October 20, 2004

Straussian Nightmares

The first part of a three part series that claims to debunk the threat of Islamic terrorism aired tonight, and I’d expected to come away livid. Sure, I’m a little angry, but mostly I’m just perplexed.

The hour-long show followed the simultaneous developments of Qutbist Islamism and Straussian Conservatism. What pissed me off most was the quite obvious implication that these two schools of thought are different sides of the same coin. Both were described as hostile to individualism and liberalism, both were said to endorse religion and myths as a means of maintaining their respective peoples. Moral certainty was of the utmost importance to those responsible for our present fear.

The first point to make is that their ideas of liberalism and individualism are very different. The vagueness of “liberalism? is a pet-hate of mine. It completely glosses over the diametrically opposite views of freedom. The classical liberal school of thought prefers “negative freedom?, the belief that you are free until someone interferes in your affairs. Modern liberals believe in “positive freedom?, the belief that you are free so long as you have the ability to fulfil your potential. To modern liberals, the state has a duty to help you fulfil that potential.

Neo-conservatives are said to have taken the various riots, the increases in violence and drug use, and the other major problems of the 1960s and 1970s as evidence that liberalism and individualism were tearing America apart. Liberalism and individualism as described by modern liberals, perhaps. But not the classical liberal ideas that advocate small government, like most conservatives in the United States do.

The neo-conservative ideal of moral certainty was focused upon several times. It was this that, the documentary argues, led to the neo-con support for religion and the American destiny to face down evil. Neo-conservatives believed that the moral relativism and uncertainty of liberal America were going to be America’s undoing. I find that difficult to argue with, but from the context it sounded like a bad thing.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think that atheists are by definition amoral people. The argument that those without a religiously mandated moral code are destined to become unethical rings hollow to me. I’m fairly agnostic, and I think I’m a moral person. My values are Judeo-Christian in origin, and observing the Sabbath doesn’t come in to it.

There is a case to be made, though, that atheists are more willing to build their own moralities. Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot… I sense that I’m drifting slightly.

Again, “moral relativism is bad? seems to be a defensible position to me. When I was in primary school, we did almost no sports, and fewer competitive sports. Why? Because losing is bad for a child’s confidence. Moral relativism takes that ridiculous notion and applies it to the things that define how we live. I don’t think that its alarmist to call that idea dangerous. If we are forbidden to judge each other, how can we determine who wishes us harm? How are we to know that concentration camps are bad, if we cannot even define what ‘bad’ is? That way leads to watching in self-righteous neutrality as the crimes of the past are repeated. And given America’s role in limiting the extent of those crimes, the scale would surely be greater if it were to happen again.

The documentary argues that neo-cons wanted to rebuild American morality. That meant (a) religion and (b) revitalising the myth of American destiny. We were assured that neo-cons didn’t necessarily believe those things were true, only that they were vital to America.

Is there truth in this? Ideologically, perhaps there was. In practice, great nations that lose the sense of their own greatness eventually crumble. On a humanitarian level, the notion of American destiny to fight tyranny is surely a good thing. Fighting Nazism, communism and Islamic terrorism has improved the lives of millions, and saved untold millions more. Would the U.S. have undertaken such vital causes for the sake of humanity, if not for the myth of American destiny? The realists and isolationists wanted trade with the Nazis, détente with the Soviets and appeasement of the terrorists. American destiny might be a myth, but it is a beneficial one.

As you might have guessed, my attitude to apparent criticisms on the documentary was “yeah, so?? One time, a friend’s mother (a BBC employee, of course) was ranting about Sharon being “nothing but trouble?. When I told her I agreed that Sharon would give up Tel Aviv before laying a finger on his pal Arafat… hilarity ensued. But I digress.

To satisfy their nefarious schemes, the documentary continues, neo-cons needed to manufacture an evil to crusade against. Who was this evil enemy to be? The U.S.S.R.

Another of my pet-hates is the way the U.S.S.R. gets a free pass for pretty much everything. This is a state that killed more people than the Axis forces combined. The gulags, the man-made famines (intentional or otherwise), the mass killings, the abolition of all dissent… Then trying to export this wonderful system to other countries? This is a manufactured evil?

And let’s not be nuanced and say that communism is a brilliant idea in theory. It isn’t. The difference between communism and slavery is semantic: someone else decides how much work you can do, and what you deserve for it. You are putty in someone’s hands. That is not an admirable suggestion. It is vile.

Under Gerald Ford, the documentary goes on, neo-cons found friends in Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. The neo-cons wanted to end the détente, so Rumsfeld started giving speeches saying that the Soviets were violating an agreement with the United States. (Signed in 1972, said agreement set limits on the amount of nuclear weapons the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could build.)

The C.I.A. had no evidence of it, so it couldn’t possibly be true. (This is a recurring theme.) The program goes on to say that neo-cons took a lack of evidence to mean the Soviets were definitely up to something. Example: the Soviet air defence system, according to the C.I.A., was a mess. The neo-con team (led by Paul Wolfowitz) set up to prove Rumsfeld right believed that this meant the system was 100% operational, and pointed to the Soviet handbook as proof.

This doesn’t ring true to me. It seemed too perfect: these guys make up all kinds of crazy stuff; they’re crazy, crazy I tell you! That segment came from one lady, a former U.S. government official specialising in arms control. There was no rejoinder, or even questioning, of any of the neo-cons on this issue, which seemed strange. Maybe my B.S. detector is glitchy, but it didn’t seem right. (I got the same feeling during Bowling for Columbine a gazillion times.)

The next part looked at the Reagan years. Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, not to mention Donald Rumsfeld, all got themselves places in the new administration. Richard Pipes was an adviser on Soviet affairs. The neo-cons had apparently got the Christian ‘fundamentalists’ to vote Republican – in the past, they’d stayed out of politics. Incidentally, the fundamentalist label might be accurate; I’m not the person to ask. But, like ‘Zionist’ from a Muslim organisation, ‘fundamentalist’ is meant as an insult. The supposed equivalence between them and Islamists is particularly disgusting.

Here, it gets yet more ‘on topic’. A new book called ‘The Terror Network’ alleged that all the disparate terrorist groups (Red Brigades, P.L.O., Baader Meinhof, the R.A.F., etc) were all linked, and being used by the Soviets as a proxy to fight the West. When the new C.I.A. director, William Joseph Casey, read it, he was convinced that it was true.

The C.I.A. claimed that the sources of this book were mostly ‘black propaganda’ – disinformation spread by the C.I.A. to make the Soviets look bad. The notion that the Soviets were involved in these terror groups was, we’re told, based on America’s own lies. One guy who would know, Ion Mihai Pacepa, says otherwise. As the former head of Ceausescu’s intelligence service, he knew first hand of the involvement of the U.S.S.R. with such terrorist groups, including the P.L.O. and Baader Meinhof.

The program finishes with a brief interview with Michael Ledeen. He is another who believed in this terrorist network. As ever, he’s given no opportunity to respond to the evidence laid out against him.

I realise that I’ve only covered the neo-con side of things. If time allows, I’ll look at the Islamist development tomorrow.

Posted by Matt at 11:50 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack