Tuesday, August 30, 2005

An Ontological Explanation for Jihad

Over at The Belmont Club, Wretchard reports on Paul Berman's book Terror and Liberalism, which affords a critique of the modern Left's political alliance with radical Islam. As reported by Wretchard, Berman asserts that the Left should have concluded that radical Islam must be opposed because it stands against everything Western liberals have fought for. Yet quite the opposite happened, and Berman tries to answer why. According to Berman, liberals considered avoiding war to be the unquestionable moral principle that all other moral principles bowed down to: "Blum and his supporters regarded Hitler and the Nazis with horror ... But mostly they remembered the First World War ... They grew thoughtful, therefore. They did not wish to reduce Germany in all its Teutonic complexity to black-and-white terms of good and evil." In short, "people dying" was considered an intrinsically bad thing; preventing it therefore justified any cost or compromise in values.

But the problem with holding up the preservation of life as the ultimate moral principle brings into question whose life? There will always be circumstances where one set of lives have to be valued more than another set, and in war this almost always involves large sets of lives. The follow-up question to whose lives are worth preserving over others is this: is there anything in the world that is worth sacrificing one or more lives for, or every last life for? When the preservation of life itself is made the pinnacle of morality, then the answer is no. And that perhaps explains why the Left seems consistently inclined to compromise with the worst of tyrants.

But this is a phenomenal explanation for the Left's seemingly perpetual attraction to tyrants, because all rational explanations are ultimately founded on fundamental assumptions that can never be validated by logic. Logic is a system for manipulating symbols, ideas. Every known system of logic must begin with irreducible axioms. No explanation for jihad or the global Left's genuflexion toward it can therefore be complete without describing their ontologies. In other words, the question of what motivates jihadis and the Left begins with understanding what they think themselves to be. All questions of value and morality begin not with rationality but with a fundamental conception of the self. In deliberating the values of the Marxists, one 20th century thinker ruminated thusly:
The . . . doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature and replaces the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight. Thus it denies the value of personality in man, contests the significance of nationality and . . . thereby withdraws from humanity the premise of its existence and its culture. As a foundation of the universe, this doctrine would bring about the end of any order intellectually conceivable to man. And as, in this greatest of all recognizable organisms, the result of an application of such a law could only be chaos, on earth it could only be destruction for the inhabitants of this planet.
Into the 21st century, sounds like things haven't changed so much after all, have they? His analysis of the faults in Marxism begin with an understanding of the self--nature, personality, nationality, and culture. And this analysis is perhaps spot on, because Marxists logically arrive at the conclusion that man is no more significant than his own body--personally or collectively within the context of society. From this conception of the self can be derived an abstract rationalization against the bourgeosie, the capitalists, and anyone else who retains extraordinary wealth and influence. Communism's perpetual enmity with the more privileged classes is thus a rationalism that is rooted in a fundamental, irreducible conception of the self.

In critiquing Marxism, the thinker also betrays the fundamentally irreducible self-conception upon which his own rationalizations are founded. Like the Communists, he also believes himself to be a thing of Nature, except his view of nature was perhaps more reverential than those of the Communists, who also tend to be humanistic. Who is this critic of Marxist doctrine? The first sentence rendered in full should make clearer the author and the role of self-conceptions in the matter of rational exegeses: "The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature. . ." The critic was Hitler.

Hitler's "final solution" too was derived from his fundamental self-conception: (emphasis added)
I took all the Social Democratic pamphlets I could lay hands on and sought the names of their authors: Jews. I noted the names of the leaders; by far the greatest part were likewise members of the 'chosen people,' whether they were representatives in the Reichsrat or trade-union secretaries, the heads of organizations or street agitators. It was always the same gruesome picture. The names of the Austerlitzes, Davids, Adlers, Ellenbogens, etc., will remain forever graven in my memory. One thing had grown dear to me: the party with whose petty representatives I had been carrying on the most violent struggle for months was, as to leadership, almost exclusively in the hands of a foreign people; for, to my deep and joyful satisfaction, I had at last come to the conclusion that the Jew was no German. (Mein Kampf, chapter 2)
If Hitler had felt the Jews were not hostile nor hold-outs against that which he considered most dear--idealized, nationalistic German culture--then perhaps the world would not have seen "the final solution." But that was not to be. Hitler's "final solution" was rational because, to him and his followers, the rationalizations followed from an unquestionable, irreducible conception of the self.

Islamic Jihad is also based on a fundamental conception of the self which, like Marxism and Facism, is also materialistic. Dying for the sake of carnal rewards, whether earthly, or heavenly, or for the preservation of the ummah, is still a conception of the self rooted in the body. For Muslims too, that thing about them which is fundamentally irreducible and not subject to rationalization provides their most basic answer to the questions "what am I?", "what are we?", and by extension "what are you?" Those who fundamentally differ from them on this level tend to be regarded as enemies, even if the so-called enemies mean Islamists no harm. It is the otherness that is threatening, because by association, becoming "like" the other is something is something akin to suicide. If one's inner-most self is destroyed, goes missing, or becomes something else, what then is the use of everything else? For Islam to thus protect itself, the "other" must be dehumanized--made fit for derision, subjugation, exploitation, and termination. Justification for jihad, like Hitler's justification for the Final Solution, is rational, not irrational, once the axioms inherent in radical Islamic are accepted as the starting point for all rationalizations.

The West and allied civilizations like the Orthodox and Hindu civlizations are inadvertently in search of a fundamental, irreducible conception of themselves, lest the modern Left define it for them. To a significant extent, all three of these civilizations, and others not mentioned here, have been significantly affected by empiricism and liberal ideologies which have at their root a conception of the self--a conception demonstrated by the modern Left as self-defeating. So in one sense the greater part of the battle against radical Islam is really a set of intracivilizational, ideological battles to define the reigning ontologies for each of these civilizations.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of these battles, to see what type of conception of the self each civilization arrives at and whether or not these conceptions can stand up to the ummah. It is our ontological understanding of the self, whether visceral, religious, cultural, or even intellectual, that forms the starting point from which all rationalizations, values, and ethics descend. This ontological understanding need not be religious, either. It can be cultural, national, class-based, race-based, etc. One thing the Belmont Club article should make clear is that the ontological conception at the heart of the modern Left cannot stand up to radical Islam. If the Left wins, the jihadis win with them.

The current challenge to evolutionary theory from the religious Right in America, in the form of promoting Intelligent Design in education, is perhaps a metaphor for the American struggle in establishing who the Americans really are. The modern Left has a hammer-lock on educational institutions throughout the West, and advocacy for teaching Intelligent Design by all appearances seems to be an attempt to break that hammer-lock. Although the connection between ID advocacy and fighting radical Islam is not obvious, the winners of this and other future cultural battles will create the people who ultimately have to take a stand against radical Islam, perhaps laying down their lives or surrendering. Secular culture has little choice but to give up some of its dominance, or like the French liberals who later came to occupy posts in government of Vichy France, give up completely at the feet of a tyranical conqueror who at least believed in something worth dying for.

4 Comments:

Blogger wildiris said...

Krishna Kirti, I can’t agree with you more. Here are some notes from some of my old GoV posts.

Culture, religion, morals, ethics, taboos, traditions, views of the universe and a person’s place in it and etc. are just outward manifestations of a society's collective consciousness. In this way of looking at human consciousness, there are two fundamentally different and mutually exclusive ways of seeing the world one lives in.

One can see a world where individual choices matter or one can see the world as a place were ones individual choices don't matter. If individual choices matter, then it is important to make the right choices. This is the realm of morality and religion.

If individual choices don't matter, then somebody or something else must be responsible for things. This leads to the realm of superstition and Fascism.

If you believe your individual choices matter, then you must also believe, by assumption, that you have the power or resources to make those choices. And along with personal empowerment must also come the burden of personal responsibility, (i.e. the concept of sin). Conversely, if choices don't matter, then one must see oneself as powerless, as a victim, as a pawn.

…A number of unique changes occurred in western European society, in the years leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Changes in thought patterns (i.e. society’s collective human consciousness), that without which, a Protestant Reformation could not have happened. The first change I would point to would be the appearance, beginning with the renaissance years, of what one could call “rational though”. That is, a view of the universe characterized by the emergence of that mode of inquiry we would eventually know as the modern scientific method. The second change would be the appearance and growth of a European middle class. A third change would be, of course, the invention of the printing press, the Internet of its time. The one important thing these changes all had in common was their ability to empower individuals to have more control over their own lives than any society has ever given its members before in human history.

The first change noted above is also the marker in time when our modern notion of individuality first begins to appear.

The Protestant Christian notion of “a personal relationship with God” could only have appeared in a society where individuals were ready to accept the concomitant burden of “a personal responsibility to God”. But this, in turn, could only happen if individuals felt that they lived in a universe/world/society where their individual choices should, could, would and did matter.
Unfortunately this notion that “individual choice in the course of ones life is a birthright for all people” is so embedded into our modern western cultural world view that we as a society have lost the ability to see what a radical and unprecedented step in thinking it was for the world of that time.

Islam, as a religion, is a marker for a society whose collective human consciousness is still stuck living in a world where choices don’t matter. Islam is a holdover to a worldview where people lived and died at the mercy of kings, invading armies and barbarian raiders.

Likewise the modern liberal way of thinking also boils down to a belief system were ones lifestyle choices shouldn’t matter. As an example from your experience Krishna, think about the people you know who argue for gay rights in religion and the logic behind their arguments.

The attraction that the left has for Islam, I believe, is rooted in the fact that both worldviews share the same “individual choices don’t/shouldn’t matter” outlook on life. And this is why both are at war, in a spiritual sense, with Protestant Christianity and Hinduism because these are worldviews of the “individual choices do matter” category.

The war is not between Islam and the West as so many seem to want to cast it. The war is as you state, a war between two fundamentally different and mutually exclusive individual-senses-of-self and the worldviews that go with them.

2:35 PM, August 30, 2005  
Blogger bordergal said...

This is a very nice and bloodless way of looking at the issue.

However, real people die, real blood is shed, and real pain and suffering is the consequence of these differences.

I'd be much more interested in seeing how this theory can be used to destroy the relationship between the leftists and the Jihadis.

10:06 AM, August 31, 2005  
Blogger krishna_kirti said...

Wildiris, you've got lots and lots of good stuff. Why you don't have a blog?

You wrote: If you believe your individual choices matter, then you must also believe, by assumption, that you have the power or resources to make those choices. And along with personal empowerment must also come the burden of personal responsibility, (i.e. the concept of sin). Conversely, if choices don't matter, then one must see oneself as powerless, as a victim, as a pawn.

Yep. This is where theology makes a difference--the difference. The idea of a civilized society, law, etc., is based on this premise. Implicit in this premise is that there is something fundamental about our existence that can actually make choices. That something has to be irreducible and non-deterministic.

Furthermore, the idea that a minority has rights despite what the majority believes implies that there is also a moral law greater than majority concensus. Morality is meaningful only within the context of a person. So if that greater good, despite whatever the majority of people believes is good, has a factual existence, then also implicit in accepting its factual existence is accepting a being, some being, that is greater than ourselves and which gives meaning to that greater good.

In short, accepting the principle of civilization as we know it necessarily means accepting the existence of a higher being that makes such a civilization meaningful.

Also, because this aspect of our existence (the self, choice, morality) is so fundamental that one could never understand anything about it without theology. Theology matters because it's the only thing through which we can understand the two things about us that matters most: us, and our relationship with everything else (and everything else's relationship with us).

George Weigel in his book "The Cube and the Cathedral" I think convincingly shows how Christianity created the ideals European leaders chose to reject in their constitution, and how such a rejection will result in Europe cutting itself off at its cultural knees. Weigel believes excluding Europe's core religion from Europe will result in the destruction of Europe, and perhaps America. I think he's right.

One thing I'm not clear about is how the Protestant Christian concept of a personal God is different or more personal than a Roman Catholic conception of God. I mean, the RCs have images, the corpus, the Virgin Mary, pictures of different saints--it all seems very personal to me.

10:37 PM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger krishna_kirti said...

bordergal wrote: I'd be much more interested in seeing how this theory can be used to destroy the relationship between the leftists and the Jihadis.

I think that part of the energy of the Left is that the conservative Right is still their chief enemy. So the enemy of one's enemy is one's ally.

The other part of their willingness to embrace a cobra is they don't see the cobra as a cobra but as another living being. This comes from what seems to me a heightened liberal tendency for abstract thinking.

Thinking of others, including their beliefs and values, in abstract terms as a matter of habit leads one to believe that two moral positions are reconcilable when in fact they are not. And again with this idea comes a fundamental conception of the self that makes this logical.

Fundamental ideas are more or less ingrained in one by the time he or she is 11 or 12 years old, and later refined through secondary and polished within higher education. So the broad place where the liberal affection for Islam can be broken (before it comes to Islam breaking them to convince them of it) is in the educational system.

In the educational system (at home as well as in school) values have to be taught--black and white, good and bad. Teaching to children a non-material conception of their selves (that they are souls, not atoms) would have to be reestablished.

But reestablishing this will not happen without, to a significant extent, discrediting the humanistic sciences. Sociology, psychology, and other humanistic "ologies" will have to first take a major hit that sufficiently discredits them among political elites, legal elites, educational elites, and the people in general.

In one sense, that is why I think the effort to teach intelligent design in American public schools is not just a bunch of religious zealots trying to force their "belief system" down every else's throat. To many it really and truly is a matter of surviving as a civilization and winning the war against its cultural, ideological, and civilziational enemies.

10:58 PM, September 01, 2005  

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