Collective Amnesia About Collective Amnesia

At Harper’s, Corey Robin has a piece on collective amnesia, specifically among liberals. It comes down to the incessant march of lesser evilism that inevitably leads to greater and greater evil, until nothing is left remaining but evil’s total dominance.

Each shock of evil normalizes the evil of the past, such that we frogs are slowly boiled alive. Don’t worry, the liberal suggests relaxing in his warm bath, we will revolt later when it finally gets bad enough. But this attitude never allows for self-awareness of complicity, the denial of which makes inevitable further complicity for it is never the right moment to admit guilt, no matter how often in the past it was stated, Never again!

“Strong stuff, suggesting the kind of experience you don’t easily recover from. If such feelings of betrayal don’t overwhelm you with a corrosive cynicism, inducing you to withdraw from politics, they provoke an incipient realism or an irrepressible radicalism… You get to lose your innocence only once… But… American liberalism is also a party of the born-again.

“The United States of Amnesia: true to form, we don’t remember who coined the phrase. It’s been attributed to Gore Vidal and to Philip Rahv, though it also appears in a syndicated column from 1948. But more than forgetfulness is at work in our ceremonies of innocence repeatedly drowned. And while it’s tempting to chalk up these rituals to a native simplicity or a preternatural naïveté — a parody of a Henry James novel, in which you get soiled by crossing the Potomac rather than the Atlantic — even our most knowing observers perform them. . . .

“Donald Trump is making America great again — not by his own hand but through the labor of his critics, who posit a more perfect union less as an aspiration for the future than as the accomplished fact of a reimagined past.

“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.

“Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.

“We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully. Convinced the present is a monster, a stranger from nowhere, or an alien from abroad, they look to history for parent-protectors, the dragon slayers of generations past. Still others take strange comfort from the notion that theirs is an unprecedented age, with novel enemies and singular challenges. Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.

“Or so we believe.

“The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing… [T]he rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” “

I noticed this scathing critique earlier and was glad to see it. It came to my attention again because he mentioned it in his blog in connection to an interview with Brooke Gladstone. That interview is part of several others (with Max Fischer, Deb Amos, and Sinan Antoon) in response to the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.

Maybe no new insight is offered, but at the very least it is an important reminder. Not only is there collective amnesia for, as a society, we keep forgetting how often our collective amnesia has repeated in the past. We don’t know what we don’t know partly because we keep forgetting what we forgot.

Corey Robin also writes at Crooked Timer. And John Holbo at that site wrote about the Harper’s piece. In the comments section, there is debate about whether Trump is exceptional and, if so, for what reason. Should we be surprised or shocked? And about what exactly? Beyond that, what is the right context for understanding?

The comments section is filled with people who, for all their disagreement, know political and economic history. But even with the above average commentary and debate, it felt dissatisfying. There was little discussion of the fundamental causes of human behavior, of what makes the human mind tick, of the social sciences and related fields. The focus was almost entirely on externals, except for a few comments.

To some extent, that is even my complaint of Corey Robin. It is common on the political left, that is to say almost as common as on the political right. It’s easier to focus on externals and, with politics, the distraction of externals is endless. But for this reason, we rarely touch upon root causes. Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind goes a long way to explain conservatism and the modern mind in general, including amnesia among liberals (not that Robin talks about the reactionary in quite so expansive terms). Yet this analysis can only go so far because it never extends beyond the history of politics and economics.

A few comments by the same person, Lee A. Arnold, comes the closest to stepping outside of this intellectual blindspot:

Polanyi, The Great Transformation chapter 20 characterizes fascism as a spontaneous emotional “move” arising from within individuals, and uses the political conditions only to discard them. It is not a movement that requires a vanguard or imperial aspirations. The ONLY thing characterizing the rise of fascism, in the dozen or more countries in which it arose, was the sudden failure of the market system…”

Fascism is a socio-emotional disease that is ever-latent but suddenly arises within individuals and overcomes enough of them to make political control possible. Elites do not stop it, because it the disease overcomes them too. It is a paradoxical move: it offers an “escape from an institutional deadlock… yet… it would everywhere produce sickness unto death.” (Polanyi). Whether there is an external threat or an internal threat or both, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same.”

The very recent spate of commentators (here, and elsewhere) writing that fascism has been avoided in the US (or even go so far as to write that it cannot happen) rely upon a misunderstanding of what fascism was, or take too large a comfort in a narrow diversion from it. That may not be good enough, next time. Far from being silly, I see this as Corey Robin’s basic point, too.”

I imagine that the intellectual confusion and dismissal was similar in the 1920’s-30’s. It’s interesting that today so many intellectuals think that fascism originated from outside the individual, as some sort of organized imposition of structure by a vanguard. So today, we will see it coming: “It can’t happen here.” (Or else they think that our current democratic institutions and media culture are strong enough and varietal enough to withstand it.)

“But the evidence is that fascism arose spontaneously within individuals. It’s almost a pure emotion in the anger & hatred quadrant. It suddenly swept up a lot of people into supporting “doing something”, to cut through the confusion and deadlock. Yet it emotionally disregards facts, logic, science, humane values. It’s not a political-economic form in the same category with liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, socialism.”

That is related to what Robin gets at. Fascism is simply one extreme variety of the reactionary mind. The reactionary is never constrained to the mainstream conventions of ideological rhetoric and political forms. That is because the reactionary, by definition, is the result of the failure (or perceived failure) of the mainstream project of social order.

Still, even this doesn’t dig deep enough. I end up getting more insight about what motivates politics and economics from those studying philology, linguistic relativism, social psychology, anthropology, cultural history, and consciousness studies. The failure of our society is better explained by the likes of Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary), Lewis Hyde (Trickster Makes This World), James Gilligan (Preventing Violence), Keith Payne (The Broken Ladder), Johann Hari (Lost Connections), Sebastian Junger (Tribe), etc.

These other viewpoints are more likely to offer insight about collective amnesia. The typical political and economic analysis might, in some cases, be part of the problem. Karl Marx who, in emphasizing material conditions, gets portrayed as a reductionist by his critics and yet he went beyond most on the political left by presenting what is called ‘species-being’ — as I described it:

“The basic idea is that what we produce creates a particular kind of society and shapes human nature. We produce the kind of person that is needed for the world we bring into existence. And so the kind of person that is produced is incapable of seeing beyond the social and material world that produced him. We build our own prisons, even as there is hope for us to build new worlds to inhabit and new ways of being.”

So what produces a social identity that is prone to such extremes of collective amnesia? I’m specifically referring to what manifests in our society at the seeming peak or breaking point of this post-Enlightenment liberal age (or, if you prefer, this late stage of capitalism). If we could make sense of that, then much else would become easier to disentangle.

“Historical consciousness can be a conservative force, lessening the sting of urgency, deflating the demands of the now, leaving us adrift in a sea of relativism. But it need not be,” concludes Corey Robin in Harper’s.

“Telling a story of how present trespass derives from past crime or even original sin can inspire a more strenuous refusal, a more profound assault on the now. It can fuel a desire to be rid of not just the moment but the moments that made this moment, to ensure that we never have to face this moment again. But only if we acknowledge what we’re seldom prepared to admit: that the monster has been with us all along.”

That is no doubt true. But stories are a tricky business. The challenge is, in order to understand the present, we need to understand the origins of modern civilization and the modern mind. Most commentary, even on the alternative left, isn’t up to the task. The same old debate continues, as does the collective amnesia. We are stuck in a loop, until something forces us out.

This is not only a lack of understanding but a lack of motivation toward understanding. A revolution of the mind must come first before a revolution of society can follow. That isn’t something we collectively are capable of consciously choosing. What will happen at some point is that our old mindset will entirely fail us and every answer and response we used in the past will prove futile and impotent. Then and only then will we, out of desperation, turn toward the unknown in seeking the radically new. That is how change has always happened, as one would know from studying the deep past.

Until that point of total breakdown, we will go on forgetting and we will go on forgetting what we’ve forgotten. Our entire social order is dependent on it. And at the edge of breakdown, the reactionary mind takes hold and comes into power. The liberal too comes under its sway. It is a sign of the times. But is it the Kali Yuga of the liberal world or the dawning of the next Enlightenment leading to a new revolutionary era? Is there a difference?

* * *

4/1/18 – Let me take a different approach. We are all born into this collective amnesia. And for most of us, our upbringing fails us and our education is inadequate. That was true for me.

As I became more serious in dealing with my own state of ignorance, I became ever more acutely sensitive to the pervasive ignorance that is the foundation of America in particular. Even if that is true of all societies to some degree, I suspect there is something unique about what has been referred to as America’s Fantasyland. The US, in being an extreme expression, potentially can help us understand what plagues most of humanity at this late hour in the liberal age.

It is my love of liberalism that makes me so harsh in my criticisms. I long for a liberalism worthy of the name. But first that requires us to look at what the reactionary mind reflects back to us. It does no good to simply dismiss those others as ‘deplorables’. What gets repressed and projected doesn’t really go away, related to how externalized costs eventually come due.

Corey Robin’s take on liberal amnesia, despite my concerns of certain limitations, resonates with something going on right now. Few seem to be paying attention, specifically not those who have their hands on the wheel or are in a position to take hold of the wheel. Some are asleep, others are texting, and still others are imbibing intoxicants… but I’m suggesting that someone needs to be at the wheel with their eyes on the road. I’m one of those crazy radicals who would rather prevent an accident than deal with the aftermath.

So, first we should all look up and look forward. Where are we heading? And is that where we want to go? If not, why don’t we change direction?

We see a monster in the rearview mirror and, not realizing we are seeing our own reflection, we keep our foot on the gas pedal. Off we speed toward disaster, driven by fear and forgetting that we are the driver. As a society, we never stop going — expressed in the quote used by Robin: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.”

On we go. No one can doubt that we are going somewhere and getting there fast. The wind in our hair and adrenaline in our veins can feel almost like progress, as if we really will outrun our monsters this time. Meanwhile, Trump the egotistic man-child is sitting in the backseat tweeting and asking, Are we there yet?

Writing a post like this is less about in-depth analysis than it is about capturing a mood. I’ve written plenty of in-depth analyses and they have their value. But studying a medical textbook on cardiology is not the same as feeling the beating pulse under your fingertips. In reading Robin’s piece and the responses to it, I could sense the flow of blood at the heart of the issue.

Right there, something can be felt. It’s like the tug of the undertow when you’re standing a few feet out in the ocean water. Viscerally, in that moment, you know the power of the ocean and how easy it is to be swept away. The whole dynamic of the debate is caught in that push and pull. So maybe the debate itself (as framed) can’t avoid that sphere of influence, that narrative attractor. Much of the commentary on the problem is caught up in the problem itself, related to how the reactionary is the other side of the liberal.

This is why the amnesiac can’t escape the condition of amnesia. It’s not something external, like a pair of clothes that can be taken off or a wall that can be knocked down. It is a loss of some part of the self but not really lost, just hidden and forgotten. But anamnesis, remembering of what was forgotten, remains possible… if we could only remember that there was something we forgot and why it mattered so much that maybe we shouldn’t have forgotten it in the first place.

Thinking too much about that, though, makes us feel uncomfortable and we’re not quite sure why. We convince ourselves, once again, that maybe things unknown are best left that way. In a moment of crisis, the memory of something touches the edge of our awareness and yet quickly slips away again. We busy ourselves with other things, the preoccupation of the present eclipsing what came before. That is what responsible adults do, deal with the issues at hand, right?

I like the ocean metaphor. The beach, where land meets water, is our society. The progressive and reactionary is the tide going in and out. This liberal age is the storm wall we built to protect our home. But that storm wall has the unintended consequence of slowly eroding away the sand that forms the beach.

I saw a real world example of this form of erosion. And it was stark.

There is this wealthy estate my grandfather grew up on, as the son of the head gardener. When he was a child, there was a beautiful beach that was part of the estate. And next to the estate is a public beach. The estate owners had a storm wall built which caused their beach to entirely disappear, while the public beach is still there. Only a few feet separate the private property from the public space, but the erosion stops right at the boundary line.

This form of privatization is very much of this liberal age. Before this era, feudalism had its commons. Some speak of the tragedy of the commons, but that is a lie. There was no tragedy of the commons as they were heavily regulated. Those regulations of the commons only disappeared when the commons disappeared. And what followed was the tragedy of privatization, as seen with private developers building storm walls.

It is as pointless to blame the tide coming in, the progressive, as it is to blame the tide going out, the reactionary. It is the storm wall, the liberal paradigm, that frames the action of the tide and determines the consequences. Building the wall higher and stronger to protect us from the worsening effects of storms won’t really save us or our home. Maybe it is time to consider the possibility that the storm wall is the problem and not the natural flow of the tides that get defined by that modern construction.

The erosion of the beach is our collective amnesia. But to make the metaphor more apt, most people would never have a public beach next to them. There would be nothing to be compared against to remind people about what has been lost. And the loss would be gradual, the beach slowly shrinking as the storm wall grew larger. There simply is the loss of the beach along with loss even of the memory of the beach.

The very concept of a beach might disappear from public memory and public debate. Or people might assume that ‘beach’ was always a word referring to that threatening space just beyond the storm wall. Instead of discussing how to save or bring back beaches, political conflict would obsess over blaming the other side and arguing over the increasingly advanced techniques of building storm walls.

Eventually those storm walls would entirely block the view of the ocean, that is to say the view of the world outside of the system we’ve collectively built over the generations. The walls that protect us then would imprison us and enclose our minds, shut down our imaginations. But what fine and impressive walls they are, among the greatest advancements of modern civilization.

Here is the point, the moral of the metaphor.

It’s not that we should stop building great things, as expressions of what we value and envision. And it’s not even that we should specifically stop building walls for they too have their place when built with wisdom and understanding. But that requires us to realize the effect we have on the world around us in what we build and how that affects us in turn. The liberal project needs to be reinterpreted, reimagined, and reinvented. Or failing that, we need a new societal project that would inspire us as once did the liberal dream.

* * *

4/2/18 – On a related thought, Richard Eskow asks, Is the ‘liberal world order’ worth saving? That is a question I’ve often asked myelf and I’ve done so from the perspective of someone who has spent much of his life identified with the liberal world order. To be plainly honest, I like the liberal dream. It’s a beautiful dream.

So, a ‘liberal’ such as myself is implicated in this line of questioning, and the deepest implication is about what this change would mean on a personal level. Is my liberal identity worth saving? And in the long term, can it be saved? Or must we liberals become something new in seeking something new?

Eskow states that, “The “liberal world order” must own up to its mistakes. They were errors of commission, as well as omission. Today’s chaos – from Brexit to Trump – is fallout from a global system that works for the benefit of a privileged few and has failed to offer democratic alternatives to inequality and oligarchy.” That is to say liberals must own up to their mistakes. And in this liberal age, we are all liberals.

So, “Is the “liberal world order” worth saving?” That is a tough question. “Not in its present form,” suggests Eskow. “Yes, it has provided some semblance of order. But order without justice is both unfair and unstable. The unfairness has been apparent for many decades. Now we’re seeing the instability.”

Up to this point, we as a society have been unable to ask this question, much less take it seriously enough to attempt an answer. That is where ignorance and amnesia have left us. But maybe the coming storm, when it blows in our windows and knocks down our walls, will wake us up to the reality that was always there. What was hidden in plain sight will become impossible to ignore, as the costs finally come due.

From Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there is some oft quoted dialogue. One character asks another, “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways,” was the response. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That is how we will emerge from our state of unconsciousness and obliviousness. The experience of anamnesis will be a hammer to our skull. The gradual process has been building up for a long time. And soon the sudden result will finally arrive, appearing as if out of nowhere.

Will the liberal order survive? I guess we’ll find out. Let the awakening begin!

 

 

 

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The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

An interesting take on the Nazis and their sympathizers comes from Jorge Luis Borges. What motivates a certain variety of reactionary authoritarianism isn’t straightforward politics. The vision is grander than that, almost a cosmic battle. Issues of who is victorious in war is maybe secondary.

In moments of honest admission, Adolf Hitler explained that the struggle he envisioned went beyond mere national interest. He wouldn’t allow German soldiers in Russia to retreat. Either Germans were superior and would succeed or they were inferior and would lose. His only purpose was to test the German race against foreign races. Let the best people win, that was his attitude. It had apocalyptic implications. Other races had to be destroyed and subjugated. Failing that, the German population must be sacrificed in the attempt. It was total war requiring total commitment.

This is similar to Karen Armstrong’s interpretation of Islamic jihadis. She has pointed out that the 9/11 terrorists seemed to intentionally flout Islamic law, as if they were demanding Allah’s attention and forcing the Divine Hand to intervene. They were trying to call down apocalypse, not unlike American evangelicals hoping to incite violent attack on Israel as they believe must happen prior to the Second Coming. It isn’t mere nihilism.

Some would argue that a similar attitude is held by Trump supporters. Not even those who voted for him, according to polls, thought he would do what he promised. But the one thing that he could accomplish was to destroy a corrupt system. Electing Donald Trump as president was like lobbing a grenade into a bunker. It may be an act of desperation, although it makes perfect sense as an all too human motivation. Studies have shown that individuals are willing to punish perceived wrongdoers even at great costs to themselves. It is what morality becomes when morality has been denied for too long.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth describes the Joker in saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” But that isn’t quite right. In his own words, the Joker explains himself: “Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.” Exactly! It’s fair. Death and destruction is the last refuge of fairness, what is necessary to bring on justice, even if it is the justice of a mad man’s chaos. The slate must be wiped clean. Then something new can emerge from the ashes. An apocalypse is a revelation.

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.

There is a balance point in this, though. It is the fantasy of violence that matters most, the glorious battle that transcends mundane reality. The other way victory threatens is by making the violence all too immediately real. It was easy for Hitler, safely back in Germany, to play out his ideological visions on distant battlefields. When violence gets too close, it simply becomes terrifying. The Nazi sympathizers Borges described had the advantage of cheering on Hitler from a continent across the ocean. But even for them, the possibility of the Nazis actually winning caused trepidation.

* * *

The metal vultures and the dragon
by Alec Nevala-Lee

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind

Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are used more as weapons of rhetoric than as accurate descriptions. This relates to Corey Robin’s analysis of the reactionary mind. One of the most interesting things that distinguishes the reactionary from the traditionalist is how easily the reactionary co-opts from the political left.

This is particularly central to American society. The reactionary mind, like fundamentalism, is the product of modernity. And the American experience was born out of modernity, beginning with post-feudal colonial imperialism. The social order and social identity fell into disarray and so political ideology became ever more primary. The reactionary mind is dynamically adaptive, for it shifts according toward which it is reacting. It thrives in instability and will promote instability, even as it scapegoats its enemies for this very same instability that it requires.

Reactionaries are tough opponents. They feel no moral obligation to fight fairly. Nor will they ever state their true intentions. The mindset and worldview precludes it, at the level of consciousness. The reactionary mind is not just a set of tactics but a way of being in the world, a permanent survival mode of mistrust and deception. Labels in themselves mean nothing to the reactionary. They are like crabs, in camouflaging themselves, that attach things to their shells — pieces of coral, anemones, etc. There is a hodge-podge quality to their stated views, a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no need for principled consistency. 

The earliest example of this is the fight over Federalism. The war of rhetoric was won by those fighting for centralized power. They didn’t actually want Federalism. What they were attempting to create, as Corey Robin explains so well, was a new form of hierarchy and ruling elite involving the same old pattern of concentrated wealth and power. They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime (old order) as they were attacking the revolutionary movement. They co-opted from both of their enemies, but over time as traditionalism declined they increasingly focused on co-opting from the political left.

The first great victory of American reactionaries was in falsely claiming to be Federalists. They did this by co-opting the revolution itself and, by way of the Constitutional Convention, redirecting it toward counter-revolution. This forced their opponents into the position of being called Anti-Federalists, even though their opponents were the strongest defenders of Federalism. The winners not only get to write the history books but also get to do the labeling.

This is how a society like ours, founded on liberalism, quickly had its radical liberalism defanged. Thomas Paine, in a short period of time, went from revolutionary hero to social pariah and political outcast. He didn’t fit into the reactionary scheme of the new centralized establishment. Even to this day, the political right goes on trying to co-opt the label of liberalism, despite the absurdity in calling themselves classical liberals. Now a radical progressive and social democrat like Paine was a classical liberal, but he was largely written out of the history books for almost two centuries.

This pattern has repeated throughout Anglo-American history (and I’m sure elsewhere as well). The capitalists originally were strong liberals with a clear progressive bent. Paine, for example, was for free markets. And like Paine, Adam Smith saw high economic inequality as a direct threat to a free society. Yet the reactionaries took over free market rhetoric to promote the inevitable authoritarianism and paternalism of a high inequality society. Because of this, it has become harder and harder to take seriously the rhetoric of free markets — in its being falsely used to defend crony capitalism, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal globalization, market fetishism, and crude (pseudo-)libertarianism. There is nothing free, much less classically liberal, about this capitalist realism.

There are more examples. Consider right-wing libertarians and right-wing anarchists (e.g., anarcho-capitalists). Both varieties of right-wingers typically defend the legacy of inequality and injustice. Their labeling themselves as libertarian and anarchist would have been absurd a century ago. Both libertarians and anarchists arose out of the left-wing workers movement in Europe. Yet here we are with the political right having successfully co-opted the label of libertarianism and are in the process of co-opting the label of anarchism.

There is nothing they can’t co-opt, once they set their mind to it. This is true even for labels that involve race issues. The theory and label of human biodiversity has become popular among the political right, specifically among alt-righters, the Dark Enlightenment, and other similar types. They use it to promote the cynical worldview of genetic determinism and race realism. The sad part is that the originator of human biodiversity, Jonathan Marks, created the theory specifically to disprove these right-wing claims.

Once again, here we are with the political right having so thoroughly co-opted a label that its very origins is forgotten. It’s a theft not just of a label but the destruction of meaning. It makes genuine debate impossible, and that is the entire point. Reactionaries are constantly seeking to muddy the water. They do everything in their power to control the terms of debate. Their opponents are left in a state of disorientation and constantly on the defense. This is easy for reactionaries to do because they have nothing specific to defend or rather that they keep well hidden what they are defending by way of obfuscation.

This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if not for the consistent pattern that can be seen across the centuries. It’s clearly significant in what it says about the modern political right and the consequences it has for the political left. The lesson is this. Never take them at their word. And never fight on their terms. Labels do matter.

Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical

Absence is presence.
These are the fundamentals of mystery.
The Young Pope

Below is a gathering of excerpts from writings. The key issue here is imagination, specifically Edmund Burke’s moral imagination with its wardrobe but also the dark imagination and the radical imagination. I bring in some other thinkers for context: Thomas Paine, Corey Robin, Thomas Ligotti, Lewis Hyde, and Julian Jaynes.

Besides imagination, the connecting strands of thought are:

  • Pleasure, beauty, and sublimity; comfort, familiarity, intimacy, the personal, and subjectivity; embodiment, anchoring, shame, and nakedness; pain, violence, suffering, and death;
  • Darkness, awe, fear, terror, horror, and the monstrous; oppression, prejudice, and ignorance; obfuscation, obscurity, disconnection, and dissociation; the hidden, the veiled, the unknown, and the distant; mystery, madness, and deception;
  • Identity, consciousness, and metaphor; creativity, art, story, poetry, and rhetoric; literalism, realism, and dogmatism; reason, knowledge, and science;
  • Enlightenment, abstractions, ideology, revolution, and counter-revolution; nobility, power, chivalry, aristocracy, and monarchy; tradition, nostalgia, and the reactionary mind; liberalism, conservatism, and culture wars;
  • Et cetera.

The touchstone for my own thinking is what I call symbolic conflation, along with the larger context of conceptual slippage, social construction, and reality tunnels. This is closely related to what Lewis Hyde discusses in terms of metonymy, liminality, and the Trickster archetype.

Read the following as a contemplation of ideas and insights. In various ways, they connect, overlap, and resonate. Soften your focus and you might see patterns emerge. If these are all different perspectives of the same thing, what exactly is it that is being perceived? What does each view say about the individual espousing it and if not necessarily about all of humanity at least about our society?

(I must admit that my motivation for this post was mainly personal. I simply wanted to gather these writings together. They include some writings and writers that I have been thinking about for a long time. Quotes and passages from many of them can be found in previous posts on this blog. I brought them together here for the purposes of my own thinking about certain topics. I don’t post stuff like this with much expectation that it will interest anyone else, as I realize my own interests are idiosyncratic. Still, if someone comes along and finds a post like this fascinating, then I’ll know they are my soulmate. This post is only for cool people with curious minds. Ha!)

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On the Sublime and Beautiful
by Edmund Burke

Of the Passion Caused by the Sublime

THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

Terror

NO passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. 1 For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous. There are many animals, who though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean: but can it ever fill the mind with anything so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes; but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime. Several languages bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration, and those of terror. [Greek] is in Greek, either fear or wonder; [Greek] is terrible or respectable; [Greek], to reverence or to fear. Vereor in Latin, is what [Greek] is in Greek. The Romans used the verb stupeo, a term which strongly marks the state of an astonished mind, to express the effect of either of simple fear or of astonishment; the word attonitus (thunder-struck) is equally expressive of the alliance of these ideas; and do not the French étonnement, and the English astonishment and amazement, point out as clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder? They who have a more general knowledge of languages, could produce, I make no doubt, many other and equally striking examples.

Obscurity

TO make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion. Almost all the heathen temples were dark. Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the hut, which is consecrated to his worship. For this purpose too the Druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods, and in the shade of the oldest and most spreading oaks. No person seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things, if I may use the expression, in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity, than Milton. His description of Death in the second book is admirably studied; it is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and colouring, he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors:

—The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed;
For each seemed either; black he stood as night;
Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell;
And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.

In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree. […]

The Same Subject Continued

[…] I know several who admire and love painting, and yet who regard the objects of their admiration in that art with coolness enough in comparison of that warmth with which they are animated by affecting pieces of poetry or rhetoric. Among the common sort of people, I never could perceive that painting had much influence on their passions. It is true, that the best sorts of painting, as well as the best sorts of poetry, are not much understood in that sphere. But it is most certain, that their passions are very strongly roused by a fanatic preacher, or by the ballads of Chevy-chase, or the Children in the Wood, and by other little popular poems and tales that are current in that rank of life. I do not know of any paintings, bad or good, that produce the same effect. So that poetry, with all its obscurity, has a more general, as well as a more powerful, dominion over the passions, than the other art. And I think there are reasons in nature, why the obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little. It is thus with the vulgar; and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand. The ideas of eternity and infinity are among the most affecting we have; and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity. […]

Locke’s Opinion Concerning Darkness Considered

IT is Mr. Locke’s opinion, that darkness is not naturally an idea of terror; and that, though an excessive light is painful to the sense, the greatest excess of darkness is no ways troublesome. He observes indeed in another place, that a nurse or an old woman having once associated the idea of ghosts and goblins with that of darkness, night, ever after, becomes painful and horrible to the imagination. The authority of this great man is doubtless as great as that of any man can be, and it seems to stand in the way of our general principle. We have considered darkness as a cause of the sublime; and we have all along considered the sublime as depending on some modification of pain or terror: so that if darkness be no way painful or terrible to any, who have not had their minds early tainted with superstitions, it can be no source of the sublime to them. But, with all deference to such an authority, it seems to me, that an association of a more general nature, an association which takes in all mankind, and make darkness terrible; for in utter darkness it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand; we are ignorant of the objects that surround us; we may every moment strike against some dangerous obstruction; we may fall down a precipice the first step we take; and if an enemy approach, we know not in what quarter to defend ourselves; in such a case strength is no sure protection; wisdom can only act by guess; the boldest are staggered, and he, who would pray for nothing else towards his defence, is forced to pray for light.

As to the association of ghosts and goblins; surely it is more natural to think, that darkness, being originally an idea of terror, was chosen as a fit scene for such terrible representations, than that such representations have made darkness terrible. The mind of man very easily slides into an error of the former sort; but it is very hard to imagine, that the effect of an idea so universally terrible in all times, and in all countries, as darkness, could possibly have been owing to a set of idle stories, or to any cause of a nature so trivial, and of an operation so precarious.

Reflections on the French Revolution
by Edmund Burke

History will record, that on the morning of the 6th of October, 1789, the king and queen of France, after a day of confusion, alarm, dismay, and slaughter, lay down, under the pledged security of public faith, to indulge nature in a few hours of respite, and troubled, melancholy repose. From this sleep the queen was first startled by the voice of the sentinel at her door, who cried out her to save herself by flight—that this was the last proof of fidelity he could give—that they were upon him, and he was dead. Instantly he was cut down. A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with his blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and, through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.

This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children, (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people,) were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases. Thence they were conducted into the capital of their kingdom. […]

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that charity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations, even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe. It is this which has distinguished it under all its forms of government, and distinguished it to its advantage, from the states of Asia, and possibly from those states which flourished in the most brilliant periods of the antique world. It was this, which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners.

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way, gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to states:—Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation, which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

* * *

Rights of Man:
Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution
by Thomas Paine

But Mr. Burke appears to have no idea of principles when he is contemplating Governments. “Ten years ago,” says he, “I could have felicitated France on her having a Government, without inquiring what the nature of that Government was, or how it was administered.” Is this the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race? On this ground, Mr. Burke must compliment all the Governments in the world, while the victims who suffer under them, whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence, are wholly forgotten. It is power, and not principles, that Mr. Burke venerates; and under this abominable depravity he is disqualified to judge between them. Thus much for his opinion as to the occasions of the French Revolution. I now proceed to other considerations.

I know a place in America called Point-no-Point, because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr. Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all. Just thus it is with Mr. Burke’s three hundred and sixty-six pages. It is therefore difficult to reply to him. But as the points he wishes to establish may be inferred from what he abuses, it is in his paradoxes that we must look for his arguments.

As to the tragic paintings by which Mr. Burke has outraged his own imagination, and seeks to work upon that of his readers, they are very well calculated for theatrical representation, where facts are manufactured for the sake of show, and accommodated to produce, through the weakness of sympathy, a weeping effect. But Mr. Burke should recollect that he is writing history, and not plays, and that his readers will expect truth, and not the spouting rant of high-toned exclamation.

When we see a man dramatically lamenting in a publication intended to be believed that “The age of chivalry is gone! that The glory of Europe is extinguished for ever! that The unbought grace of life (if anyone knows what it is), the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone!” and all this because the Quixot age of chivalry nonsense is gone, what opinion can we form of his judgment, or what regard can we pay to his facts? In the rhapsody of his imagination he has discovered a world of wind mills, and his sorrows are that there are no Quixots to attack them. But if the age of aristocracy, like that of chivalry, should fall (and they had originally some connection) Mr. Burke, the trumpeter of the Order, may continue his parody to the end, and finish with exclaiming: “Othello’s occupation’s gone!”

Notwithstanding Mr. Burke’s horrid paintings, when the French Revolution is compared with the Revolutions of other countries, the astonishment will be that it is marked with so few sacrifices; but this astonishment will cease when we reflect that principles, and not persons, were the meditated objects of destruction. The mind of the nation was acted upon by a higher stimulus than what the consideration of persons could inspire, and sought a higher conquest than could be produced by the downfall of an enemy. Among the few who fell there do not appear to be any that were intentionally singled out. They all of them had their fate in the circumstances of the moment, and were not pursued with that long, cold-blooded unabated revenge which pursued the unfortunate Scotch in the affair of 1745.

Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

As Mr. Burke has passed over the whole transaction of the Bastille (and his silence is nothing in his favour), and has entertained his readers with refections on supposed facts distorted into real falsehoods, I will give, since he has not, some account of the circumstances which preceded that transaction. They will serve to show that less mischief could scarcely have accompanied such an event when considered with the treacherous and hostile aggravations of the enemies of the Revolution.

The mind can hardly picture to itself a more tremendous scene than what the city of Paris exhibited at the time of taking the Bastille, and for two days before and after, nor perceive the possibility of its quieting so soon. At a distance this transaction has appeared only as an act of heroism standing on itself, and the close political connection it had with the Revolution is lost in the brilliancy of the achievement. But we are to consider it as the strength of the parties brought man to man, and contending for the issue. The Bastille was to be either the prize or the prison of the assailants. The downfall of it included the idea of the downfall of despotism, and this compounded image was become as figuratively united as Bunyan’s Doubting Castle and Giant Despair.

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The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

Fear: The History of a Political Idea
by Corey Robin
Kindle Locations 402-406

It might seem strange that a book about political fear should assign so much space to our ideas about fear rather than to its practice. But recall what Burke said: It is not so much the actuality of a threat, but the imagined idea of that threat, that renews and restores. “If the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person,” then, and only then, do we experience a delightful horror.”1 The condition of our being renewed by fear is not that we directly experience the object that threatens us, but that the object be kept at some remove move from ourselves.

Kindle Locations 1061-1066

Whether they have read The Spirit of the Laws or not, these writers are its children. With its trawling allusions to the febrile and the fervid, The Spirit of the Laws successfully aroused the conviction that terror was synonymous with barbarism, and that its cures were to be found entirely within liberalism. Thus was a new political and literary aesthetic born, a rhetoric of hyperbole suggesting that terror’s escorts were inevitably remoteness, irrationality, and darkness, and its enemies, familiarity, reason, and light. Perhaps it was this aesthetic that a young Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote, two years after Montesquieu’s death, “To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

Kindle Locations 1608-1618

As she set about establishing a new political morality in the shadow of total terror, however, Arendt became aware of a problem that had plagued Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville, and that Burke-not to mention makers of horror films-understood all too well: once terrors become familiar, they cease to arouse dread. The theorist who tries to establish fear as a foundation for a new politics must always find a demon darker than that of her predecessors, discover ever more novel, and more frightening, forms of fear. Thus Montesquieu, seeking to outdo Hobbes, imagined a form of terror that threatened the very basis of that which made us human. In Arendt’s case, it was her closing image of interchangeable victims and victimizers-of terror serving no interest and no party, not even its wielders; of a world ruled by no one and nothing, save the impersonal laws of motion-that yielded the necessary “radical evil” from which a new politics could emerge.

But as her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers was quick to recognize, Arendt had come upon this notion of radical evil at a terrible cost: it made moral judgment of the perpetrators of total terror nearly impossible.59 According to Origins, total terror rendered everyone-from Hitler down through the Jews, from Stalin to the kulaks-incapable of acting. Indeed, as Arendt admitted in 1963, “There exists a widespread theory, to which I also contributed [in Origins], that these crimes defy the possibility of human judgment and explode the frame of our legal institutions.”60 Total terror may have done what fear, terror, and anxiety did for her predecessors-found a new politics-but, as Arendt would come to realize in Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was a false foundation, inspiring an operatic sense of catastrophe, that ultimately let the perpetrators off the hook by obscuring the hard political realities of rule by fear.

Liberalism at Bay, Conservatism at Piay:
Fear in the Contemporary Imagination

by Corey Robin

For theorists like Locke and Burke, fear is something to be cherished, not because it alerts us to real danger or propels us to take necessary action against it, but because fear is supposed to arouse a heightened state of experience. It quickens our perceptions as no other emotion can, forcing us to see and to act in the world in new and more interesting ways, with greater moral discrimination and a more acute consciousness of our surroundings and ourselves. According to Locke, fear is “an uneasiness of the mind” and “the chief, if not only spur to human industry and action is uneasiness.” Though we might think that men and women act on behalf of desire, Locke insisted that “a little burning felt”—like fear—”pushes us more powerfully than great pleasures in prospect draw or allure.” Burke had equally low regard for pleasure. It induces a grotesque implosion of self, a “soft tranquility” approximating an advanced state of decay if not death itself.

The head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are
more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an
inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and
the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh;
the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to
the sides. All this is accompanied with an inward sense of
melting and languor . . . relaxing the solids of the whole
system.

But when we imagine the prospect of “pain and terror,” Burke added, we experience a delightful horror,” the “strongest of all passions.” Without fear, we are passive; with it, we are roused to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Locke, 1959,11.20.6,10;11.21.34: 304-5, 334; Burke, 1990: 32, 36,123,135-36).

At the political level, modem theorists have argued that fear is a spur to civic vitality and moral renewal, perhaps even a source of public freedom. Writing in the wake of the French Revolution, Tocqueville bemoaned the lethargy of modem democracy. With its free-wheeling antimonianism and social mobility, democratic society “inevitably enervates the soul, and relaxing the springs of the will, prepares a people for bondage. Then not only will they let their freedom be taken from them, but often they actually hand it over themselves” (Tocqueville, 1969:444). Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king, Tocqueville believed that democracies might find a renewed confidence in the experience of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to public freedom. “Fear,” he wrote in a note to himself, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty,” or, as he put it in Democracy in America, “Let us, then, look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep watch and ward for freedom, and not with that flabby, idle terror which makes men’s hearts sink and enervates them” (cited in Lamberti, 1989: 229; Tocqueville, 1969: 702). Armed with fear, democracy would be fortified against not only external and domestic enemies but also the inner tendency, the native desire, to dissolve into the soupy indifference of which Burke spoke.

* * *

The Dark Beauty of Unheard-Of Horrors
by Thomas Ligotti

This is how it is when a mysterious force is embodied in a human body, or in any form that is too well fixed. And a mystery explained is one robbed of its power of emotion, dwindling into a parcel of information, a tissue of rules and statistics without meaning in themselves.

Of course, mystery actually requires a measure of the concrete if it is to be perceived at all; otherwise it is only a void, the void. The thinnest mixture of this mortar, I suppose, is contained in that most basic source of mystery—darkness. Very difficult to domesticate this phenomenon, to collar it and give a name to the fear it inspires. As a verse writer once said:

The blackness at the bottom of a well
May bold most any kind of hell.

The dark, indeed, phenomenon possessing the maximum of mystery, the one most resistant to the taming of the mind and most resonant with emotions and meanings of a highly complex and subtle type. It is also extremely abstract as a provenance for supernatural horror, an elusive prodigy whose potential for fear may slip through a writer’s fingers and right past even a sensitive reader of terror tales. Obviously it is problematic in away that a solid pair of gleaming fangs at a victim’s neck is not. Hence, darkness itself is rarely used in a story as the central incarnation of the supernatural, though it often serves in a supporting role as an element of atmosphere, an extension of more concrete phenomena. The shadowy ambiance of a fictional locale almost always resolves itself into an apparition of substance, a threat with a name, if not a full blown history. Darkness may also perform in a strictly symbolic capacity, representing the abyss at the core of any genuine tale of mystery and horror. But to draw a reader’s attention to this abyss, this unnameable hell of blackness, is usually sacrificed in favor of focusing on some tangible dread pressing against the body of everyday life. From these facts may be derived an ad hoc taxonomy for dividing supernatural stories into types, or rather a spectrum of types: on the one side, those that tend to emphasize the surface manifestations of a supernatural phenomenon; on the other, those that reach toward the dark core of mystery in purest and most abstract condition. The former stories show us the bodies, big as life, of the demonic tribe of spooks, vampires, and other assorted bogeymen; the latter suggest to us the essence, far bigger than life, of that dark universal terror beyond naming which is the matrix for all other terrors. […]

Like Erich Zann’s “world of beauty,” Lovecraft’s “lay in some far cosmos of the imagination,” and like that of another  artist, it is a “beauty that hath horror in it.

The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
by Thomas Ligotti
pp. 41-42

As heretofore noted, consciousness may have assisted our species’ survival in the hard times of prehistory, but as it became ever more intense it evolved the potential to ruin everything if not securely muzzled. This is the problem: We must either outsmart consciousness or be thrown into its vortex of doleful factuality and suffer, as Zapffe termed it, a “dread of being”— not only of our own being but of being itself, the idea that the vacancy that might otherwise have obtained is occupied like a stall in a public lavatory of infinite dimensions, that there is a universe in which things like celestial bodies and human beings are roving about, that anything exists in the way it seems to exist, that we are part of all being until we stop being, if there is anything we may understand as being other than semblances or the appearance of semblances.

On the premise that consciousness must be obfuscated so that we might go on as we have all these years, Zapffe inferred that the sensible thing would be not to go on with the paradoxical nonsense of trying to inhibit our cardinal attribute as beings, since we can tolerate existence only if we believe— in accord with a complex of illusions, a legerdemain of duplicity— that we are not what we are: unreality on legs. As conscious beings, we must hold back that divulgement lest it break us with a sense of being things without significance or foundation, anatomies shackled to a landscape of unintelligible horrors. In plain language, we cannot live except as self-deceivers who must lie to ourselves about ourselves, as well as about our unwinnable situation in this world.

Accepting the preceding statements as containing some truth, or at least for the sake of moving on with the present narrative, it seems that we are zealots of Zapffe’s four plans for smothering consciousness: isolation (“ Being alive is all right”), anchoring (“ One Nation under God with Families, Morality, and Natural Birthrights for all”), distraction (“ Better to kill time than kill oneself”), and sublimation (“ I am writing a book titled The Conspiracy against the Human Race”). These practices make us organisms with a nimble intellect that can deceive themselves “for their own good.” Isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation are among the wiles we use to keep ourselves from dispelling every illusion that keeps us up and running. Without this cognitive double-dealing, we would be exposed for what we are. It would be like looking into a mirror and for a moment seeing the skull inside our skin looking back at us with its sardonic smile. And beneath the skull— only blackness, nothing.  A little piece of our world has been peeled back, and underneath is creaking desolation— a carnival where all the rides are moving but no patrons occupy the seats. We are missing from the world we have made for ourselves. Maybe if we could resolutely gaze wide-eyed at our lives we would come to know what we really are. But that would stop the showy attraction we are inclined to think will run forever.

p. 182

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.

Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.

p. 218

Without death— meaning without our consciousness of death— no story of supernatural horror would ever have been written, nor would any other artistic representation of human life have been created for that matter. It is always there, if only between the lines or brushstrokes, or conspicuously by its absence. It is a terrific stimulus to that which is at once one of our greatest weapons and greatest weaknesses— imagination. Our minds are always on the verge of exploding with thoughts and images as we ceaselessly pound the pavement of our world. Both our most exquisite cogitations and our worst cognitive drivel announce our primal torment: We cannot linger in the stillness of nature’s vacuity. And so we have imagination to beguile us. A misbegotten hatchling of consciousness, a birth defect of our species, imagination is often revered as a sign of vigor in our make-up. But it is really just a psychic overcompensation for our impotence as beings. Denied nature’s exemption from creativity, we are indentured servants of the imaginary until the hour of our death, when the final harassments of imagination will beset us.

* * *

The Horror of the Unreal
By Peter Bebergal

The TV show “The Walking Dead” is one long exercise in tension. But the zombies—the supposed centerpiece of the show’s horror—are not particularly frightening. Gross, to be sure, but also knowable, literal. You can see them coming from yards away. They are the product of science gone wrong, or of a virus, or of some other phenomenal cause. They can be destroyed with an arrow through the brain. More aberration than genuine monsters, they lack the essential quality to truly terrify: an aspect of the unreal.

The horror writer Thomas Ligotti believes that even tales of virus-created zombies—and other essentially comprehensible creatures—can elicit what we might call, quoting the theologian Rudolf Otto, “the wholly other,” but it requires a deft hand. The best such stories “approach the realm of the supernatural,” he told me over e-mail, even if their monsters are entirely earthly. As an example, he pointed to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “wherein the brutality displayed is so deviant and strange it takes off into the uncanny.” Ligotti doesn’t require bloodthirsty villains to convey a sense of impending horror, though. “I tend to stipulate in my work that the world by its nature already exists in a state of doom rather than being in the process of doom.” […]

“Whether or not there is anything called the divine is neither here nor there,” Ligotti told me. “It’s irrelevant to our sense of what is beyond the veil.” Ligotti believes that fiction can put us in touch with that sense of things unseen, that it can create an encounter with—to quote Rudolf Otto again—the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a state that combines terror and enchantment with the divine. In fact, Ligotti believes that “any so-called serious work of literature that doesn’t to some extent serve this function has failed.” It’s not a matter of genre, he says. He cites Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a character who would go wherever the clues took him, no matter how deep into the heart of the “unknown.” “Chandler wanted his detective stories to invoke the sense of the ‘country behind the hill.’ “

Because Ligotti has no interest in whether or not that world beyond actually exists, there is a tension, an unanswered question, in his work: Can we locate the source of this horror? His characters are often confronted by people or groups who worship something so alien that their rituals don’t conform to any identifiable modes of religious practice. Usually, they involve some form of sacrifice or other suggestion of violence. The implication seems to be that, even if there is meaning in the universe, that meaning is so foreign, so strange, that we could never understand it, and it could never make a difference in our lives. Any attempt to penetrate it will only lead to madness.

As a practical matter, Ligotti believes that the short story is the most potent means for conveying this idea. “A novel can’t consistently project what Poe called a ‘single effect,’ “ he explains. “It would be too wearing on the reader—too repetitious and dense, as would, for instance, a lengthy narrative poem written in the style of a lyric poem. A large part of supernatural novels must therefore be concerned with the mundane and not with a sense of what I’ll call ‘the invisible.’ “

Trying to get Ligotti to explain what he means by the “invisible” is not easy. “I’m not able to see my stories as establishing or presuming the existence of a veil beyond which the characters in them are incapable of seeing. I simply don’t view them in this way. ” But his characters, I insisted, suggest that we are all capable of seeing beyond the veil, though it’s impossible to tell if they are simply mad, or if they have indeed perceived something outside normal perception. I asked Ligotti if he saw a difference between these two states of consciousness. “The only interest I’ve taken in psychological aberrancy in fiction,” he answered, “has been as a vehicle of perceiving the derangement of creation.”

Thomas Ligotti: Dark Phenomenology and Abstract Horror
by S.C. Hickman

Ligotti makes a point that horror must stay ill-defined, that the monstrous must menace us from a distance, from the unknown; a non-knowledge, rather than a knowledge of the natural; it is the unnatural and invisible that affects us not something we can reduce to some sociological, psychological, or political formation or representation, which only kills the mystery – taming it and pigeonholing it into some cultural gatekeeper’s caged obituary. […] The domesticated beast is no horror at all.

In the attic of the mind a lunatic family resides, a carnival world of aberrant thoughts and feelings – that, if we did not lock away in a conspiracy of silence would freeze us in such terror and fright that we would become immobilized unable to think, feel, or live accept as zombies, mindlessly. So we isolate these demented creatures, keep them at bay. Then we anchor ourselves in artifice, accept substitutes, religious mythologies, secular philosophies, and anything else that will help us keep the monsters at bay. As Ligotti will say, we need our illusions – our metaphysical anchors and dreamscapes “that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds” (CHR, 31). Yet, when even these metaphysical ploys want stem the tide of those heinous monsters from within we seek out distraction, entertainment: TV, sports, bars, dancing, friends, fishing, scuba diving, boating, car racing, horse riding… almost anything that will keep our mind empty of its dark secret, that will allow it to escape the burden of emotion – of fear, if even for a night or an afternoon of sheer mindless bliss. And, last, but not least, we seek out culture, sublimation – art, theatre, festivals, carnivals, painting, writing, books… we seek to let it all out, let it enter into that sphere of the tragic or comic, that realm where we can exorcize it, display it, pin it to the wall for all to see our fears and terrors on display not as they are but as we lift them up into art, shape them to our nightmare visions or dreamscapes of desire. As Ligotti tells it, we read literature or watch a painting, go to a theatre, etc. […]

Horror acts like a sigil, a diagram that invokes the powers within the darkness to arise, to unfold their mystery, to explain themselves; and, if not explain then at least to invade our equilibrium, our staid and comfortable world with their rage, their torment, their corruption. The best literary horror or weird tales never describe in detail the mystery, rather they invoke by hyperstitional invention: calling forth the forces out of darkness and the abstract, and allowing them to co-habit for a time the shared space – the vicarious bubble or interzone between the reader and narrative […]

This notion of the tension between the epistemic and ontic in abstract horror returns me to Nick Land’s short work Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator in which the narrator tells us that what we fear, what terrorizes us is not the seen – the known and definable, but rather the unseen and unknown, even “shapeless threat, ‘Outside’ only in the abstract sense (encompassing the negative immensity of everything that we cannot grasp). It could be anywhere, from our genes or ecological dynamics, to the hidden laws of technological evolution, or the hostile vastnesses between the stars. We know only that, in strict proportion to the vitality of the cosmos, the probability of its existence advances towards inevitability, and that for us it means supreme ill. Ontological density without identifiable form is abstract horror itself.” […]

Yet, as Lovecraft in one of his famous stories – “Call of Cthulhu” once suggested, the “sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Here is the nub for Ligotti, the dividing line of those who continue to sleep in the illusory safety net of their cultural delusions […] Many will remember the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot once suggested that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. […]

For Ligotti the subjective reaction to the seemingly objective stimulus of the uncanny is the gaining of “dark knowledge” about the workings of individuals, […] This sense that the corruption works both ways, upon the victim and the perpetrator; that the world is now topsy-turvy and that the uncanny boundaries between victim and perpetrator are reversible and hazy, and not always obvious is due to that subtle knowledge that each culture is circumscribed within its own black box of conceptuality. By that I mean by that that as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in his Cannibal Metaphysics argues the case that Amazonian and other Amerindian groups inhabit a radically different conceptual universe than ours—in which nature and culture, human and nonhuman, subject and object are conceived in terms that reverse our own—he presents the case for anthropology as the study of such “other” metaphysical schemes, and as the corresponding critique of the concepts imposed on them by the human sciences. […]

We’re in that position of moving either way: 1) literalizing our fantasies: building walls and barbed-wire fences against invading hordes of refugees, migrants, etc.; or, 2) of seeing through them, seeing the aesthetic and defensive use of art and social mechanisms to defend ourselves from the onslaught of our own daemonic nihilism and drives: our fears and terrors. […]

In our time we’ve forgotten this fact, and forgotten the art laughter, to see the world through the lens of art or horror literature and know that this, too, is illusion: the aesthetic call to our emotions, to our fears and our terrors that allows that purge, that release that only great art can supply. Rather in our time we’ve all become literalists of the imagination, so that apocalypse rather than a pleasant channeling of our fears has become an actual possibility and real manifestation in the world around us in wars, famines, racism, hatred, murder, mayhem… The problem we face is that we’ve targeted the external world of actual people and deemed them disposable as if they are the ravenous zombies and vampires of our contemporary globalist madness. We’ve turned the inside out, reversed what once existed within into a projected nightmare scenario and living hell in the real world not as fantasy but as daemonic threat and doom upon ourselves and others. Talking of contemporary horror films Ligotti remarks that the characters in these films “cannot be sure who is a “thing” and who is not, since those who are transmuted retain their former appearance, memories, and behaviors even after they have become, in their essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world.” (CHR, 92) This sense that we’ve allowed the immigrants (US) and refugees (US and EU) to enter into and become a part of the social body of our nations leads to this sense of the uncanny uncertainty that one cannot be sure who is the “thing” – is it us or them: a paranoiac nightmare world of ravening lunacy, indeed. Because our categories of normal/abnormal have broken down due to the absolute Other of other conceptual cultures who have other sets of Symbolic Orders and ideas, concepts, ideologies, religious, and Laws, etc. we are now in the predicament of mutating and transforming into an Other ourselves all across the globe. There is no safe haven, no place to hide or defend oneself against oneself. In this sense we’ve all – everyone on the planet – become as Ligotti states it, in “essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world”. (CHR, 92)

* * *

Trickster Makes This World
by Lewis Hyde
pp. 168-172

During the years I was writing this book, there was an intense national debate over the concern that government funds might be used to subsidize pornographic art. The particulars will undoubtedly change, but the debate is perennial. On the one side, we have those who presume to speak for the collective trying to preserve the coverings and silences that give social space its order. On the other side, we have the agents of change, time travelers who take the order itself to be mutable, who hope— to give it the most positive formulation— to preserve the sacred by finding ways to shift the structure of things as contingency demands. It is not immediately clear why this latter camp must so regularly turn to bodily and sexual display, but the context I am establishing here suggests that such display is necessary.

To explore why this might be the case, let me begin with the classic image from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve leaving the garden, having learned shame and therefore having covered their genitals and, in the old paintings, holding their hands over their faces as well. By these actions they inscribe their own bodies. The body happens to be a uniquely apt location for the inscription of shame, partly because the body itself seems to be the sense organ of shame (the feeling swamps us, we stutter and flush against our will), but also because the content of shame, what we feel ashamed of, typically seems indelible and fixed, with us as a sort of natural fact, the way the body is with us as a natural fact. “Shame is what you are, guilt is what you do,” goes an old saying. Guilt can be undone with acts of penance, but the feeling of shame sticks around like a birthmark or the smell of cigarettes.

I earlier connected the way we learn about shame to rules about speech and silence, and made the additional claim that those rules have an ordering function. Now, let us say that the rules give order to several things at once, not just to society but to the body and the psyche as well. When I say “several things at once” I mean that the rules imply the congruence of these three realms; the orderliness of one is the orderliness of the others. The organized body is a sign that we are organized psychologically and that we understand and accept the organization of the world around us. When Adam and Eve cover their genitals, they simultaneously begin to structure consciousness and to structure their primordial community. To make the temenos, a line is drawn on the earth and one thing cut from another; when Adam and Eve learn shame, they draw a line on their bodies, dividing them into zones like the zones of silence and speech— or, rather, not “like” those zones, but identified with them, for what one covers on the body one also consigns to silence.

[…] an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.

In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.

If this is how the trap is made, then escaping it must involve reversing at least some of these elements. In what might be called the “heavy-bodied” escape, one senses that there’s something to be changed but ends up trying to change the body itself, mutilating it, or even committing suicide […]

These are the beginnings of conscious struggle, but we have yet to meet the mind of the trickster— or if we have, it belongs to the trickster who tries to eat the reflected berries, who burns his own anus in anger, who has not learned to separate the bait from the hook. As we saw earlier, the pressures of experience produce from that somewhat witless character a more sophisticated trickster who can separate bait from hook, who knows that the sign of something is not the thing itself, and who is therefore a better escape artist with a much more playful relationship to the local stories. The heavy-bodied, literalizing attempt to escape from shame carries much of the trap with it— the link to the body, the silence, and so on. Inarticulately, it takes the sign for the thing itself, imagining racism inheres in the color of the skin. Wise to the tricks of language, the light-bodied escape from shame refuses the whole setup— refuses the metonymic shift, the enchantment of group story, and the rules of silence— and by these refusals it detaches the supposedly overlapping levels of inscription from one another so that the body, especially, need no longer stand as the mute, incarnate seal of social and psychological order. All this, but especially the speaking out where shame demands silence, depends largely on a consciousness that doesn’t feel much inhibition, and knows how traps are made, and knows how to subvert them.

This is the insight that comes to all boundary-crossers— immigrants in fact or immigrants in time— that meaning is contingent and identity fluid, even the meaning and identity of one’s own body.

It should by now be easier to see why there will always be art that uncovers the body, and artists who speak shamelessly, even obscenely. All social structures do well to anchor their rules of conduct in the seemingly simple inscription of the body, so that only after I have covered my privates am I allowed to show my face to the world and have a public life. The rules of bodily decorum usually imply that the cosmos depends on the shame we feel about our bodies. But sometimes the lesson is a lie, and a cunningly self-protecting one at that, for to question it requires self-exposure and loss of face, and who would want that? Well, trickster would, as would all those who find they cannot fashion a place for themselves in the world until they have spoken against collective silence. We certainly see this— not just the speaking out but the self-exposure— in Allen Ginsberg, and we see it a bit more subtly in both Kingston and Rodriguez. Neither of them is a “dirty writer” the way Ginsberg is, but to begin to speak, one of them must talk about menstruation (which talk she links to becoming the mistress of her own sexuality) and the other must talk about his skin (which talk he links to possessing his “maleness”).

To the degree that other orders are linked to the way the body is inscribed, and to the degree that the link is sealed by rules of silence, the first stuttering questioning of those orders must always begin by breaking the seal and speaking about the body. Where obscene speech has such roots it is worth defending, and those who would suppress it court a subtle but serious danger. They are like the gods who would bind Loki, for this suppression hobbles the imagination that copes with the shifting and contingent nature of things, and so invites apocalyptic change where something more playful would have sufficed. Better to let trickster steal the shame covers now and then. Better to let Coyote have a ride in the Sun-god’s lodge. Better to let Monkey come on your journey to the West.

* * *

“Disseminated Volition in the New Testament Gospels”
by Andrew Stehlik
The Jaynesian (Vol. 3, Issue 1)

It is well known that many words for inner spiritual motions and emotions are actually metaphors derived from primitive (outward) physiological observations. Brief references to any good dictionary which includes etymology can corroborate this conclusion.

Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind dedicated a whole chapter to this theme — looking forward through the Iliad (pp. 257– 272). He concentrates on seven words: thumos, phrenes, noos, psyche, kradie, ker, and etor.

Julian Jaynes recognized that these and other similar body based, physiological or anatomical metaphors (in almost any language) are actually more than simple linguistic metaphors and that they played an important role in the breakdown of bicameralism and the development of consciousness. Different forms of stress and anxiety trigger different physiological responses. Observations of these responses were used in naming and creating hypostases and metaphors useful in the terminology of introspection and the development of consciousness. […]

In the New Testament Gospels (therefore quite late in the historical process — the second half of the first century CE) I recently recognized an interesting phenomenon which could be part of this process, or, even better, a pathological deviation along this process.

Once in the gospel of Mark (9: 42– 48) and twice in the gospel of Matthew (5: 27– 30 and 18: 6– 10) Jesus is supposed to utter an almost identical saying. In this saying, individual parts of the body (eyes, hands, feet) are given the ability of independent volition. They can inform acting of the whole person. The saying suggests, further, that when the influence (instructions, independent volition) of these body parts is perceived as dangerous or harmful, they should be silenced by cutting them off to protect the integrity of the rest of the body.

All academic theological literature known to me takes these sayings as high literary metaphors. Frequent references are made to biology and medicine and the use of amputations are the last resort in serious conditions.

Completely unrecognized is the whole presumption of this saying according to which individual body parts could possess independent volition and as such can inform (sway/direct) the acting of the whole body. Even more seriously — the presumption that self-mutilation can stop or somehow influence higher mental processes. Even the person who is not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist can recognize that we are dealing with a seriously pathological state of mind. […]

Already at the time of recording in the gospels this saying was perceived as anomalous. Luke, the most educated and refined of synoptical authors, preserved the immediate context, but edited out most of the peculiar parts concerning disseminated volition and self-mutilations.

Further and broader contexts which may be mentioned and discussed: other Greek and Hebrew physiological and anatomical metaphors; the popularity of a metaphor of the body for structuring and functioning of society in Hellenism; the ancient practice of religious self-mutilation; the potential for facilitating our understanding of brutish penal codes or modern self-mutilations.

* * *

The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
The Haunted Moral Imagination

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
On Truth and Bullshit
Poised on a Knife Edge
“Why are you thinking about this?”

Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic. But for more recent corroboration, see: People Think Research is More Credible When It Includes “Extraneous” Brain Images, Peter Simons, Mad In America)

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

The reactionary mind has interested me as much, if not more, than the bicameral mind. Corey Robin was my introduction to the former, although maybe that credit should be given to Richard Hofstadter. Robin’s book on the topic was enlightening. But soon after reading it, I wished someone had also written book like it about liberals.

I’m not sure it matters, though. I’ve since come to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are kin, existing on a continuum and even of the same essence, together forming a shared dynamic. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that we live in an all-encompassing liberal age and that, therefore, conservatism is just another variety of liberalism. Conservatism, for sure, is a particularly reactionary variety of liberalism. That doesn’t let liberalism off the hook. The reactionary mind is inherent within the liberal paradigm, a necessary consequence. Or here is another thought: Maybe the reactionary mind precedes both. That is a much more interesting line of thought.

The impulse to categorize people, according to ideologies or otherwise, goes back to the post-bicameral Axial Age. That era was when reactionary politics, such as among the Greek philosophers, first became apparent—and when rhetoric began to develop. Bicameral societies (and other pre-Axial societies), on the other hand, would have had no place for the reactionary mind.

Just some ideas rolling around in my head. My inspiration came from perusing some articles and blog posts about reactionary politics, specifically in terms of Corey Robin and one of his critics, Mark Lilla. I haven’t yet read any books by the latter.

I might note that Robin is a leftist of some kind who is critical of liberals as well as conservatives while Lilla is a (former?) conservative who dislikes what he perceives as the mob of Tea Party libertarians. So, as Lilla longs for the supposed moderate conservatism of yesteryear, Robin strongly argues that no such thing ever existed. On the other hand, someone noted that Lilla’s views may have shifted in his latest writings, undermining some of his past criticisms of Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism.

It should be pointed out that Robin is in good company in making his argument. There was a right-winger during the French Revolution who observed that conservatism only comes into existence after traditionalism is on the wane. That is to say conservatism isn’t traditionalism but a response to its loss, but then again liberalism is also a response to the same thing. The issue, in that case, being what is the difference between response and reaction.

It’s interesting to see these learned thinkers grapple with such issues. But my recent preoccupation with Jaynesian theory (and related views) has led me down other pathways. I wonder if the likes of Robin and Lilla aren’t probing deep enough or going back as far as they should (Lilla, though, might be looking at some earlier origins). Also, maybe they are constrained by their focus on political history and their omission of the truly fascinating research done in classical studies and the social sciences. There seems to be a particular worry and wariness about dealing with the messiness of psychology, i.e., the basic level of human nature that precedes and permeates all ideologies.

My basic sense, in reading some of the analyses and responses by and to Robin and Lilla, is that there is much confusion about the reactionary mind. What exactly is it? What causes it? And what purpose does it serve? The main confusion being its relationship to conservatism. Is there anything to conservatism besides reaction? For that matter, does or can conservatism exist outside of the liberal paradigm (and if not what does that say about liberalism in its relationship to the reactionary mind)?

The latter brings me to some thoughts from this past year, in watching the campaign season spiral into standard American psychosis. Why are liberals so prone to falling into reactionary thought, either temporarily or permanently? And when liberals permanently get stuck in a reactionary mindset, why it they so often if not always become conservatives or right-wingers (or else anti-leftists)? Just look back at liberals during the Cold War when liberals were among the harshest critics and most dangerous opponents of left-wingers. Or look at the study done on liberals after 9/11, those who saw repeated video of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror. If liberals aren’t liberal when it really matters, then what is liberalism?

I’m also brought to questions about the moral imagination, the social construction of reality, symbolic conflation, and much else. I have no clear conclusions. Just wondering about what it all means and what it says about the world we find ourselves in, how we got here and where we might be heading.

More than anything, I wonder what all the reaction is about. We are dominated by reaction. Why is that? What is being reacted to? Reasons that reactionaries give change over time, from generation to generation, century to century, and yet the basic reactionary mindset remains unchanging, maybe for millennia. Is reaction inevitable? Or have earlier societies found other ways of dealing with change and uncertainty?

* * *

Roads Not Taken: Mark Lilla on Political Reaction
By Daniel McCarthy, The New York Times

LILLA’S FORTHCOMING SHIPWRECK
By Gabriel Sanchez, Opus Publicum

How Does the Mind of the Political Reactionary Work?
By Hans Rollman, Pop Matters

The Flight 93 Election
By Publius Decius Mus, Claremont Institute

“What’s it all about, boy? Elucidate!” – or – How To Avoid Huge, Shipwrecked Minds
by John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Here’s the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump you’ll ever hear
By Damon Linker, The Week

Reactionaries In Our Time
By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Republicans for Revolution
By Lilla, The New York Review of Books

‘The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange
By Corey Robin, reply by Mark Lilla, NYB

Contraception and Counterrevolution
By David V. Johnson, interview w/ Corey Robin, Boston Review

Wrong Reaction
By Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry, Crooked Timber

Online Fracas for a Critic of the Right
By Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book
By Andrew Hartman, S-USIH

Redefining the Right Wing
By Daniel Larison, The New Inquiry

Reactionary Minds
By Ari Kohen, blog

Conservatives and reactionaries
By John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years
By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

The Reactionary Libertarian
By A. Jay Adler, the sad red earth

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

I’ve thought about the abortion issue in terms of social control, the morality-punishment link, and symbolic conflation. It’s been on my mind for much of my adult life. The culture wars began just as I started high school, as my thinking about the larger world began to develop. Abortion was always the most potent of the culture war issues.

Corey Robin brings in another perspective—What Donald Trump Can Learn From Frederick Douglass:

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. […]

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

I’m not sure what to think of that theory. It’s interesting. I wonder if that in any way fits into some of my own prior thoughts on the matter. I sense some possible connections.

Symbolic conflation is about shutting down awareness and narrowing thought, and as such agency is central to it. The main insight I had early on was that the obsession with abortion never had anything directly to do with abortion itself. I’ve struggled ever since in trying to understand what it actually is about.

* * *

The following is a comment left at Corey Robin’s post—Chris G wrote:

That is the perfect rejoinder to this interview with a pro-lifer on NPR this morning – http://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472501022/reaction-to-donald-trumps-abortion-comments

An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”

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.

 

The Moral Imagination of Fear

When the authoritarians finally and fully take over the United States, they will do so by fear-mongering about authoritarianism.

They will say that government is the problem, that mobocracy is the danger. They will say that they are being oppressed when the poor and minorities, workers and immigrants demand equal rights and freedom, equal representation and opportunity. They will accuse of others the very authoritarianism they seek to promote.

It is no accident that in this country that there is an overlap between authoritarianism and the conservative movement. Many studies have shown this strong correlation. These people don’t fear authoritarianism, but rather the possibility of sharing power with others, which means the loss of their privilege and position.

As they lose power in the numbers they once held, they will become more vicious and devious in their manipulations of that waning power. Sure, they will likely wrap themselves in the American flag and hug the cross, but it won’t end there. They will do anything and everything. They will even embrace the rhetoric and tactics of the political left, as they take on the mantle of populism and progressivism. They will offer the solutions to the problems they created.

The attack is merely the first step. That is where fear takes over, the battlefield that ever favors the demagogue or worse still the dictator. Only then will they offer their stark vision.

Birds of a Feather
by Corey Robin

Nixon to Kissinger:

We’ve got to destroy the confidence of the people in the American establishment.

Mao to the Red Guards:

Bombard the headquarters.

Cranky Conservatives and Hypocritical Liberals

I’ve slowly been adjusting my view on many topics. The most obvious example has to do with politics and political labels, specifically that of conservatism and liberalism.

I’ve written about this for years, because it endlessly fascinates me and confounds my thinking. Mainstream political labels, at first glance, seem to be simple and straightforward. Those who identify with these labels do tend to portray themselves in standard ways. However, if you look deeper, you  begin to realize there is more going on. I’ve explored many other angles previously, and so let me explore a new angle.

The other day, I read a dual review by Kenan Malik. The two books he reviewed were Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained and John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette. The topic uniting the two was that of free will.

I’m not familiar with Baggini’s writings and politics, but from the review I got the sense that he is probably more or less a mainstream progressive liberal. His general approach in defending free will, in relation to the Enlightenment project, seems fairly typical for a well-educated liberal. That is fine, as far as it goes. However, what I’d love to see is Baggini (or Malik) attempt to take on something like Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Then such a writer would have my full attention.

My own view is that of agnostic. I’m agnostic about so much in life, from God to free will. Such issues are of the same quality, whether overtly theological or not. They are about beliefs, not scientific knowledge, and so I feel wary about those who seek to politicize such debates.

Both Baggini and Gray are doing that very thing (and so is Malik in his review). Their beliefs about free will are inseparable from their beliefs about human progress and hence of political progressivism. I’m not sure where that leaves my agnosticism, but I certainly don’t find myself neatly taking sides.

As far as I’m concerned, it is a pointless debate, as neither side can prove they are right and that the other is wrong. Free will can’t be formulated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis and so can’t ever be tested. Beliefs are just beliefs, even when they are based on powerful personal experiences of perceived reality. I have nothing against beliefs in and of themselves, but they should be kept in proper context.

Nonetheless, I found John Gray’s view more interesting, because his mind seems more interesting. A proper label for him might be that of a cranky conservative, having shifted from Thatcherite neoliberal to a captialism-criticizing paleoconservative. What makes his view worthy of serious consideration is that he is a wide reader and a deep thinker, which is probably what allowed his views to shift to such an extent.

I call Gray a cranky conservative as a term of endearment. He is what I think of as the prototypical INTJ (MBTI type: Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging). In my experience, INTJs have minds that spiral inwards toward what to others seem like a mysterious sensibility or odd perspective. They love the idiosyncratic and obscure, which is what can make them interesting, at the same as it can make them perplexing or even frustrating and irritating.

INTJs have ever curious minds, but it is of a particular variety. It’s definitely not that of a linear-focused, analytical intellect (some readers complain that many of Gray’s books feel like a jumble of thoughts with important issues overlooked and useful connections not made). This kind of curiosity is also not of the endlessly expansive and exploratory tendency, as seen with the strongly extraverted intuition types.

This is demonstrated by Gray’s interest in Philip K. Dick, of which he writes in great detail in The Soul of the Marionette. Both are intuition types, but of opposing attitudes (introverted versus extraverted). Gray, in his recent book, sees PKD as having in a sense failed because his attitude of intuition just goes on and on, ever searching for what can’t be found. Gray rightly notes that this made PKD crazy at times. Still, that partly misses the beauty of PKD’s view.

Nonetheless, the fact that Gray takes PKD seriously at all is what I appreciate. I doubt I’ll ever see the likes of Malik and Baggini writing in detail about PKD, although the latter does one time briefly mention him in Freedom Regained but only then in reference to a movie based on a PKD story (I discovered this one instance by doing a search on Google Books). For this reason, I’m reading Gray’s book and not a book by either of those others, despite my being politically closer to them.

I first heard of John Gray many years ago. I never gave him much thought until I read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Robin has a chapter of that book where he discusses Gray as a reactionary conservative, similar to that of Edmund Burke, both holding positions as partial outsiders (although not too far outside, for otherwise the political right would never pay them any attention). Robin makes the argument that this is the basis of all conservatism, but I think distinctions need to be made. Even Robin sees Gray as being a unique figure on the right, as he explained elsewhere:

“There is a large discourse on the left of intellectuals and activists trying to come to terms with their erstwhile support for Stalinism and revolutionary tyranny. Indeed, a great deal of 20th century intellectual history is driven by that discourse, with entire literatures devoted to the Webbs in Russia, Sontag in Vietnam, Foucault in Iran. Yet where is the comparable discourse on the right of intellectuals coming to terms with their (or their heroes’) support for Pinochet, Salazar, and the like? With the exception of John Gray, I can’t think of a single apostate from—or adherent of—the right who’s engaged in such a project of self-examination: not breast-beating or mea culpas, but really looking at the relationship between their ideas and their actions. Now there’s a road to serfdom that’s yet to be mapped.”

He is, as I put it, a cranky conservative. He is a pessimist and highly critical at that. He isn’t going to be easy on even former allies. If anything, he is likely to be more harsh toward those with whom he once shared a view. He seems to place a high standard on both himself and others, and based on that he points out failures and hypocrisy.

I respect that more than I respect, for example, what I too often see among mainstream liberals. I particularly have in mind what I call conservative(-minded) liberals. I’ve become ever more aware of, to put it lightly, the inconsistency of so many liberals. Behind the facade of rhetoric, there is so much of the biases and prejudices as found everywhere else in our society. Simply put, I’d vote for John Gray before I’d vote for Hilary Clinton, for at least he criticizes some of the worst aspects of capitalism, not to mention neo-imperialist war-mongering.

There are surprising number of liberals who are, for example, highly race and class conscious. They are willing to talk about helping the unfortunate, as long as it doesn’t personally effect them. In their own lives, they’d rather not interact with minorities and poor people, and they will sometimes complain about such people behind closed doors. It’s one thing to support welfare or affirmative action for the underprivileged, but it is a whole other thing to have one of those perceived low class people living in your neighborhood or community.

There is at least an upfront honesty with a cranky conservative. As for free will, someone’s personal beliefs are the least of my concern.