Good Liberals vs Savage Nihilists

In every American community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. Here, then, is a lesson in safe logic.
~ Phil Ochs, introduction to “Love Me, I’m a Liberal

I’ve grown impatient with liberalism or at least a particular variety of it. Maybe call it mainstream liberalism (e.g., Democratic partisanship), conservative-minded liberalism, or even reactionary liberalism. It is definitely liberalism, some might even consider it the primary example of liberalism, with its close kinship to classical liberalism. Whatever name is given, it is weak and inconsistent, an uninspiring example to say the least.

The advocates of it are the good liberals with their self-portrayed good intentions. And most of them do seem sincere about it. But from the perspective of comfortable lives, they ultimately are defenders of the status quo. In olden days, they probably would have argued for a Whiggish colonial worldview of progress (Manifest Destiny, converting the savages, etc) and they still tend to defend universal values and a globalist belief system based on neo-imperial neo-liberalism (promoting free trade, spreading democracy, etc).

The problem for this kind of liberal is this. Most of them lack the awareness to make these connections. Liberalism is centuries old now and its roots go even further back. It carries a lot of baggage that requires unpacking.

It’s taken me a while to more fully come around to this critical attitude. After all, I identity as a liberal. I’ve spent years defending the good name of liberalism from critics on both the left and the right. Yet I’ve entertained the possibility many times that it is a pointless battle. The word ‘liberal’ can seem meaningless, for all the ways it is used and abused.

My complaints here are hardly new. I’ve been fond of pointing out the problems of my tribe. I’m a liberal through and through, and for that reason I’d like to have a liberalism worth defending. But there is a particular kind of obtuseness and cluelessness that is found among the liberal class and they typically are of a class, only the libertarian demographic being wealthier than liberals on average. Thomas Frank, in Listen, Liberal, points out that they are the new professional class increasingly disconnected from the working class (even though the working class may hold a fair amount of liberal views, they don’t identify with the liberal worldview—as portrayed by the liberal class in the MSM).

One example I spent much time analyzing is Jonathan Haidt, with his typical liberal desire for everyone to just get along. This is a desire I share, except when the sentiment is used to compromise liberal values in an act of reaching out to those who don’t share liberal values. The main failing of Haidt is his mind being trapped in the mainstream paradigm of politics, leaving him oddly confused about what is liberalism and what makes the liberal mind tick.

Another example came to my attention, that of Kenan Malik, an author I’ve been casually following for a few years. That will be my focus here. In a recent essay (After Brussels: Once Again Thinking Through Terror), he discusses the terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Malik clearly stated his central premise and conclusion right at the beginning of the piece:

Contemporary terror attacks are not responses to Western foreign policy. What marks them out is their savage nihilistic character

There is something dismissive about this. It is more political rhetoric than cool, reasoned argument. It shuts down debate, rather than inviting discussion. The words chosen are intended to elicit emotion and incite reaction, to express the anger and frustration of the author and so bring the reader into that emotional space. Terrorism can have a way of closing down the liberal mind and, at such times, the liberal is drawn into the conservative worldview of us vs them (as research has shown: liberals who repeatedly saw tv footage of 9/11 attacks, as compared to radio listeners, were more likely to support the Bush administration’s War On Terror).

When Westerners kill innocent Arabs, it is justified military action. When Muslims kill innocent Westerners, it is terrorism and savage nihilism. Malik doesn’t put it so bluntly, which makes it all the worse, a soft-pedaling of prejudice.

Whether or not that is a fair appraisal of Malik, that was how it struck me. My first response to Malik’s essay was emotional. Skimming it, I intuitively sensed that it was more of an attempt to disregard a problem than to understand it, despite the stated intentions of analysis. The use of ‘nihilism‘ as a frame felt like a sledgehammer being brought down on my skull. So, yeah, I had a strong reaction.

It seems like a non-explanation. Most people who are nihilists aren’t violent. And most violent people aren’t nihilists. Simply concluding, based on no evidence, that Islamic terrorists are savage nihilists is the opposite of helpful. This offers no insight.

After some thought, I began to wonder what Malik meant by that word, nihilism. I was familiar with the basic sense of how it’s typically used. Most people use the word in indicating a lack of belief in meaning. And so to call someone ‘nihilistic’ is essentially to call them meaningless. This accords with Malik’s use of the word, as when he argues that, “This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.” He continues,

Terrorists often claim a political motive for their attacks. The trouble with much of the discussion of terrorism today is that it misses a fundamental point about contemporary terror: its disconnect from social movements and political goals. In the past, an organisation such as the IRA was defined by its political aims. Its members were carefully selected and their activities tightly controlled. However misguided we might think its actions, there was a close relationship between the aims of the organization and the actions of its members. None of this is true when it comes to contemporary terrorism. An act of terror is rarely controlled by an organisation or related to a political demand. That is why it is so difficult to discern the political or religious motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers. They neither claimed responsibility nor provided a reason for their actions. It was not necessary to do so. The sole point was to kill indiscriminately and to spread fear and uncertainty. Far from being part of a political or religious movement, what defines terrorists like the Boston bombers is their very isolation from such movements.

These terrorists supposedly lack all meaning, purpose, and reason. As such, they are the complete opposite of the Enlightened liberal. In the mainstream liberal worldview, violence is morally acceptable if and only if a good reason is given. Hundreds of thousands of people killed with good reason (e.g., Afghanistan War) is better than a dozen people killed with no clear reason at all (e.g., Boston Bombers).

The former is in defense of the liberal order (either as a supposed reality or an ideal to be achieved) and the latter undermines liberalism altogether. This ignores that the former easily can make the latter more probable. Actually, it’s not a matter of ignoring it. Malik acknowledges it, only to deny it. Westerners harming and killing millions of Middle Easterners for generations can have nothing to do with Middle Easterners committing terrorism in the West since 9/11.

It’s a total lack of context. Malik waves away the splintering of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Western alliances with authoritarian regimes, overthrowing of governments, undermining of democracy and independence movements, promotion of theocracy, arming of para-military groups, military invasions and occupations, the endless drone attacks, failed neocon state building, neoliberal economic manipulations, neocolonial resource extraction, economic sanctions, food shortages and instability from droughts caused by climate change, mass unemployment and poverty, migration of refugees, xenophobic racism, ethno-nationalist nativism, European ghettoization of minorities, unemployment and economic problems in Europe since the Great Recession, etc. Nope. It’s just ‘nihilism’. There is a willful obtuseness about this.

As Patrick Cockburn explained (How politicians duck the blame for terrorism),

There has always been a disconnect in the minds of people in Europe between the wars in Iraq and Syria and terrorist attacks against Europeans… Separating the two is much in the interests of Western political leaders, because it means that the public does not see that their disastrous policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and beyond created the conditions for the rise of Isis and for terrorist gangs such as that to which Salah Abdeslam belonged.

In After Paris, Malik writes the same sentiments that he repeats in other writings:

Such attacks are not about making a political point, or achieving a political goal – as were, for instance, IRA bombings in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s – but are expressions of nihilistic savagery, the aim of which is solely to create fear. This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.

He does admit that some terrorists are refugees. His argument, though, is that they aren’t the majority. That’s true. As I recall, something like 20% are refugees, which admittedly still is a large number. More important is the entire atmosphere. Even for non-refugee Muslims in Europe, they likely would be surrounded by and regularly in contact with Muslims who are refugees. In general, they’d be constantly reminded of the refugee crisis in the media, reminded of the public response of hatred and bigotry, and probably mistaken as a refugee themselves.

He is caught up in a typical liberal double-bind, unwilling to connect his liberal values to large issues, making it impossible for him to see what it means and so he ends up projecting meaninglessness onto terrorists. He can’t admit that normal people can turn to violence, often for normal reasons that are easily understood. He has to separate all issues as if they were isolated. Western foreign policies, climate change, refugee crisis, etc—none of this can be related to terrorism, and terrorism can’t be related to politics and religion in any way. It doesn’t even matter what the terrorists themselves say. We must not bring up the fact that, in the Paris attack, the terrorists openly stated concern about politics—a witness said: “I clearly heard them say ‘It’s the fault of (French President Francois) Hollande, it’s the fault of your president, he should not have intervened in Syria’. They also spoke about Iraq.” Terrorists in the attacks in Paris and elsewhere yelled “Allahu Akbar,” making their religious intentions known.

In response to a comment I made, Malik asked, “I wonder what ‘clear political message’ jihadists are sending to the West about its foreign policy when they slaughter 148 children in a Peshawar school, or kill dozens with a suicide bomb in a market in Beirut, or throw gays off a tower in Syria, or blow up a café in Morocco?” Well, he could simply pay attention to what the terrorists themselves say. Just because Malik doesn’t approve of their politics doesn’t mean they have no political motivations. What Malik denies is obvious to many others—such as Habib Siddiqui, from The Nihilistic Assaults on Paris, concluding that:

If we want a world in which human dignity is to be respected and honored, and human rights protected, our world leaders must learn to walk their talk. When they are silent about the horrible terrorist attacks in Turkey (that left approximately 128 people dead and 500 injured and in October) and Lebanon and are all agog about Paris, they send a wrong message. When they categorize Paris attacks as attacks on ‘civilization’, are we to interpret that the attacks in Beirut and Ankara were not against civilized people? Do French lives matter more than Lebanese, Turkish, Kurdish, and Yemeni ones? Were these not, too, “heinous, evil, vile acts”?” When they define Israel’s war-crimes on Gaza as acts of self-defense that is like mocking history, an insult to the memory of the thousands of dead Gazans, including hundreds of children, killed by the Israeli army. When their drone attacks against targeted individuals (the alleged terrorists) kill mostly unarmed, innocent civilians from Pakistan to Somalia, what they are committing are war crimes. Pure and simple! It is also an act of hypocrisy from a country that claims to be a firm defender of human rights and accountability.

Like many of the other colonial enterprises, the French society is imploding. Like the British and U.S. governments, it used the “civilizing” and “liberalizing” narrative to deny sovereignty, justify the colonization process and build an empire. Under Sarkozy, it defended the fallacy of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to support an illegal war. These “civilizing”, “liberalizing” or “national security” justifications were wrongful foreign policy narratives that have brought extensive suffering and had disastrous and long-term implications not only for the ‘other’ people in ‘liberated’ countries but also their own societies. As Malcolm X would say, the chickens have now come home to roost.

As long as the powerful governments fail to learn from its past mistakes they will likely perpetuate the long-lasting injustice of the area, obviate further atrocities, and prolong the suffering of entire populations. There is no escape from this sad outcome.

It also could be added that the Saudi Arabia, supposed friend and ally to the West, supports Islamic extremism. Yet Iraq which was a secular government that kept Islamic extremism in check was destroyed, allowing Islamic extremists to take over. Only a complete idiot wouldn’t see the connection to rising Islamic violence and the political significance of it all.

But Malik outright denies the validity of any external conditions and contributing factors in the larger world. There is just something different about these terrorists, he argues (After Brussels):

What draws young people (and the majority of would-be jihadis are in the teens or in their twenties) to jihadi violence is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the sense of not speaking the local language or being unaware of local customs or having little interaction with others in the society. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.

This is a superficial way of looking at society. It doesn’t matter that, “The Kouachi brothers, for instance, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January were born and raised in Paris. So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were similarly born in Britain. Most of the 4000 or so Europeans who have joined IS as fighters have been European-born, and many have been professionals, and well integrated into society.”

Many European Muslims still experience the negative effects of xenophobia, racism, ghettoization, and other forms of isolation, exclusion, and prejudice. They aren’t treated as fully integrated by their fellow citizens. Simply being born in a country doesn’t mean most people will see you as an equal. It takes generations for assimilation to take place. Even after centuries, Jews and Romani have continued to struggle for acceptance and tolerance in Europe.

Malik’s belief that religion can be separated from racism is severely disconnected from reality (see Islamophobia: the othering of Europe’s Muslims by Hassan Mahamdallie). His confusion might come from his sympathy with classical liberalism. He has previously written (Strange Fruit, p. 87) that, “Enlightenment thinkers were less interested in the biological differences between human groups than in the distinction between civilization and savagery.” The problem is most people aren’t Enlightenment thinkers. In this age of highly advanced science, biological differences are an obsession for many and a basic framework for society in general.

Malik seems to want to put everything into cultural terms. To his mind, it’s not really religion or politics. It’s a shift in social attitude, a collapse of Western values. It’s civilization versus savagery. But he thinks he is being a good liberal by talking around the history behind this worldview. The English treated the Irish as savages not just because they were seen as uncivilized but because they were considered a racial other, even though biological theories weren’t entirely dominant at that time. It didn’t matter that the Irish were more white than the English, as this didn’t stop the English from calling them white gorillas and comparing them to other racialized groups of ‘savages’, such as Africans and Native Americans.

To return to Malik’s article on Brussels, he writes that:

The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage about modernity. Many strands of contemporary thought, from the deep greens to the radical left, express aspects of such discontent. But it is radical Islam that has come act as the real lightning rod for this fury.

This gives a hint at the historical context of thought being expressed. Nihilism is an accusation that has been directed at the radical left since the late 1700s. Malik makes a direct link here, as he claims that left-wing identity politics and outrage against modernity feed directly into the European Islamic identity.

It is irrelevant to his mind that many of these people are the children and grandchildren of Middle Eastern refugees. It can’t be acknowledged that many don’t have citizenship, living in a permanent stateless condition, not accepted where they live and unable to return to their homeland. Once a person is born into a place, the entire legacy of a family and their homeland becomes meaningless background noise. All of the history of racism, oppression, and violence explain nothing since the moment a new generation is born and learns another language they are instantly assimilated—so Malik assumes.

The demise of traditional opposition movements has led many to look for alternative forms of struggle, and created a yearning for God-given moral lines. […] Shorn of the moral framework that once guided anti-imperialists, shaped by black and white values that in their mind possess divine approval, driven by a sense of rage about non-Muslims and a belief in an existential struggle between Islam and the West, jihadis have come to inhabit a different moral universe, in which they are to commit the most inhuman of acts and view them as righteous.

Wake the fuck up! There was once secular opposition movements in the Middle East. And they were often inspired by a global movement of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, independence and liberation, self-government and social democracy. But in the proxy wars of the Cold War, these were destroyed by Western powers. Religious extremists were armed and theocracies were put into power, anything to defeat the threat of traditional left-wing politics. It was successful. And the impact has reverberated over the following generations. Without knowing this history, we flail around in the darkness of our own self-induced ignorance.

I bet most of those terrorists are a lot less historically ignorant than are most comfortable good liberals. I remember the first time I listened to a full video of Osama bin Laden explaining his reasons and motivations. I was blown away. He was extremely informed and rational. He laid it all out in great detail, all the things that Malik conveniently overlooks or dismisses out of hand.

It’s not that Malik’s argument is entirely without merit. I agree with some of the details. But those details can’t be understood without context. A central concern for him is identity politics:

The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. Because Islam is a global religion, so Islamists are able to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. Islamism, like all religiously-based ideologies, provides, too, the illusion of divine sanction for jihadists’ acts, however grotesque they may be.

Western ideologies of Christianity and capitalism have led to more oppression and deaths this past century than Islamic terrorists could ever imagine in their darkest fantasies. Neoliberals and neocons have globalist and universalist aspirations that are grander than any religion, even the imperialistic forms of Christianity out of which they formed. Large numbers of Westerners are willing to join the military and sacrifice their lives to attack Middle Eastern countries that never attacked them, never harmed their own families and communities. Now, that is a powerful belief system or simply powerful propaganda.

Plus, consider the situation in the United States. American Muslims on average are wealthier and more well-educated. But unlike in Europe they aren’t ghettoized nor racialized in the same way (we already have our racialized boogeyman with blacks). Maybe it should be unsurprising that per capita American Muslims commit far less mass violence than do native-born American whites. In the US, you’re more likely to be shot by a white terrorist and treated by a Islamic doctor, in terms of percentage of each population.

The same identity politics and decline of traditional politics have happened in the United States. In some ways, the loss of community and culture of trust is far worse here in the States. Yet Islamic integration seems more of a reality than in Europe. American Muslims apparently don’t feel disenfranchised and nihilistic, as Malik assumes they should feel. This undermines his entire argument, indicating other factors are more important.

Obviously, there is nothing inherently violent to either Arab culture or the Islamic religion. The Ottoman Empire was one of the great powers of the world, not particularly different than European empires. If any European empire with large contiguous territory (e.g., Russian Empire) had been defeated and demolished in a similar fashion and then artificially divided up as a colonial prize, we’d probably now have something in Europe akin to the present violence-torn Middle East. There is nothing that makes either region unique, besides the accidents of history. After WWI, the Ottoman Empire could have been left intact or even given assistance in rebuilding. In that case, none of the rest would have followed.

This is the common sense that defies so many Western thinkers today.

Still, I do think Malik has some of the pieces of the puzzle. He isn’t a lazy thinker nor entirely ignorant. Even leaving out the larger context, he is right that outrage against modernity and identity politics plays a role. But then again, none of that is entirely new. These are developments that are at least centuries old.

The present struggle for power among different Islamic groups echoes the past struggle of different Christian groups. Like the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire, Europe was in endless conflict following the fall of the Roman Empire and again with Protestant Reformation. It was a violent splintering along religious, tribal, and ethno-nationalist lines. Also, it was the the burgeoning of modern reactionary politics and militant fundamentalism.

It might be best to understand present fundamentalists as expressions of Corey Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind. Karen Armstrong explains (Violent Islamic radicals know they are heretical) that fundamentalism isn’t orthodoxy:

It is unrealistic to hope that radical Islamists will be chastened by a rebuke from “moderate” imams; they have nothing but contempt for traditional Muslims, who they see as part of the problem. Nor are extremists likely to be dismayed when told that terrorism violates the religion of Islam. We often use the word “fundamentalist” wrongly, as a synonym for “orthodox”. In fact, fundamentalists are unorthodox – even anti-orthodox. They may invoke the past, but these are innovative movements that promote entirely new doctrines.

This relates to Corey Robin making clear that conservatives were challenging the traditional order of the ancien régime. The reactionary, past and present, saw the ruling elite as having failed to defend against challenges from the political right. Their being reactionary, however, doesn’t mean that they are nihilists, at least not in the dismissive and simplistic sense. They are more obsessed with meaning that almost everyone else. And they know that they are outsiders, a social status of which they embrace.

It takes an outsider to see the problems of the system and force something new into being. But don’t be fooled by how the political reactionary embraces left-wing rhetoric and tactics. And, likewise, don’t be confused by how the religious reactionary flouts the rules and norms of orthodoxy. Even in their attack of its weaknesses, they are seeking to strengthen and not destroy the social order. They are forcing a response from the rest of society. And, in the case of the fundamentalist, maybe even trying to force the hand of God.

Some background would be helpful. Like the term ‘liberal’, the term ‘nihilist’ has a history that goes back to the early modern revolutionary era.

The first to label others as nihilists was Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, a Counter-Enlightenment reactionary. His criticism was that of Enlightenment thought and ideals, specifically of the radical Enlightenment. It was the view that rationality unmoored from faith, as speculative reason and radical skepticism, was dangerous and would lead to meaninglessness, moral relativism, materialism, atheism, fatalism, and atomized individuality (see atheism dispute for further info).

Jacobi was charged as being an unsystematic thinker. By stating that others were nihilists, it was his way of defending himself—in that, to his view, at least he believed in something. Belief was everything to him and so its opposite was nothingness, i.e., nihilism.

From the beginning, nihilism was directly implicated in political issues. Later on, it took on overt political form as a nihilist movement in Russia. It followed the mid-19th century freeing of Russian serfs. It led to revolutionary stirrings, not unlike what happened with how the land enclosure movement in England ‘freed’ the serfs from the land they lived and depended upon. The creation of a massive number of landless peasants, homeless and starving, tends to lead to problems.

The nihilists said fuck that shit! They didn’t know what kind of society was possible, but they were clear that the one then existing was horrifically oppressive and needed to go. The cup has to be emptied in order to be filled again. Heck, maybe just smash the cup and start entirely from scratch. They were skeptics of the highest order, especially toward the good intentions of the older generation of bourgeois liberals who were invested in the system. Nihilists were anti-authoritarians and so, at times, they were terrorists toward the ruling authorities.

It was Ivan Turgenev who popularized the term. Here is a passage from one of his novels, Fathers and Sons, where the anarchist and anti-authoritarian strain of nihilism is shown:

‘A nihilist,’ said Nikolai Petrovitch. ‘That’s from the Latin, nihil, nothing, as far as I can judge; the word must mean a man who … who accepts nothing?’
‘Say, “who respects nothing,”‘ put in Pavel Petrovitch, and he set to work on the butter again.
‘Who regards everything from the critical point of view,’ observed Arkady.
‘Isn’t that just the same thing?’ inquired Pavel Petrovitch.
‘No, it’s not the same thing. A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.’

Nihilists were and were not political, depending on what you mean by that. What they weren’t offering was a dogmatic ideology and a predetermined plan. They had no interests in replacing one set of unfounded beliefs with yet another. They didn’t know what was possible, but they thought it was worth finding out. Anyone who got in the way of their finding out simply had to be made to get out of the way, sometimes by whatever means necessary. They weren’t idle dreamers.

Nihilists were most closely aligned with anarchists. Toward the end of the 19th century, anarchists also became known for their terrorism, specifically of the bomb-throwing variety. Both of these were part of early anti-imperialist politics, which went hand in hand with anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist politics. Anarchists joined communists in the fight against fascism. Yet the old reactionary accusation of meaninglessness remained. Radical politics seemed merely destructive and some thought it wasn’t politics at all.

Malik fits right into this milieu. He is dredging up old ideological feuds, maybe even without knowing much about them. When one uses such words as nihilism, one ends up bringing forth more than maybe was intended. To label as nihilists those committing terrorism today is to strike a deep chord of history.

The same goes for when this gets combined with even more inflammatory words, such as savage and savagery. Like calling someone a nihilist, calling someone a savage had great potency in past times, particularly for liberals of the 19th century. It was on this basis that liberals inherited the reactionary tradition of the Counter-Enlightenment in defending Enlightenment values. In doing so, classic liberals could present themselves as the moderates in an age of social unrest and uncertainty.

This resonates with how Westerners still perceive Muslims. They are an Other, not quite fully entered into modernity and so not fully civilized. Malik is careful to not be so blatant as to call them savages, but the word gets applied indirectly. In relation to nihilism, this isn’t merely about what is outside the founds of Enlightenment rationality and liberal meaning. There is the edge of the apocalyptic to terrorism, even moreso when suicidal and not limited to simplistic ideologies.

The same could have been said of the Plains Indians who were revolting and terrorizing at the same time nihilists and anarchists were doing their thing. And indeed an apocalyptic mentality had come to dominate the society of the Plains Indians. The reason for this is that these tribes formed from the refugees of other tribes that had been decimated by genocide, war, disease, and starvation.

Like many Middle Easterners today, many Native Americans back then saw their entire world destroyed. They were apocalyptic because they had experienced apocalypse or were the children and grandchildren of those who had experienced it. These were people who felt they had little to lose. They were only nihilistic in the sense that the stable social order that had given their lives meaning was no longer functioning. Their future was bleak. Their ‘savagery’ was that of desperation and hopelessness.

To white settlers, these native freedom fighters were terrorists. The politics and religion of these oppressed people would have been simply incomprehensible. It probably seemed like meaningless violence, terrorism for the sake of terror alone. It is unlikely that most attacking Indians explained their motives to white society. Whites were left to try to make sense of it in what was happening elsewhere, from free soil militants in Bleeding Kansas to fiery abolitionists leading rebellions. As with Malik, it would have been easy to connect the violence of natives with the radicalism of left-wingers, and then to dismiss it all as nihilism.

All of these expressions of terrorism are the continuing repercussions and legacies of a long history of imperialism and colonialism. Without understanding this, Malik at times goes down pathetically simpleminded lines of thought, as was the case in a 2002 article (All cultures are not equal):

So the real question to ask in the wake of September 11 is not, as many have suggested, ‘Why do they hate us?’, but rather ‘Why do we seem to hate ourselves?’. Why is it that Western liberals and radicals have become so disenchanted with modern civilisation that some even welcomed the attack on the Twin Towers as an anti-imperialist act?

No one who has ever looked very deeply into the issues could ask these questions. Very few Westerners actually hate themselves. When I’m critical of my own government, it isn’t because I hate myself. I don’t hate my country and those who share this society with me. I hate that my government does horrific thing in my name and using my tax money. I hate that we don’t live up to our own values and ideals. Pointing out that the 9/11 terrorism was blow back from military adventurism.

I don’t think Malik is stupid enough to fully believe what he says. It’s a straw man argument—set it up and knock it down. He is using rhetoric to dismiss his opponents, rather than dealing with the actual issues at hand. I’d be more forgiving of his viewpoint, if he didn’t constantly fall back on this kind of intellectual dishonesty.

He is trying to promote a particular ideological worldview. From his perspective, the problem isn’t that Westerners—specifically among the upper classes in dominant empires/societies—view others as savages. It is only problematic when the wrong group gets labeled as such.

His is a liberalism that seeks to define and defend the boundaries of the liberal moral and social order, outside of which no meaning exists and so no respectable debate can occur. Since the Enlightenment, all of Western civilization is framed by liberalism, even conservatism. It is the basis of meaning for our society, and so much is at stake. To question and doubt this liberal order is to bring on an existential crisis for those invested in it. There is no one more invested in it than the good liberal who has taken it to heart. That appears to be where Malik is coming from when he uses ‘nihilist’ as a slur against the enemies of Western modernity, real and perceived.

This is about controlling the political frame and narrative, and hence to control public debate. This is explained by Roy Ben-Shai and Nitzan Lebovic in the book they co-authored, The Politics of Nihilism: From the Nineteenth Century to Contemporary Israel (Kindle Locations 156-160):

Nihilism comes from the Latin word nihil, meaning “nothing” or “nothing at all.” The argument presented in this volume is that nihilism (literally, “nothingism”) could function as a mirror image or a limit case to all forms of “legitimate” critique in the public sphere. Nihilism marks the point where critique becomes unacceptable, threatening, or simply “illegitimate.” This intrinsic attribute of nihilism was expressed even by the earliest usage of the term and that expression continues to this day.

There is one thing that jumped out at me. Malik’s argument borrows much rhetoric from the political right: moral relativism, Western self-hatred, etc. The nihilist allegation itself began as an attack on Enlightenment liberalism, oddly enough considering Malik’s own liberal position on Enlightenment values.

Interestingly, according to Corey Robin, it is the reactionary who borrows from the political left. I’ve considered the possibility that a conservative ultimately is a liberal turned reactionary. But what does it mean when a liberal turns reactionary by borrowing from the political right?

With this on my mind, I’m reminded of the connection of reactionary rhetoric to symbolic conflation. To explain symbolic conflation, the clearest example I’ve found is abortion. It is a visceral issue and emotionally potent, touching upon issues of life and death. For similar reasons, terrorism also is ripe for symbolic conflation.

If this is involved, then the explicit argument being made is hiding the real issue. And the issue hidden always involves social control. This fits perfectly Malik’s obsession with the civilized and the savage.

It also makes sense why he leaves so much unstated, for the power of symbolic conflation is how it obscures the source of its own moral imagination. It always points elsewhere and makes analysis near impossible. Complexities are condensed down to pithy talking points that are easily and mindlessly repeated. As such, savage nihilism isn’t meant to explain anything, even as it is meant to give the appearance of explanation. A symbolic conflation is a meme that lodges in the brain, seizing up all thought into a constrained focus.

The savages are attacking. We better circle the wagons. For those on the political right, this means how do we literally encircle our societies by controlling our borders and those who cross them. But for the good liberal, it’s less crude. Malik acknowledges that the savages are already among us. So, the good liberal advises that we must circle the wagons in our minds.


14 thoughts on “Good Liberals vs Savage Nihilists

  1. Between that version of the enlightenment and nihilism, one is hard pressed to pick a side worth defending😉 current traditionalism is always reacting, and has a tendency to reactionary. I criticized Robins for being far too simple minded about this a few years ago

    • That is how I feel. I’d like to think there are other options, besides these two. I’m about ready to stop calling myself a liberal altogether. What’s the point?

      In Western society, this variety of post-Enlightenment liberalism is the current traditionalism. And indeed the reactionary nature of it is becoming apparent to me. Reactionary liberals are worse to my mind, because their attitude is so dominant and hidden. These liberals end up projecting their own reactionary stance onto the political right.

      I have no problem criticizing the political right. But my most personal concern is the political left. I withhold my harshest criticism for those who are supposed to be defending the values and principles that I share. But I end up feeling like an asshole for being so harsh. It really bothers me, as is obvious from this post.

      About Corey Robin, I’m not fully decided about his reactionary theory. I see it as a helpful framework at times. But there is much else going on. I’d like to see him explore how the reactionary mind pervades the mainstream political left, the liberal class and progressive technocrats. That would make his argument more compelling and more interesting.

        • That is an important insight, maybe the most important. In that case, I’ll give him credit for that. Few liberals understand it. Few conservatives understand it either.

          I don’t hate mainstream liberals. But I do get frustrated by them. Anyway, I’ll definitely take someone like Haidt over someone like Malik. Haidt is researching his hypothesis and gathering data—I appreciate that, even when I disagree with his methods and interpretations.

          The problem with Malik on terrorism is that his thinking is sloppy. That is a shame since he is smart and well-educated. I expect better of him. He needs to be challenged by his scholarly peers. I doubt he cares about someone like me, as I might as well just be some troll pestering him.

  2. There is one thing that Malik’s piece on Brussels got me thinking the most. I expressed it in my post above. When a mainstream liberal uses a word like ‘nihilist’, do they know the larger historical and political context of its use?

    I found the word irritating, but I must admit that I was initially ignorant about its origin and development over these past centuries. Yet, a few days of research and reading gave me a basic grasp of the topic. But why did I have had to do all that work to figure out the background to an argument by someone like Malik?

    This guy is an academic and professional writer. He should do this kind of research himself when using words in that way, especially as he has repeatedly used that word at least since 9/11. In using that word, he should offer his readers some basic background knowledge about it.

    That is the kind of thing that seems like intellectual sloppiness.

    • The reason I read people like Malik is because he is a professional intellectual, both academic and author. I’d go so far as to call him a public intellectual, especially as he has a blog where he responds to commenters.

      His life is supposedly dedicated to studying complex issues and explaining them to the rest of us. it’s an important job.

      I, on the other hand, am a parking ramp cashier. I don’t even have a college degree. I certainly have no special expertise. I’m simply curious. But my time and resources are limited.

      I genuinely do believe that professional and public intellectuals have a moral responsibility to take their position seriously. They can have immense influence on how people understand the world and hence shape all of public debate. This can lead to immense political consequences.

      Someone like Malik should think very carefully before using words like ‘savage’ and ‘nihilist’. These aren’t things to be taken lightly and used casually. They are words of great force.

  3. There is an important topic that I barely touched in this post. It was already an overly complicated post as is. Mainstream liberals, among all the other things, tend to not take economic class seriously—if they mention it at all.

    The difference between European Muslims and American Muslims is class. The former are on average more poor than other Europeans. And the latter are on average wealthier than other Americans. That makes a big difference and, unsurprisingly, is seen in the violence statistics: European Muslims have higher rates of mass violence and American Muslims have lower.

    Talking about European Muslims is more comparable to talking about American blacks. Like European non-Muslims European Muslims, American whites even when poor do not tend to experience as severe and long-term of poverty as do American blacks. Minorities, both in Europe and America, also experience more economic segregation and ghettoization, along with more prejudice in every aspect of life. It is harder for minorities to escape poverty and so economic mobility is lower for them.

    Malik discusses none of this. He is simply blind to the existence of these issues.

    • The class issue is important in how it plays out in different societies. As I explained, this is why Muslims are less poor and less violent in the US. Why doesn’t he point out that European Muslims experience high rates of poverty and unemployment?

      There are many differences like this. You’d think Malik would acknowledge some of these differences and discuss why they matter. Considering non-Muslims and non-Arabs commit most of the mass violence in the US, both as total number and per capita, it might be useful to discuss this as a relevant piece of info, both in terms of economic issues and other issues.

      Why doesn’t Malik call non-Muslim and non-Arab perpetrators of mass violence as savage, nihilistic terrorists? Besides prejudice, does Malik have any excuse for ignoring most of the mass violence in the US that is non-Muslim and non-Arab? Does he have an excuse for not describing all mass violence in the same way?

      Knowing this about US data, it makes me wonder how much of the non-Muslim and non-Arab mass violence is being ignored or underreported in Europe? And how, because of prejudice, it is being reported differently?

  4. There was one thing that kept popping back in my mind. Like a lot of liberal thought, there is much nuance in Malik’s view. When he speaks of particular groups in terms of being ‘savage’ or possessing the trait of ‘savagery’, he sees this as conditional and widely applied. It refers to any group that threats the liberal order. He points out many examples.

    It’s not just about Islamic terrorists. Anyone and everyone outside of the liberal order is potentially a nihilist, by Malik’s definition. This includes a variety of perceived extremists, from radical left-wingers to reactionary right-wingers. In some cases and situations, other groups included would be poor whites and rural Europeans.

    If he had lived in past centuries, he would have referred to the Irish, Scots-Irish, and Highland Scots as savages. During the revolutionary era, he would have been right there with Edmund Burke in calling the French revolutionaries savages. In the 19th century, he would have considered the slave and abolition rebels as as savages and the Kansas free-soilers as savages. And, of course, he would have seen Native Americans fighting for their freedom as savages.

    If you understand that Malik is a mainstream classical liberal, then his views will make sense.

  5. The most interesting part of yr piece for me was the discussion of media. Like you, I was relying on radio for most information and media in the early 2000s. I was also in the mindset of Christian reaction that had seeped into the Catholic education system at the time, and since Id been eagerly anticipating the apocalypse only a year before, 9/11 was more of a small blip of horror in the pervasively depressed and numb condition I was descending into at that time ( around 6th grade ). Indeed, my reaction was to become a nihilist, basically, which led to Ligotti and Lovecraft and eventually Zen practice, which has me questioning the “totally negative value” of suffering as advanced by anti-natalists ( different topic ).

    Back to my initial point, I DID see the attacks on television. And I went through a year or so of aggressive patriotism before becoming solidly left-libertarian to this day. Now Im wondering about the effect of seeing people killed in a realistic manner ( only Takashi Miike, in my mind, consistently uses violence in meaningful ways. Its less about the “wrongness” or perversity of whats depicted than the intention behind it, sort of meta-ethical, I guess? Im not that educated either. ) . A remarkable number of the people I know who joined the army were not right wing by any stretch. Im sure they all saw 9/11 on TV.

    • We had different religious upbringings. My parents are conservatives of a more moderate and mainstream variety. But they raised me in an extremely pansy liberal, new agey, positive thinking church.

      I earned my liberalism honestly. It is why I get my panties in a bunch over liberals like Malik. It irritates me. Liberalism matters to me. And if liberalism has become meaningless, I take that personally. I’d probably be better off just calling myself a left-libertarian or whatever at this point.

      I was raised in the opposite of pessimistic or apocalyptic religion. I remember, when living in the Deep South, listening with wonderment to the fire-and-brimstone preachers on the radio. It was a foreign world, beyond my comprehension. Catholicism is even more alien to me. Growing up, I had almost no idea of hell or devil because my church didn’t talk about such things — they were theological non-entities.

      What pessimistic and apocalyptic tendencies I have came from the culture around me. I was heavily influenced by the some of the dark movies and tv shows from the Cold War era of my childhood. Total war and environmental destruction filled my imagination. It was an entirely secular vision of doom.

      This changed for me in the late 1990s to early 2000s. I became isolated from mainstream media during that period of my life. I was mostly lost in my own world of books at the time of 9/11. My only connection was radio and even that was mostly listening to Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell, not a mainstream show. It was falling asleep to that show that led me to waking up to hearing the radio news about the 9/11 attack.

      I was severely depressed and so my emotions were blunted. Combined with the media isolation, the event wasn’t able to touch me in the way it did most. Plus, I was in a psychological and intellectual space of already seeing the world as a place where events like that happened and it somehow seemed predictable, just the way the world is. I was only shocked by how shocked others were. I couldn’t understand how Americans could be so unaware of what was going on in the world.

      Between the Bush administration and the post-9/11 inanity, I didn’t know what to make of any of it. I did try to break out of my isolation. I regularly visited the local Peace Camp that was set up to protest the starting of the Iraq War. I began talking to others and reconnecting to the world. It was a bad time to try to reconnect. It wasn’t helpful for my depression.

      I realize that I’m abnormal. The average American wasn’t severely depressed, emotionally numb, pessimistically prone, and existing in MSM isolation when the 9/11 attacks happened. Most Americans, liberal and conservative, became more patriotic after 9/11. The War on Terror was bipartisan. Interestingly, the criticisms and protests also came from across the political spectrum, making for unusual allies, such as Ron Paul supporters mixing with the leftists. It wasn’t right vs left, but some deeper divide in American society.

      I’m not sure that it would have been different for me if I had first seen the 9/11 attack on tv and then watched the video of it repeatedly played. I assume, like anyone else, it would have had an impact on me. I’ve been on a news media purge lately because I realize the power it has over my mind. I’m wary of it. I don’t pretend to be immune to it and above it all.

    • If you don’t mind my asking, how did you go from aggressive patriotism to left-libertarianism? That is a seemingly dramatic shift. I’ve never experienced a shift like that in my life.

      My depression oddly keeps me emotionally and ideologically even-keeled. My understanding of self and world slowly changes over time, but it mostly just deepens the views I already held or else brings out aspects that were already there. I have changed my mind about many specific issues, even as my general attitude about life remains basically the same.

      My liberalism, for example, has always held an element of self-criticism within it. I wouldn’t be a liberal if I couldn’t point out the problems of liberals and liberalism. My complaints don’t alter my basic liberal-mindedness. I’m not all of a sudden going to become a right-winger, reactionary, or authoritarian. I’m not sure I could even muster aggressive patriotism.

      I don’t tend toward extremes, not even temporarily. I’m too apathetic and lazy to be bothered with extremes. It’s not in me to be a radical or revolutionary. Even simple activism sounds too tiring, especially considering my introverted and anti-social nature. I’m not an outwardly passionate and motivated person. I’m resistant to respond to the demands and persuasions of the external world, not out of principle but simply the way I am.

      I’m starting to think that I’m ideologically homeless. Even my liberalism isn’t really what most people mean by liberalism. I don’t feel any loyalty to my fellow liberals or any grand ideological scheme. I have my biases and preferences, but that is about it. I’m mostly just tired of the unnecessary shittiness in the world around me.

    • Your mention of Ligotti stood out to me. Did you find my blog through one of my posts on Ligotti? I wrote a few such posts back some years ago. My closest friend got me into Ligotti. He likes to visit Thomas Ligotti Online. Through the same friend, I started reading some other similar authors such as Quentin S. Crisp, who used to have an interesting blog.

      Have you read Ligotti’s non-fiction work, The Conspiracy against the Human Race? Now, that is a depressing piece of writing. In the wrong hands, it could push the already depressed over the edge into suicidal thoughts. Ligotti isn’t trying to get people to kill themselves, but damn that book is potent pessimism.

    • I was thinking about the age difference between us. That makes a big difference. You experienced 9/11 when you were still quite young. When I was in 6th grade, that was several decades ago in the late 1980s. Nothing even close to a 9/11 happened back then. It was the ending of the Cold War and the world was relatively peaceful.

      I was in my mid 20s by the time 9/11 did happen and my early 30s when the Bush administration finally ended. Those were my years of coming to terms with adulthood, long after childhood had ended and elementary school was a fading distant memory. I had already spent years in a state of severe depression, having growing familiar with and cynical about the crappiness of life. It was a low point and not much would have been able to emotionally touch me at the time.

      Your comment gets me thinking. If 9/11 had happened when I was in 6th grade, I’m not sure how I would have responded. I was in an entirely different state of mind and social situation. The worst disaster of my childhood was the 1986 Challenger explosion, but it didn’t create any fear because it was an accident and unrelated to the world around me — very different from a terrorist attack on buildings full of people. A terrorist attack might have effected me the most if it had happened in the first few years after moving to South Carolina, starting in 8th grade.

      It’s interesting how the effect of events depends on the conditions in which one experiences the event. There is the difference between tv and radio. Then there is the difference of being younger or older. We never fully understand why we respond as we do because we never fully understand what influences and shapes us. Change a few conditions and our lives would go in entirely different directions.

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