As I once said about another commentator on these pages, the way to ignore someone is to ignore them.Ā However, if a fellow insists on making a spectacle of the chip on his shoulder, one may succumb to the temptation to knock it off . . .
R. Fiore has a recent article up about the South Park censorship brouhaha in which he takes a brave, world-weary stand against cowardly corporations, crazy Muslims, and simplistic theists. As always with Fiore, itās stylishly writtenā¦and as sometimes with Fiore, itās pretty thoroughly vapid. Heās got that just-plain-common-sense-man-on-the-street approach, which involves repeating things everyone already knows, retailing banal prejudices as shocking insights, and patting yourself rhythmically on the back all the while.
The point I made was not brave or world weary or any kind of condemnation of cowardice, it was Machiavellian.Ā What I was saying is that this is a set of circumstances which renders principles beside the point, and that things being what they are the actions of Viacom were all but inevitable.Ā The fanatics will achieve a trivial victory at a cost primarily of the humiliation and suffering of other Muslims.Ā Though I didn’t bring it up, most of the people who were killed or injured in the violence over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons were Muslims, and it’s as much to keep Muslims from getting hurt as anything that we acquiesce.
Fioreās argument is basically that weād all get along better in this old world if we acted as if we didnāt believe anything. Or as Fiore says, āWhat the West has learned is that even if you do sincerely believe in God, if you want any peace you canāt act that way.ā For Fiore, the South Park incident shows the eminent reasonableness of the Western world, and the fact that reasonableness is essentially useless in dealing with nutzo Islamist thugs:
No, what I said was that we in the West are better off because we practice the principles of religious liberty and that countless people in the Muslim world suffer terribly because they don’t.Ā The reasonableness of the West is demonstrated by its relative freedom from religious warfare.Ā It is a case where a problem that bedeviled mankind for centuries was solved by human agency.Ā It is one of the greatest achievements of human history.
The Danish Jyllands-Posten, lulled into a false sense of security by a period of reason and good fellowship in Europe dating all the way back to 1945, published their suite of cartoons featuring Muhammad on the assumption that no one was crazy enough to sacrifice their lives and liberty or commit horrible crimes over a drawing. The response of the fanatical end of Islam was, in effect, yes as a matter of fact we are crazy enough, and if that wasnāt sufficient please let us know and weāll be crazier still. The position this places the would-be blasphemer in is that you can visually depict Muhammad, but only if youāre willing to see blood shed over it. Courage will allow you to express yourself, but it wonāt prevent the violence. The net result is that the fanatics get their way and the only cost is to brand millions of completely innocent Muslims as murderous barbarians.
The great thing about extensive quotations from me like this is that it allows something sensible to appear under the byline “Noah Berlatsky.”
I think my favorite part of that quote is the nostalgic harking back to āa period of reason and good fellowship in Europeā, coupled with Fioreās utter lack of historical or intellectual curiosity. Presuming that this period of reason and good fellowship did exist for a moment ā why did it end, precisely? What caused the Muslims to suddenly jump the shark? Is it immigration into Europe thatās the problem ā which would lead to certain policy positions that I strongly suspect the carefully enlightened Fiore wants nothing to do with.
The period of reason and good fellowship in Europe hasn’t ended, it continues to this day and with any luck will continue at least until the day after I die.Ā The point I was making was that as recently as 1945 it was interrupted by a period of unparalleled slaughter, and as such should not be taken for granted.Ā As to where Europe and the Muslim world diverged, I would say, taking the long view, the Crusades.Ā During the Crusades a gang of barbarians whose culture had fallen to a level that was scarcely human embarked on a series of murderous raiding expeditions under the color of religion against the highest civilization within marching distance.Ā Once repulsed, the barbarians returned home with a renewed appetite for civilization and the luxuries that go along with it, and this set them on the road towards the Renaissance.Ā The high civilization, for reasons you’ll have to ask a historian for, suppressed the liberal forms of Islam that had brought them to their advanced state and adopted a more hard line form of the religion that, though they were not to be fucked with on the battlefield for many centuries afterward, ultimately led to their weakness and material backwardness relative to the West.Ā If we were to pose the question the other way and ask why it is that the West, so far behind in the 13th Century, came to be so far ahead by the 19th, I would say secular pluralism.
Orā¦as an alternate possibility, could it be that, from the Muslim perspective, there was in fact no āperiod of reason and good fellowship,ā but rather decade upon decade of Western-supported dictatorships, quasi-imperialism, repetitive humiliations, and (in the case of Afghanistan, at least) vicious, unending warfare? Fiore muses with an air of non-plussed good humor at what could have possibly led some Muslims to set themselves against South Park so:
This would be more credible if the regimes in the region that are openly hostile to the West (Libya, Syria, Iraq until very recently and as it no doubt will be once again six months after we leave) were any more enlightened or democratic than the ones that are aligned with the West.Ā Radical fundamentalist Islamism is not a remedy.
The Mafia is an appropriate comparison because the threats made against South Park are in some ways more akin to extortion than conventional terrorism. A typical terrorist campaign attempts to achieve an absurdly ambitious goal with an absurdly miniscule amount of force. For example, in 40 years of terrorism after 1967, Palestinian terrorists managed to kill something like 2100 Israelis. No one is going to surrender their country to avoid this level of casualties. A modern army can kill that many non-combatants in an afternoon by mistake. The campaign against depictions of the prophet Muhammad on the other hand brings to bear an absurdly disproportionate amount of force to stop something most people in the West donāt have the inclination to do in the first place.
Gold, pure gold.
The Mafia analogy carefully obscures the clear conclusion ā Muslims have little if any way to address their political grievances to the foreign powers that repetitively kick them in the teeth. Terrorism is largely, as Fiore quite rightly notes, useless. So when you canāt do anything about the big insults, you naturally focus on the small ones. Surely segments of the Muslim world sees depictions of the prophet by the infidels not as the first insult, or the fifth or the 200th, but rather as part of one, long, sustained insult by a bully who has kept his foot on their throat for half a century plus.
Threats against newspaper publishers or television networks are petty and stupid and despicable, obviously ā but theyāre neither incomprehensible nor evidence of some sort of disconnect between religious thinking and rationality. Given the relationship between the west and the Middle East, the threats are, on the contrary, entirely comprehensible. That doesnāt mean that they should be condoned. In the first place, as Fiore points out, the whole brouhaha definitely makes things worse, not better, for Muslims worldwide. Moreover, while it isnāt as bad as the Talibanās systematic oppression of women or al Qaedaās terrorist attacks, threatening to kill innocents for drawing pictures does seem to me to be a fair definition of evil. Still, we can take comfort in the thought that weāll go tit for tat or better in the near future, whenever the next American drone strike takes out the next Afghani wedding party.
This is what I think of as the Poor Darlings argument:Ā The Poor Darlings have suffered so much that they can’t be held responsible for their actions.Ā The trouble with this argument is that it treats the actions of the most fanatical faction of the Muslim world as if it were representative of the whole.Ā These fanatics cause exponentially more violence and destruction in the Muslim world than they do in the West.Ā I quote Samuel Johnson:Ā “If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves.Ā We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.”Ā Of course, imperial expansion and domination is something only evil people like Europeans engage in.Ā You’d never see Muslims spreading their faith by force and creating an empire that spans three continents.
Fioreās a lefty too, and I doubt he supports the Afghan war any more than I do. But he doesnāt want to talk about it in too much detail because to do so would mess up his nice little binary; rational west as powerless, peaceful victims; nutty religious dickheads as powerful, violent thugs. To give Fiore his due, though, he is willing to follow his simplistic analogy wherever it takes him, no matter how idiotic the end location is. And so in the last paragraph we get this gem:
What the West has learned is that even if you do sincerely believe in God, if you want any peace you canāt act that way. After all, if you truly believed that those who follow the wrong religion will be subjected to eternal torment then youāre doing them no favors by allowing them to do so. For instance, during the Cold War, if you believed as Jesus told you that death is an illusion, and the atheistic regimes of the Soviet bloc were depriving millions of even opportunity to save their souls from eternal damnation, then you would be honor bound to not only risk nuclear war but to engage in it. After all, eternal bliss would compensate the just for any suffering they endured.
To call this a strawman argument is to cast scurrilous aspersions on the structural integrity of straw. Which Christians exactly is it who want to start a worldwide nuclear holocaust for the sake of the souls of atheists? Would that be the many Christians who, on quite good scriptural authority, believe that Jesus enjoined them to pacifism? Would it be the Catholic Church ā still the largest Christian denomination ā which holds to a just war doctrine that declared the Iraq war anathema? The Niebuhrian realist tradition, which stresses a humane concern for human life and justice? Hell, even wacko Protestant Christian right-wing apocalyptic fantasies like the Left Behind series doesnāt advocate genocide-for-Jesus as far as I know.
I didn’t write about the war in Afghanistan, or global warming, or agricultural trade policy, or anything else that was irrelevant to my subject, which was South Park and Viacom’s policies.Ā My totally irrelevant feelings about the war in Afghanistan are again more Machiavellian than moral.Ā Fighting a war in Afghanistan is like playing video poker:Ā The longer you sit at the machine the more you lose, and in the end you can’t win.
I didn’t say any Christians of any kind wanted a nuclear holocaust for the sake of the souls of atheists.Ā What I said was that if they had acted as if there actually was a God, then they would have.Ā Of course, people who believe in God act as if there were a God in any circumstance in which it’s convenient.
There are nutcases everywhere, obviously, and Iām sure thereās the random Christian out there who wants everyone to die in a fiery man-made holocaust ā but to suggest that this is especially a hallmark of religious thinking as opposed to the rational atheist philosophies of, say, Pol Pot or Mao or Hitlerā¦itās nonsense on its face. And thatās to say nothing of our own lovely, rational, harmless, hapless capitalism, which canāt stand up for South Park, but which has, nonetheless, shown itself capable on occasion of a certain ruthlessness, as Chileans, Cambodians, and, for that matter, Native Americans would no doubt be willing to attest.
I wasn’t advocating atheism, I was advocating religious liberty.Ā What I said was that practicing religious liberty entails in a sense acting as if there wasn’t a God, even if you believe there is.
āWhat the West has learned is that even if you do sincerely believe in God, if you want any peace you canāt act that way.ā Iāve quoted that twice already, and Iām quoting it a third time because itās central to Fioreās argument ā and, I believe, to his belief. Because it is a belief, right? Itās certainly not a fact. Where, after all, is this peace weāve found by acting as if we donāt believe in God, precisely? The U.S. is more religious than Europe, certainly, but by world-historical standards weāre a pretty secular society ā and, by world-historical standards, we have probably the biggest military of all time. Chinaās fond of playing with weapons too, and they arenāt noticeably religious last time I checked. And, you know, on the other side, I was under the impression that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi both drew the inspiration for their non-violent resistance movements from their faith. Or does Fiore think that MLK was somehow acting as if he didnāt believe in God?
The roulette wheel analogy presumes that most people are going to believe in a God of some sort.Ā It also presumes that there is an ultimate truth when the wheel stops, and it doesn’t presume what that truth is.Ā A lot of people who were not at all religious supported the civil rights movement, and a lot of people who were deeply religious opposed it.
Fiore ends with a really tiresome roulette wheel analogy which I donāt have the heart to quote. But itās telling that such vacuous modernity can only end by seeing faith in terms of gambling, money, and yes, capitalism. Fiore believes that believing in nothing will save himā¦but the truth is that nothing has its own rites and rituals, its own insanities, its own cruelties, and even its own genocidal impulses. The world isnāt divided into believers and non-believers, or into the sane and the insane. The only ones here are us chickens ā or, if you prefer, us poor sinners, a long way from home.
If you believe in a transcendent deity who, after a brief, contingent life filled with brutality, absurdity and injustice ends in an often painful death, will suddenly declare His little joke over and transport us to another life completely unlike it in every detail, I’m on your side, pal.Ā If you believe that there is a pill that will allow me to lose weight without effort I am also on your side.Ā However, I am not personally going to make life decisions based on either proposition, because based on what I know I don’t find them to be plausible.Ā My point of view on religion, guaranteed to please no one, is cultural materialist.Ā Cultural materialism is the theory that there is a Darwinian process in the selection of social forms, and that therefore for instance no religion that is adopted by large populations for generations can be arbitrary or irrational, but rather must serve some purpose for its adherents.Ā At the very least a great religion represents what a lot of people have thought for a long time about how life ought to be lived.Ā (My theory about Islam is that it’s a very good strategy for enduring hardship, but it’s not so good for overcoming hardship, at least as currently practiced.)Ā Once when I was listening to Paul Robeson singing spirituals I wondered about the propriety of using other people’s religions for entertainment purposes, and the conclusion I came to is that if nothing else, it was folklore.Ā My home is over Jordan not because I’m Christian, but because I’m American.
Me, I’m as modern as carpet bombing.Ā Personally I never read the book that proves that to call something modern is to prove that it’s wrong.Ā I did read something in a book that encapsulates exactly what I do personally believe.Ā It’s from the end of a novel called The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier, and it’s the materialist equivalent of the Nicene Creed:
A cosmic weariness, as of a planet weighted with stones, fell upon his shoulders shrunk by so many blows, sweats, revolts.Ā Ti Noel had squandered his birthright, and, despite the abject poverty to which he had sunk, he was leaving the same inheritance he had received:Ā a body of flesh to which things had happened.Ā Now he understood that a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes.Ā He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him.Ā But manās greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is.Ā In laying duties upon himself.Ā In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy.Ā For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World.