Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
They Said It:
To speak of just or unjust in itself is quite senseless; in itself, of course, no injury, assault, exploitation, destruction can be “unjust,” since life operates essentially, that is in its basic functions, through injury, assault, exploitation, destruction and simply cannot be thought of at all without this character. One must indeed grant something even more unpalatable: that, from the highest biological standpoint, legal conditions can never be other than exceptional conditions, since they constitute a partial restriction of the will of life, which is bent upon power, and are subordinate to its total goal as a single means: namely, as a means of creating greater units of power. A legal order thought of as sovereign and universal, not as a means in the struggle between power complexes but as a means of preventing all struggle in general perhaps after the communist cliché of Dühring, that every will must consider every other will its equal — would be a principle hostile to life, an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, an attempt to assassinate the future of man, a sign of weariness, a secret path to nothingness.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 1887.
NIHILISM AND ISLAMISM.
Nearly seventy years ago, George Orwell noted the intimate and undeniable connection between the decay in the use of the English language and the decay in the effectiveness of the pronouncements made in that language. Poor usage reflected poor thinking; poor thinking reflected poor usage. Each was both a cause and a symptom of the other, and each compounded the other almost indefinitely. And nowhere did this symbiotically destructive relationship make itself more obvious than in politics. “The present political chaos,” Orwell wrote, “is connected with the decay of language.”
Orwell was right, of course, but he was also premature in his assessment of the decay of both the language and political thought. The speakers and writers of his day would appear literary and political geniuses by comparison with those of our own era. Clement Atlee and Harry Truman may not have been the most elegant speakers the world had ever known, nor the most effective and thoughtful political leaders, but both would fare remarkably well in any head-to-head challenge with, say, David Cameron or Barack Obama. If Orwell found his own contemporaries lacking, one shudders to think how he would see the men and women of our age.
Consider, for example, the Obama administration’s decision several years ago to end the “war on terror” simply by renaming it, calling it “overseas contingency operations” instead. “War on terror” may have been vague and perhaps somewhat deceptive, but at least it expressed the notion that the country is at war with an implacable enemy who not only started the hostilities, but intended to end them as well, either by murder or conversion. “Overseas contingency operations,” on the other hand, was so hopelessly imprecise that it could mean almost anything, which, of course, was the point. The notion seemed to be that we will continue the war, we suppose, but we won’t be happy about it, and we certainly won’t allow ourselves to be seen as warriors. We are, rather, mere contingency operators and thus are able to live with ourselves.
Consider as well the recent statements made by Obama and his administration with respect to the terrorists currently rampaging through Iraq, murdering men, women, and children, stopping only occasionally to set up the cameras in order to get a good shot of a ritual decapitation or two. Last week, Obama himself took a break – from his golf game – to address this latter business, decrying the “murder” of the American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, whatever). “From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.” Obama said, “There has to be a clear rejection of these kind (sic) of nihilistic ideologies.”
Many of the President’s critics mocked his newfound antipathy to the Islamic State, noting that only seven months ago, he was referring to it as a “jayvee team.” This is all well and good, we suppose. And certainly Obama deserves a little derision for his ongoing and obvious complacency and negligence with respect to emerging national security threats, from Russia to the Middle East. But what struck us was his characterization of the terrorists as “nihilists.” That is, to put it mildly, an interesting characterization.
It is also not a mere slip of the tongue. Clearly, the administration has chosen, consciously, to address radical Islam as a nihilistic endeavor. The same day Obama gave his condemnation of the Islamic State, his Secretary of State, the buffoonish John Kerry, also made a statement. “There is evil in this world, and we all have come face to face with it once again,” Kerry said in a statement. “Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil. ISIL is the face of that evil.” This is also hardly the first time Obama or one of his aides has used this specific term. Indeed, his invocation of nihilism to describe Islamist terrorists pre-dates his presidency, dating at least to his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, in which he wrote of the 9/11 attacks:
It’s beyond my skill as a writer to capture that day, and the days that would follow-the planes, like specters, vanishing into steel and glass; the slow-motion cascade of the towers crumbling into themselves; the ash-covered figures wandering the streets; the anguish and the fear. Nor do I pretend to understand the stark nihilism that drove the terrorists that day and that drives their brethren still. My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.
Now, we know well that Obama is not the only person to have referred to al Qaeda and its affiliates as “nihilistic.” Many politicians, pundits, and other observers have likewise used the term. To us, though, that only makes its use more interesting. This is not an Obama quirk. It is, rather, a deliberate analytical selection, one which Obama adopted because it suited his purposes. But what, exactly, are those purposes?
Nihilism is a complicated and complex philosophical concept. The heart of it, though – both linguistically and metaphysically – is nihil, the Latin word for “nothing.” Nothing is real; nothing is important; nothing matters; nothing can be known; nothing is good; nothing is evil; nothing . . . well . . . is.
As any schoolboy knows, nihilism as a philosophical notion is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who notably pondered the concept, its causes, and its cures. We suppose we’ve bored you with enough of our thoughts on Nietzsche over the years, and so we’ll spare you a long and ponderous dissertation on his examination of nihilism. As luck would have it, such a dissertation is unnecessary anyway, since perhaps the most important impact of Nietzsche’s thoughts on nihilism was the effect that they had on Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher, Nazi backer, and patron saint of postmodernism.
Heidegger, through his interpretation of Nietzsche’s nihilism, effectively fashioned what we understand today as postmodern thought and especially postmodernism’s examination of reality, values, and truth. In brief, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the purpose of being and thus the value in being helped form the foundation of Heidegger’s “da-sein” (i.e. “being projected into Nothingness), which, in turn, helped form the foundation of postmodernism’s critique of objectivity and objective reality. As Neitzsche put it:
Given these two insights, that becoming has no goal and that underneath all becoming there is no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value, an escape remains: to pass sentence on this whole world of becoming as a deception and to invent a world beyond it, a “true world”. But as soon as man finds out how that world is fabricated solely from psychological needs, and how he has absolutely no right to it, the last form of nihilism comes into being: it includes disbelief in any metaphysical world and forbids itself any belief in a ‘true world’. Having reached this standpoint, one grants the reality of becoming as the only reality, forbids oneself every kind of clandestine access to afterworlds and false divinities, but cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.
What has happened, at bottom? The feeling of valuelessness was reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concepts of ‘aim’, ‘unity’, or ‘truth’. Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking. [. . . One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a ‘true world’. Briefly: the categories “aim”, “unity”, “being” which we used to project some value into the world — we pull out again; so the world looks valueless.
Given all of this, we think it is fair to conclude to that when President Obama – or anyone else, for that matter – refers to the Islamist terrorists as “nihilists” he is either mistaken or is intentionally misleading. This mistake/deception has at least two components, both of which we think are important in understanding what the President is doing here and why it matters.
The first of these is, we think, fairly obvious. Not only are the Islamist terrorists not nihilists in any normal reading of the term, but they are, indeed, the opposite. If nihilism is a belief in nothing, a belief that this life comprises no grand significance, and that to look for meaning beyond “being” is maddening and destructive, then the Islamists are anything but nihilists. They are indeed anti-nihilists. Whereas nihilism posits no meaning whatsoever in human existence, the hard-core Islamists posit a supra-meaning, a meaning that transcends everything else and represents the highest value, the purest and most sacred meaning of all, that of God’s will.
This is not to say that the Islamists find meaning in each and every life. Clearly, they do not. As we noted a couple of weeks ago, they tend more toward a death cult than a traditional religious celebration of life. But in this case, death – both of apostates and believers – is still a death of deep and profound meaning. It is not the casual, indifferent death of meaninglessness. In the case of the nonbeliever, death is an exercise in purging the temporal world of the stain of this non-belief, of purifying the ummah. In the case of the devout Islamist, death is the means by which God’s will is done and man enters into eternal paradise. If nihilism is a component of and forerunner to postmodernism, then the Islamism of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the rest is overtly pre-modern.
The second part of this misconstruction of nihilism in Islamism is what we will, for lack of a better term, call the “projectionist” component. As we have said, nihilism begat phenomenology, which, in turn begat postmodernism. All of which is to say that postmodernism and nihilism are intricately linked. And lest you forget, we have spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple of years arguing, more or less persuasively, we hope, that Barack Obama is a thoroughly postmodern man. He may or may not be the nation’s first postmodern president – with the other possible contender for the title being Bill “That Depends on What Your Definition of Is Is” Clinton. But one can scarcely doubt that Barack Obama is a postmodernist to his core. Indeed, one can scarcely doubt that the contemporary Left is itself postmodern to its very core.
Now, when we say that the contemporary Left is “postmodern,” what we mean is that it has adopted a postmodern epistemology; that is a postmodern interpretation of the nature of knowledge, and therefore of truth. “Postmodernism” is an anti-Enlightenment philosophical tradition. It explicitly rejects the foundations of the Enlightenment, and of modernism itself, which is to say that it rejects reason as the source of knowledge and rejects the individual as the repository of this knowledge.
As such, postmodernism rejects objective reality, preferring to define reality as nothing more than the amalgamation of language and power. It also broadly espouses a view of the individual as a derivative of the collective, the “group,” and of the collective’s social and linguistic attributes. Professor Stephen Hicks put it this way in his classic Explaining Postmodernism:
Metaphysically, postmodernism is antirealist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions.
Or, to put it another way, postmodernism denies the existence of reality. Nothing is real. Nothing is true – except that which power relationships determine to be true. Nothing is objectively right. And nothing is objectively wrong. Such concepts are mere constructs of power relationships.
There is, as you may recall, a long and fascinating explanation for postmodernism’s acceptance on the Left and, indeed, the Left’s desperate need to deny the existence of objective reality. But that goes beyond our purposes today. Today, it should suffice to say that both the contemporary Western Left and its titular leader, Barack Obama, are wholly postmodernist in their approach to political and social phenomena and are thus empirically nihilistic.
What this means, then, is that Barack Obama’s categorization of Islamist terrorists as “nihilistic” is not just wrong, but precisely backward. Again, we’re not sure if this is intentional or accidental. But then, we doubt that it matters. What matters here is that the man – and his coconspirators – has the appellation so wrong it couldn’t possibly wronger.
Why does this matter? Because as Orwell notes, political chaos and the decay of language are part and parcel of the same phenomenon. If the language used in describing a political issue is corrupt, then the understanding of the issue itself will be corrupted, as will any possible solution or resolution to the issue. In this context, the fact that Obama has the language backward with respect to the nature of the Islamist cause means that he will get the solution to the Islamist problem backward as well.
In the week or so since James Foley was beheaded by a man with a London accent, Western governments – and especially the American and British governments – have been in a near panic about how to deal with the Islamic State. They are panicked about how to handle the group on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. They are panicked about how to prevent the group from committing a terrorist act on American or British soil. And they are panicked about how to stop the spread of the Islamist ideology.
As a general rule, all of the solutions proposed, considered, and employed in the war against this type of Sufi Islamism have been military in nature. At best, they are military and political in nature. Bomb the Islamic State here. Don’t bomb it there. Enlist supporters to battle the Islamists in this province. Arm the Kurdish Peshmergas in that province. Ally with the Iranians now. Ally with the Saudis later. Most importantly, deny the terrorists a place to hone their skills.
On the political Right, many observers cling to the belief that there is a military solution to the problem of the Islamic State specifically and radical Islamism more generally. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham prattle on endlessly about the need for greater and more powerful airstrikes. GOP Congressional leaders accuse Barack Obama of trying to “contain” the Islamic State and instead urge greater interventionism, by which they mean greater military intervention. Everyone, it seems, wants the American government to send more and better arms to the Iraqi army, the Kurds, and even “moderate” Syrian rebels. John Bolton, George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, argued in a recent piece for National Review that the Islamic State MUST be destroyed and that the only way to destroy it is to harness American military might to remake the entire Middle East, partitioning Iraq, partitioning Syria, creating an independent Kurdistan, and, in turn, eliminating the Iranian mullah-ocracy.
On the Left, most spectators concede that military effort will be needed, although they emphasize that it will not be enough, that the United States will need to engage in serious and arduous political and diplomatic work as well. The United States needs to reengage the Sunni peoples of Northern Iraq. It needs to make the case to them that the central Iraqi government can and should be trusted to do the right and just thing. And in order to convince them of this, the United States must work hard to help the Iraqis form a suitable, non-sectarian governing coalition.
In short, to them, the work of “democracy building” is not yet over. The corrupt and autocratic Maliki is gone, but there is still much work to do on the political and diplomatic fronts. Ultimately, as Julien Barnes-Dacey has argued, the United States must facilitate some sort of “power-sharing” arrangement that transcends traditional religious and sectarian differences and focuses on the practical need of both nations to undermine the radical Islamist threat that will otherwise continue to be a problem for the entire region.
As always, all of this is well and good. And the idea that destroying a major terrorist operation will require both military and diplomatic efforts is, we think, something of a truism. Of course, the United States will have to do something. And of course that something will be both military and diplomatic in nature. But what then? Not to go all Yogi Berra on you, but this is déjà vu all over again. How many times has this been the American strategy? How many times have the Americans, or the Brits, or even the French “neutralized” the Islamist threat, only to have it reappear? How many failures to address this problem properly will it take before the West finally acknowledges that there has to be something more to this problem and thus there has to be something more to the solution? Our guess is that the answer to this final question is “an infinite number.” Or to put it more bluntly: the West, under current conditions, seems utterly incapable of making this necessary connection.
The Islamist matter presents the Western world with at least three critical problems, all of which are exacerbated both by the West’s own nihilism and by its refusal to acknowledge that nihilism and adapt to it.
Each of these problems is, at heart, a part of the Western crisis of confidence. The West is no longer certain of its moral or military authority and is thus unsure of its ability to endorse a set of global standards, much less to enforce them. And thus the West and its leaders hide in nothingness and abstraction rather than the solidity of objective reality.
In a military sense, this means that the West is unable and unwilling to do the types of things that must be done in order to staunch the Islamist momentum. In an essay published this week, our old friend Angelo Codevilla, the author of a new book on what amounts to “peace through strength” (To Make and Keep Peace), described the type of military action that would be required to defeat the Islamic State (IS). He put it this way:
Killing the IS requires neither more nor less than waging war — not as the former administration waged its “war on terror,” nor by the current administration’s pinpricks, nor according to the too-clever-by-half stratagems taught in today’s politically correct military war colleges, but rather by war in the dictionary meaning of the word. To make war is to kill the spirit as well as the body of the enemy, so terribly as to make sure that it will not rise again, and that nobody will want to imitate it.
That requires first isolating the Islamic State politically and physically to deprive all within it of the capacity to make war, and even to eat. Then it requires killing all who bear arms and all who are near them. . . .
The first strike against the IS must be aimed at its sources of material support. Turkey and Qatar are very much part of the global economy — one arena where the U.S. government has enormous power, should it decide to use it. If and when — a key if — the United States decides to kill the IS, it can simply inform Turkey, Qatar, and the world it will have zero economic dealings with these countries and with any country that has any economic dealing with them, unless these countries cease any and all relations with the IS. This un-bloody step — no different from the economic warfare the United States waged in World War II — is both essential and the touchstone of seriousness. Deprived of money to pay for “stuff” and the Turkish pipeline for that stuff, the IS would start to go hungry, lose easy enthusiasm, and wear out its welcome.
Striking at the state’s belly would also be one of the objectives of the massive air campaign that the U.S. government could and should orchestrate. . . .
Destruction from the air, of course, is never enough. Once the Shia death squads see their enemy disarmed and hungry, the United States probably would not have to do anything for the main engine of massive killing to descend on the Islamic State and finish it off. U.S. special forces would serve primarily to hunt down and kill whatever jihadists seemed to be escaping the general disaster of their kind.
Codevilla continues, noting that “That would be war — a war waged by a people with whom nobody would want to mess.” As even he concedes, however, that is also a war that will never be waged by the Americans, largely because the Americans simply do not have the cultural confidence to wage it. A century of postmodern thought and Leftist propagandizing on behalf of postmodernism has left the West, and the United States specifically, unsure of its goals, its aims, its tactics, and even its right to defend itself and others. As we noted in these pages just two weeks ago:
World War I utterly destroyed the West’s conception of itself as a noble and valuable entity, as the repository of the great thinkers, great artists, and great political systems of the modern world. Indeed, one can argue that World War I destroyed the Western conception of the modern world itself, ushering in the superstition, unreality, and intellectual decadence of the post-modern world.
For starters, World War I delivered Bolshevism, the stalking horse of global communism. It set the proverbial stage for fascism and National Socialism. And it laid the foundations for the self-loathing that has been characteristic of Western intellectualism ever since. The great Western empires fell, not just because of circumstances and indigenous upheaval, but because the elites in the West questioned, to the very pit of their souls, the West’s adequacy, its worthiness to spread any message, much less the message of Western civilization’s supremacy.
Postmodernism, of course, has both facilitated and compounded this descent into cultural and military nihilism. If the Western conception of right and wrong is mere social construct, and not absolute, objective truth, then who are we to impose that conception on others? And certainly who are we to kill indigenous people in pursuit of our own, presumably selfish ends? In this construction, the Americans are the greatest “terrorists” in the world, killing indiscriminately and wantonly; the Iraqi Islamists are akin to the American “minutemen;” and any war fought must be fought in as humanitarian a way as possible, so as to ensure that the “enemy” is relatively unharmed and that Western values – which are ultimately arbitrary – are not imposed upon innocent and earnest indigenous populations.
And as Codevilla concludes, “the consequences are all too predictable.”
The second problem enabled by Western nihilism is the broad and communicable cultural component of the crisis of confidence. The West’s economic nihilism, which is to say its devaluation of the economic ideas that made it great and made its rise to global dominance possible, has had and continues to have severe global consequences. Over the last eight or more decades, as the West has come to doubt its wealth and the means by which it was attained, the economic powerhouses, the Britain and America, have also come to question their projection of commercial power around the globe.
Postmodernism in practice, recall, was, in part the means by which the failures of radical Leftism were justified and explained away. Leftist economics, which in a postmodern society can never be convincingly discredited by objective failure, has therefore persisted, morphing into the present Western corporatist economy, leaving the drivers of global economic prosperity ill equipped to rebound from the latest setback and thus leaving the global economy struggling as well.
And if there is anything that we, as a civilization, should have learned over the last century, it is that economic stress, coupled with the social disorder of technological advancement and exacerbated by the breakdown in cultural confidence with respect to moral and economic standards leads inevitably to radicalization, to the creation of dedicated, violent, and reactionary millenarian ideology.
In other words, the Islamists, like the fascists, the Nazis, and the Communists before them are a product of their environment, which is to say a product of the collapsing moral structure at precisely the moment that moral stability is most desperately needed. In response to a culture that believes nothing, that sees itself as the product of “being” rather than doing, people often find themselves embracing countercultural belief systems that offer steadiness, a sense of permanence, and hope for a better future, in this world or the next. Thus has it always been throughout Western history. And thus has it been especially over the last, very bloody hundred years.
The only way to counteract all of this, naturally, is to reintroduce the world’s unstable and uncertain peoples to a more substantive stability, the stability of tradition, economic progress, and individual value. Unfortunately, as with Codevilla’s “real” war, none of this is particularly to happen. The mis-education of successive generations of Western children has, by and large, killed the spirit of Western civilization. A remnant of that civilization persists, of course, but it is just that, a remnant. And rebuilding it will take several years, if not decades.
The third and final problem of Western nihilism is one that is closely related to the second, but which affects a people at the individual rather than the aggregate level. As we noted above, James Foley was executed by a man who spoke with a London accent and who was most likely a British citizen. British intelligence estimates that there are more British Muslims serving in the militia of the Islamic State than are serving in the British armed forces. Young men from all over the Western world – the United States, Canada, France, Australia, and especially Great Britain – have decamped to the Middle East to take part in the Islamic civil wars and to train for jihadi operations against their native lands. After 9/11, Americans, Brits, and others were told to be leery of suspicious characters. It will be infinitely harder to spot these characters when they look and sound just like everybody else.
The problem of the Western jihadist is likewise the problem of Western civilization. Western morality and even much of Western religion has devolved, over the last century or more, into little more than the complicit rationalization of contemporary values. The great moral tradition of the West has largely been jettisoned in favor of a contemporary, situational ethic, a moral system that values nothing so much as non-judgmentalism and which offers very little, if anything, by way of spiritual transcendence.
Confronted by this spiritual nothingness, many people, and many young men in particular, choose to forsake their decadent culture for something more traditional, something that offers a real and fixed belief system. All too often, those who are best at marketing and promoting the solidity of their beliefs also happen to have rather perverted and sadistic beliefs as well. All of which is to say that young men who are encouraged to believe in nothing often find themselves drawn instead to something. And that something is far too often a primitive and violent misinterpretation of reality.
Again, the solution here is one that will never even be considered by the “serious” people in charge of waging the battle for the hearts and minds of the young men who might otherwise travel halfway around the world to find a sense of constancy in the handle of a scimitar. Attention to cultural and moral authenticity, and a return to the moral values that dominated the pre-modern West and facilitated its rise are a bare minimum, for those values are, unquestionably, superior to the values of the pre-modern Middle East. And yet no one anywhere will have the guts to say as much, to argue that a return to traditional morality – emphasizing kindness, honesty, integrity, and belief in the godliness of all men and women – is a possible remedy to the problems of our time.
In the end, then, nihilism is indeed the enemy here. But it is Western nihilism, not that of the Islamist terrorists. Our ruling class refuses to acknowledge this, of course, and instead tries to manipulate the language to suit its own purposes. That, in turn, means that the problems associated with Islamism are both poorly examined and poorly articulated. They will therefore be poorly handled as well. And the consequences, as per Codevilla, will be all too predictable.
We expect, in short, for the Obama administration to do everything it thinks is necessary to stop the Islamic State. It will bomb the little buggers forward into the Stone Age. It will deny them funding. It will work with the regional powers to establish a roadmap to stability. And ultimately, it will fail.
This is not a problem that can be solved by warfare alone. It is, as so many have noted but so few have thus sought to address, an existential crisis. And only a complete cultural solution will be sufficient to mend Western Civilization’s cracks.
In the meantime, expect more of the same. More bombing. More negotiating. More terrorism. And more nihilism. The nihilists, as President Obama notes, must be stopped. Unfortunately, he’s not the man to stop them, mostly because he hasn’t the foggiest idea who they are. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”