GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 31, 2006

The 9/11 Event

Filed under: GA — adam @ 2:35 pm

If we accept the originary hypothesis we accept that, at the most basic level of analysis, there are nothing but events.  Speaking of broader social processes, like the extension of the market system, is a necessary shorthand, but ultimately that “process” is nothing but a series of events that reference each other as signs.  The market system hasn’t just flowed naturally from more rudimentary forms of reciprocity and sociability; we would have to be able to break it down into a series confrontations, experiments, serendipitous discoveries, seized opportunities, etc.–i.e., events, none of which were inevitable, even if the constitution of one event through its referencing of previous, “precursor” events gives that sense of inevitability. This doesn’t deny that the market system is the best mode of interaction yet discovered for recycling resentments; it just insists that it had to be discovered, and this could have only happened through a series of events which could just as easily have not taken place.

This methodological claim has a claim upon our attention now in particular because we are living in a period of intensified or compressed history, in which the “event-fulness” of reality is especially evident and the attempt to reduce reality to hypostasized abstractions especially useless.  Nothing is happening now because it has to happen, because the next stage of history demands it; everything is happening because of those who are very determined to make it happen, against others determined to make something else happen; in a sense this is always the case, of course, but in compressed history the difference is that none of the agents have a clear or obvious advantage because the institutions established to meet the needs of an earlier crisis, due to the very effectiveness with which they deferred that crisis, no longer channel events in reasonably predictable directions.  So, if GA is to contribute to the disclosure of the kinds of signs that will transcend the crisis which we could name the white guilt/victimary axis, this basic methodological principle must be highlighted.

So, what is an event?  A minimal, formal definition:  an event is an occurence which cannot be sufficiently accounted for by what has preceded it, and after which nothing can be sufficiently accounted for other than by reference to it.  A break, then, which cannot be defined by what came before, while defining what comes after.  And the originary scene provides us with a more “internal” or substantive definition:  an event generates a sign.  An event is over, is “closed,” once it issues a sign which is then iterated within other events, which either remain within the dispensation provided by that sign, or produce a new sign and therefore transcend that previous, epoch-making, event.

We have adequately analyzed an event, then, when we have located the constitutive mimetic rivalries which led to the crisis, and located them as they have been disclosed by the sign closing the event.  What was held sacred by the previous prevailing sign has been disclosed as a source of murderous rivalries, leading to the discovery/invention of a new mode of sacrality, a new center, not to be touched or even approached.  Of course, this analytical approach can become enormously complex.  For now, it is enough to mention that the meaning of the sign issued by the event can only be gleaned or known within another event, an iterative event, in which the sign emitted in the foundational event is shown, simply, to work, to defer some crisis.  We knew that the Holocaust was the foundational event of the post-War era not on April 9, 1945, but when (to take one possibility, or one of many iterative events), American students insisted they would not be “good Germans” and fail to heed the testimony of the victims of their own system–and where, at least plausibly, were thereby instrumental in stopping a war, a war which, in turn, could have led to nuclear conflagration.  (Is this a plausible account?  One could only argue it one way or another within another iterative scene)

I would suggest that in the case of the Holocaust the sign that “closed” the event and made it available for iteration was the emergence, first in a tiny and largely ignored trickle, and finally in the form of best sellers and Oscar winning movies, of victims’ testimony.  The testinomy is what revealed something genuinely new–not the content or information it provided, but in the fact that post-War testimony maintained its continuity with attempts to “tell the world” during the War itself; as any reader of these testimonies know, part of the horror was the sense of certainty that no one knew or would ever know what was happening, that the Nazis would succeed in keeping their monstrous crimes secret, as they constantly taunted their victims would, in fact, be the case.  So, what these testimonies really said to each and every reader, over and above the usually meticulous presentation of the detailed account itself is, “where were YOU”?  If the victims didn’t succeed in getting the word out, one must consider that it was also because no one out there was listening very carefully.  All this could happen without ruffling the surface of our everyday existence (even, granted, a wartime, crisis existence)–our existing institutions, and our consciences, or moral antennae, must be radically deficient in some way, some way in which we can never allow them to be deficient again, because next time we ourselves might not survive (whether physically or morally can be left open).

There is, of course, another iterative event consolidating the hold of “Auschwitz” upon the postmodern world, one which complicates it considerably:  the foundation of Israel and, perhaps even more importantly, the massive mobilization of world-wide Jewish solidarity in response to the threat posed by the Six Day War in 1967 (and the perceived abandonment of the Jews, once again, to their fate at that critical moment).  If it weren’t for that, it would be possible to almost forget the actual identity of the Nazis’ victims–once Auschwitz becomes a frame in which all “othering” can be placed, the specific content of Nazi ideology can become interchangeable with any racializing or “denigrating” ideology–just another “Orientalism,” with the slot of victim filled in accord with the convenience and needs of the dominant groups.  With the Nazis it was the Jews, with defenders of “compulsory heterosexuality” it’s gays–what’s the difference?  The constant reminder Israel represents of the age old desire to exterminate the Jews, to both usurp and erase the specific mode of deferral pioneered by the Jewish understanding of God, makes it impossible to completely de-Judaicize the Holocaust.  It might not be too far to say that our present global struggles, between the White Guilt/victimary axis and what I’ll simply call, rather polemically, those of us determined to renew their stake in the West, breaks down into a struggle over the appropriation of the meaning or sign of Auschwitz.  (There is, briefly, yet another series of iterative events organized around the notion of “totalitarianism,” which would articulate Auschwitz with the Gulag; I would simply suggest, though, that with the demise of Communism, the adherents of this version of the event have assimilated to one of the other positions ).

Part of the project of a “public” GA should be to reconcile such equally legitimate positions:  there is no reason why the insistence that “civil disobedience” be a permanent part of our democratic lexicon, signalling the ultimate responsibility each of us has for whatever passes through our “link” in the “chain of command” need contradict the centrality of the Jews to the event/sign “Auschwitz”–quite to the contrary, since the conjunction can even deepen our sense of the distinctiveness of the Judaic concept of God “as the declarative sentence.”  And a heightened sense of political responsibility only becomes white guilt when the guilty and innocent parties are known a priori, which only results from a kind of mimetic contagion aimed at blurring over the distinctive features of Auschwitz by applying its terms to any asymmetry. 

I am now going to suggest that the event of 9/11 supersedes Auschwitz as the foundational event of the period now beginning.  This, of course, requires some explanation.  First, of course, I don’t mean to suggest any similarity in scale–the al-Qaeda terrorists might have wished they could kill millions of Americans, they might have reasonably hoped to have killed in the tens of thousands (which were, in fact, the initial estimates that morning); but, in fact, there is no comparison.  Nor need there be–the question of a “foundational” or “dispensational” event involves an anthropological revelation of historic proportion, nothing more.  No one, for that matter, actually has to die for this to take place.  Second, I don’t mean that “Auschwitz” now becomes irrelevant–we are obliged to remember and extend the ethical gains consequent upon any epochal event; even more, a new foundational event is such insofar as it includes and redirects the previous one.  Just like God told the Jews to reject any prophet who tells them to change the law, we should reject any event that claims to invalidate any mode of deferral that in some way represented an ethical advance.  We might, in fact, be in a position to discuss more lucidly the lessons of Auschwitz.  Or, more precisely, the deferral of the deadly conflict over the sign “Auschwitz” should provide us with a more minimal version of that event in terms of the new foundation. 

If the sign of Auschwitz emerges through victims’ testimonies, then the sign of 9/11 must emerge from within (or, perhaps, be telescoped by) the destiny of United Airlines Flight 93.  In the plane that was downed by a passenger revolt we see the ultimate limitations of victimary discourse; we are presented with a situation in which White Guilt is utterly inapplicable.  The surprise attack worked because of our lazy, white guilty accommodation to terrorism–the rules were, accede to terrorist blackmail in such situations because, first, that is the best way of keeping everyone safe (implicitly, then, hijackings are less acts of war than safety hazards); and, more profoundly and insidiously, this is simply the tax we must be ready to pay in a world where our comforts have generated so many resentments that we can’t conciliate them all.  Once word came to Flight 93 that this “compact” had been broken, a new reality was revealed:  terrorism had become a conduit for a kind of resentment-for-itself, thereby removing the luxury of rewriting the past so as to speculate about a present in which one wouldn’t have to deal with such things.  (If only we hadn’t overthrown that president, or given so much money to Israel, or become so dependent on oil…if only we hadn’t invaded Iraq)  Civil society might be transformed into a front line at any time, and at least some of us must be ready to cofnront the terrorists’ love of death with a willingness to face death.

More simply, the revelation here is that recognizing the legitimacy of the victimary ends up feeding, rather than dissolving, it.  This has nothing to do with whether or not we are to support victims–supporting victims, though, does not involve a running physical and ideological assault on the center which presumably produces them; rather, it involves calling upon representatives of the center to devise the means needed to protect victims, whether it be of crime, terrorism or tyranny, and even more, being prepared to represent that center when necessary.  The question raised by “Auschwitz” was:  are you, in your ethical “equipment,” someone who would relentlessly get the word out of the death camps; even more, someone who would have been attentive to signs that something unprecedented was underway; even more, someone who, if so positioned, would stop the machinery of death in its tracks, regardless of the consequences to yourself?  The question raised by “9/11” is:  does your ethical composition prepare you to refuse to be a hostage by whatever means are possible; even more, to refuse to pay blackmail more generally, which is to say to refuse “standing” to any expression of a grievance which comes attached to the slightest hint that legitimate violence might come in the wake of a failure to address it to the complainant’s satisfaction? This is an extraordinarily difficult pledge to make, as we are discovering, particularly when the terrorist modus operandi is to make us liable for the fate of those they take hostage.  But 9/11 teaches us that paying ransom is the beginning of an process, increasingly irreversible as it proceeds, in which our powers become weapons against us; “ransom,” of course, understood in the broadest sense of allowing our responsibility for the fate of innocents to be used to persuade us to cede control over our actions to to those who thus implicate us.  If we are strong enough to be blackmailed, we are strong enough to reject it.

Here is where the real relevance of our analysis comes into play.  The ability and intention of terrorists to place civilians in the path of our superior means of destruction aims at intensifying the victimary “reception” of Auschwitz–it’s no coincidence that, of all people, Iranian President Ahmadinejad is now accusing the Israelis of being Nazis.  “Auschwitz,” we must now first of all say, is about conscience and liberty, which require the defense of the center that the Nazis themselves tried to destroy.  The Nazis wished not only to exterminate the Jews and erase the Judaic mode of deferral (conscience); they wanted to implicate the free world in these crimes by presenting them as revenge for the Anglo-American capitulation to Jewish interests, for their willingness to wage a war on behalf of world Jewish domination.  (And if we answer, “but we weren’t fighting for the Jews,” does that not implicate us in another way?–we are either dupes of the Jews or cynically self-interested, in which case we would ultimately do exactly what the Nazis have done if we had to)  In the same way, totalitarian Islam wants to commit its murderous crimes and displace responsibility onto us; if we had steadfastly said to the Nazis that a defense of the Jews is a defense of civilization, we would have removed the double bind–rejecting any moral causality between Israel’s existence and self-defense, or even any crimes Israel may have committed in the course of its history, and the resentments being played out today against the very standards of civilization that would make it possible to hold Israel responsible in the first place would have the same effect.  We should assiduously expose the choreographed responses to and even manufacture of Israeli “atrocities,” and we should be repeatedly insisting that each and every civilian death is the fault of Hamas and Hizbollah and no one else; we should be composing and sending teams of human rights inspectors to Hizbollah and Hamas occupied territory to see if the war crime of holding civilians hostage is being committed; we should set up war crimes tribunals for each and every member of these terrorist organizations who commits these crimes; and all the while we should repeat the answer given to those afraid that the rescue of Jews was neglected by those waging the war, which is that the best way to save the most innocents is to win the war as soon as possible–even while we are now able to add that exposing the moral depravity of totalitarian Islam is the best way to both save civilians right now and win the war quickly. 

The point here is not to make moral declarations that improve our image, for ourselves and others; rather, it is to devise strategies that can unite us (to the extent that we can be united) while dividing our enemies.  We must first of all create as many difficulties as possible for the de facto alliance between the “transnational progressive” left (the media, much of the judiciary, the NGOs and human rights groups, the academy), the embodiment of white guilt, and the victimary Islamic totalitarians.  What has gone unrecognized is that the vocabulary selected by the Bush Administration has already gone some ways toward undermining the transnational progressives–the human rights groups have all, as the saying goes, “jumped the shark” in their eagerness to condemn the US, leaving themselves vulnerable to fraud and manipulation, causing them to lose credibility among those helped by America and the American people, reducing, them, in short, to fringe groups.  The liberals have been pushed into the arms of the foreign policy “realists” and the repulsive likes of Brent Scowcroft, whom none of them would have touched with a 10 foot pole before the onset of Bush Derangement Syndrome.  The surest way of losing all touch with reality, except the virtual one constructed in the never ending dialogues of the international “diplomatic community,” is to become a Realist.  While the media is digging itself deeper into border line treasonous activities in the pursuit of stories of interest only to Pulitzer Prize committees.  There is a very outside chance that the Democrats will gain power in the House and/or Senate this November–can anyone doubt that if they do they will govern so disastrously as to lose it again, probably once and for all?  I am not among those who mourn the decline of the media, the Democrats, the human rights groups, etc.–they are all, more and more looking like institutions and organizations created under very specific conditions and limited to those conditions–the post WWII world in which the sign “Auschwitz” called for new modes of scrutiny upon governmental activity  and attentiveness to victims’ claims in particular.  Their rapid descent into senility can be tracked precisely, I believe, with the degeneration of the “Auschwitz” sign into unmitigated White Guilt. 

With regard to totalitarian Islam, I would hypothesize that hostage taking groups are especially vulnerable to infiltration, defection and disinformation.  I suspect–we can’t know of course, because one can still  hope that much is going on in secret (but is anything going on that some self-appointed “whistle blower” won’t leak to the NY Times?)–that we are engaging these activities very ineffectively, even though they will all serve as “focre multipliers”:  they will not only sow discord and confusion among our enemies but such activites will set up a realm of activity in which intelligence and military professionals can work beyond the reach of the transnational progressives.  The ideal would be to have the major media outlets reporting on the most superficial and irrelevant things, which they will be fed by the elements of the government (the CIA, the State Department) and the human rights groups that are be rendered obsolete by the turn to smaller, more rigorous and smarter groupings who work below the radar.  This won’t create an unaccountable secret government because insofar as these groups work effectively, the effects of their work will show up, indirectly, for those with adequately attuned radar–reporters who are willing to follow subtle trendlines, take risks, find ways of getting inside and gaining the trust of the new type of operative, those who can do serious analytical and interpretive work, will be able to piece things together and present them in ways that don’t endanger those operations.  And we can leave the writers and readers of the NY Times to sleep in peace, cuddling their Pulitzers.

Which means that that other despised element of the “Bush Doctrine,” “pre-emption,” is, in fact, an authentic and central category of the 9/11 dispensation.  Refusing to pay ransom means treating blackmail as the crime that it is.  It means treating anyone who claims to be our enemy as our enemy (who are we to deny anyone the right to be our enemy?).  This would include the not-so-subtle “I denounce violence but if people’s frustrations are not addressed, I can’t be held responsible for the results…”  Let every assassination of a Saudi cleric calling for “martyrs” to go into Iraq be accompanied by a packet of sermons he gave, perhaps emailed directly to American citizens, bypassing the media.  Let’s see who denounces this violation of the rights of those who incite to the murder of our soldiers.  Let’s experiment–the columnist Diane West recently called for declaring war on specific organizations (like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah) so that, among other things, we could take action against their domestic supporters.  Pehaps it’s a gamble–we might make small groups more important than we would like; unlike countries, such groups can always change their names, break off into allied groups, and find other ways to turn themselves into harder targets.  If we stay on the offesnvie, perhaps we’ll find ways of turning that to our advantage as well. In addition to military tribunals for trying those who deliberately use human shields, why not offer a release to all of our prisoners, under one simple condition–that they offer a full, verifiable, confession detailing all their activities and confederates, signed, and for public distribution?  And then they can go where they please!  The fact that we are tinkering around the edges of what’s allowed under the Geneva Convention, that we are held hostage by over-reactions to what were ultimately rather minor abuses of government power 30-40 years ago, rather than improvising energetically, even a bit wildly, shows that we have not yet entered the 9/11 dispensation.  But we will, or the ransom will keep getting higher, until our blackmailers just come and take it already. 

Does all this sound utterly unrealistic and unreasonable (and perhaps “unconscionable”?) to you?  If so, to that extent you haven’t seriously entered the new dispensation either.


Scenic Politics

July 29, 2006

How the West Was Lost

Filed under: GA — ericgans @ 7:28 pm

A couple of pieces from today’s LA Times:

1. Rosa Brooks’ column is a good place to find an unsubtle expression of what passes for a “progressive” perspective. A few days ago, she suggested that Islamic terrorists in the US were as rare as elephants. No doubt the way the Times reports the news, that might well be true: you had to turn to page 16 to learn that the fellow who shot six people in a Seattle Jewish center was a Muslim. Today’s column, titled “Four Lessons to Make Us Safer,” deserves more than simple mockery: it expresses the same view that Kerry embodied in 2004 and that I think is representative of the foreign-policy views of the Democratic party (with the hopeful exception of Hillary C?)

To sum up: Lesson 1 is that “The weak will always seek — and find — asymmetrical methods of warfare against the strong.” She gives the example of how we defeated the Redcoats back in 177something. Thus “asymmetric” warfare is unwinnable.

Lesson 2, therefore, is the following:

If you can’t defeat your enemy militarily, you need to take away his motivation to fight. Overly aggressive military approaches only increase the bitterness that caused the conflict in the first place. Unless we want to become the permanent global cop in a permanent global police state, we need to change our approach.

We want peace in the Middle East? Stability in Iraq? An end to terrorist attacks? We may not achieve any of those things even in the best of circumstances. But we certainly won’t achieve them if we refuse to take seriously the idea that our enemies — like us — consider themselves good people, with legitimate grievances. Eliminate the grievances and you’re on the way to eliminating the conflict.

When progressives say things like this, right-wing pundits immediately sneer: “What do you want us to do, sing ‘Kumbaya’ with the bad guys?” No. But you don’t have to love your enemy — or trust him further than you could throw him — to recognize the benefits of talking to him and taking his concerns seriously.

That’s not being “soft.” It’s being realistic.

Yes, this does sound eminently reasonable. Everyone thinks himself a “good person,” and when Jesus sat down with publicans and sinners (serial killers? death camp directors? people who saw off infidels’ heads with rusty knives?) he forbore to judge them. But what if the “sinner” knows in advance that no act of his can be held to prove he is not a “good person”? And what if his “legitimate grievance” consists of … your existence?

There were some people like that back in 1940-something, as I recall. Brooks herself seems to be something of a fan of the Dems of those days; I quote:

Even as World War II raged, an engaged and visionary U.S. president took the lead in planning the dense web of international institutions and laws that would help tamp down conflicts, spread global well-being and buttress American prosperity throughout the postwar period. Institutions such as the United Nations were never perfect, but for more than half a century they have kept our world reasonably stable.

But, as Ms. B doesn’t appear to remember, the United Nations, as conceived by FDR, didn’t sit down with the Nazis and the Japanese to discuss their “grievances.” (How much Lebensraum do you really need? How about that Asian co-prosperity sphere? And all those Jews, they are a problem, aren’t they? Come to think of it, they’re still the problem!) The UN was our side, and we demanded unconditional surrender, with no discussion of terms of any kind, let alone “grievances.” The evolution of the Democratic party is summed up rather well in the contrast between the UN as “the free world” and the UN as the whole world, which is to say, its lowest common denominator.

The conundrum Brooks poses is not, however, solvable by sarcastic references to her lack of historical perspective. What it really depends on is Lesson 1. If asymmetric war truly is unwinnable, if Hezbollah can never be disarmed by any means and will always keep firing those rockets, and bigger and bigger ones, then indeed we have to negotiate with them.

But what Ms. B seems not to have noticed is that this is tantamount to saying that we have already lost. Or does she think that it’s just Israel that has lost, and that we can talk with Hezbollah, and Ahmadinejad, and Osama b. L., and come up with a friendly solution to their “grievances”? It’s a shame Mohammed Atta and his friends blew themselves up, because they would have been just the right people to help out; English speakers, familiar with American mores, surely able to persuade us to “take their concerns seriously.”

2. Just in case you thought I forgot, here is the second article. Read the link if you like; the headline says it all:

Israel Ends Gaza Raid, Leaving a Trail of Death and Destruction

This is a representative example of “news” reporting from the Middle East. The journalists who agonized over the media’s treating the Israelis as the “good guys” instead of reporting the conflict in a “nuanced” fashion should take heart from this piece. The Times is certainly making sure that Hamas’ “legitimate grievances” are getting a fair hearing.

-eric gans

July 28, 2006

Darkest Just before the Dawn?

Filed under: GA — ericgans @ 12:31 am

The MacNeil-Lehrer newshour, which I’ve watched over the years as a reasonably fair-minded program, has an interesting way of covering the recent Israel-Hezbollah conflict. They begin with one of those British reporters who must learn their craft in a mortuary–every sentence ends with a fall–showing us the latest results of Israeli destruction; bombed-out buildings, piles of rubble (today one was topped with a dusty child’s toy), interviews with homeless victims… The strongly conveyed implication is that Israel is indiscriminately bombing “innocent people” for no reason except revenge or general frustration. Then we have our Israel segment, much shorter, with perhaps a bit of destruction, but more likely some footage of soldiers preparing for battle, sitting on a tank, maybe evacuating their wounded. In short, the tough military against the helpless civilians.

Well, journalism today is victimary to the core; if it bleeds (and there’s a reporter around to blame it on the US, Israel, or Mother Nature), it leads. But I was a bit taken aback by the following segment, which involved a group of specialists in the Arab media, but no one remotely connected to Israel, discussing the grave problem that, in contrast with the enlightened Middle East, the USA is getting a one-sided account of the fighting–the Israeli side. It appears that “the media” have bettter contacts in Israel than with Hezbollah and are misleading their viewers into thinking that this is just a John Wayner between the good guys and the bad guys; “nuance” is being lost. Ah, those Israeli lobbyists… And it’s nice to know that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is helping to restore the balance by its “nuanced” reporting of Israeli devastation.

On reflection, I found this little cloud was not without backlighting. If the media elite are suddenly so concerned about nuance, could it be for fear that segments of the population may be slipping away from the victimary perspective? That maybe even Democratic politicians are recalling that FDR, HST, and JFK were not pacifiists?

Let’s not speak of antisemitism. The point of this reporting is to show us that all “war is hell,” but that if one comes down to cases, the winning side is perforce more warlike and therefore more hellish than the losers. This way of thinking has been instilled in the European psyche since the early postwar era; Marguerite Duras/Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour is a beautiful demonstration that the Japanese and the Germans were the real victims of WWII–because they lost. Thinking like this bears no costs when one is protected by “deterrence” that makes the hellishness of war logically inconceivable. But it wouldn’t have worked with Hitler and it’s not going to work with Ahmadinejad. Sometimes you just have to want to win, to be “more hellish” than the other guy because you’re the one with the white hat. Let’s hope that the Hamas-Hezbollah wakeup call is enough to remind us of this.

-eric gans

July 27, 2006

The Free Exchange of Ideas

Filed under: GA — ericgans @ 12:42 am

[Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison] Kevin Barrett told a Milwaukee talk show host in June that he believed that the U.S. government used “controlled demolitions with explosives” on Sept. 11 to bring down the World Trade Center buildings and later said that the idea of a hijacked plane hitting the Pentagon was “preposterous.” He plans to discuss these beliefs over one week of the 15-week course for undergraduate students. …

School officials say they have no reason to oust Barrett because free speech protects academic freedom.

“We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas,” said Patrick Farrell, the school’s provost.  (complete article)

Thus the most preposterous idiocy is considered an “unpopular idea” if it comports with victimary thought. Once again, postmodern skepticism about truth is not across the board. 9/11 denial and Holocaust denial belong to the “free exchange of ideas” because they reinforce antisemitism and anti-Americanism. An absurdity becomes an “idea” only under such conditions; we cannot trust our “objective” judgment in such cases because we might tend to favor ourselves.

Perhaps the sheer mind-boggling stupidity of Mr. Farrell’s remarks will help persuade a few more people that White Guilt is not a coherent philosophy.

-eric gans

July 25, 2006

The Clash of the Clash of Civilizations

Filed under: GA — ericgans @ 1:18 am

We’ve all heard people debate the question of whether Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” applies to the current “war on terror.” As in most dialogues de sourds there is a better answer than either yes or no. This is a conflict between one side that believes there is a “clash of civilizations” and one that does not. To wit, the Islamists believe that modern civilization is evil and that its members should be either annihilated or converted. “We,” to the contrary, don’t believe there is any fundamental reason why even the most extreme forms of Islam are incompatible with the West’s multicultural tolerance. In a word, we want to include them, and they want to kill us. This is not the kind of dispute that can be resolved through academic discussion.

There is a great deal of poverty in the world, and nature inflicts on humanity much disease and other suffering. But humanity has survived poverty and disease and natural disasters with little difficulty. It has survived “acid rain” and can probably even survive “global warming.” The real danger to our species is the same danger that it came into being to defer: intraspecific violence and the form it assumes in deferral, resentment.

No religion is entitled to toleration as a vehicle of resentment. The desire, nay, the intention to destroy Western civilization does not become more legitimate when it is expressed in “religious” terms. The Christian dialectic of love has no effect against those whose very culture is a counter-attack on Christian hegemony. Resentment can be recuperated within the social order only if its energy can be harnessed to productive activity. Once the resentful subject devotes himself to destruction, his resentment will end only with his life. That is why wars are sometimes necessary.

The growth of Iranian power, whose noxious influence in the Middle East is only beginning to bear fruit, is a clear enough indication that Islamic resentment has passed the point where it can be contained by “inclusion.” Kim Jong-il wants to survive; Ahmadinejad wants to kill. It is easy in hindsight to castigate the “cowards” who gathered at Munich in 1938; why should things be different this time? In the contest between those who believe in a clash of civilizations and those who do not, it is the first group that decides for what stakes the game is to be played.

The West has little stomach for destruction. Even 9/11 has failed to remind it that the refinement of individual justice cannot replace in every circumstance the crude efficacy of collective retribution. Thus we agonize over lapses in fairness to people whose sole aim is to kill as many of us as possible. That World War II was the last “conceivable” total war affords no protection against those whose highest dream is self-annihilation.

The market and its political support system is humanity’s best hope for survival. But it has no magic formula for the indefinite deferral of violence. It is increasingly hard to see how the non-metaphorical “clash of civilizations” that is war can be avoided. In its absence, one side grows ever more confident in its hatred and the other, ever more craven in its tolerance of this hatred. A Jewish columnist in the Washington Post the other day echoed Ahmadinejad in calling Israel a “mistake”–ah, but an “honest mistake.” Perhaps the lesson of the 21st century will be that the human species too was an “honest mistake.”

-eric gans

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