The Problem of the Enemy

Wed, Mar 3, 2004 - 11:00pm

Lee Harris has written a book titled Civilization and Its Enemies. Inspired by famous Western thinkers, Harris dissects America's inability to understand or come to terms with the terror attacks of 9/11. According to Harris, our national psychology has evolved toward economic rationality to the point where fighting bloody wars on the basis of ideological fantasy makes no sense to us. Our enemy makes no sense to us. We are psychologically unready for the naked insanity of the war we are in.

What motivates the terrorist, aside from his fantasy ideology, is the barbarian's hatred of a superior civilization based on individual liberty and commercial cooperation (i.e., universal civility and amelioration of conflict). The thing that most encourages terrorism, aside from the rogue states that support it, are civilization's self-hating literati. America's intellectual culture is mired in self-serving "Left-wing ideology" which draws from Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser's interpretation of Marx. It is an intellectual culture trapped by its own "smug sense of knowing everything," destructively critiquing the last best hope of mankind (America) in order to impose its own mistaken utopian constructions. Here the intellectual corollary of the irresponsible consumer is found in doctrines of subjectivism and relativism - doctrines "in which all of life is seen in terms of options and nothing in terms of commitments." This gives rise to a "sham multiculturalism" that despises America's special solution to the problem of global order. "Sham multiculturalism forgets the fate of the individual," writes Harris. "It makes people the property of their culture and permits the airtight box of this culture to dictate their often very limited range of choices...." Sham multiculturalism negates individual rights. To make ethnic identity or culture more fundamental than the individual is a negation of the individual. According to Harris, it is "what used to be called racism."

America's respect for the individual, with its emphasis on racial and religious tolerance, is not found in the Islamic world (where violence reigns). It is not found in the caste system of India. It is a unique development, an accidental discovery of the English-speaking peoples. The American system and America's "culture of doing" facilitates the greatest cooperation by the greatest number. Here we are talking about economic cooperation, political cooperation and military combinations that have brought unprecedented prosperity to millions and unprecedented military power to one country. According to Harris, no other society has matched America because no other society encourages the same degree of cooperation and coordination. Therefore, America is superior in a decisive sense. "Is this arrogance?" asks Harris. "If you insist on seeing it like that. But is it arrogance to think that a child can get better medical treatment from a modern hospital than from a tribal witch doctor?"

America needs a better sense of self-appreciation in its war against radical Islam. Contrary to what the enemies of America have always maintained, the United States is not after global dominance. It is the champion of universal cooperation and peace. Its framework is not based on a gang of "ruthless people, acting on the stimulus of a fantasy-ideology." Instead, America is a "self-regulating order" in which the various parts have "mastered the quintessential American trait of knowing how to get along with others."

The brilliance of Harris is that he grasps the irrational essence of war and enmity that is, simultaneously, the essence of anti-Americanism and the core of modern barbarism. He also understands that this irrationality is instrumental. The enemies of America are crazy in the sense that they cultivate political insanity in order to intimidate a more civilized opponent. There is an advantage in being nuts, says Harris. People are afraid of crazy persons. Civilization misunderstands the madman dictators of the world, imagining that their violent outbursts are momentary, their complaints somehow justified. And this leads civilization to a policy of appeasement. "Crazy like a fox" describes the political antics of Hitler, bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Adopting the persona of a hair-trigger psychopath can be a rational strategy, especially when confronting a polite and sane civilization. At the same time, many intellectuals make excuses for political psychopaths, from Mao to Arafat. There is the notion, spread far and wide, that civilization is flawed and barbarians offer something of a solution. Perhaps they are misunderstood giants. Certainly they are no worse than "imperialist" America.

It is a dangerous situation when a significant number of Western intellectuals fail to recognize evil, or mistakenly associate evil with civilization's cause. How can this be explained? "The ideals that our intellectuals have been instilling in us are utopian ideals," writes Harris, "designed for men and women who know no enemy and who do not need to take precautions against him." War and enmity are repugnant to liberal sensibilities. As Harris explains, "the enemy shatters the enlightenment's visions of utopia, of Kant's epoch of perpetual peace and of the end of history. And this is why so many American and European intellectuals refuse to acknowledge today even the possibility of the enemy's existence...."

The enemy of civilization is real. His method is violence. His aim is to bring down a system based on tolerance and cooperation. This enemy does not approve of tolerance. He doesn't want to cooperate. In confronting this enemy, civilization has no choice. It must aside its ethic of toleration. It must eliminate the enemy. Appeasement will not work. "At this juncture in history," writes Harris, "it is in the interest of civilization, wherever it is found, to keep the legitimacy of the Pax Americana intact." Harris also says that America "must reserve the option of acting ... unilaterally and at its own discretion...." Terrorists must not be allowed to decide the fate of mankind.

There are so many insights in Harris's book that it is impossible to summarize them all. If you read only one book this year it should be Civilization and Its Enemies.

About the Author

jrnyquist [at] aol [dot] com ()