Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world. Continue reading

The decline-and-fall narrative

3PictureRomanConstantineMuseumA lot of Evangelical Christian prophecy concerning the United States runs like this: we had a godly start, we’ve sinned and have gotten away from it, and we’re going to be judged for it soon. Even ignoring challenges to the merits of these three claims, which I do throughout this post, the narrative is reprehensible.

Why?

First, the decline-and-fall narrative is an historicist prophecy that disarms man of his greatest God-given weapon on behalf of self-government – his reason. If the forces of history are stronger than a community’s ability to govern itself, then the resulting fatalism cedes the argument over the possibility of self-government that Hamilton and Lincoln said was the central drama of our republic.

This narrative is like Marxism’s central prophecy because it discourages the use of reason – indeed, it discourages the resort to any kind of action. Here’s Karl Popper’s description, found in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, of Marx’s central prophecy’s effect:

Although itself not a moral decision, since it is not based on any system of morality, it leads to the adoption of a certain system of morality. To sum up, my fundamental decision is not (as you suspected) the sentimental decision to help the oppressed, but the scientific and rational decision not to offer vain resistance to the developmental laws of society. (410)

In other words, the narrative itself is not immoral, but it leads to a decision not to act, which in a given case may be immoral.

Second, decline-and-fall narratives, at their core, are vehicles to return us to tribalism. Plato was the first to advance decline-and-fall narratives, one to characterize the fall of the Greek city-states in his own day and a second to characterize the decline and fall of the earlier Persian Empire. (We see a parallel here to today’s most popular current and past decline-and-fall narratives concerning, respectively, the United States and the Roman Empire.) Popper points out that Plato worked out his dualism in the political realm to contrast a perfect past (the unity and purity of tribalism) with the corrupted present (democracy):

Plato was longing for the lost unity of tribal life. A life of change, in the midst of a social revolution, appeared to him unreal. Only a stable whole, the permanent collective, has reality, not the passing individuals. (75 – 76)

Plato’s narrative was, to Popper, “the beginning of a long series of Decline-and-Fall dramatizations of the histories of empires and civilizations” (53). This series has stretched beyond the publication of Popper’s World War II-era book.

Twentieth-century political theory was dominated by this desire to return to a pure and tribal past. In his book Terror and Liberalism – his explanation for the rise of fundamental Islam as a political force – Paul Berman finds the same myth and historical struggle behind the Bolsheviks, the Stalinists, Mussolini’s Fascists, Franco’s Phalange, and the Nazis:

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined. . . . The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and its abominations. (48 – 49)

While the decline-and-fall narratives don’t share these twentieth-century groups’ messianic claims for their nations or movements, they share their view of an idyllic and tribal past that contrasts with a corrupt present.

Third, the decline-and-fall narrative, as a practical matter, amounts to a pair of glasses with which to view and disparage any proposed change from the way things were in the idyllic past. Popper, like Berman, finds in Marx’s doctrine a dangerous historicism, but Popper approves of Marx’s ability to make Christians question their own reliance on historicism. (Popper finds “a wide gulf between Marx’s activism and his historicism” (408).) Popper summarizes Marx’s discussion about an influential eighteenth-century author:

A typical representative of this kind of Christianity was the High Church priest J. Townsend, author of A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. . . .‘Hunger’, Townsend begins his eulogy, ‘is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure but, as the most natural motive of industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.’ In Townsend’s ‘Christian’ world order, everything depends (as Marx observes) upon making hunger permanent among the working class; and Townsend believes that this is indeed the divine purpose of the principle of the growth of population; for he goes on: ‘It seems to be a law of nature that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident, so that there may always be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, the most ignoble offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased, whilst the more delicate … are left at liberty without interruption to pursue those callings which are suited to their various dispositions.’ [Townsend] adds that the Poor Law, by helping the hungry, ‘tends to destroy the harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order, of that system which God and nature have established in the world.’ (406)

Of course, people who believe in a decline-and-fall narrative disagree on what the idyllic past looks like. But while the application of the narrative in any given situation is debatable, the narrative’s specifics relative to any issue at hand usually rely on the same logical fallacy that Townsend employs – ad antiquitatem.

As I’ve said on this site elsewhere (applying my own logical fallacy, that of ad nauseam), Christianity’s influence on America’s founding goes beyond piety, charity, hypocrisy, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Its chief claim is the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause, a dynamic, universal truth worked out over two thousand years of Greek, Jewish, Christian, and agnostic thought. “All men are created equal” rejects any form of tribal ideal. The clause is dynamic because it represents not the past but an aspirational standard. Lincoln, after all, compared the Equality Clause to Jesus’ injunction to be “perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”: “let it be nearly reached as we can.” The cause is universal because, as Lincoln said, equality is an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” It is applicable not just to twenty-first-century Evangelical Christians.

In fact, the spirit behind the decline-and-fall narrative isn’t Christian at all, as Popper points out:

This kind of ‘Christianity’ which recommends the creation of myth as a substitute for Christian responsibility is a tribal Christianity. It is a Christianity that refuses to carry the cross of being human. Beware of these false prophets! What they are after, without being aware of it, is the lost unity of tribalism. (446)

To Popper, “the cross of being human” is the willingness to act, to make mistakes in acting, and to learn from those mistakes through the criticism of the greater community of mankind. The decline-and-fall narrative discourages the taking up of that cross.

It may be – it’s likely, in fact – that the United States is headed for a world of trouble. But if Christians confuse Platonism for prophecy, they’ll only contribute to the problem.

Ice, hail, & the reign hereafter

For my blog’s tenth anniversary, a suitably long and slow post. The post combines my blog’s three favorite preoccupations: literary criticism, political theory, and spirituality. You’ve got another ten years to read it.

Thick ice this morning on our sidewalks and streets. The pines beside them shine and droop as if an angel had fallen and not the rain. No school. Today, for the first time, I would have started teaching Macbeth. Now I have another day to prepare.

3PictureIcedPine

So yesterday’s hereafter wasn’t today, after all; it’s tomorrow again. The witches’ greeting:

All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.48)

The New Cambridge Edition points out that Shakespeare, in two other plays, associates “all hail” with Judas’ betrayal – his “Hail, rabbi” when he leads the soldiers to Jesus.1 Judas’s greeting is ironic, right? “Hail” in Middle English meant “healthy,” like our “hale.” (For “hail,” the OED quotes the early fifteenth century Wars of Alexander: “When on athyll was so wele in happe and in heyle.”) By King James’ day, “hail,” with a fading glow of good health, had become an interjection of greeting and sometimes of acclamation, as for a king.

And Judas kisses Jesus as a future king. Palestine’s Roman and Jewish leaders are concerned that Jesus’ movement is gaining a political expression, that “king of the Jews,” a claim Jesus never denies, means hereafter. The Magi prophesied that Jesus would be king hereafter. Pilate tacks “the king of the Jews” atop Jesus’ cross to establish irony. Jesus’ followers, however, find Pilate’s sign prophetic and therefore reflecting a deeper irony.

Pilate puts “hereafter” in this life, but Jesus puts “hereafter” in the life to come. Are they that far apart?

Christians argue about whether Jesus will rule on earth and whether, assuming he will, nature and mankind will be much as they are today. And is there anything Christians can to do help that prophecy along?

If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me
Without my stir. (1.3.142-3)

Macbeth understands in these early lines what Macbeth’s New Cambridge Edition editor A. R. Braunmuller terms “prophetic irony” – the suggestion inherent in prophecy that the one receiving the prophecy should act upon it, to go beyond what Saint Paul describes as prophecy’s purposes: to edify, exhort, and comfort.

Christian political actions focused on hastening or establishing Jesus’ reign, such as the Crusades, have ended in disaster. Yet removing religion from the equation hardly helps. Every ideology seems to have a heaven on earth. Just as paradise moved from hell to heaven with Jesus’ resurrection, so for all ideologies heaven moves to earth at the juncture of history and no-history, or, in the case of Marxist thought, at the juncture of prehistory and history.

Macbeth uses the word “hereafter” four times. Shortly after the witches use it to tell Macbeth when he’ll be king, Duncan, the then-current king, uses it to announce when he intends his son to be king:

. . . kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know:
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland . . . (1.4.35-40)

Macbeth, among the thanes who hear the news, immediately takes his leave. He heads home, Haman-like, but is greeted by his wife much as he was greeted by the witches:

Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter (1.5.52-53)

In Lady Macbeth’s greeting, as Braunmuller points out, “the phrase ‘all-hail’ is treated as an adjective, ‘hereafter’ as a noun.”2 “Hereafter” for Lady Macbeth is no longer an adverb that merely tells when something else will happen. “Hereafter” becomes, instead, a destination in its own right – a political destination at which, I suppose, all will be hail.

Is Lady Macbeth’s vision of a perfect political future – a kind of heaven on earth – peculiar only to some Christians and Marxists? Perhaps there are no new idealistic political movements under the sun. Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism puts recent radical Islam in company with other anti-liberal political movements, both religious and secular, and points to, among many other similarities, their common vision of the hereafter:

The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations. It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis). Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years – that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.3

The political hereafter, the heaven on earth, escapes history’s vicissitudes and untidiness. How can we resist such an allure? The hereafter is an ideal time, and we’re wired for ideals. There’s no escaping Plato – or, more precisely, what he represents: ideal forms. Inductive reasoning, for instance, is inescapable. It’s how we learn. An empiricist knows the sun came up yesterday and yesterday and yesterday. Any conclusion he draws about tomorrow makes him an unwilling Platonist. And, just as in Newton’s day, science today can’t go far without mathematics – that perfect language of the ideal – which was also Plato’s favorite language.

But to achieve a political hereafter, to end history in favor of an ideal state, eventually requires that we become something other than what we are: beings with an unfathomable center that makes integrity, or “one-ness,” possible on a personal but not a political level. By seeking a political one-ness, we divide ourselves from ourselves. Lady Macbeth calls off her own menstrual cycle (the “compunctious visitings of nature”) long enough for her and Macbeth to kill King Duncan:

. . . Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall . . .  (1.5.38 – 46)

Her stifled cycle stopped the flow of blood to the king’s sons, too, as if from a kind of menstrual synchrony in this claustrophobic play. Macbeth announces King Duncan’s death to one of the king’s heirs, Donaldbain:

The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped.  (2.3.91 – 92)

Do we bleed just by being together? Is something as essential as blood our own, or is it something we share? Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy, issues from such an uneasy tension between an individual and her society. Niebuhr’s individual can’t find fulfillment without her society, but she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society.”4 An individual lives her life “in painful tension with even the best community,” but her life turns tragic when her society adopts some ideology to eliminate this incongruity. For Niebuhr, “the final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”5 But ideologies wish to annul the incongruity, want to solve more than they can.

The more society seeks to annul the incongruity, the more the individual doubles – the more she is tempted to lose her integrity, splitting into a public and a private person. Scotland under Macbeth, Ross reports, is “almost afraid to know itself” (4.3.167). Leading up to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth counsels duplicity:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. (1.5.60 – 64)

Most modern political ideologies seek to protect “the value and dignity of the individual,” but that dignity “is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it.”6  For Niebuhr, who wrote Irony in the middle of the Cold War, the threatening culture may be Communist or bourgeois capitalist, among other possibilities:

The Christian idea of the significance of each individual in God’s sight becomes, in bourgeois civilization, the concept of a discrete individual who makes himself the final end of his own existence. The Christian idea of providence is rejected for the heady notion that man is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.7

In other words, ideologies are based on the individual as perhaps born of God but untimely ripped, like Macduff, with God dying while giving birth. Ideologies are based also on a notion of society as either bound by God’s prophecy or freed from God’s justice and mercy – in either case, as freed from his providence. Orphaned from God, the individual becomes her own end. Either freed from God or goaded by some notion of biblical prophecy, society is able to control – and in that sense, close – history as surely as its science is now able to control nature.

In tempting Macbeth to kill Duncan, the weird sisters tempt him to make an end of history, too. They anticipate and rip off Macbeth’s words in time (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” – 1.3.36) and use and confuse them outside of time (“fair is foul, and foul is fair” – 1.1.11). As Braunmuller puts it, “regicide is necessarily an attack on time’s progression and duration.”8 After meeting the witches, Macbeth considers that killing King Duncan would be “the be-all and the end-all,” a “jump” from time to “the life to come”:

If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.1 – 7)

These lines show Braunmuller that Macbeth “first envisages, and then undertakes to create, a world in which acts have no consequences, no duration beyond the moment of their enactment, no reach in time and beyond time into eternity.”9 Responding to her husband’s letters, Lady Macbeth has a similar vision, though not as fully developed, in reaction to the witches’ prophecies:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5.54 – 56)

Niebuhr warned in his 1952 book The Irony of American History that America one day would be tempted as the Soviets to create a hereafter, to make such a “future in the instant”:

. . . our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with  the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.10

The Iraq War makes plain that Niebuhr was prescient. Niebuhr understood that America might be tempted to end history in the name of democracy or of Christ, just as the U.S.S.R. sought to end history for the benefit of a godless mankind.

When Macbeth’s preemptive strike against the king and his heir begins to unhinge him, Macbeth follows King Saul’s precedent and seeks out the witches. The witches’ first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware Macduff,” but the second apparition counters the first with what would later turn out to be doublespeak:

SECOND APPARITION
Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends

MACBETH
Then live, Macduff, what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1.77-85)

By now, Macbeth has long since dropped any notion of leaving chance to its work “without my stir.” The witches’ fresh prophesies in support of the “all-hail hereafter” tempt Macbeth “to take a bond of fate” – to plot Macduff’s murder. Macbeth doesn’t succeed in murdering Macduff, of course, but he does succeed in having Macduff’s wife and child murdered.

These prophecies also have made Macbeth believe he is invincible, almost immortal. Up until he learns from Macduff that he wasn’t born but “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,”11 Macbeth’s arrogance seems to increase with each scene.

Niebuhr believed that America’s millennialism might combine with its frustrations to cause it to act on its rising arrogance and to put an end to history. Where did America’s millennialism come from? Niebuhr pointed out that we harbor a Messianic sense of our destiny flowing from two sources. First, “the New England conception of our virtue,” which began “as the belief that the church which had been established on our soil was purer than any church of Christendom.” And second, from Virginia’s son Thomas Jefferson, whose “religious faith was a form of Christianity which had passed through the rationalism of the French Enlightenment.”12 Niebuhr quoted Jefferson on America’s innate superiority to Europe, though he failed to comment on Jefferson’s reference to a millennium of American (at least mental or spiritual) ascendency:

“If all the sovereigns of Europe,” [Jefferson] declared, “were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudice and that as zealously as they now attempt the contrary a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”13

It wouldn’t have surprised Niebuhr, then, that the president who wanted to help history along enough to start a preventative (or “preemptive”) war would be an evangelical Christian and would have little use for European leaders’ advice. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, when asked during a 1999 Republican debate in Iowa what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most, responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Applying the Sunday school strategy of answering every question with “Jesus,” of course, doesn’t work in political science.14 And applying the Christian project of redemption of human nature (“he changed my heart”) to government makes Christ a reformer of human nature rather than a redeemer, and so makes Bush’s political theory no better in this regard than that of an Hegelian or a Marxist, who also sought to reform human nature through government.15

But human nature cannot be reformed, and history, like the poor, will always be with us. The Macbeths’ “all-hail hereafter” turns out to be a bloody mess. Macbeth can’t stop now, however. He is immortal.

The witches’ second round of prophecies leave Macbeth looking for a second political hereafter – the real hereafter – which Macbeth now reasons is delayed long enough for him to win an apocalyptic battle against Macduff, Malcolm, and the large English army they return to Scotland with. (Berman points out that all modern idealist political movements, religious and secular, promote myths that include an Armageddon – a final battle that ends history and ushers in the ideal state.)16

At the height of his invincibility – just before he hears news that puts in doubt his understanding of the witches’ prophesies – Macbeth hears that Lady Macbeth has died. Here Shakespeare employed the play’s fourth and final hereafter, and the only one that falls from Macbeth’s lips:

SEYTON
The queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)

It’s presumptuous of me to add anything new to the commentary these lines have generated over the last four centuries. I believe as much of it as I’ve read: Macbeth clearly loves Lady Macbeth, and her death brings him closer to himself, prepares us for his undoing, and reminds the audience of Macbeth’s heroic sensibility that permits his tragedy. The repetition of “tomorrow” acts to slow time to something without meaning, much like the repeated and meaningless words that Lady Macbeth utters in her madness, which are “full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” I’d add only that Macbeth here still believes in a hereafter – a time on earth after history’s end – and one that may go on forever thanks to his newly promised immortality. But he now realizes that the Armageddon he thinks he’s about to win will be empty not only of history but also of love.

Whether I give my friend a fish, train my friend to fish, or train and fund my friend’s country to establish and maintain a fishing industry that increases everyone’s standard of living, I had better do it from love. If I do it to create a future or to change the world, I am nothing. And if I talk about my future kingdom, I had better be talking from a cross.

None of Macbeth‘s four “hereafters” refer to the afterlife. The notion of life after death, whether or not one believes in it, must be acknowledged as a belief also in the impossibility of man’s reaching his fullest expression in this life. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s belief in a political hereafter that will “jump the life to come,” that is, will bring eternity (or at least an end of history) to the political present, is particularly modern for reasons best stated by Niebuhr:

It is generally taken for granted [in the modern era] that the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence. This confidence makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities on the one hand and for rather materialistic conceptions of human ends on the other. All concepts of immortality are dismissed as the fruit of wishful thinking. This dismissal usually involves indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that “our reach is beyond our grasp,” and that every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history.17

As mentioned earlier, a believer in a life after death may believe also in something like Macbeth’s political hereafter. The contrapositive is also true: a disbeliever in a life after death may also not believe in the modern idea that “the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence.” But Niebuhr rightly recognizes that, at a societal level, the dismissal of life after death has been accompanied by an “indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that ‘our reach is beyond our grasp,'” and this indifference makes us more susceptible to political hereafters on earth.

If we don’t believe in something like what Niebuhr calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness”18 and in its messy consequence – the “mystery of . . . the drama of history”19 – then our desire for ideal forms will drive us to form ideal states on earth. If we wrongly expand on Christianity’s teaching that human nature can be redeemed by insisting that human nature can be reformed as well, we will destroy ourselves. If we believe that history can be tamed just as science teaches that nature can be tamed, we will destroy ourselves.

If we destroy ourselves and our planet by war – nuclear, cyber, biological, chemical, or otherwise – it would probably be, from a literary standpoint, only the latest and bloodiest production of Macbeth.

  1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Location 5569). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shakespeare, supra, at Kindle location 6297.
  3. Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003, at 49. Macbeth takes in all ideologies, too. The play addresses no specific ideology: it was written while ideologies were stirring but before they had been released into the political atmosphere. Its indeterminate target in this regard is a grace. Because it discovers the nature of all political ideology, Macbeth becomes the most perspicuous and chilling political play.
  4. Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, at 62.
  5. Id. at 63.
  6. Id. at 62.
  7. Id. at 13.
  8. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Locations 1221-1222). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. Id. at Kindle Locations 1206-1207.
  10. Niebuhr, supra, at 145-46.
  11. 5.3.15-16
  12. Niebuhr, supra, at 25.
  13. Id. at 26.
  14. The morning after the debate, Bush made his frightening response worse, explaining that he had taken the question to mean, “Who’s had the most influence on your life?” How could he have conflated those two questions?
  15. Compare Bush’s response to the “favorite political philosopher” question to that of his immediate successor, who had labeled the Iraq War “a dumb war” at its inception. Obama has called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.” Speaking to Concordia University Professor Paul Allen in 2008, Obama said he gleaned from Niebuhr that, “There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
  16. Berman, supra, at 49.
  17. Niebuhr, supra, at 6.
  18. Id. at 8.
  19. Id. at 14.

Torture & liberalism

This sadness feels Medieval,
locked in ice and dusk

— Lisa Russ Sparr, “Penance I”

[book cover] Rounding the century and having bested the last eighty years’ most malignant forms of government – fascism and communism – Western liberalism had only to fear problems stemming from the economic success its political success had fostered: pollution, global warming, and something about the computers all shutting down at the century’s stroke of midnight.  All of these problems stemmed from our not thinking about the future, the last of them – a failure to write computer script that would recognize years beginning with 20 instead of 19 – being perhaps the perfect analogy for our lack of forward thinking.

Nine months into the new century’s term, we realized what must have lurked in our collective subconscious all along – that we had rounded not only a century but also a millennium, and that our biggest contribution to our biggest problem was not a failure to look forward as much as it was a failure to look backward.  Our political response to radical Islam, we decided, must be rooted in something more millennial and seminal than the liberal notions that gave birth to our young governments.  Everything became negotiable to meet a new, ancient threat.

President Bush’s speech to an emergency joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 seemed both eloquent as well as terribly naïve and misleading.  Within two minutes of beginning his speech, he claimed that terrorists attacked us because “they hate our freedoms.”  What could a movement based on a fundamentalist view of Islam care one way or another about modern Western political thought?  Surely the terrorists didn’t strike to take away political freedoms.

The nation seemed reassured, however, in the months following the speech as Bush’s War on Terror began to cross policy lines America had never crossed before, most notably in instituting a “preemptive war” and in torturing prisoners of war.  This is how one must respond to an ancient struggle employing twenty-first-century terror, we reasoned.  Our democracies are at once too new to comprehend the philosophical and religious underpinnings of radical Islam and too slow – too mired in slow notions like “due process” – to respond to new biological, chemical, and nuclear threats.

Writing in the street-level shadow of 9/11, Paul Berman contradicts all of this.  Radical Islam has less to do with the ancient struggle between Islam and Western Christianity as it does with twentieth-century totalitarianism that we never really defeated in the first place.  Islamic terrorism is not a combination of ideology that predates liberalism and a method of warfare that postdates it – a combination that would blow us away from ourselves and make us search for solutions that have nothing to do with liberalism, such as torture.

Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism examines the writings of radical Islam’s greatest and most influential thinkers, particularly Sayyid Qutb and his younger brother Muhammad – the latter a professor of Islamic studies who taught Osama bin Laden – and describes their similarities with the philosophies supporting the one-party states of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  The aesthetics of terror, the ideal of submission, the aggrandizement of suicide, the myth of racial or religious purity and Armageddon, the uniqueness of parochial interests, the divinity or near divinity of the strongman ruler expressed through his accepted madness, the cult of death, and the extreme and oft-expressed hatred of liberalism’s freedoms – all of these intellectual symptoms are as present in radical Islam as they were in Mussolini’s fascism or in Stalin’s communism, Berman argues.  Islamic terrorism has more to do with eighteenth century Romanticism than it does with a literal interpretation of Koranic passages.

An effective Western response, then, is not out of reach.  Radical Islam is no less modern than we are.  But we have to understand the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy more than we do of radical Islam to have a chance.  Implicit in Berman’s book is the notion that our failure to understand our enemy points to the less obvious and more dangerous failure to understand ourselves.  Berman does a fair job of this, comparing the historical and philosophical differences between American European liberalism.  His examination of liberal democracy is not nearly as detailed as his examination of fundamentalist Islam, however, and that is disappointing.

Berman is no pacifist, and he cites the Gettysburg Address in his book in support of his notion that liberal democracy must have a universal appeal and must be militant at times, as well as true to its values, to survive.  Berman is a chief philosopher of the liberal hawks, most of whom supported Bush’s 1993 invasion of Iraq, though Berman doesn’t address the relative merits of that invasion in his book.

Bush was right to describe the 9/11 terrorists as “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” Berman argues, and Bush was right in certain other particulars, most notably in championing women’s rights in Afghanistan in the months following our attack on that country.  Berman establishes, however, that most of Bush’s actions in the “war of ideas” were pathetic, and he demonstrates that Bush was wrong, of course, to surrender the very ideals he said we were fighting for by adopting torture.

But what is liberal democracy?  And until we understand who we are, how can we trust our government to fight effectively and in accordance with whatever set of ideals we claim to possess?  In the resurfacing debate about torture that led to yesterday’s dueling speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Cheney, Berman’s book is important.