Saturday, June 25, 2016

Extremism is no Accident

Gun owners and Muslims have something in common.

One of the watershed events leading up to the American Civil War was the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina, in 1856. Sumner was an outright abolitionist from Massachusetts, and had just given a landmark speech on the fate of Kansas, upon which the future direction of the nation hinged. Sumner let it all hang out, portraying Kansas as a virgin raped by the slave powers which were working to corrupt its institutions and force it to come into the union as a slave state. Hours long and shooting insults in all directions, it was quite extreme for its time. Two days later Brooks attacked Sumner in the Senate chamber with a metal-topped cane and beat Sumner, who was trapped at his desk, about the head to within an inch of his life. Brooks was assisted by a colleague, congressman Henry Edmundson from Virginia, who held off Sumner's supporters with a pistol.

No event illustrated quite so markedly the depths to which the sectional divide had sunk, or the clash of cultures between the industrializing, striving North, and the feudal South. The action was extremist, but clearly arose from the respective tribal affiliations and ideologies at work. Southerners apparently welcomed it as honor vindicated, while to the North, it exemplified the barbarity inherent in the slave system, not only embodied in the abject subjugation of slaves, but in the moral coursening of their masters.

Turning to today's ideological battles and extremist events, the rote responses by the various communities implicated in the Orlando shootings bring up the issue of collective responsibility. Does being Muslim implicate you and your beliefs in such an event? Does being a member of the NRA with its opposition to controlling military-grade weapons? If a group's ideology is exemplified by such an event, what is the degree of individual responsibility and culpability?

One can turn to the German question as another, closer, historical example. Germans today still bear a stigma and responsibility deriving from the disastrous world wars of the last century. That is as it should be. Germany and Germans are not pacifist, but they have taken on an extra measure of responsibility for restitution viz-a-vis Jews and Israel, and for peace in Europe. Their economic policies may be tending in the opposite direction, but on the whole, they have meant well over the post-war decades, forging a close relationship with France and various structures of European cooperation.

People are part of groups for a reason, and bear both the costs and benefits of their groups. Homosexuals may be so stigmatized by their membership (which is, unlike some other groups under discussion, not a voluntary membership) that they deny that membership and stay in the closet. Southerners dedicated to the perpetuation of slavery were rarely extremist, but derived benefits from extremist acts. The brutality at the margins, vs escaped slaves, exhibitions of black pride, and unsympathetic whites, kept the system intact, for the benefit all those who didn't want to get their hands dirty.

Membership in Islam is less directly culpable, given the large size of the group compared to the proportionately small numbers of extremists. For example, polls that show that a majority of Muslims do not support ISIS, yet the remainder amounts to “roughly 50 million people [who] express sympathy”. Which is quite a large pool of people to draw on, and more importantly a significant problem for the community of Islam as a whole, not to mention the rest of us. The scriptures of Islam are a well from which countless fundamentalists have learned to hate, and to see violence as both beneficial and sacred. While some forms of Islam, notably Sufi-ism, have renounced these aspects of their tradition in wholesale fashion, the dominant forms of Islam today have not. The strain coming from Saudi Arabia is particularly filled with negativity- towards women, towards apostates, towards Shia, towards infidels.

Extremists are not opposed to their group. As a rule, they believe that most members are insufficiently dedicated to the group’s overall goals and ideology. Fundamentalism, be it gun nuttery or Islamism, is usually couched in original scriptures, and a dismissal of the wishy-washy-ness of the mass of members who value civility and moderation over principle. The ideology of the group leads directly to the occurrence of extremists, if only in a minority of cases. It is the ideology that is at fault if, taken seriously, it leads what the rest of us characterize as extremism. And historically, extremism in Islam has been highly successful, providing the military motivation and success that makes so many people Muslim today. Moderates benefit from extremism.

In ideological terms, ideologies such as religions tout themselves as truth in both moral and scientific senses. The latter is naturally absurd, while the former is just as wrong, since morality is never a closed book. However, given the truths that the Koran provides, it is only natural to hate infidels, apostates, and love God, his messenger, and the jihad that will convert the world. Only an attitude of skepticism about these truths would prompt someone to take a more moderate stance, such as accepting the legitimacy of non-Muslim narratives and approaches to life. Why would a community want to foster such skepticism? That would be counter-productive. Thus extremists are countenanced as their over-enthusiastic brethren, as maybe a political problem with regard to the outside world, but far from an ideological or theoretical problem. This makes communities unable to successfully reprove their extremists, be they anti-abortion zealots, islamic terrorists, or gun-rightists.

This is why we need to pay attention to the tenor of the entire community from which extremists spring. It is not Islamophobia to see a fundamental ideological problem within Islam which fosters bigotry, regressive institutions, and violence so pervasively in the Middle East. Turning back to our Civil War, the extremist violence that occurred in the Senate in 1856 was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of discontent and insurrection that had been building in the South, especially South Carolina, for decades. Slavery was at the core of a culture that had diverged to a startling degree from that in the North, and elsewhere in the Western world- a relic of feudalism or worse. Its desperation to persist in a fundamentally immoral institution, and spread it to other sections of the frontier, was inimical to modernity and to decency. The ideologies of the North and the South were incompatible, and the sparks of extremist acts such as the caning of Sumner, and the raid on Harper’s Ferry, were harbingers of the cataclysm to come, as well as cultural and ideological divides we still struggle with today.

Postscript: As for gun ideology, it is not as directly militant as fundamentalist Islam. In fact, it entertains a sort of apple pie fantasy, where all gun owners are rock-ribbed patriots standing with their exquisite training and dedication to the CONSTITUTION athwart the forces of chaos and tyranny. The problem here is not (mostly) what the ideology includes, but what it leaves out- which is reality.  Every empirical study shows that the more guns there are, the more deaths, for a variety of causes like suicide, domestic violence, and accidents, not to mention mass murders, where in every recent case the guns were recently purchased for the purpose. Guns are extremely dangerous, and not everyone who has them makes a fetish of personal firearms training and lock-down security.  Clutching their pearls when some extremist uses a legally purchased semi-automatic to mow down innocent people is a clearly insufficient response to the problem by the gun community. A fantasy of responsibility can not hide a reality of frequent irresponsibility and utterly unnecessary danger.

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