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Saturday, March 22, 2003
[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.
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:
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.
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 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:
(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:
Or, as Niles points out, football.
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.)