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Lady Liberty

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Final Paradox
posted by Bathus

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Though Roosevelt spoke not of violent conflict but of economic collapse, his famous paradox has become the line most often quoted both by those on the political right and by those on the political left to justify their prescriptions in the West's present confrontation with Islamist terrorism.

Those on the pacific left quote Roosevelt to legitimize their accusation that right-wing warmongers and profiteers have incited and exploited irrational fear to coerce a sheep-like public to accept an overly-militarist and misdirected response, to the detriment of implementation of a more peaceful solution and preservation of individual rights. Those on the right quote the same words, calling into question the courage of the anti-war left, with the charge that their fear of retaliation makes them grovel toward an irrational and ultimately self-defeating appeasement.

There is, potentially, a grain of truth in the charges both the right and the left bring against the other: a reaction to fearful circumstances could be excessive in either direction. And so, it seems that Roosevelt's rhetorical flourish, while heightening our consciousness of the dangers at either extreme, gives us no guidance as to how closely our present course adheres to the virtuous mean.

Notwithstanding its grains of tautological truth, in our day Roosevelt's stirring paradox not only fails to reveal the truth about our present condition, but actually veils and nurtures a deeper and more dangerous paradox. These days Roosevelt's words hardly inspire confidence and are rarely used with an intention to inspire confidence. Instead, the intent and the effect nowadays of almost every use of Roosevelt's words is to inspire us to wonder, "Are we fearing the right kind of fear?"

But the real danger for us is neither a paralyzing fear nor an irrational rage. Those who oppose a forceful response to terrorism are anything but paralyzed. To the contrary, they are among the most active, with their movies, their protests, and their endless litigations. They do not seek to appease our enemies. What most of them seek, let us speak the obvious truth, is to incite and inflame our enemies' anger toward us, and, more than that, to incite a self-hatred among our own people. As much as those activists would have us believe otherwise, the real danger for us is not that we could be misled by our own purportedly irrational rage. A nation that tortures itself on the minuscule details of an accusation, ridiculous even if true, that its warriors have "mishandled" a few Korans, cannot colorably be accused of excessive rage. The real danger for us is not "fear itself," but self-criticism transformed into self-doubt, transformed into self-loathing, and finally into self-negation.

If he were speaking in the latter half of the twentieth century, and especially if he were speaking to the post-9/11 Western world, Roosevelt would have more aptly said, "We have nothing to fear but self-doubt."

Yes, fear can be paralyzing to some, but in the event rarely is so. The instinctive human response to the fear of grave and immediate danger is not to stand still but "to fight or to flee." If there is nowhere to flee, to fight becomes the only possible response. Thus, in the months immediately after 9/11, while we remained as it were in the grip of fear, when it seemed there was no place of safety from attackers who crashed civilian jets into our tallest buildings in our largest city, to flee was not an option. As a people, we seemed resolved to fight. Self-doubts were, if not extinguished altogether, submerged in the moment of existential fear.

It is only as fear abates that self-doubt can begin to re-emerge.

The terrorists understand this. They understand that, for all but a very few extremely weak-willed or horribly corrupted souls, the immediate instinctive reaction to their brutal attacks will be rage. Indeed, if the terrorists still fear anything about us, it is our rational rage, that healthy life-affirming emotion for which we yet retain a latent capacity. They understand that, so long as we retain that capacity, after each attack they must expect to absorb or avoid the blows of our rage for some time. But they are confident that as our immediate fear abates, our rage will dissipate also. For the French and the Germans, that rage can be measured in days. For the Spanish, it can be measured in hours. For the Americans, the clock is still ticking. For the British people, with the bombings in London yesterday the clock was reset, and no one knows this time how long it will run. But the terrorists are confident that eventually we will lose even the instinctive capacity for rage, and the clock will stop altogether.

Thus, they employ fear merely as a catalyst, administered judiciously with varying intensity in cycles of various lengths. Within each cycle, as our fear is absorbed and metabolized in the collective psyche, the fear refines and crystallizes the prevailing sentiments. In the presence of a dissipating fear, pre-existing sentiments of self-doubt transform and harden into self-loathing and a will to self-negation. Pre-existing sentiments of self-respect and self-confidence transform and stiffen into the calm resolution of a will to prevail against enemies who are so obviously our moral inferiors.

The doubt I speak of is not a Rooseveltian concern about whether we fear too much or fear too little or fear the wrong things, but rather the more fundamental doubt about whether we--we the United States and we the West--deserve morally to prevail in our confrontation with Islamic fundamentalism.

We in the West must balance ourselves forever in a precariously paradoxical position, one that requires an equilibrium that it would be unimaginable to sustain for long had not the culture of the West been performing that magical act with generally increasing success for the last several hundred years. For self-questioning is itself a vital principle of Western values. With an honest irony that eludes contemporary self-doubters, Socrates could brag that his superior wisdom consisted in his knowledge that he knew nothing. In self-doubt, Descartes managed to confirm the palpable truth of his own existence. His "I doubt, therefore I am," expresses perfectly the paradox of Western culture. To us in the West, self-examination has rightly been understood as, if not virtue itself, a pre-condition of virtue. Yet in our present struggle against Islamofascism, more so even than in our struggle against communism, this impulse to self-criticism, this pre-condition of Western virtue, has been corrupted in a way that could finally be our moral and mortal undoing. We are losing our balance.

For this loss of balance, we can blame the ascendancy of the moral and cultural relativists, who assert that all purported "truths" espoused anywhere at any time are in reality merely the preferences of a particular culture in a particular place in time. In other words, all "truths" are "culturally relative" and "historically relative." The "truths" an Islamist terrorist holds dear are as valid from his point of view as the "truths" we hold dear are valid from our point of view. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. There is no genuine basis to distinguish between them. The relativisists teach that the "truths" we hold to be "self-evident" are not truths at all, but are merely the preferences of some long-dead white guys (who really didn't believe those so-called truths themselves, but were only mouthing those fancy words to distract the masses from their power grab).

Furthermore, even aside from the non-existence of moral truth, the relativists explain that, because we are all blinded by the value system in which we were acculturated, we have no capacity to judge the goodness or evil of any culture of which we are not a part. Inasmuch as we have no grounds to judge the goodness or evil of the acts and practices of other cultures, we have no moral standing to judge ourselves superior to them, and we certainly have no moral standing to go to war against them, even when they attack us, because we simply cannot make a valid judgment about whether their attacks were just or unjust. Sure we didn't like it when they killed thousands of our innocent civilians, but they didn't like it when we started selling Coca Cola in Saudi Arabia. Who's to judge which was the worse offense? Besides, you can't properly discuss these things using words like "justice" and "innocent" because such terms are laden with impermissible value judgments.

Yet, even though we cannot, according to the relativists, justify our wrath on moral grounds, can we not--aside from any moral question--appeal to a basic instinct of self-preservation of which the impulse to rage in the presence of danger is the most obvious natural manifestation? But then arises the question, "Do we even deserve to survive?" In making that judgment we are not permitted to compare the goodness of our culture with that of one that seeks to exterminate us. No, the relativists remind us that all we can rightly assess is our own culture, the extent to which we adhere to the moral principles we purport to uphold. We cannot make moral use of the comparative fact that our enemies slaughter children for their parents' religion, while we, albeit imperfectly, uphold a principle of freedom of religion for all faiths.

Abstracted from any trans-historical or trans-cultural context (i.e., abstracted from the practical and imperfect world as it is, as it was, and as it is likely to be), self-examination becomes an unbalanced process, a spirit-draining one-sided game we play against ourselves and are guaranteed to lose, a game in which we measure ourselves against an absolute scale of our own highly developed standards of civilized behavior, while granting our implacable enemies complete immunity from all moral judgment. We inevitably discover that we fall short of the principles we espouse. To the relativists, the fact that our enemies slaughter children for their parents' religion is irrelevant, while the "mishandling" of a few Korans is highly revelatory. Indeed, insofar as adherence to their principles is concerned, our enemies are superior to us in that they adhere more consistently to their principle that children of infidels can be slaughtered to advance the jihad, while we do not perfectly uphold our principle of respect for all religions. The relativists believe that there is no truth worth dying for, yet believe at the same time that our enemies' apparently endless willingness to sacrifice themselves and numberless innocents somehow lends credence to their bloody cause. Unlike the philosophy of a Socrates or a Descartes, for whom self-doubt was the impetus for deeper moral inquiry, in the contemporary thought dominated by relativists, self-doubt is a moral dead end--not exactly an absolute dead end, but a dead end with a trap door opening into an empty abyss of self-negation.

Relativism, is of course, utter nonsense, manifestly self-contradictory in its fundamental claim: "There is no truth!" a contradiction rendered only slightly more obvious when fully restated as, "The truth is there is no truth!" It is all too easy to understand why generations of academicians would have become enraptured, and still are enraptured, by such foolishness. What is slightly more difficult to understand is why the nonsense assertion that "the truth is there is no truth" could have gained currency in popular (small d) democratic political thought.

To some extent the emergence of popular relativism is attributable to the elite relativists' having in the last century secured a virtual monopoly in the social institutions--the arts, academia, the press, and to a lesser extent religion--that have historically served as anchors of moderation and counter-weights to extremes in popular political opinion. But a more complete explanation of the ascendancy of relativism in popular political thought can be traced to the innate and powerful inclination of democratic peoples to want to hold all things equal.

In democracies, with our love of equality, we are overly fond of believing that no one's opinion is superior to any other's. In the face of conflicting truth claims, we seem forced to choose one as superior to the other, and we are uncomfortable making such a choice because it would seem to violate the democratic principle that every man (and his opinion) is the equal of any other man (and his opinion). Relativism saves us from the distressing choice. It allows us to say with a straight face that both opinions are equally true for the persons who hold them. Everything becomes a matter of personal preference, and it all seems so affable and tolerant. As the relativists mouth their pernicious pseudo-philosophy, they can congratulate themselves for their intellectual subtlety. One of the subsidiary paradoxes of relativism is that each of its proponents considers himself an intellectual superior. But the relativist is intellectually the laziest and most self-deceiving of human types, for he believes he vanquishes every opponent with just one triumphant rejoinder: "That's just your opinion, and who are you to judge!" Whenever someone deploys that non-sequitur, you can be sure that he is a relativist, even if he would not recognize himself as one. And if you ever make use of that line yourself, you should consider the possibility that insidious relativism has taken hold of your own soul as well.

Just as relativism relieves its adherents from the discomfort of expressing moral judgments about others, which every democratic spirit by nature wishes mightily to avoid, it also seems to relieve them from the awful weight of moral judgments about themselves. The great seduction, and the great deception, of relativism is that it promises to free its adherents from self-doubt, because it allows them to assert confidently without examination or argument that whatever moral values they settle upon are as good as any others. What once appeared to be dubious moral values are now all merely "alternative lifestyle choices." Any argument against them can be easily dismissed: "That's just your opinion, and who are you to judge!" When one's lifestyle choices are challenged, one need not defend them with rational arguments about the better and the worse. There is no better and worse. In the relativist world, even "opinion" becomes too strong a word because an "opinion" implies underlying reasons, but for the relativist there can be no valid reasons. Eventually all that remain are "preferences." It's enough to say, "This is my choice based on my preferences, and it is as good as any other." To suggest that some choices are better than others is to commit the only relativist sin--the sin of intolerance.

So how does one exist as a relativist? Well, the truth is one can't actually operate in the world as a practicing relativist. The relativists, being human, make moral judgments. They tell us that it is "wrong to be judgmental," but the command not to be judgmental entails, of course, a moral judgment. We humans are, by nature, judging creatures. Our psychic life requires moral judgment as much as our physical life requires air to breathe. And so the moral self-doubt reappears when relativism, which seemed so comfortably attached to democratic values of freedom of thought and tolerance, pronounces as it must that those very democratic values are in fact no better than any others. This marks the beginning of relativist self-doubt among democratic peoples. For one cannot live without self-doubt under a theory that judges that the devotion one feels to Western values has no rational moral basis and is merely a "preference," no more worthy to persist on this earth than the Islamofascist preferences of its attackers.

Yet instead of abandoning their contradictions, which would require giving up a pleasant amorality, (actually an immorality that promises to permit the unquestioned satisfaction of all desires), the relativists--like all zealots--become more vehement in their fallacy, which they champion under the noble-sounding cause of tolerance. But at the core of their souls, the democratic relativists have those doubts, and those doubts are the fertile ground for the growth of self-loathing. As I have written previously in this space:
The shapers of opinion on the left embrace the contemporary moral laxity, which allows them openly and freely to pursue and enjoy the personal and financial fruits of debauchery while ridiculing their critics as "judgmental moralistic bigots." Yet at some deep level they feel ashamed of themselves and this shame manifests itself in self-loathing. Those on the left, lacking steadfastness of moral principles of their own, find something attractive in the steadfastness of the moral clarity the Islamofascists claim for themselves. Thus, twenty-five years ago the political and intellectual leaders of the Western left made their pilgrimages to Paris to sit cross-legged at the feet of Ayatollah Khomeni. In domestic economic matters, this phenomenon of leftist self-loathing has long been correctly identified as "limousine liberalism." They sense that, morally speaking, we are all going to hell in handcarts. But the ride is too pleasant to resist, so they assuage their guilt by fretting over whether the upholstery of some handcarts is too plush compared to some others.
Now consider all this in light of yesterday's terrorist attack in London. When terrorists attack a Western people, they know well that among its countrymen and allies will be many whom relativism has predisposed not only to equivocate the brutality, but to form a fifth column.

Yes, while fear prevails, we can expect to hear the usual statements of national and international solidarity against terrorism. While fear prevails, most of the relativists will remain confusedly silent, for among them are many of those thoroughly corrupted souls in whom fear engenders not rage, but a confused paralysis. While the fear prevails, some relativists, even those who had in the not too distant past openly embraced terrorist sympathizers, might now go so far as to vent what remains of their honest instinctual rage in an almost unequivocal condemnation of the attacks. But as the fear abates, the voices of the self-loathing critics will gain strength and multiply. As the fear subsides further, the relativists, even the ones who were initially (mildly) outraged, will be unable to bring themselves to condemn their attackers because that would require what is for them an impermissible trans-cultural value judgment.

And thus, as the fear abates, the relativists' critique can only turn inward. (How quickly this can happen!) But though the relativists make moral judgments as much as (even more than) anyone else, the intellectual flaccidly of their theory has left them bereft of the capacity for sensible and rigorous judgment, the kind of sense and rigor that is a pre-requisite to the most difficult, dangerous, and necessary critique: the moral examination of one's own self. And so the relativists will not aim their criticism directly against themselves, for the lazy habits of their theory ("That's just your opinion!") have cost them the moral strength that a such a precise self-criticism would require.

Instead, they will excuse themselves and deflect the ire of their self-loathing toward their own people, their own culture, their own values, their own leaders, their own soldiers, their own countries, which are no longer really their own, because--as the relativists themselves would assert--an attachment to their own people and culture and values depends entirely upon historical accident. As their fear subsides, the vehemence of the relativists' critique will exactly equal the vehemence of their self-loathing. They will try to teach others the bitter lessons of their angry self-doubt, the lesson that we are no better than our enemies, the lesson that we fail to uphold our own values, the lesson that it's all about blood for oil, the lesson that we have no right to impose our values on other peoples, the lesson that we have unjustly incited our attackers, and the ultimate lesson that we do not deserve to prevail in our death-struggle against the Islamists.

After the fear subsides, the terrorists will wait to give the relativists time to spread their teachings as far as possible. Then they will strike us again, and the cycle will begin anew. At the end of it all, if the terrorists have calculated correctly, we in the West will all have arrived at the ultimate paradox, the point at which one does not have to be a relativist to ask oneself, "Does a culture that can no longer locate the moral grounds from which to defend its own values deserve to survive?"

posted by Bathus | 7/08/2005 06:32:00 AM
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A nation that tortures itself on the minuscule details of an accusation, ridiculous even if true, that its warriors have "mishandled" a few Korans, cannot colorably be accused of excessive rage."

No, it's a nation that's rightfully torturing its conscience on the slaughter and torture of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, people in a country that never attacked us and had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks.

I actually agree with much of your overall point, and feel that we should be less squeamish about hunting down and terminating al-Qaeda operatives, nabbing bin Laden in the Afghan badlands, and surveilling radical Muslims in Paris and Hamburg. But the war in Iraq was a disastrous diversion that's done nothing for us.

12:52 PM, July 10, 2005  
Blogger Bathus said...

"Slaughter and torture of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis"?

"A country that never attacked us"?

Your predictably self-negating (not to mention, factually inaccurate) critique confirms my point: "They do not seek to appease our enemies. What most of them seek, let us speak the obvious truth, is to incite and inflame our enemies' anger toward us, and, more than that, to incite a self-hatred among our own people."

3:30 PM, July 10, 2005  
Anonymous J.L.P. said...

Why is it those on the left preach our uninvolvement as the only remedy for terrorism against us, yet simultaneously preaching poverty as its cause?

Do they not see that by changing Iraq, by planting representative democracy into the middle east, we will do more to bring prosperity to that region than anyone has done in nearly sixty years? (read: Israel)

We ought not be content merely to hunt down those directly responsible for a singular act of terror. We ought to be sick and tired of terrorism by now. We put up with so much of it during the last thirty years, trying to police it to no avail.

To end terrorism, you must pull it out by the root. What is its root? Radical Islam. Where does Radical Islam find its footing? In dictocratic regimes such as Saddam Hussein's, in theocratic regimes such as Iran, and in fatalistic relativist worlds like the one in which the Western left resides.

If ours is a world governed by the aggressive use of force, then real change can only come about by the use of such force. Waiting for dictators and theocrats to change their ways is no longer an option.

Liberals love to see the surface, because the vast majority of people see only the surface of things, and rarely look deeper than their own petty feelings. It is easy politics. The time for easy politics is over.

It is time to change things from the bottom up. Who is at the bottom? The people under these radical regimes. We tore down the veil of British Monarchism. We eliminated the specter of German totalitarianism and Japanese Imperialism. We broke down the Iron Curtain of Soviet Communism.

Let us break the chains of theocratic Islamofascism and poverty. We can do it by planting democratic capitalism in a region starving for enlightenment and prosperity. We can only achieve this by force.

8:10 AM, July 11, 2005  
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