Saturday, March 14, 2015

Power, Glory, and Terror

Why all the terror, and why is religion involved?

What drives the Jihadists? It is a little hard to imagine, viewed from the comfortable vantage of the West, where the most salient issues tend to be the next iPhone or Playstation model rather than the pursuit of totalitarian power, let alone a stringent image of the deity. (Which is to say, taking for granted the overwhelming power of the West in virtually all aspects of modernity.) The package of power and religion is a heady one, however, and picking it apart from such a vast cultural distance is both difficult and essential, since we are mired in the fight.

The ideal Muslim society is a blend of piety and power, with Muslims in charge, but not through what we in the modern West would recognize as organized or legitimate means. Meetings of elders might result in the election of a leader, but just as valid is the taking of power by force. It is hard to remember, but in the West as well, holy warfare was common, and torture, in trials by fire, boiling, etc., justified by the theology of favor. The king has God's favor as long as he is popular and powerful, for instance. Enormous effort was devoted to methods of augury, but results would always speak loudest. It is a peculiar conflation of Darwinian fitness and theism. But the element of spiritual force (or communal psychology) is not to be denied. Those with deep commitment, even unshakable faith in their cause and in their talents, are vastly more powerful than those with mere technology.

One source of spiritual force might be culturally accepted forms of divination, augury and the like, providing some tentative positive thoughts. But another source is straight out bigotry by way of belief that one's scriptures are perfect, one's race pure, one's religion true, and one's enemies evil. Tribalism is not exclusively the province of religion, but religion tends to be the most powerful binder of groups, at least on par with nation states and soccer teams. All else pales before the transcendent purposes of the universe.

But why all the terror? That is what is most striking about today's jihadists, their method of projecting power through unspeakable cruelty, not to mention lovingly tended web sites and advanced video techniques. In the West, we have just gone through an extensive mea culpa / handwringing about torturing a few of those who have terrorized us (or, by our incompetence, who are innocent). We think it is bad, but clearly others have fewer qualms, notwithstanding their own propaganda using our practices of torture to paint us as unspeakable villains. They know it is bad, but that doesn't stop them from beheading and raping and pillaging. What exactly is going on?

It looks very much like our qualms are being turned against us. We have nuclear bombs after all, and could dispose of the problem very easily, were our morals sufficiently lax. If one is insulated against what might be called weakness, i.e. moral qualms that rise as one's level of civilization, empathy, and responsibility rise  ... by way of, say an ideology that tells one with absolute certainty that one is good even while one is doing evil acts... why then one can win the race to the moral bottom, and bend innocents to one's will, gathering power of the basest kind.

Power, in the form of coercing others to do what you tell them, on pain of death or harm, is the most execrable level of social relations, which grade upward through respectful competition, tolerance, self-interested cooperation, communal cooperation, and love. Why anyone would consider mixing a putatively great religion with such evil moral practices (outside of self-defense) is a significant question. One answer is that the scripture and early history of Islam in particular is no stranger to violence and terrorism. Unbelievers are terrorized on every page with visions of hell, discrimination, and ultimately, direct violence from believers.

Does this mitigate the attraction of the doctrine? Evidently not. That is what is so curious. Power is itself attractive. We record the history of the powerful, and forget all others. It hardly matters how cruel and blood-soaked the reign, the top cultural rungs are occupied by those who succeeded most thoroughly in terrorizing their friends and enemies- Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, etc. and so forth. If Hitler had won, doubtless the same would have happened. His terror was evidently not thorough enough. The Darwinian logic of all this is depressingly clear- that power is its own reward and rationale.. nothing succeeds like success. Other societies like Rome and the Jim Crow South used terror as a regular feature of power within the social order. One might say this of most societies, really. Terror goes hand in hand with the enforcement of social order- even among us with our amazing rate of brutal incarceration, and our large and desperate homeless population.

Another answer is that practically any situation can be constructed as self-defense. We have to bomb people in far-away lands because of their destabilizing influence on the general world order, which we as the dominant power are committed to uphold. That is a bit of a weak rationale, but at least somewhat more reasoned than that of "homeland protection", which is entirely beside the point in our current engagements. For Muslims, their abject loss of cultural dominance vs the West is in itself an affront that constitutes victimization and justifies violent defensive measures. The influences of the West are infiltrating everywhere, in communications, in depraved art, in philosophical skepticism, and most horrifyingly, in women's rights. Where will it ever end?

Terror is then a natural method of force projection, multiplying influence when "normal" means of mass killing are not available, and "normal" status quo-supporting ideological constructs are not desirable or sufficient. Its rationalization by way of total-izing ideologies or self-defense is all too easy. But in a revolutionary context like the current Jihadist campaign, it also has very limited scope. Shock (and its attendant demoralization) only lasts so long, and soon this demonstration of ruthless dedication (and localized power) calls forth revulsion and regular military power from among its opponents, both inside and outside the Muslim world, if they have courage and their own ideological resources.



  • Saudis spawned the purer forms ... ISIS.
  • Al Qaeda negotiated regularly with Pakistan: "God is with us".
  • God sure is a great therapist. But "is" it?
  • GOP clown posse and the Ayatollahs... brothers from another mother?
  • Re-segregation is in full swing in the schools. Private schools need to be abolished.
  • This week in the WSJ, "There’s no need for the FCC to override the free-market agreements that make the Internet work so well."
  • Genetics of savings propensity.
  • Piketty on the Euro: "It can't work."
  • On the institutional politics of capital, feudalism, slavery, etc. And the case for taxation.
  • Wingnuts vs Obamacare: be careful what you wish for.
  • The unique logic of Keystone: Give us that pipeline or we start blowing up cities.
  • Dividend tax cut causes zero increase in investment.
  • Homelessness.
  • "... prison is a penalty that cannot be reimbursed by the corporate employer."
  • Alice Rivlin on fighting the last (monetary) war.
  • Economics graph of the week, on Federal social spending:

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