Part II: The FutileNow that we have examined in Part I of this essay the nature of the exaggerations, misunderstandings, and falsely placed policy hopes with respect to warring against Islamist “ideology,” it is time to examine the advice that we should somehow revive liberalism.Here is Frank Furedi, the Hungarian-born British writer, explaining the undercoating of the “war on terror” in The American Interest back in 2009:
[T]he attraction to jihadi violence is not just about charismatic Muslim entrepreneurs preying on marginalized immigrant communities; it’s also about the many living in the West who feel alienated from Western values and from modernity itself. And their alienation, in turn, is deepened partly because the cultural and political elites of those countries seem uncomfortable articulating the settled virtues of their own civilization. In other words, not only do many Western elites have trouble talking about who the “bad guys” are in this conflict, they have trouble defining and defending the “good guys” as well. Not only do many in the West seem not to understand our adversaries’ ideas; we rather too often seem not to understand, or believe in, our own.
A few pages later, he added:
[F]ormidable homegrown cultural influences disparage the West’s historical achievements, its belief in progress and its devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment—the very hallmarks of modernity. … Even before 9/11, there was more than a hint of defensiveness about the capacity of Western values to prevail over those of hostile opponents. William S. Lind gave voice to this sentiment, concluding that “protecting Western culture from foreign assault requires domestic revival.” A decade before 9/11, he warned that “the twenty-first century could once again find Islam at the gates of Vienna, as immigrants or terrorists if not armies.” Today there is little evidence of domestic revival. Indeed, Western governments, again particularly in Europe, are sensitive about their very limited capacity for inspiring their own publics. … The truth is that any enemy can seem formidable if one’s own self-confidence is low enough. But since it is very difficult to admit this, and even harder to figure out what to do about it, it is convenient, if not inevitable, to blame others instead. … Maybe what we need is not better rhetoric about the struggle of ideas between Islam and the West, but more scrupulous attention to what constitutes a way of life worth defending.
If this elemental point has been put more eloquently, I don’t know by whom or where. As to the tendency of those lacking self-confidence to project their consequent anxiety onto others, I spoke of that recently in current context: “My contention … is that the ambient anxiety that so many Americans feel about life at home today is the source of their fear of the Islamic State, not the other way around.”Of course Furedi was correct, but what to do about the deficit of self-confidence on our side? One can “require” a domestic revival all one wants, but how exactly does one produce it? Simply pointing “more scrupulous attention” at the problem hasn’t done much good. Some European statesmen have learned to use the bully pulpit for the purposes of moral rearmament in recent years. (For three recent examples, see here.) American statesmen, alas, have not been so eloquent. But speeches alone cannot solve this problem, which goes very deep into the nature of liberal universalism itself, and which centers, to recall Furedi’s words, on the “formidable homegrown cultural influences” that “disparage the West’s historical achievements.”It wants pointing out, first, that Western liberal universalism is an odd sort of political doxy. Where most others have been totalist in their presumed scope and certain of themselves, liberalism is deliberately self-limiting, humble, procedural more than substantive, and disposed to raise self-doubt as well as self-criticism into virtues. Indeed, its tendency to self-criticism through open debate has a knack for generating its own antitheses, especially from those “last men” who are bored by liberalism’s equanimity and seek the heroic. (See here in particular.) It is a belief system not particularly amenable to its own martial defense.But even this is not the gist of the problem. It lies instead in the simple observation that it is easy, relatively speaking, to believe in the virtue of one’s own political and social values if they promise a happy ending. If they once did but do no longer, there is a problem.At its best, Western liberalism is not only an optimistic social-political doctrine, but it is linked, by and large, to an historical/cultural context steeped in an optimistic theology. To a considerable extent, Western liberalism as a secular doctrine takes its tone from the then still-youthful Protestantism from which it, in many respects, emerged. Liberalism’s origins are bound up in the idea of progress, in the Whiggish bias that moral and material progress go hand in hand, in the grand Enlightenment assumption that reason could lead humanity to a new and better place—and above all, perhaps, in the relatively novel belief in that time and place that humanity was truly free to search for that place if it so wished. But all these ideas are, in one way or another, secularized versions of Protestantism’s novel claims.Now—and here things get a bit complicated—it would be too much to claim that Protestantism, in all or most of its forms, is itself an optimistic theology. Some of its forms are rather hellish-bent, as it were; you are blessed with God’s grace, through no doing of your own, or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re in deep and very long-lasting trouble. There is nothing cheery about a doctrine involving eternal damnation about which you as an individual are helpless to affect. But as Max Weber famously showed, theology is one thing and religious sociology quite another. Protestantism early on acquired a this-worldly dimension associated, especially in Britain and Holland, with rising middle-class achievement and material progress, a bouyant empowerment of national identity, and freedom from both an overbearing state and an ecclesiastical tyranny.That was the broad connotation of Protestantism that came ashore in the New World, and the optimistic bent of liberalism and Protestantism have been mutually reinforcing in American culture ever since—at least until around the early 1970s. Both pointed to a better world, to a better life for one’s children and grandchildren—and, as a former boss of mine liked to say, optimism is a force multiplier. Optimism permeated American society, but not only or even mainly because material reality supported that point of view. Indeed, life was often nasty, brutish, short, and, worse, unfair, diseased (particularly for infants and children), impoverished, and riddled with racism and bigotry. But a man and a woman could go to church, or to a community gathering of one kind or another, raise their eyes, and see happiness in prospect, whether here on earth below or in heaven above and beyond.Today, in the salon culture of American chic, we have exactly the opposite situation. Life is not nasty, brutish, or short for most people, and is it not nearly so riddled with oppression, sickness, poverty, and bias as it was a century or two ago. Yet we are no longer optimistic. We are grimly sophisticated. We see though the evanescence of our culture’s youthful mythos, and we are earnest as can be in and about our long since desacralized public spaces.Many of us, too, have become wanna-be special interest victims, with groups of self-defined victims competing over who has been most grievously harmed—mainly by dead and living white males. Such a mental disposition vitiates optimism, and the will to engage one’s own freedom as well.Our clergymen are often enough ashamed to assert publicly the beliefs of their own seminaries; they bend with market-blown winds, and so alienate the most faithful remnant among them. Thanks largely to the deterioration of communal religious life, we are also increasingly atomized, hemorrhaging social trust in buckets, living alone more than ever, and hardly delighted about it. Our politicians ritually invoke God, and anyone who believes in their sincerity is taken for a fool, probably with good reason. We are, in a word, dispirited.Things are not different in Western Europe; indeed, they are by most measures more “advanced” there. So then ask yourself: Why would a young first- or second-generation Muslim living within the European Union (or, increasingly, just a normal idealistic European or American), confronted with a self-condemning, aimless, material fetishist, and pessimistic ethos, prefer that brew to the simple and optimistic Islamist sales pitch that promises purposefulness, heroism, community, and bliss in a heavenly reward? Not only that, the Islamist alternative promises freedom from complexity and excessive choice. It promises not just community, honor, and heaven, but a single, simple route by which to get there.We might scoff at the simplemindedness of such blather. And we might, if it were not so politically incorrect, more often confide in each other that Islamic as well as Islamist supremacism is so primitive, so pre-Enlightenment, so childish, so embarrassing, really. It might be all those things. But as Max Frankel pointed out years ago, simplemindedness is not a handicap in the competition of social ideas—nor is it, he might have added, in the competition of political ones.It is an open question whether it’s possible anymore to revive the optimism inherent in a liberalism that was so closely associated with a society steeped in particular religious values. Let me again quote John Adams, for he said it best: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In other words, if people do not regulate their own behavior and communities do not provide their own boundaries for proper conduct, liberal forms of governance cannot work.We Americans are no longer the moral and religious people Adams spoke of. Many ordinary folk are, to be sure, but our elites tend to treat our inherited moral codes as antiquated embarrassments, as they bow down to the god either of the omniscient market or of the imperial self. Case in point: However one comes down on the gay marriage issue in all its complexity, the extraordinary speed with which the conjugal definition of marriage, the product of millennia of experience, fell among Western elites before the postmodern altar of undifferentiated and absolute egalitarianism is stark testimony to how weakened the foundational liberal ethos of the West has become. If that plinth of the Western moral edifice, one predicated on our deepest protective instincts toward our own children, can be jettisoned in such a cavalier and relatively thoughtless manner, anything can. It was always possible to ensure equal rights in law for homosexual relationships without redefining marriage itself, but that was never good enough for the ideologues whose main purpose was to destroy that definition and assault the institutions that stood behind it.The new American idols, alas, may make some people feel noble, but they have made us neither happy nor optimistic, for they are bereft of any real meaning that can transcend the isolated individual. They are mute on the purposes of our passions, and so have severed the threads that weave the fragile but essential fabric of inter-generational responsibility. And just as a woman cannot be twice a virgin, a culture cannot be twice innocent. There’s no such thing as a workable used mythos. Once any key pillar of that mythos is objectified, criticized, and expunged from favor, the mythos as a whole cannot be resumed as if nothing has happened.So it may therefore not be possible to prevent the burgeoning of ever more scoundrel cascades in a society that no longer holds itself to moral standards beyond its own changeable devising. (For the definition of a scoundrel cascade, see here.)The Founders’ ideal of political liberty cocooned within a social order is now rapidly giving way to a radical interpretation of individual rights without concurrent responsibilities. That interpretation threatens rather than supports political liberty because it invites the state to engage in soft despotism to ensure the implementation of the new secular catechism, one whose core is defined not by a belief in any intransient verity, but rather by the impossibility of any such thing. How long will it be before the anti-foundationalists among us persuade enough people that “a way of life worth defending” isn’t even a coherent statement?Let me close with a story that illustrates the likely futility of adjuring Western society in general to regain its spirit of self-worth and optimism. On NPR’s “Science Friday” show of January 1, 2016, some scientists, joined by Cormac McCarthy via his association with the Santa Fe Institute, expressed in confident, even glib tones, the now common view that humanity as a species is not long for the world, that in “2,000, 20,000, or 200,000 years we’ll no longer be around,” and maybe the planet will be better off without us. Climate change and the failure of humanity to rise to its challenge was the stimulus for this comment, which it often is these days, but really any challenge will do to evoke this kind of remark.There is a deeper bias at work here, of course, which, as articulated on the radio, is that human life is intrinsically pointless, creation itself is meaningless, there is no purpose to anything and, most certainly, there is no sentient God behind anything we experience (or imagine). This view is uttered with the implied imprimatur of science itself. If scientists say such things so confidently on the radio—NPR, no less—how could they be doubted?This cant resembles a scientistic version of postmodernism whose tone vibrates with that intellectual tendency’s proximate 20th-century origin in warmed over postwar French existentialism. It is a form of anti-foundationalism, only the subject is not ethics (as with John Rawls’s ahistorical “original position”) or politics, but the material world itself. It reminded me of a different scientist on “Science Friday,” maybe a year or so ago, who had just published a book arguing that the universe could come into existence without any starting point, that it could just spontaneously be. (He failed to explain how matter or energy, which he simply assumed for purposes of his argument, could come into being ex nihilo, but a philosophical sophisticate he wasn’t. Mercifully for everyone, I forget his name.) Coming from a seemingly smart person, this argument struck me as more mystical than scientific, but Ira Flato, kind and unthreatening as he always is as the show’s host, let it pass without challenge.Clearly, the point in this atheist’s case was to negate the logical necessity of any first cause, of any creator, whether of conscious agency in our ordinary, plain sense of the term or not. But here, unlike the abstractionist Rawls or radical constructivists in the social sciences, was a natural “hard” scientist, a man pledged to respect the tenet of invariant causality in the world, asserting that this tightest of logics need not itself have a logical origin—and at the same time insisting even more fervently that it also could not have a purpose. Spinoza would not have been amused.Not all hard scientists are atheists or even agnostics. Einstein seems a good example of an exception, and there are plenty of others—perhaps they make up the majority, for all I know. Yet the chic attitude now among many natural scientists, especially among those who moonlight as media impresarios in their non-laboratory personas, is the one that Ira Flato hosted on his show a few Fridays ago. (Otherwise, the specter of a successful fiction writer with a very Irish name being congenitally pessimistic and dour is, what? … some kind of novelty?) These guys have no idea that they are playing any role in the vaunted “war of ideas” between Islam and the West, anymore than gay marriage advocates ever gave a thought to how the rest of the world would react to their triumph in the courts—but stuff like that absolutely does not “stay in Vegas,” and it absolutely has affected how Islamists and ordinary pious Muslims alike view the United States. But in an indirect way at the least, these stars of “Science Friday” certainly are playing a role, though not a helpful one.Western scientists during the original Age of Reason were the avatars of a better future, knights of progress, pioneers of human dreams, slayers of the dragons of fatalism, intellectual cowardice, and the arbitrary privilege associated with both. They demonstrated beyond any possibility of doubt that we could harness the meta-concept of causality for the betterment of society, and they proved the power of human agency. Their method, too, dovetailed with that of liberalism itself: humble and patient trial-and-error collective effort. Most also recognized that science and reason had limits, and although some became rabidly anti-clerical (mainly in Catholic countries), most were able to distinguish between being anti-religious in a spiritual sense and anti-ecclesiastical in a more worldly sense.Now, in a reversal that begs astonishment to the extent we pay attention to it, many natural scientists in the West have become slickster cynics, skunks in the attic, thieves of our hope. Perhaps worse, many have all but become determinists, pre-Abrahamic creatures posing as progressives, who tell us that there is nothing we can or at any rate will do to deflect the cosmic tragedies rushing toward us. Our freedom to act, they of the new predestination priesthood—geneticists—tell us, is an illusion. The fact that they have to go well beyond the evidence science itself can provide to posture this way doesn’t matter much in the end. They scent our air, which is thus rendered rancid with rotting spirit.Likely as not, Islamists will fall out among themselves, and so prime themselves for defeat and destruction. Likely as not too, the societies in whose midst they murder and maim, disgrace and degrade, will revolt and reconstitute themselves in due course to speed that defeat, probably with little help from us. It is starting to happen already. Maybe one morning fairly soon we’ll wake up and realize that, as with the plague of anarchist violence than wracked the latter half of the 19th century, the menace is pretty much gone, over with and done, burned itself out. We would be irresponsible to count on such an outcome, because a lot of bad things could happen before dawn—but it’s hardly far-fetched.And then what will we do? Will we celebrate? What, exactly, will we celebrate? These days one has to wonder if we would know what to do with a happy ending even if it smacked us in the face. With any luck at all, we’re bound to find out, but the prognosis is worrying. After all, look what we in the West, and particularly in the United States, did with victory in the Cold War. It made us not more appreciative of liberal universalism but loutishly triumphal about it, to the point that we became giddy with our own humility—a strange sight to be sure. And with the collapse of our “materialist” Marxist-Leninist foe, that bastard stepchild of the Enlightenment, we became more materialistic in practice than they ever were in theory. No wonder we’re rusty at the old “war of ideas” business.Let me not mislead you, dear reader. We do have a problem with Islamism and we therefore do have a stake in how the internal Muslim struggle now raging turns out. There are limits to what we can do to help the right side win, yes, but we are nowhere near reaching those limits yet. Yet it is still wrong and misleading, in my view, to characterize the struggle as one mainly about ideas that some yet-to-be-devised brilliant rational discourse can sway in our favor. In a way, that trivializes what the problem actually is. Yet it also means that we can ultimately prevail in this struggle even if we don’t manage an improbable “domestic revival” of liberalism. That constitutes at least a modest case for optimism, does it not?