Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Philosophy and the Iraq War

I have noticed something in the year or so I have been doing this. (As readers will be surprised to learn).

What I have noticed is that certain types of Iraqi aims and ambitions and values are consistently hooted down by the American media-and-policy people as nothing more than rationalizations for power-grabs on the part of the people expressing them, or else are completely ignored. And yet certain other types of ideology or organized sets of values--namely religion and race-- are puffed up by the American media-and-policy people as the major motivating factors in Iraq and in fact as the standing in the way of implementing the benevolent and wise policies that the Americans had been proposing.

The first group includes Iraqi nationalism, Sadrist social-group loyalties or any other expression of social solidarity, along with regional loyalties of many types. These expressions of nationalist and other values are either completely ignored, or else debunked as mere "instruments" in a power struggle, not actual bona fide expressions of meaning. (In case you're wondering, I just read the last section of Charles Tayor's Sources of the Self, the Making of the Modern Identity Cambridge Mass, 1989). I gave a couple of examples of this kind of debunking in the earlier post called "What it's all about", and the point could certainly be further elaborated, but lets just leave it in this rather general form for the time being. These types of aims and ambitions and values (including such things as national, regional and group loyalties) are regularly either debunked in this "instrumentalizing" way, or else completely ignored.

And by contrast other expressions of values and loyalty and so on are not debunked, but on the contrary they are elevated to the status of the major motivating factors in the whole country, in fact in the whole region. These are sect (Sunni versus Shia) and to some extent race (Kurd and Persian versus Arab). What is the difference between these two classes of values, that causes them to be treated by the Americans so differently?

The first idea that suggests itself is that Sunni/Shia is the Americans' instrument in a power struggle, and in order to be used as an instrument, the Sunni/Shia theme has to be built up and armed, so to speak, not only with real arms, but also with ideological importance. Hence in the aftermath of the invasion the use of Chalabi and the others to harass Sunnis, and more recently we have the arming of Sunnis to provide "military balance" against the Shiites. This kind of policy wouldn't be even explainable if it were not that "Sunni" and "Shia" are touted as almost military or at least militant and powerful enemies of one another. For which of course there was no real pre-existing evidence at all, and for which the evidence has to be provided by this American media build-up of these. This is so not only in the media sense, but really in terms of arming the two sides respectively.

In other words, the American strategy has been to aggressively sideline anything having to do with nationalism, or social solidarity, or regional loyalty, or any of the other civic virtues that would be so highly praised and prized in any other situation, debunking all of this in Iraq as mere fancy words dressing up the respective groups' roles in a brutal value-free struggle for power. While at the same time the American strategy has been to elevate Sunni-versus-Shia and to a lesser extent racial loyalties to a level of supposedly decisive importance. (If you say this is only a reflection of what happened, you are begging the question. What happened was that the Americans invaded, and they invaded, if not with a particular strategy in mind, at least there was a strategy that was quickly developed).

And the American people have bought into this. People have been expected to believe, and have believed, that nationalism, social solidarity, regional loyalties, and so on, are, in the Iraqi case, essentially nothing but covers for respective roles in a brutal struggle for power. And people have been expected to believe, and have believed, that the struggle in question is "really" religious, that this religion (or these religions) are not a mere cover for anything, but are the real thing, the real motivating forces. (Now you will say that people are gullible and succumbed to the media bombardment, but again I would like to take a step back and see if that isn't another case of begging the question: Why were people ready to believe that?)

Here's a proposed explanation for that part of it: People feel, as part of their overall moral upbringing, an obligation to be universally benevolent and good to one another, and in the Iraqi case the only way to justify the brutality of the invasion and the occupation was to buy the idea of "promoting democracy". Democracy is a "secular" value, an expression of universal equality not dependent on religion or any other factor except for the people themselves. This idea of a pure and religion-free value, and more particularly the idea of "promoting" it in a far-away country like Iraq, carried with it from the beginning a heavy burden of hypocrisy. And when it went wrong, who to blame? Here's where the proposed explanation gets a little "philosophical". Who you blame is you blame those factors that historically had to be overcome in creating an ideology of democracy: primarily religion. You blame, primarily, "Sunnis" and "Shiites" as natural enemies of democracy (as was specifically done in the aftermath of the 2005 and 2006 elections). Never mind that "Sunnis" included nationalists and a variety of other more particular loyalties; or that "Shiites" included a variety of different social loyalties and affiliations. It was all, supposedly, the fault of the Sunni-Shia difference in religion. Certainly the media megaphone was responsible for a lot of the touting of this, but the point I am making is that perhaps there was a preexisting disposition in Westerners to go for this "blame it on religion" approach, as a reflection of the historical archaeology of their whole moral world.

(Charles Taylor, in the book cited above, talks about "benevolence on demand" as part of the moral world we have inherited ultimately from religion, often bearing with it a latent sense of hypocrisy, and he warns: "The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward. The bad, the failure is now identified with some other people or group. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated." p.516. The book was published in 1989. Pretty clear-sighted, I would say).

And if moral history can help explain the puffing-up of the Sunni-Shia theme as the scapegoat in the story, what about the other side of this? What explains the ease with which people have fallen for the idea that expressions of the other sets of Iraqi values including nationalism and regionalism and so on, have been nothing but instruments and weapons in a power struggle, as opposed to bona fide expressions of values? As I read some of the would-be debunking that has gone on over the last year or so, I get the feeling the debunkers think of this as something like hard-headed realism battling against the naivete of listening to hollow expressions of emotion-laden tradition and the like. In fact I myself have been the target of this "don't listen to their words, look at the killing they are all doing" type of objection whenever I have tried to propound what it was the nationalists, for example, were saying. These expressions of value are merely "rationalizations", and should be debunked, so the argument went, because all these types of "rationalizations", whether emotional or calculating, need to be debunked in principle. All that matters, and all that underlies those types of discourse, is the drive for power or a share in power, and deploying the tools and weapons for that, including these verbal weapons. (Of course those making the claim think they are exempt from that: What they say is a genuine and sincere expression of values, but what everyone else says is a rationalization or an emotional sideshow of some kind).

And here's the philosophical part: This debunking attitude is a distant but living remnant of the Enlightenment idea of the power of (what Taylor called) "disengaged reason" to beat back all the superstitions of religion and tradition and the rest of the bad old medieval world. This "disengaged reason" has had a long and complicated history, but certainly it lives on in various forms, and one of them is this idea of our ability to debunk expressions of mere tradition, authority, prejudice, and so on. But here, in this case, in the Iraq-war context, this debunking "reason" is turned against bona fide expressions of value, merely because these people are thought of as the enemy. It is another example of a living part of our moral history gone bad.

This is all very sketchy. But suppose the above discussion is basically right. Suppose both of these mass-mediated phenomena--the (knee-jerk) condemnation of Sunni/Shia as the obstacle to Iraqi democracy; and the (knee-jerk) debunking of what would otherwise be considered valuable civic virtues--suppose both of them reflect living parts of our cultural heritage, that have gone bad or more likely been manipulable and manipulated to help support the vicious demolition of a great nation and maybe a whole region. What would that mean?

I don't know, but for me what it suggests is that for America to have abandoned the study of its own moral and philosophical history--and the liberal arts in general--is possibly having effects that are far more destructive than some mere "loss of depth and richness in our lives".

And if you don't find the above general line of argument convincing, then how do you propose to explain the fact that Americans are at one and the same time against this war and occupation, and powerless to mobilize to stop it? Isn't it plausible to think that in some way or another (even if not in the ways I suggested here) the moral power that one assumes would be fired up in a case like this has been hijacked or disabled in some way? Is this not worth thinking about?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another great post from the Badger! So much meat in it I hardly know where to start... might as well be here:

"In other words, the American strategy has been to aggressively sideline anything having to do with nationalism, or social solidarity, or regional loyalty, or any of the other civic virtues that would be so highly praised and prized in any other situation, debunking all of this in Iraq as mere fancy words dressing up the respective groups' roles in a brutal value-free struggle for power."

Writing from Italy, Europe: faik only situation in which Americans of any political hue whatsoever are prepared to respect communal sentiments and values such as social solidarity ... let alone *horror!" ... nationalism.... is when these aspects of human group-identity and relative willingness to sacrifice the immediate self-interest/self-preservation of the Hobbesian "almighty monad" for the wellbeing of nearest-hence-dearest are located inside the confines of the U.S. of A. itself? For USans, seems to me their "patriotism" is "good" by definition even when stretched to include bloody "defence" of US "interests" on remote continents at devastating cost to local rights and lives, whereas everyone-but-everyone else - i.e. any and every human being not entitled, preferably for several generations, to carry a US passport - is totally US-delegitimated from any and every form of group loyalty: transgressors are instantly branded with being afflicted with some neo-hypenated form of "fascism" - and/or * horror * "communism" - at the slightest hint of communal solidarity-sentiments prevailing over maddened-monadic Hobbesian cannibalistic urges - all on the basis of their beloved monad-based "game theory" paradigms which oh-so-capitalistically-conveniently delegitimate any and every form of instinctive-natural solidaristic upholding of group rights and wellbeing: just take a look at their reactions to the national needs and priorities of Russia, Iran etc.!

Back to Iraq - I totally agree that "Divide et impera" is the name of their game... and the worst-of-the-worst, from the US standpoint, are those nationalists whose nationalism recognises others' rights and is rooted in social solidarity. Ah btw - weird how the Sadrists are never-ever -ever credited with "fighting AQ" - heaven forbid!!

In reaction to all this I've ended up defining myself as a universal nationalist"... Westphalian-style, for lack of a better definition...;-)

1:31 PM  

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