Saturday, November 13, 2004

Western Democracies and Islam

At the Belmont Club, Wretchard has a post which brings up the issue of democracy and values. He makes the point that

"[T]he process of secularization -- or 'value emptying' as Pell might put it -- has not been entirely uniform. In actuality, while whole chunks of the West have thrown out their traditional value systems, other chunks have been busy proseletyzing theirs. As Episcopalian churches have emptied the fundamentalist Islamic mosques have filled. That uneven development, if left unchecked, may eventually mean that the magnificent mechanism of secular democracy, which serves no value of itself, will be arbitrarily assigned a goal by the majority most willing to hijack it. Pell's observation that "the small but growing conversion of native Westerners within Western societies to Islam carries the suggestion that Islam may provide in the 21st century the attraction that communism provided in the 20th ..." will mark him in liberal Australian circles as a bigot. It should mark him as a wit, for he has managed to slander those they would least offend by comparing them to those they most admire."

This is an important point and an issue that needs to be addressed if we are to understand terrorism and those who join up and Wretchard does yoeman's work bringing it up. I would, though, take slight issue with the idea that democracies are really value neutral. They have not stood empty of values but others have come in to replace the ones that have been discarded. What has taken their place is economic values and self-interest. These have become the predominant values of the Western democracies.

There has never been a civilization in history which has been based on the principle of self interest as the prime factor. (Economic values are simply a refinement of the idea of self-interest.) Before it was honor, or God, or the city or something else that took people outside of themselves and made them regard others and the effects their conduct had on the whole including on their position before God. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, however, took what was of most concern to each person individually and placed that at the foundation of civilization. (For Hobbes the fear of violent death. For Locke death and the other "inconveniencies" of the state of nature.) That had not been done before. They substituted inclination-- what I most want to do-- for duty--what I should do. Now what I was inclined to do as a matter of my own interests became in essence civic virtue. Before this, civic virtue required self sacrifice. But that was too much to expect of people anyway, so they, the Enlightenment philosophers, changed it to something much easier. Inclination became duty rather than a suppression of inclination. That is the West.

It is not that this was embraced whole from the beginning. The other more traditional values have always served as a counterpoise to the Enlightenment argument, though it was on Enlightenment philosophy which our present institutions were based, including the economy. But as the other, more traditional values, have fallen by the way or been discarded out of hand, the Enlightenment values have taken their place.

In Western civilization and particularly in the US there is little today that requires self sacrifice or self denial, the old civic virtue, except for religion and that is really on the wane as a motivating principle notwithstanding what the statistics say. The military still does to some extent although that may be dominated more and more by careerism. For many, though, it still requires that kind of self sacrifice, the kind of virtue the older regimes would recognize. But that is not a majority of the people. And anti-draft sentiment ran high among many of the young in the past election so they must not see the military in all that appealing a light, at least not for themselves.

An appeal to these Western values was made by Clinton in his first election. The slogan was "it's the economy stupid!" (Notice that the word "stupid" was included to make sure it was brought home that that was the only issue of note.) But he did this because it has such an appeal. No one speaks of duty to God, to the city (civic virtue) or to our neighborhood when we are talking about public policy. Politicians are always promising to do things for us all the time and isn't that an appeal to self interest? If anyone comes around and says, "I offer you toil and struggle and sacrifice and an investment in time and capital you will never see a return on. And you will probably end up grinding away your life without any hope for anything in return or even for any public recognition that you have done this. But that is what your country needs from you and you ought to be duty bound to give it," --what would we say to him?

And this makes Western civilization fundamentally immoral to fundamentalist Islam. And, by the way, it makes Western civilization immoral to a certain segment of Christianity too. Do we have anything to fear from conservative Christians? The left says yes but they equate Christians here with Islamic jihadists so they can't be trusted for anything useful.

In his book, The True and Only Heaven:, Christopher Lasche makes the point:

"But if humanity thrives on peace and prosperity, it also needs an occasional taste of battle. Men and women need to believe that 'life is a critical affair,' in Richard Niebuhr's words. 'They cannot be satisfied merely with the opportunity to choose their goals and 'life-styles,' in the current jargon; they need to believe that their choices carry serious consequences. In the Christian cosmos, the forces of good and evil waged a mighty struggle for man's soul, and every action had to be weighed in the scales of eternity. Communism endowed everyday actions with the same kind of cosmic significance, as Keynes and many others understood. In 1940, George Orwell made the same point about fascism. The Western democracies, he observed, had come to think that 'human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain.' Whatever else could be said about it, fascism was 'psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.' Hitler knew that men and women wanted more than ''comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control.' 'Whereas socialism. and even capitalism . . . have said to people, I offer you a good time,' Hitler has said to them, 'I offer you struggle, dangers, and death,' and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet." (Lasche, p. 79.)

The terrorist lives a life of great consequence, not only with respect to life or death, but also, in the case of fundamentalist Islam, in terms of his status before God and in eternity. His life is lived for something outside of himself, something that is greater than himself. And great sacrifice, great self sacrifice, is required to live it. This is something that would be recognized by the older regimes which some of them would have called "virtue." And that is an appealing life for many.

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