Intellectuals and the Clash of Cultures

Professional habits persist even in times of terror.  Perhaps because I teach literature, I’ve found myself especially distressed by the ubiquity of a certain metaphor that structures many official pronouncements and threatens to define our common understanding of the awful events of September 11 and the actions that will be taken in their aftermath.  Long ago, near the beginning of what we now call “Western” civilization, Thucydides noted that war corrupts language.  This is not an incidental or epiphenomenal effect but necessary ideological work that makes the specific and horrific acts of violence that are wars appear not merely reasonable but justified.  Language, with all its ideological freight, mobilizes people’s fears and focuses their anger.  For that reason, difficult as it may be in these times of crisis and panic, intellectuals — those who work with and in language — must be vigilant concerning the ways in which the metaphors we adopt structure our understanding of situations and make some courses of action seem inevitable and others unthinkable.

The most pernicious metaphor yet to emerge in this very difficult, extremely dangerous time figures this “war” as a clash of civilizations, a struggle between as Samuel P. Huntington put it some years ago — the West and the rest, by which is meant Islam.  Huntington, director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and chair of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, former director of the National Security Council under Carter, former president of the American Political Science Association, and prominent Cold War strategist, began the current circulation of this metaphor in articles that appeared in Foreign Policy and the New York Times back in 1993 and 94 and in a widely reviewed (frequently criticized) book ominously entitled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1996).  In many ways, the ideological groundwork on which we are being asked to understand recent events was laid back then, most prominently by Huntington but by others as well.*  Now both official Washington (like the President when he calls for a “crusade” against terrorism or explains to the nation that we have been attacked by those who hate “our way of life,” especially our freedom and democracy) and some opposition intellectuals (like Christopher Hitchens when he reminds liberals that what the Taliban hates about Western society is what liberals love — women’s rights, secularism, and democracy again) deploy the metaphor of a war between civilizations to explain what has happened and to determine what should follow.  Thus antagonism toward the United States (self-identified as the bastion of the West and of the liberal enlightenment the West is assumed to represent) emerges not as a reaction to a specific history and continuing policies that include imperialist domination, military aggression, and brutal Realpolitik in regions where Moslems live (the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, Indonesia), but rather as coming from deep within Islamic civilization itself.  On the CBS news magazine “Sixty Minutes” (September 30, 2001), an angry-looking Ed Bradley “interviewed” a panel of American Muslim religious leaders and asked them repeatedly to explain what it is about Islam that makes its followers so violent.  Few would imagine that it would be useful to ask a panel of Christian or Jewish priests, ministers, and rabbis the same question, but why not?

The “culture wars” metaphor is rapidly coming to represent a received reality.  The tenor of the trope is always the same.  Caleb Carr, novelist, historian, contributing editor of MHG: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for September 23, put it as follows:

[I]t is the spread of American values— — ndividualistic, democratic, materialistic and, yes, in many ways crass and exploitative American values — that terrorist groups and the traditionalist, socially repressive societies that support them now fear.  …The engine that runs the juggernaut that is expansionist American democratic capitalism (which is the force that opens the way of American cultural predominance) is housed, chiefly, in a comparatively few high-profile buildings at the southern tip of Manhattan Island.  Americans look (or in the case of the World Trade Center, looked) on these buildings as some of the most distinctive symbols of all that our city and nation can achieve and have achieved…..Our enemies in this war, by contrast, looked at them and saw — still see — the death of their own values, their own ways of life, their effective autonomy.  Such perception breeds both malice and fear.  Inside those buildings, the people behind this attack believe, is where the end of the societies they come from and the values that they live by was and is being planned (whether consciously or not), and there is where the erosion must be stopped.  The terrorist obsession with the World Trade Center was, in this light, not irrational.  In fact it was, viewed in the context of a war of cultures, entirely understandable. (92)

Viewed in the context of a “war of cultures,” a context created by the metaphor itself, the enemy and the enemy’s motives appear self-evident.  These Moslem traditionalists hate us — the West¾for our very modernity, which for them overshadows (on this view) our merciless bombing runs in Iraq, our machinations in the Middle East and Indonesia, or our cruel embargoes that kill Arab children.  They hate us not so much for the violence we have abetted and committed as for what we, in our own fondest dream, imagine ourselves to be — the bastion of freedom, the perfection of a peaceful secular state, the purveyor of superior values and irresistible entertainments.  It’s Seinfeld, Britney Spears, and “Independence Day” that they hate and fear, not our wars for oil, or our gun-running to Israel, nor our ill-considered meddling in the internal dynamics of Iran, or Pakistan or Afghanistan itself. Islam itself is the enemy.  That is why it makes sense to many Americans that an American journalist should ask a group of American clerics what’s wrong with their religion.

However many pious platitudes concerning “our” respect for Islam as a “great” religion and however many representatives from mosques are included in national ceremonies of mourning, the meaning of the metaphor that figures this moment as a culture war remains perfectly clear.  This metaphor soothes our grief because it panders to the oldest and most powerful self-image of this New World nation.  We are again the city on the hill (a metaphor coined by our own militant religious fanatics) that Ronald Reagan loved to evoke during the Cold War, a shining example of hope to a world yearning always toward us.  But it also blinds us to the various ways in which, in our exercise of global power in the last decades, we have failed to live up to or even approximate the values we now claim to represent.  And, in terms of the US role in the world today, the blindness this metaphor entails, the limitations on thought it incurs, may be the worst and most dangerous thing about it.  To end terrorism we must address the grievances addressed to us, and these involve primarily our political actions and military impositions, not our films and fast food.  But it becomes vastly more difficult to think through these problems in a situation described as a simple war of antipathetic cultures.

To claim that bin Laden and his followers in no way reflect regional and global history of the last forty or even the last ten years is to leave only a theocratized discourse of absolute good versus absolute evil.  Nothing of what we know about civilizations — especially our own — suggests that such a univocal and brutal understanding of peoples and actions can offer any real purchase on human and political realities. (However much Nazi Germany grew out of modernity and the culture of the West or even of Germany, few see it as the definitive expression of any of these.)  It is a new purchase on these realities that we desperately need right now as the United States moves to extend the reach of violence even further among Arab and Asian peoples.  For them, as for us, their own cultures tend to be sites of conflict between what, for lack of more precise terms, we can call good and evil.  The Taliban have committed many crimes in Afghanistan, but they are no more usefully understood as a simple expression of Islamic culture than Pat Robertson is usefully understood as a simple expression of the Gospels.   The metaphor of culture war demands that we forget the history we have helped to make and accept a more comforting representation of a world in which our opponents hate us because we are good.

This was the somewhat surprising burden of Christopher Hitchens’s piece that appeared online in the immediate aftermath of the attack and in the Nation soon after.  “I was apprehensive from the first about the sort of masochistic e-mail traffic that might start circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter,” he wrote, “and I was not to be disappointed.”  Then he continued:

I know already that the people of Palestine and Iraq are victims of a depraved and callous Western statecraft.  And I think I can claim to have been among the first to point out that Clinton’s rocketing of Khartoum — supported by most liberals — was a gross war crime, which would certainly have entitled the Sudanese government to mount reprisals under international law.… But there is no sense in which the events of September 11 can be held to constitute such a reprisal, either legally or morally.  It is worse than idle to propose the very tradeoffs that may have been lodged somewhere in the closed-off minds of the mass murderers.  The people of Gaza live under curfew and humiliation and expropriation.  This is notorious.  Very well: Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan?  It would take a moral cretin to suggest anything of the sort; the cadres of the new jihad make it very apparent that their quarrel is with Judaism and secularism on principle, not with (or not just with) Zionism…[T]he bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face and there’s no point in any euphemism about it.  What they abominate about “the West,” to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend:  its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.  Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content.  Indiscriminate murder is not a judgment, even obliquely, on the victims or their way of life, or ours.  Any decent and concerned reader of this magazine could have been on one of those planes, or in one of those buildings — yes, even in the Pentagon. (Nation, October 8, 2001, 8)

I cite this at length because it both fascinates and horrifies me.  It is an index to the depth of panic that Hitchens and many others (at times myself included) are feeling.  Declaring culture war, demonizing the enemy, removing from consideration the painful history in which the perpetrators — in their confusion — found their motivation, all of this replaces panic with anger, and pain with the anesthetic of rage.  It is efficacious as an anesthetic but it hardly amounts to useful analysis.  It is a drug intellectuals must forswear.

Hitchens seems addicted to it.  Consider his impatient concessions and his fevered rhetorical gestures.  Yes, yes, he says, I know about U.S. weapons and operations in Palestine and the Sudan and Pakistan and Afghanistan, but I cannot think about that right now.  To do so would be “masochism.”  A revealing term and one that we must consider.  For masochism — the willingness to inflict upon oneself the pain of reflection — is precisely the critical intellectual’s mode.  Even when we wish we could simply join in the rising chorus of hate or of unreflecting, self-righteous anger, we must preserve a painful detachment and an equally painful consciousness.   We must remember that not only might we have been in those buildings in New York, we might equally well have been on the ground in Khartoum or on the West Bank or in Iraq.  It is precisely that consciousness, masochistic or not, that has been immorally absent from our public debates about foreign policy, such as they have been.  To pound our chests and declare war on terrorism (which many fear will evolve as another instance of our long, violent history with Islamic peoples) may spare us the pain of this consciousness, the consciousness of our own place and role in a world in which we have been almost continuously at war for over fifty years; but it doesn’t shed much light on where we have been or where we should try to go from here.

There are of course, from the first and continuously, other voices to be heard.  In addition to Chomsky, Zinn and others, Edward Said wrote in the Observer on September 16, only a few days after the horror unfolded in his adopted city:
Rational understanding of the situation is what is needed now, not more drum-beating.  George Bush and his team clearly want the latter, not the former.  Yet to most people in the Islamic and Arab worlds the official US is synonymous with arrogant power, known for its sanctimoniously munificent support not only of Israel but of numerous repressive Arab regimes, and its inattentiveness even to the possibility of dialogue with secular movements and people who have real grievances.

And Said concludes: “’Islam’ and the ‘the West’ are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly….  Demonization of the Other is not a sufficient basis for any kind of decent politics, certainly not now when the roots of terror in injustice can be addressed, and the terrorists isolated, deterred, or put out of business. It takes patience and education, but is more worth the investment than still greater levels of large-scale violence and suffering.”  It is precisely against patience, insight, and education that the metaphor of a culture war first mobilizes us. 

It is no surprise that those who have chosen this moment to further demonize what they unreflectingly call Islam or even Islamic extremists tend to be those who understand the least about the history and development of the regions in question and of the religion they describe.  Those who beat the drums for a war of civilizations (and what would victory in such a war mean?) tend not to be Islamic or even to speak Arabic or Urdu or any other language spoken by the civilizations they undertake to damn.  And yet, one wonders, how well can anyone understand a culture without understanding the languages in which cultures identify and transform themselves?  For starters, every American should undertake to comprehend the semantic resources of the term Jihad, which is much closer in this context to Western ideas of justified, defensive war than it is to the Western idea (and Western invention) of a crusade.

Finally, we cannot call for Americans to foreswear violence against domestic Islamic populations at the same time we claim to be waging a war  (a crusade as Bush put it) in which the “enemy” is identified with Islamic civilization.  If there are, as we are piously reminded time and again, a “vast majority” of Moslems who are not only not our enemies but part of our collectivity and our civilization, then we must also admit that whatever struggle we are in, it cannot be understood ahistorically and fantastically as a war of civilizations.  Misguided and criminal religious zealotry (if that is what has led to these horrific events) cannot—in the West or the rest of the world—be understood as a simple, organic expression of the civilizations in which it occurs.  No civilization, especially not Western civilization, is immune from criminal zealotry or mass murder.  The culture war metaphor may offer comforting justifications for violence abroad and for violations of civil rights at home, but it cannot elucidate a complex situation for those who are truly interested in justice—infinite or not.  Justice requires that we reconsider our role in the world. The increasingly popular metaphor of a war between cultures allows us to avoid the pain of self-reflection.   To act justly or even judiciously requires a self-awareness that no intellectual can afford to avoid, however painful, masochistic, and unpopular it may be. 

Again, because I teach literature, literature often helps me understand what I see.  The most basic political or moral lesson contained in these horrendous and terrifying events is so simple that a bit of blunt doggerel from a poem W. H. Auden wrote at the beginning of World War 2 seems to sum it up:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.


*Most notably Benjamin Barber, whose Jihad vs. McWorld (New York: Times Books, 1995) is, like Huntington’s work, enjoying renewed popularity.  For a general critique of the position they represent and an account of some of the debate Huntington’s book provoked, see my Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2000), pp. 89-107.

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