Friday, June 17, 2016

Say the magic words

Shorter David Brooks, "Religion's Wicked Neighbor", New York Times, June 17 2016:
Obama is wrong not to say "Islamic terrorism". What he shouldn't say is "religious terrorism", because it isn't religious at all. It's just Islamic.
Brooks on a brief visit home from the psychophilosophical wilderness to his National Review roots, perhaps as a kind of Father's Day tribute to old Mr. Buckley, playing the traditional game of making the elaborate Jesuitical argument to justify some stupid conservative slogan, in this case the denunciation of the president for refusing to say the magic words that will—well, it's not clear what they'll do. Probably we'll never find out. Thanks, Obama!

Barack Obama is clearly wrong when he refuses to use the word “Islam” in reference to Islamist terrorism.
That's pretty cute, given that Brooks himself is using the word "Islamist" in contradistinction to "Islamic", meaning not of Islam ("submission" to God and to nothing else) but of Islamism, the idolatrous worship of the religious edifice instead of the deity. In fact he doesn't know he's doing that, of course. He just thinks it sounds elegant and chic. He may have gotten it from Hillary Clinton, who consciously used it the other day (I think)—
to me, radical jihadism, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing. I'm happy to say either, but that's not the point
—but who knows. It's a key element in understanding why the Salafi political-military groups aren't, in fact, Muslims strictly speaking, just as (I keep turning back to this example because it's so perfect) Alabama's Judge Roy Moore, who worships a graven image of the Ten Commandments (including a commandment forbidding the worship of graven images), isn't a Christian in the proper sense. He's an idolator too, like the Salafists, or as I call him a Christianist, worshiping extrinsic fetishes instead of God.

As Peter Bergen writes in his book “The United States of Jihad,” “Assertions that Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam are as nonsensical as claims that the Crusades had nothing to do with Christian beliefs about the sanctity of Jerusalem.”
Well, if Peter Bergen says it! But who is that person who's claiming Islamist terrorism has "nothing to do with Islam"? I believe he's made of straw. Nobody ever said that. George W. Bush was fond of calling it a "perversion of Islam", which is OK with me, and President Obama
Since before I was President, I’ve been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorism
—and apparently with Peter Bergen too:
To his credit, Bush was quite firm that al-Qaeda represented a perversion of Islam, and one of his first acts after 9/11 was to visit a mosque in downtown Washington.
So if I think Burke's aesthetics of the sublime is a perversion of Enlightenment thinking do I have to call it "Enlightenment aesthetics"? No, I have to call it counter-Enlightenment, which is what it is. If I think the Grail scene in act I of Parsifal is a perversion of Catholic liturgy (I love it, but it's really sick) do I have to call it "Catholic opera"? I think not! If I think Domino's sells a perversion of pizza (I don't love it) do I have to call it "Neapolitan trash"?

On the other hand, Donald Trump is abhorrently wrong in implying that these attacks are central to Islam. His attempt to ban Muslim immigration is an act of bigotry (applying the sins of the few to the whole group), which is sure to incite more terrorism.
(Actually "applying the sins of the few to the whole group" is collective condemnation; bigotry against a population has nothing to do with whether the population includes sinners or not.)

So Obama is clearly wrong, but Donald Trump is abhorrently wrong. But (not to defend the Donald) how exactly did he "imply" that "these attacks are central to Islam"? What does that even mean? Trump never says anything analytic like that in any case: he says, as Brooks does, that Obama should say the words, and he says, as Brooks doesn't, that Muslim visitors to the US should be barred entry until we "find out what the hell is going on," but he's very clear that he doesn't himself have any idea what the hell is going on, other than that it's bad and he'll take care of it as soon as he knows.

He does suggest that any Muslim is a terrorist suspect unless he's one of the Muslims he can personally vouch for, like the former boxer Mike Tyson or, say, Anar Mammadov, the billionaire son of Azerbaijan's transportation minister and developer of the Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku, who paid Trump "at least $2.5 million" in 2014 for the use of his name in the project (Foreign Policy has called the Mammadovs the "Corleones of the Caspian"),  or the partners in the Trump International Golf Club Dubai, which, according to Trump, "will exceed all expectations" (that's a neat semantic trick!).

Obama is using language to engineer a reaction rather than to tell the truth, which is the definition of propaganda. Most world leaders talk about Islamist terror, but Obama apparently thinks that if he uses the phrase “Islamic radicalism” the rest of us will be too dim to be able to distinguish between the terrorists and the millions of good-hearted Muslims who want only to live in fellowship and peace.
As a matter of fact Obama is, as always, trying to avoid misunderstanding by speaking as precisely as possible, which is the exact opposite of propaganda. Rather than using the catchall name of "Islamic" (representing 1.6 billion people around the world and unimaginably different from one another, but almost none of whom are terrorists), he works to make sure his words do not touch those who have nothing to do with it, and to avoid the collective accusation.

And he isn't addressing David Brooks and "the rest of us". This is the most important error of the whole column. He's addressing Muslims, and telling them, "We do not think you are all terrorists." What you think, Brooksy you stupid fuck, is not that important.

Harold Lloyd, The Fresshman (1925).

I'm really wondering now if that's what the whole controversy is about, the question why Obama is paying so much attention to all these unsightly foreigners, a ghastly fear that Barack Obama may think 1.6 billion Muslims are more important than David Brooks and his friends, even though some of them occupy very significant positions at publications like the New York Times, or just a confusion as to why he's saying these unpleasant things at all. "What's that about? I think it's Islamic!"

Barack Obama is working to stop people, potential terrorists if you like, from thinking the United States is dedicated to destroying them, and David Brooks is hearing him saying David Brooks doesn't deserve a lot of attention, and it gives him a quantum of butthurt. Fuck you, David Brooks.

Worst of all, his decision to dance around an unpleasant reality is part of the enveloping cloud of political correctness that drives people to Donald Trump.... The fact is that 15 years after 9/11 we still haven’t arrived at a true understanding of our enemy. How much is religion involved in jihadism, or psychology, or politics?
Brooks too wants to stereotype Muslims "until we figure out just what in the hell is going on". We really can't see any difference between Trump and Brooks at all at this point, other than that Brooks has better manners, though when you look at it his manners frankly are not that great. Especially if you're a Muslim.

But there's more! in the form of an appeal to the great American psychophilosopher William James (1902), who

distinguishes between various religious experiences and “religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion, and religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law.”
Indeed James does do that! Though the disposition of the quotation marks gives a false notion of what James actually says:
The plain fact is that men's minds are built, as has been often said, in water-tight compartments. Religious after a fashion, they yet have many other things in them beside their religion, and unholy entanglements and associations inevitably obtain. The basenesses so commonly charged to religion's account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion's wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion's wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system. 
It's not about "various religious experiences" but about religion proper, the experience in general of the divine, and their inevitable social correlates of "baseness" and "bigotry".
The baiting of Jews, the hunting of Albigenses and Waldenses, the stoning of Quakers and ducking of Methodists, the murdering of Mormons and the massacring of Armenians, express much rather that aboriginal human neophobia, that pugnacity of which we all share the vestiges, and that inborn hatred of the alien and of eccentric and non-conforming men as aliens, than they express the positive piety of the various perpetrators. Piety is the mask, the inner force is tribal instinct. 
(My bold. H/t commenter Bowtiejack for pointing out what a deep and relevant line that is.)

No mention here of persecutions carried out by Muslims, not that they never existed, but that the inventory of Christian persecutions is big and familiar enough to James's readers to make the point. But it holds absolutely, whether the religion is Zoroastrian or Ghost Dance.

The whole exercise really ought to have clarified for Brooks that Obama is right: the religious experience of Islam has no direct or necessary connection with the bad actions, corporate and/or dogmatic, carried out by certain unpleasant groups, and terrorism carried out by Muslims is not "Islamic".

The "religion proper" (beautifully described by James in his account of the 11th-12th-century Sufi mystic Al-Ghazali) is one thing, entirely distinct from setting up "states" in Iraq or Yemen or Libya, bombing markets in Baghdad, or shooting up cartoonists' offices, concert venues, or anybody in Europe and North America. Islam, in the Jamesian framework adopted by Brooks, is entirely distinct and separate from corporate/dogmatic terrorism, and mixing them up is a terrible category error. The concept of Islamic terrorism is as incoherent as the concept of Baptist photocopying or Mahayana board meetings.

But Brooks doesn't apologize for starting his column off with the error, or even apparently consider correcting it. He seems to think, indeed, that the distinction demostrating he is wrong somehow proves he's right, but he doesn't argue the point enough to quarrel with. He just spits his way toward the end of the column—

For the religious person it’s about God. For the terrorist, it’s about himself
—and stops. He has totally failed to show any reason why Obama should say "Islamic terrorism" but he's got his 800 words. He's such an asshole.

No comments:

Post a Comment