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The Tinderbox Speaks Again: Why Can't We Learn from Our Middle-East Debacles?

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Message C. S. Herrman

A time for outrage

It's time to be angry with insulting degrees of ignorance, stupidity and ideology. As a theorist in areas that shed light on these matters, I have myself been sore insulted by liberal outlets refusing to publish my attempt to speak the truths that simply must be openly addressed if we are to abate the source and resolve the results of religious fundamentalism here and abroad. The occasion, once again (we just don't learn) is the deliberate annoyance of fundamentalist factions that can be guaranteed to take a felt insult by killing Westerners. I am not saying they are right to do so. I am saying we are incredibly dumb to permit the insults when we are incapable of meliorating the expected response. It is said that Westerners can't withhold freedom of speech. Nonsense. Try yelling fire in a crowded theater. People get hurt when speech is too free for the prevailing circumstances. With fanatics populating the world, ours is a theater where every Islamic insult is a cry of fire. And we just don't learn.

For the slow pokes: The point is not that they are right (they aren't) but that we are wrong. We are wrong for wantonly exposing ourselves to violence that could easily have been prevented or averted. It apparently takes greater than the usual American smarts to figure that out. Just to be ornery, another repetition can't hurt: We do not have the moral authority to place our elevated status of rights above the safety of people regardless where they reside. Americans, listen up: people come first, rights second. Get that figured out if you want to avoid problems like 9/11, like Israel and the Palestinians, and a host of others. Fetishistic immaturity in regard of vaunted rights is embarrassing and dangerous.

It's time for liberals to be outraged at the apathy of those amongst them to the fundamentalisms that bring fear and destruction in their wake. Those are the liberals who sat on their derriers as Republican fanaticism took hold and asserted dominance over the Republican Party platform. Liberals have done a better job at assuaging Muslim anger, but an isolationist strain within their ranks threatens to undo all of that progress. To the extent Muslims desire democracy, liberal American isolationism is a call for more of the same violence and intemperance. Thus in the overall, it becomes clear that between liberals and conservatives, each in their own ways negligent in dealing with reality, we are in a very bad way both at home and abroad.

So yes, I am barking up difficult trees, and likely to make fewer friends that I would like. But as a philosopher my job is not to win anybody's popularity contest. Truths are rarely pleasant, but when they cause huge problems the duty of all mature people is to face the truth; for to deny or ignore it is to assure the worst results. The impact of truth can be challenged and modified, but not when fundamentalists control the conversation, and not when liberals sit on their derriers.

There are two very uncomfortable truths that require to be set out in some detail. First, honor-based societies tend to foster, wittingly or otherwise, very childish behavior, which is maximized amongst the fundamentalist elements. Second, Americans are embarrassingly ignorant of cultural issues, as if in our evident arrogance we felt it somehow foolish to be observed giving a crap what any foreigner might think (the core Republican exceptionalist position).

The fear of, and hope for, Islam

Every Muslim society is honor-based and all have their hands full dealing with actual and potential fanatical elements. By honor-based I mean that mythic construct in which the traits associated with public esteem are first and foremost among cultural values. Respect and respectability head the list followed by trustworthiness and independence. When the late Samuel P. Huntington elaborated his thesis over the so-called 'clash of civilizations' he had facts at hand and empirical verification to rely upon. If he did not correctly grasp the full cultural psychology he assuredly understood all too well that East and West express conflicting cultural values that can fester and result in a cold war or worse.

A cardinal observation Huntington made had to do with the relations between Muslim countries and their neighbors. I believe his report was based on nineteen countries, all of which were engaged in open conflict though usually limited in area or scope. His point, something the politically correct are not likely to discuss openly (academics are really too polite these days) is that these religion-dominated honor-based peoples have a marked tendency to assert themselves in ways that simply aren't calculated to win friends or (favorably) influence others. They approach others from the sort of 'big brother' approach that characterized Japanese feeling toward the United States in World War II. 'I am worthier, ergo claim the higher warrant, ergo I call the shots.' So, fellow Americans, if you want to know how so very many abroad look on you, think how you look upon Japan of old and always and everywhere upon the Muslims. It's a two way street, people. Get with the program.

Honor-based societies risk a number of fretful outcomes based on their cultural predilections. Broadly speaking, children are raised so leniently or so strictly that they risk growing up to be insecure; as such they are often as willing to demand respect as to earn it. They are apt to be thin-skinned and over-proud of their opinions. Add religion into the mix and you have a recipe for an all-out ideology in which the worst cultural traits are sanctified by the desire to be identified with one's faith. The next step, and a short one at that, is fanaticism.

Yes, I have over-simplified matters. But not by much. The generality stands as stated. Against this backdrop, consider how your garden variety of ideologically-inclined honor-based chap will likely respond to religious insults? Duh. This is not rocket science. But if you refuse to learn from experience, and as long as schools and universities refuse to teach the obvious, what on earth shall we expect?

One reason why we find it so difficult to control the out-of-all-proportion reactions to what we view as banal expressions of free speech is related to another core honor-based disposition. These cultures are what many in anthropology and sociology call 'collectivistic'. It really isn't a very good term. Let's do it one better: these cultures are clannish, working the tentacles of respect and authority outwards from the nuclear family. Each member is charged with representing the honor of the whole. As women are the cultural gatekeepers and/or exemplars, their missteps take the worst brunt of honor-based vengeance.

This clannishness breeds corollary tendencies, for example an us-versus-them posture when issues of trust divide families or clans or communities or nations. It breeds xenophobia. It breeds a taste for vengeance. It also breeds a marked tendency to protect one's own, with no mindfulness of larger issues. Thus a young man could be a mass murderer and the family might well protect the kid if only to protect his family name from shame. A variation on this theme comes from Italy where juvenile crime is often forgiven and unpunished because, in good honor-based patriarchal fashion, 'boys will be boys'. Lovely. One can only pray that the parents of Islamist fanatics do not subscribe to the practice. The problem, of course, is that their conduct is short on offering the appearance that they do not.

Finally, this clannishness breeds an immense pride in family. The Mafioso might kill and kill some more, but oh how the don does love his own family. One way in which this tendency unfolds in the minds of fanatics is still more regrettable. They feel, often with a pathological sincerity, that in their acts they speak for the Nixonian 'silent majority'. This is further abetted by the influence of honor-based culture upon Islam. Thus Islam sports the concept of 'umma', which is broadly the family of the Muslim 'brotherhood', which, again, the fanatics believe they are speaking for and representing. All of this, moreover, is classic honor-based mentality. All of which helps to account for why we have so hard a time putting a clamp on societies with lots of adult children acting like grenades with pulled pins.

Ever noticed how, whenever Westerners are wantonly attacked in a Near-Eastern country, the rulers find it excruciatingly difficult to express outrage at the perpetrators? They, the perpetrators, are members of the national family, which is also often the religious family. Add to this that the sentiments behind the attacks are broadly shared throughout the "family', and you have a schizophrenic porridge where people shun the consequences of the attack but do not want to go too hard on the attackers: "We understood where they were coming from."

For the longest time after 9/11 one of the hardest things for Americans to comprehend was the incredibly slow awareness of Muslims to the responsibility to bring the culprits to justice regardless the fact that they harbored most of the same negative feelings toward Westerners and Americans and Israelis in particular, as did the terrorists. Of course we know there were exceptions, some of them perfectly noble and remarkable. By and large, however, the overall response echoed the schizophrenic dilemma. Lesson: you cannot make policy absent an awareness of these realities. It is realities, not principles, that kill other human beings. We cannot parade our principles and dictate a change in reality. That doesn't make the fanatics right, of course, but it also doesn't mean we can act like prima donnas.

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Mr. Herrman is a liberal philosopher specializing in structural metaphysics, where he develops methodologies enabling him to derive valid and verifiable answers not only in matters of the ontology of reality, but also in real-world concerns for (more...)
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