Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Meme War

Reflections on a lost decade.

I am reluctant to add my drop to the flood of 9/11 commentary, but an article by George Packer got me thinking:
"The attacks of 9/11 were the biggest surprise in American history, and for the past ten years, we haven't stopped being surprised. The war on terror has had no discernible trajectory, and, unlike other military conflicts, it's almost impossible to define victory. You can't document the war's progress on a world map or chart it on a historical timetable in a way that makes any sense. A country used to a feeling of command and control has been whipsawed into a state of perpetual reaction, swinging wildly between passive fear and fevered, often thoughtless, activity, ata high cost to its self-confidence."
We used to fight wars of territory, or at least principle. But now we are in a psychological war of unusual depth and complexity. The "clash of civilizations" formulation is too grandiose, while the "war on terror" alternative is both vague, as noted by Packer, and solipsistic, as though we were making war on hobgoblins and nightmares.

Yes, some of us were terrorized. Many were and remain hurt. And yes, we reacted shamefully and stupidly. It is a story of a power bestriding the world after the collapse of its conventional adversaries, only to face internal strife, complacency, and needling from Lilliputian adversaries.

As the title indicates, I'd suggest that the meme concept is well-suited to this challenge. The militant Islamists may be few in number, but their approach has a long history, and enjoys many levels of cultural support. The ideological conflict is extremly deep-seated, with the US and Islam each drenched in world-historical missions with presumptions of purity and superiority.

The conflict is most pointed with Islam-centric countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan; by turns resentful, hot-headed, duplicitous, bigoted, and mortified by their systemic weaknesses, including, except for the oil countries, poverty. Islam's global culture has long taken a back seat to the West, exchanging its status of colonizing foreign lands (like India) with the experience of being colonized. The West is now headed by the US's military, economic, and cultural dominance, and Islamic culture responded by becomming passive-aggressive; first against the Western outpost of Israel, and more recently against the US directly.

The broad culture proclaims Islam to be a religion of peace, even while jihad is spelled out with great specificity, and its bequest of a shrunken world empire is a matter of identity and pride. Revanchist mullahs preach of renewed dominance and empire, were their listeners only dedicated and pure enough in their religious devotion.

As Mao taught, revolutionaries swim in the river of the people. We may kill every member of Al Qaeda, but militant Islamism will go on, fed by an unending stream of fodder from the madrassas of Pakistan, taught by the Wahhabi mullahs of Saudi Arabia. It is a battle of ideas / ideologies / memes, far more than a battle of individuals or nations. An ideology that can routinely employ suicide bombers is more than a tactical adversary- it is the fruit of a much larger cultural tree.

Some of the meme dimensions that come to mind:

Power- Next to group identity, worship of power is one of humanity's very worst traits. The irony of Islamists complaining about the overweaning power of the US, while at the same time dancing over every victory of their own with pronouncements that the US is a paper tiger to be shortly swept into the dustbin of history, is pathetic, but not unprecedented. What are they talking about? They are talking about power.

Islam is more power-hungry and power-conscious than most religions, with a bloody political militarism in its scriptures and early history. One of its deepest cultural failings is that power is respected more than principle, implicitly legitimating one despotism after another. But the culture draws the line at infidels, who should never rule over Muslims, however powerful. Worship of power neatly takes second place to group identity.

But worship of power makes its absence felt so much more keenly, activating the deepest memes of honor and group in a quest for dominance, even when hopeless. Why aren't other small and weak countries chafing under the US thumb, like, say, Norway, or Gabon? Perhaps because they are not as power-obsessed and ideologically resentful in dreams of past & future glory.

Religion- While religion is the thread woven throughout this conflict, both explicitly and implicitly, the problem is not confined to crazy theologies and believers who are more or less devoted to wholly imaginary saviors, eschatologies, and prophecies. No, the specifics are more or less changeable memes- the Balkans exhibited the same fusion of group and religion but diversified among Catholicism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity. The problem is how base human traits are egged on in a systematic way by the cultural structures of Islam- how its Arab inheritance of bigotry and honor re-expresses itself so persistently.

Compare Islam with Christianity and Buddhism, which together form a sort of spectrum of decreasingly violent religions. Each has its mystical, pacifist elements. The Sufis have done yoeman's work in reinterpreting Islam in pacifist, introspective ways, and are reviled for it. In contrast, mystical introspection forms the main path of Buddhism, with its occasional violence and other defects very much the exception. Christianity lies at the center, with a great profusion of both liberal and militaristic elements, drawing from a central wellspring of heavily conflicted teachings, combining some pacifism and positive ethics with a great deal of hellfire in both testaments, and power & war major themes in the old testament.

Democracy & Progress- Do they "hate us for our freedoms"? In way, yes, since the dominant power is free in a way that no lesser power is. We are free to bludgeon Islamic countries, while they are not free to do the reverse. Freedom and power are intimately entwined.

This contrast contributes to the many conspiricy theories that abound in the Islamic world, ascribing all manner of hidden influence to the US, even though the facts of the matter show that when we do consciously exert our power, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, that power is a shockingly blunt instrument.

At any rate, there is more to US influence than pure power, and this is where our ideology of democracy, freedom, and progress comes into play. These memes are central to the "hearts and minds" operation by which the meme war will really be won or lost. The legitimacy of US power abroad hinges not on how much ammunition we have, but whether we truly support the interests and self-determination of other peoples. Most people want democracy, and though squaring democracy with Islam can be a challenge, Islamic countries such as Turkey show that democracy and progress in economic, human rights, and civic spheres go hand in hand.

So my take on the war is that the tide turned not with the death of OBL, but with the Arab spring and its thorough coverage on Al Jazeera. This showed the way forward for the Islamic world at large, under their own power, with the mostly helpful, and occasionally decisive, influence of the US in the background. Clearly, our next step should be to put Palestine on the same road to self-government and independence.

One hesitates to say it, but the more or less stable conclusions to the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan are in some measure consistent with G. W. Bush's instinct to "shake things up" in the Middle East, though whether he retarded or speeded regional progress is hard to say. Perhaps our bravura show of incompetence disabused Muslim onlookers and especially intellectuals about the external origins of their various travails.

Consumerism- Along with all the positive memes from the West, of better political systems that fulfill Islamic goals even better than the Islamic formula does on its own, (i.e. more organized and legitimate ways to select leaders, leading to peaceful and effective government), is the more insidious influence of Western consumerism. The TV shows, the prosperity, the shameless commercialism and greed. All this is highly conflicting when viewed from the other end. People do individually want to live better, with more goods, education, and sanitary conditions. But do they have to give up their souls to get there?

Western consumerism is rather intensely anti-spiritual, not to mention amoral. It breaks down barriers of taste, propriety, and tradition. The spiritual equanimity and community of Islam is put at risk by its advance. Muslims look at the spiritual corruption of the Saudi royals, and must be deeply disturbed. This has the power to undo the political logic/meme of democracy in the balance of Western influence, or at least to inspire persistent and principled opposition.

Unfortunately, consumerism is such a natural and emergent property of democratic systems and their allied prosperity that there is little we can do to separate them or cancel one half of the equation. The best we can probably do is to tend to our own hearths and try not to lose sight of point of a free economic system, which is to afford useful work and decent living conditions to all its citizens, and in that way (if we are successful) to continue providing a positive cultural path, warts and all.

"The evil cycle of neo-liberalism is circular – the ideology inflicts damage which is then explained by there not being enough damage which then leads to policies which cause further damage which then is rationalised …. and so it goes. "
  • Economics graph of the week, from Paul Krugman's blog:

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