incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination and hostility should be dealt with without trying to make everyone feel guilty and certainly have no bearing on the tastefulness of the Imam’s project. But these upstanding citizens were not the subject of my critique.
Ultimately our disagreement is a matter of emphasis as to whether the left matters or not. You raise the point, which neither of us answer here, concerning why it is that these victimary ideas so dominate the intelligentsia and the media. This is a subject much discussed but never satisfactorily, and I think we should revisit it in a future discussion.
Maybe we’re also disagreeing over how fearful the Islamists and Islam are. I’m saying: not that much; or, they are fearful only to the extent that we’re not courageous—not the exceptional courage involved in keeping your head and the lives of others in mind under fire, but the ordinary courage that comes from believing in your way of life. There is actually a Leftist argument (made by Michael Bloomberg, among others) that we haven’t mentioned, the one that points out that your chances of dying from a car accident, an undiagnosed disease and, who knows, asbestos exposure, is far greater than your chances of dying in a terrorist attack. This is actually true right now (well, maybe not the asbestos part), and in that case the issue with the Islamists and perhaps Islam is one of honor, which would be deliberate rebuff of their obvious attempt to frighten us: are we going to let them dictate our norms and habits? The Left used this argument to mount an attack on the security precautions and military aggressiveness Bush instituted in response to 9/11, but the point is not to ignore heightened safety risks—the point is to address those risks through heightened measures in a way that fit our system, and not by trying to modulate the attitudes of those creating the risks (except insofar as heightened measures increase the chance of failure on the part of the attackers and thereby demoralize them). But if there is no honor, fear rushes in and fills the void, and while the Left is filled with a sense of honor regarding the perks and privileges it has won within liberal democracy (they will rush to the defense of an aggrieved member of the clan with unanimity), it absolutely refuses to participate in a sense of honor that would be shared by all Americans. The Left has evacuated the common signs which make a constitutional republic possible, and has tinged with that same nihilism others (how many and how much is the question). And wouldn’t the originary hypothesis suggest that fear is inversely proportional to the strength of the sign we share? So, the fear of whoever is afraid now is an index of the absence of such a sign.