Front page

Are you afraid of the dark?

(Click to invert colors, weenie.) (Requires JavaScript.)

All email will be assumed to be for publication unless otherwise requested.

What's in the banner?

Saturday, March 22, 2003

The Latter-Day Saints

[No, this is not about Mormons.]

Here's a brilliant article on the website of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, via Entre Nous. As usual when I say something is brilliant, I mean "I thought of that a long time ago, but never got around to writing it up." The author, Adam Garfinkle, argues that the behavior of many who are virulently opposed to the war resembles that of religious fanatics.

First he carefully distinguishes those who are ambivalent about the war, and those who are certain that war is wrong. The former, he notes, are rarely found out protesting in the streets.

The vast majority of people out in the street protesting, however, do not see the Iraq question as a"near" thing, and they are not humble. They are stridently certain not only that going to war is unwise, but that it is also morally wrong and even criminal. They have not done...careful analytical thinking...They have rather chosen categorical and judgmental moralist language peppered with apocalyptic accusations and apocryphal predictions.

To understand these typical characteristics of the messages being emitted from street demonstrations, again certain distinctions must be made. For present purposes, two are critical.

First, distinguish between organizers and followers. In all recent major demonstrations, the organizing elements, both in the United States and in Europe, have been of the radical leftist.


Second, distinguish between what goes on in the United States and what goes on in Europe.

Americans, he says, protest for a variety of reasons, including knee-jerk Bush-hatred, and the longing for the glory that was the Sixties. This is also true of Europeans, he says, but they have other motivations as well:

In Europe, all of these sentiments and motives are also found, along with two others. The first is a visceral and often irrational anti-Americanism that is growing in rough proportion to the increasing gap between U.S. power and that of the European Union countries. The second is a desire to expunge though street catharsis a deep sense of guilt over a European colonial past now held responsible for the terrible problems of the Middle East and other"third world" areas. These two sentiments vary from country to country. In France, for example, there is a paucity of guilt, but a superabundance of anti-Americanism; in Britain it tends to be the other way 'round.

In short, while a prospective war in Iraq is the pretext for the demonstrations we have lately seen, it is rarely the cause...It's about religion.

Irrational anti-Americanism and post-colonial guilt are especially prevalent in Europe because of the decline of traditional religion, he says. What he doesn't get around to claiming is that they are less popular in the US because tradition religion is still strong here.

Many antiwar activists seem to need the belief in the equivalent of a moral apocalypse for reasons of personal commitment; the more portentous and dramatic the stake, the more praiseworthy one's dedication becomes and the more unequivocal one's commitment must be.

This is the nub of the argument. Many people (especially young people) need some cause to identify with, something with which they can identify, sacrifice for, live for. Or die for.

This backdrop to antiwar activism helps explain why so many activists and marchers are oblivious to rational argument. It is not only that so many are ignorant of the subject, it is rather that knowledge is subordinated to feelings. When people have a strong need to believe something, mere facts are powerless to stop them.

This is reminiscent of Lee Harris's essay "Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology", in which he argues that the events of September 11 were not designed to provoke any particular response from us. They were not meant to get us to accede to Al Qaeda's demands. They were instead more in the manner of ideological theater, a gesture made because, within the ideology, it's the right thing to do, rather than a thing which will bring about a certain end.

Although I don't believe Harris says it, one could also imagine the bombings as a religious ritual, with the religion in question being not Islam per se, but a fantasy ideology which is based in Islam and pan-Arab nationalism.

So what do protestors have to do with this? In his essay, Harris relates an illuminating story from his youth, in the late Sixties. He and a friend both opposed the Vietnam War, but Harris thought that the protests ought to be restricted to gestures that might convince others of the justice of their cause. His friend had a different idea:

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of [a disruptive] demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason -- because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

(Emphasis in original.)

This is what drives people to block city streets even though it doesn't endear them to the populace; to get naked for peace in lieu of reasoned argument, and to vandalize national landmarks in a self-indulgent temper tantrum.

They're not really seeking to change anyone's mind (although it's possible not all of them have realized that); they are performing the arcane religious rites of their sect---rites which, if performed properly, will get them into Heaven, even if they worsen the conditions the rites were protesting.

(A good example would be the people who thought it was a swell idea to liken slaughtering animals with the Holocaust. I'm sure there are many PETA members who consider this campaign a big success, even though it disgusted many people, and would continue to consider a success even if it led to increased meat consumption. But, you know, they made a statement, right? They, like, Spoke Out. And that's what's important.)

Back to Garfinkle:

A society's being "secular" does not obviate the social impulse toward or need for religion; that impulse merely migrates to other places, the most popular one of the twentieth century having been politics...

Or, as Niles points out, football.

As G.K. Chesterton said, "When a man stops believing in God, he doesn't believe in nothing; he'll believe in anything."

I hate this quote. It's not true, at least not generally. Many, many people I know are atheists, and yet remain skeptical of, well, just about anything. In fact, a better quote might have been, "When a man stops believing in God, he won't believe anything, even if it bites him on the ass." (Note, must polish that.) That is, atheists tend to be a very cynical and suspicious lot, in my opinion.

On the other hand, there are people who do not so much stop believing in God as stop believing in what they were taught. They still feel a need for spirituality, but somehow find that the faiths they grew up in are old and raggedy, and in need of exchange. In California, I knew a woman whose family were Deep South fundamentalist Christians, one of those types who tend to get physical and emotional during services, in the grip of the Power of the Lord.

Naturally that simply wouldn't do for her. So she went shopping for a new religion. She told me that a friend of hers had gotten good satisfaction from Islam, and she was interested in learning more. Her family's Christianity was constricting, dogmatic, judgmental, even cruel---but Islam would set her free.

No doubt people turn to religions, or switch religions, for their harmless qualities, such as the comfort of trusting in an all-knowing father, or hope of an afterlife, or for, as Garfinkel says, to belong to something greater than themselves.

But there are also negative aspects of religion as well, which apparently fill some people's needs. For example, there's the desire to be part of an elect, the need to look down on outsiders, and the comfort of a dogma to follow. It's these aspect which I see most in the current political climate.

It's fashionable (in the blogosphere) to call this political bent "leftist", but I'm uncomfortable doing that. That seems too pat a label to slap on it. And besides, the mindset I'm talking about seems to have come unmoored from leftist philosophy---it certainly has from liberal philosophy.

(If you take long enough over writing a post, you'll come across something that makes your point better than you do. In my case, it's this Stanley Kurtz piece in NRO from May of 2001 (stumbled just now, again via Entre Nous, who is on my wavelength). Kurtz says pretty much what Garfinkle has, except that he does not confine his examination to anti-war protesters, as Garfinkle does.)