Our clueless keyboard warriors need to simmer down about Islam: This is how the neo-cons led us to war

From Maher to Geller and Frum, pundits want to fight back hard against Islam. This kind of talk always ends badly

Published May 11, 2015 7:29PM (EDT)

  (AP/Kevin Lamarque)
(AP/Kevin Lamarque)

Jeffrey Tayler, a contributing editor to the Atlantic, has joined the Atlantic’s David Frum and Jeffrey Goldberg to warn Western liberals against quieting, solely at their own discretion, the kind of “free speech” that shocks and offends Muslim immigrants. Liberals who warn against “Islamophobia” need to acknowledge that Islam is more absolutist and brutal than its Abrahamic cousins, Judaism and Christianity, Tayler tells us in a Salon piece.

Not only that, Goldberg decides that Islam’s adherents in the West are anything but members of a powerless minority, since there are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. It’s time, adds Tayler, to face the fact that Islam is, by its nature, bent on total conquest. “The jihad against freedom of expression has opened a front in the United States. This is not a battle we have chosen; the battle has chosen us. It’s time to fight back, and hard.”

These are dramatic, resonant sentences, short and sharp. But they should be familiar to anyone with a sense of history. Too many who tell us of battles that have chosen us have damaged American strength and credibility, first by serving and cheerleading for concentrations of power that are hollowing us out from within, and second because they haven’t the slightest idea of how to fight effectively or how our society might actually sustain its resilience and fighting morale, as the Viet Cong and ISIS and our other enemies have done.

Call up the Marines? Call up mercenaries? Send out more drones? Put the surveillance state on steroids? That’s all demonstrably, monstrously part of the hollowing out, and I don’t think that our keyboard warriors have a clue.

My skepticism about the latest summons to war begins – but only begins --  with the incontrovertible truth I expressed here two days ago.

Most Muslim immigrants to the West are fleeing not Mohammed (whom they cherish), but the tyranny, orchestrated hatred and kleptocracy that are perpetrated in his name. Are they caught in an insoluble contradiction? Tayler thinks so. He means to go Frum and Goldberg one better by obliterating the distinction between cherishing the Prophet and murdering infidels. Islam, he writes, is inherently absolutist and brutal, as are its monotheistic predecessors Christianity and Judaism, “two Abrahamic ‘anti-human religions’ (to quote Gore Vidal)….  From a rationalist’s perspective, any ideology that mandates belief without evidence is a priori dangerous and liable to abuse…. Objectively, polytheism was better. Look back in time. The many gods of Greek and Roman antiquity, by their very multiplicity, presupposed a spirit of pluralism in their societies and even a certain ludic variety…”

Well, let’s see, I think I recall a bit of slaughter in Homer and Thucydides, but Islam, for Tayler, is the latest manifestation of a mass brutality that came in only with monotheism: “Enter the God of the Israelites. Jealous and vengeful, capricious and megalomaniacal, He issued His Decalogue. What is Commandment Number One? ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ — an absolutist order implicitly justifying violence against those who haven’t gotten the memo.”

Yes, indeed, and a lot of support for Tayler’s, Frum’s and Goldberg’s demand that the West fight back, and hard, is still animated by the Jealous God of the “greater Israel” crowd that includes Netanyahu’s governing coalition and Brooklyn jihadis such as Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer. I thought I glimpsed that God also in George W. Bush’s “crusade” and “mission” in Iraq (enhanced by his “Axis of Evil” speechwriter David Frum and by Frum’s book, "An End to Evil," co-authored with Richard Perle). Didn’t these battles carry forward the beliefs of Bush’s own ancestor, the Rev. George Bush, whose 1840 tract, "Life of Muhammed," denominated that prophet “an imposter,” and whose 1844 book, "The Dry Bones Revealed," prophesied the return of the Jews to the Holy Land?

Tayler writes that “the Prophet Muhammad transformed the Judeo-Christian Despot into an even more menacing, wrathful ogre whose gory punishments were meted out to hapless souls after death.” But Muhammad didn’t “transform” the Judeo-Christian God into an even more menacing ogre. Jews who were expelled en masse from Catholic Spain during the Inquisition of 1492 lived peacefully, by the tens of thousands, for 500 years under the … um, Caliphate in Istanbul, and other Jews who had never left the Middle East lived peacefully even longer under the Ottomans, by the tens of thousands, in Baghdad, Mosul, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria and even Jerusalem.  Europe, meanwhile, was enjoying the truly gory Thirty Years War and, within the Enlightenment, sowing seeds of horrors that even ISIL and al-Qaida have yet to equal.

Tayler, Frum and Goldberg (who was born and brought up on Long Island but served in the Israel Defense Forces, as David Brooks’ older son is doing now) are part of the problem they’re telling us to fight back against. In their declamations you hear echoes of their other summonses. Let’s glance at those before signing up for this one.

First, of course, you hear echoes of the Cold War, when Communism was on the march and John F. Kennedy showed that he was tough by campaigning against the “Missile Gap” between us and the putatively more well-armed Soviets – a gap as terrifying but fraudulent as Saddam’s WMD of 2003. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the intellectual forebears of today’s neoconservatives assured us that Communism’s advance wasn’t a battle that we’d chosen; it had chosen us, and we had to fight back, and hard.

Only nuclear brinkmanship and a military rollback of Stalin could win. We’d also have to fight Communism in Cuba, in Vietnam and even under our beds and in our government and campus offices, warned Sen. Joseph McCarthy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Richard Nixon. They assured us that we couldn’t just adopt the firm but less-bellicose strategy of containment put forward by George F. Kennan, who’d warned of Stalin’s malign intentions before anyone else but insisted we react deftly rather than harshly, except when there really was no choice.

Kennan warned that too much resort to main force would make us more stupid than our military-industrial complex was already making us. And it did: When the Soviet Union collapsed, not one of the vigilant Cold Warriors who were ensconced in the defense and national-intelligence agencies and think tanks and Op-Ed pages had seen it coming. Most of them insisted that the collapse had come only thanks to our military brinkmanship and buildup, our glorious Bay of Pigs invasion, our installation of the Shah in Iran, our willingness to defend democracy in South Vietnam.

In Tayler’s call to fight back now, you can also hear the more recent echoes of the Global War on Terror and, especially, of the Iraq War, whose proponents (including Richard Perle and Leon Wieseltier) linked 9/11 and al-Qaida directly to Saddam Hussein and WMD in a public letter sent to the president as the ruins of ground zero lay smoking. Not only had the Islamicists’ battle chosen us; Iraq was the place to fight back, and hard.

“Come on, people, let's get a grip,” urged David Brooks in April 2004, as our fiasco in Iraq was becoming clear. “This week, Chicken Littles like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam. Pundits and sages were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion!

“Maybe we should calm down a bit,” Brooks continued. “We're at a perilous moment in Iraqi history, but the situation is not collapsing… Most important, leadership in the U.S. is for once cool and resolved….”

In Tayler’s, Frum’s and others’ summons now you can also hear echoes surrounding the war in Ukraine, where the same people have told us that Vladimir Putin is out to recover not just that country but all of Russia’s “Near Abroad.” We must fight back -- and hard -- by reviving the Cold War’s “mottled tale of glory,” as the grandiloquent Leon Wieseltier put it last year, adding, “Our time is not lacking for fundamental historical challenges and the obligation to choose sides. …. As our predecessors went to Berlin, so we would go to Kiev.”

Take a glance at where these echoes have led. The Viet Cong certainly weren’t a good answer to French and then American colonialism, but mainly they were determined nationalists, not the spearhead of a Communist battle against us. Some years ago I noticed a T-shirt with a label reading, “Made in Vietnam,” and it dawned on me that that country had been absorbed into world capitalist markets even after it had defeated our hard fight to save it from Communism. What were 50,000 young American and millions of Vietnamese lives sacrificed for, then? One answer was that we had to prove -- to ourselves, more than to anyone else, as it turned out -- that we could fight back. And hard.

Where has that compulsion come from? Tayler tells us it has come from our having to face challenges that “blind obedience to ancient texts” always pose to “reason, progress, consensus-based solutions, and the wonderful panoply of other Enlightenment ideals underpinning our Constitution and the liberties characterizing Western countries.”

He’s half-right, but fatally half-wrong. Like Robert Kagan, who exulted, “The world has become normal again,” in 2007, when the neoliberal global village began resembling a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, America’s Enlightenment warriors grasp for coordinates by projecting big face-offs with Russia, with Vietnam, with Iraq, with Iran, with ISIL — anything to dispel the specter of Western appeasement to Hitler in Munich, 1938, when liberal democracies had made themselves too debilitated and corrupt to fight the fascism that had arisen from within their own economic and political conceits and contracts.

Tayler and the others want to spare us that fate this time by rousing us before it’s too late. But before they crack their rhetorical whips for war, they need to be sure they aren’t serving or covering up for those concentrations of power within the West that are hollowing us out. They have to resist pretending they’re Winston Churchill, sounding the alarm about Munich.

I’m hardly inclined to take advice on this from Henry Kissinger, given his own bloody prolongation, with Richard Nixon, of the battle in Vietnam that had not chosen us -- and given his choice to fight other battles against Communism in Latin America that even the Cold War historian John Gaddis says he should have deferred and let time take its course. Yet last year, as Wieseltier and others cried that the battle in Ukraine had chosen us, Kissinger, 91, cautioned in the Washington Post that  “Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.”

“For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one. […] Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

Reminding retro-Cold Warriors that “Ukraine has been independent for only 23 years” since the 14th century and that “even such famed [Soviet-era] dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history,” Kissinger could as well have said that Ukraine matters even more to Russia than Texas did to the United States, which seized it from Mexico with the help of “Anglo” separatists in 1846.

But now Islamicist terrorists have opened fire in Texas, reminding us that there are indeed times when a liberal democracy must take up arms and fight. But another danger we face comes from people who live for those times, as does the Muhammad cartoon-contest sponsor Pamela Geller and some other Texans and their speechwriters, apologists and cowboy-wannabes back East.

They only compound our hollowing by hurling resonant, short, sharp sentences to goad the “red state” public whose opportunities and pride they have already decimated, as Thomas Edsall showed last week in the most explosively devastating column I’ve seen all year. If you want to fight back, and hard, Mr. Tayler, please tell how you’d fight here.

War cries are an expression of a damaged society’ s ressentiment. That word (in French it’s pronounced “ruh-sohn-tee-mohn”) refers to a syndrome, a public psychopathology, in which gnawing insecurities, envy and hatreds that had been nursed by many people in private converge in public, presenting themselves as noble crusades in scary social eruptions that diminish their participants, even in seeming to make them big.

In ressentiment, the little big man seeks villainous enemies on whom to wreak vengeance for frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because they come from his own exploitation by powers he fears to face and reckon with head-on. Ressentiment warps the little big man’s assessments of both the hardships and opportunities before him. It shapes the disguises he tries on in order to pursue vindication, without incurring reproach -- at least until there are enough of him (and her, of course) to step out together en masse, with a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. (Recall how those crowds chanted “Yoo Es Ay” at the 2008 Republican National Convention, nonplussing even John McCain but delighting Palin.)

Whether ressentiment erupts in a medieval Catholic Inquisition, a Puritan or McCarthyite witch hunt, a Maoist Cultural Revolution, or nihilist extremes of “people’s liberation movements” or political correctness, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. These gusts of collective passion touch raw nerves under the ministrations of demagogues and an increasingly surreal journalism that prepares the way for them by brutalizing public discourse.

These movements’ legitimate grievances often goad them to a fleeting brilliance, but they soon curdle and collapse, tragicomically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance and lies. Our leaders tried to divert such fears and resentments toward Vietnam, toward Iraq, toward a war with Iran that Americans have refused to fight, and, now, into a new front in a war on terror. If that new war’s origins lie in monotheism, then they lie in ourselves, and Tayler should stop telling us that liberalism and the Enlightenment have saved us.

But I doubt that the problem really is monotheism – ours, or Muslims’. The “Evil” in man antedates monotheism. If anything, monotheism has clarified the Evil even without resolving it  – a proposition I advance in an essay on what Puritans could teach neoliberals now, which will be published in June by Democracy Journal.

Yes, there are times when liberals must arm themselves to defend liberal democracy against enemies who’ve arisen, as did fascism and Communism, from within the interstices and contradictions of liberal democratic capitalism itself. But we can’t let the people who live for those times stampede us into actions that only compound the evil and hollow out what’s best in our own way of life.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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