Resentment & the Marketplace

Responses to the attack on London, after sympathetic murmurs, swiftly turned to support for previously held positions. Some were heartening. We admire the Brits’ stiff uppper lip. Their history bucks them up; they demonstrate a point we’ve made before on this blog: history gives us spine and self-respect, narratives with which we interpret experience. Their constant references to World War II and the Blitz seemed old; when one host drew out his World War II propaganda collection after inviting two Germans (one my son-in-law) to dinner, I was appalled. Perhaps on 7/7, smugness became a virtue and such history gave strength. Reliving so often their courage during the blitz, last week they reached back to Mrs. Miniver. Andrew Roberts notes:

If the elderly lady I overheard in a small crowd watching the events on TV through the windows of an electrical goods store in the King’s Road, Chelsea, is anything to go by, the general attitude is: “It’s ridiculous not being able to take trains home. If we didn’t kowtow to Hitler, why should we to this lot?”

Some reactions were less heartening. I switched from O’Reilly, who hoped this would be Europe’s wake-up call. This irritated me, perhaps because I remember a British colleague turning to me soon after 9/11 and saying that was (perhaps) a good thing, she felt it might check Bush’s unilateralism. I resented that and suspect many Brits would resent O’Reilly. On the other hand, Aaron Brown’s sad & mournful voice (he seems to be working on the basset hound demographic) & NPR mourned that Britain had been tainted by its partnership with us. Clearly, the two Anglo nations were busy building enemies and all were a good deal less safe than at 9/11. This seemed a bit delusional given the clear lessening of expertise over the years. But that’s CNN.

Demimasque did us a service by noting the New Sisyphus argument. His very title, “Why We Fight” evokes the spirit of WWII. Coming a week before London was hit, it pulled together arguments that remained with us that day, as Lex’s words helped us think about 7/7 itself.

But what strikes me is how unserious many commentators are. I like Bush, but, you know, this isn’t about Bush. And if you don’t like him, well, it still isn’t about Bush. He hadn’t invaded Iraq when 9/11 struck; he hadn’t invaded Afghanistan. If thinking about it helps people better understand his argument, that may be a good. But in the end, arguments aren’t owned: they stand or fall as arguments not by who gives voice to them. Do they work? Are they right?

Commentators can stand in a circle and repeat endlessly that the 9/11 Commission found no links between Iraq & bin Laden, but after a while it must be hard to keep their fingers in their ears. (For instance, Miniter’s TCS column). Nor is that really what the 9/11 Commission members say. If only “operational” links count, well, there probably weren’t links. But then the picture is relentlessly & pointlessly cropped. No matter how scathing and sarcastic this argument’s phrasing, it ignores, in the end, the strategic importance of Iraq, as New Sisyphus put it – and as Victor Davis Hanson repeatedly argues. For instance, he notes

Leaving Afghanistan to its own misery after the Soviet retreat, not going to Baghdad in 1991, turning boats around from Haiti, or quietly ducking out of Mogadishu all were less messy in the short term, but in the long term left even greater chaos. The ultimate wages were the Taliban, 350,000 sorties for over a decade above Iraq, the current mess in the Caribbean, and terrorist havens and worse in Africa. We forget how often in history a perceived stumble or the half-measure only emboldens enemies to try what they otherwise would not.

But that is the old weight, which is slowly being balanced by another list: Libya, Lebanon, Iran, even local elections in Saudi Arabia. Egypt considers options. These aren’t victories, but they are skirmishes it is important to win, each gaining ground on the road to freedom, to modernity. Look at the reactions to the bombing from Bahrain & Jordan. Galloway doesn’t speak for these people. Shouldn’t these patterns, these people be acknowledged?

These aren’t Bush’s triumphs; they will be other’s. We hope the future holds more, not less, liberty. But that will be Iraq’s, Iran’s triumphs. It won’t be Bush’s. (And the disaster men like Galloway & Wolcott clearly desire won’t be Bush’s; those, too, will be Iraq’s, Iran’s.) Someone else is going to be elected in 2008; does anyone think this is going to be over by then? The voices of the youths in the London mosques imply not. Those signs held up before the British embassy imply not. Sisyphus observes we are fighting a “sick and afflicted political culture [that] has nurtured a violent popular ideology of grievance-fixation, anti-Semitism and murder. Nothing short of breaking the back of the conditions that gave rise to the ideology of fascism would deprive it of strength and recruits, thereby preventing future attacks on the U.S. from a foe that is neither deterrable nor destructible in the classic sense.” Most of us accept this.

And so, in the end, we face two rather unpleasant facts. There are people in this world that would prefer we died – would not merely prefer it but would be quite happy at the prospect. And the goal of those people is a world defined by Shari’ah law. We remember bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa, issued at a variety of targets, some of whom were the 1996 American president and his cabinet. It assumes vast cowardice from us, as Belmont Club notes. And it argues for, as always, Shari’ah law. Lex’s stirring response noted “They cannot be negotiated with, since their goals are effectively infinite — the establishment of a regime like the Taliban, imposed on the entire world.”

If Bush & Blair were gone, indeed, if bin Laden & al-Zarqawi were gone, two different ideologies would live on. David Hackett Fischer notes (Mars Hill) that English is the only language with both a word like liberty – emphasizing autonomy, with roots meaning “not a slave” – and freedom – a root with friend but still a meaning of “not a slave.” He notes the different cultures of America use different symbols but all, to varying degrees, emphasize both freedom from and freedom to, responsibility in autonomy and acceptance of the duty to the group one freely joins. This brings us to the great paradox of American beliefs: at core a balance of mercy and justice. “On Christian Charity,” emphasizes “the ligaments of love” that bind a community but also individual responsibility. Bradford describes the contract freely entered into by his Mayflower flock. This respect for others and willingness to choose the responsibilities of membership was central to our constitution, as state after state ratified it. The brilliance of The Federalist Papers lies in an argument to convince New York that liberty was best insured by the constraints of the Constitution, that a freely entered into republic would ensure both membership and autonomy, liberty and freedom. The great analogy of the early writers is marriage – freely entered into, but thereby accepting duties and constraints. This vision is central to our tradition.

Feser, describing libertarian values, notes the difference between the “deferential” and the “self-assertive.” That both are part of our tradition is clearly true; we see both as important because we understand the importance of paradox.

The first view expresses an attitude of deference, the second an attitude of self-assertion; the first reflects a commitment to strong moral realism and a rich conception of human nature, the second a thin conception of human nature and a tendency toward moral minimalism or even moral skepticism. And the first, I would submit, is more characteristic of libertarians of a Lockean, Hayekian, or Aristotelian bent, while the latter is more typical of libertarians influenced by contractarianism, utilitarianism, or “economism.”

Christopher Hitchens angrily observes the “grievances” of the terrorists. The fatwas of bin Laden were not rational, but were filled with a powerful resentment and a vision relentlessly linear. No paradoxes about freedom & control here. Paradoxes require a depth, a dimensionality where they can be reconciled. But his arguments are either/or. The “right” & the “wrong.”

They also indicate an unwillingness to see a value in free choice which, admittedly, opens up the possibility of the wrong choice. The world, as bin Laden sees it, is chaotic, is disordered. But Shari’ah Law will order it, will control the waywardness of modern life. If we can retreat from the world of today, from its technology and license, then, perhaps, he and his can find peace. This chaos, this modernity, this license – it often bothers us, as well. But we don’t resent it.

Roger Scruton argues:

Success breeds resentment, and resentment breeds hate. This simple observation was made into the root of his political psychology by Nietzsche, who identified ressentiment, as he called it, as the distinguishing social emotion of modern societies: an emotion once ordered and managed by Christianity, now let loose across the world. I don’t say that Nietzsche’s analysis is correct. But surely he was right to identify this peculiar motive in human beings, right to emphasize its overwhelming importance, and right to point out that it lies deeper than the springs of rational discussion.

In dealing with terrorism you are confronting a resentment that is not concerned to improve the lot of anyone, but only to destroy the thing it hates. That is what appeals in terrorism, since hatred is a much easier and less demanding emotion to live by than love, and is much more effective in recruiting a following. And when the object of hatred is a group, a race, a class or a nation, we can furnish from our hatred a comprehensive stance towards the world. That way hatred brings order out of chaos, and decision out of uncertainty — the perfect solution to the alienated Muslim, lost in a world that denies his religion, and which his religion in turn denies.

This is the resentment of Iago. He observes the great love between Desdemona and Othello, one unavailable to him in his cynical and suspicious state. Therefore, he desires to make cacophony where harmony reigns. This is the resentment of Ab Snopes, rubbing shit into the de Spain’s carpet, a carpet which represents beauty and order, in a house that Ab’s young son thinks of as like a courthouse. And it is, most of all, the hatred of Claggart, first lusting, admiring and coveting Budd’s physical beauty, he then becomes obsessed with a powerful jealousy of his virtue.

But, of course, bin Laden does not think us virtuous, nor are we. Al-Zarqawi does not find us unblemished. We are the evil that must be swept from the face of the earth. To understand the resentment described by Scruton, we need to first understand how shocking is our belief that virtue arises from free choices, not from coerced ones, that virtue comes from consciousness and not from its lack. The resentment may be for the goods of our rich material world, but I suspect it is also an unwillingness to concede the order that lies within our chaos, to concede that man, innately sinful perhaps but also capable of great virtues, is in the end capable of ordering a communal life of freedom and liberty, choice and responsibility.

More telling, perhaps, this resentment arises from the confidence and willingness to risk our vision in the open marketplace of ideas, of religions. And we live by the assumptions of that vision, even if it means we can’t enter Iraq through Turkey. We stop, acknowledging the rights of the people & their representatives. Is it that confidence that lies at the core of Western society that the bin Ladens of the world fear, covet, hate? Is it a nagging doubt that their arguments would not do so well in such a market? As Claggart envied virtue, do they covet that assurance, that confidence that frees us? The two ideologies posit different ways of dealing with responsibility, virtue, sin, community. And one will die if terror triumphs and the other will die if liberty & freedom (in some places with an Arabic accent, nurtured and protected over a long period) do. Sure, we will all die, but if the ideas don’t, life will be better. And I’ve come to an age where I see a farther horizon; peace in my time is not all that important. I am frightened of a world in which my children & my children’s children might live under a system so dramatically different from ours that a woman’s virtue is guaranteed not by self-respect and freely given commitment but by burkhas and isolation, comes not from education and self-consciousness but from ignorance. And her husband’s virtue would be seen not in his freely chosen deeds but in his willingness to enact draconian laws, to force uncovered women back into a flaming building, to topple statues that have stood for a thousand years but represent another ordering of the world. That world would be one of unconsciousness, irresponsibility; it would, indeed, love death.

Footnote: My friend copied an old Mars Hill; I don’t have any more information – sorry.
And, as I repair my screwed up links, I hear Mumia’s edtiorial, his sneer at America, his argument that England will not react as stupidly as we did–another sneer, since it is post-colonial and no longer powerful, it must care about others’ opinions. He confidently describes the war in Iraq as disastrous, an assurance that comes from his prison cell where he has access to that great marketplace of news. Our willingness to give a microphone to Mumia, give him broad access to current arguments comes from a confidence his ideas aren’t dangerous, aren’t, indeed, worth bothering about.

8 thoughts on “Resentment & the Marketplace”

  1. I think that empiricism undergrids almost all Western culture. We have created scientific, economic and political systems where every idea is under continuous assault by competitors because, in the end, we only trust those ideas who have been sorely tested and survived.

    This represents a near complete reversal of the tenets of pre-Enlightenment cultures where unchallenged ideas were considered the best. To such cultures, the empirical West looks like a culture without either order or truth. Even worse, the West is so much more powerful and prosperous than those cultures. The mere existence of the West threatens their entire world model. It implies that everything they believe about morality maybe wrong.

  2. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath
  3. With respect, Shannon, the Western devotion to empiricism (I prefer to call it critical realism) you rightly celebrate started long before the Enlightenment. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks – to Aristotle in particular. Indeed, the Aristotelian revival of the High Middle Ages, led chiefly by Franciscan and Dominican Friars, paved the way for the development of modern science in later centuries. (For a superb treatment of this, I recommend Richard Rubenstein’s ARISTOTLE’S CHILDREN.) The main legacy of the Enlightenment is a hyper-skepticism that makes truth forever unattainable and that, consequentially, devolves into a moral nihilism unable to differentiate between the lapses (of dubious gravity) of a few individual guards at Gitmo and the systematic genocide of Adolph Hitler and Pol Pot (not to mention Sadaam Hussein).

    “I suspect [the terrorists’ resentment] is also an unwillingness to concede the order that lies within our chaos, to concede that man, innately sinful perhaps, but also capable of great virtues, is in the end capable of ordering a communal life of freedom and liberty, choice and responsibility.”

    With this, Ginny comes to the heart of our war with OBL and his ilk. America was founded on the proposition that sinful human beings can govern themselves and produce a state in which genuine freedom and liberty coexist with genuine order and responsibility. How have, up until now at least, Americans been able to pull this off? In a famous passage Alexis de Tocqueville provides an answer: “The revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not permit them to violate wantonly the laws that oppose their desires; nor would they find it easy to surmount the scruples of their partisans even if they were able to get over their own. Hitherto, none in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants. Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving and forbids them to commit what is rash or unjust.” (DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, Volume 1, Chapter 17, Section 5)

    In his WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS: CATHOLIC REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN PROPOSITION, the late great America Jesuit, Father John Courtney Murray, develops an argument along Tocquevillean lines: “In any phase, civil society demands order. In its highest phase of freedom, it demands that order should not be imposed from the top down, as it were, but should spontaneously flower outward from the free obedience to the restraints and imperatives that stem from inwardly possessed moral principle. In this sense democracy is more than a political experiment; it is a spiritual and moral enterprise, and its success depends upon the virtue of the people who undertake it. Men who would be politically free must discipline themselves . . . . Political freedom is endangered in its foundations as soon as the universal moral values, upon whose shared possession the self-discipline of a free society depends, are no longer vigorous enough to restrain the passions and shatter the selfish inertia of men. The American ideal of freedom as ordered freedom, and, therefore, an ethical ideal, has traditionally reckoned with these truths, these truisms.” (WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS, p. 37)

    Father Murray also observed that “[America] has never known organized militant atheism on the Jacobin, doctrinaire socialist or communist model; it has rejected parties and theories which erect atheism into a political principle.” (WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS, p. 29) What Father Murray maintains here may have been true when he wrote it in 1960. It’s an open question whether it’s still true today. Thus, while we certainly don’t seek a Taliban style theocracy, neither should we seek models that “erect atheism into a political principle.” Rather we should seek models that allow order to “spontaneously flower outward from the free obedience to the restraints and imperatives that stem from inwardly possessed moral principle.” In other words, we should seek a model similar to the one de Tocqueville found in the America of 1831.

  4. BTW, David Hackett Fischer discusses the difference between ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ in an interview on the January/February, 2005 edition of the MARS HILL AUDIO JOURNAL. He also takes up this matter in the Introduction to his latest book LIBERTY AND FREEDOM: A VISUAL HISTORY OF AMERICA’S FOUNDING IDEAS.

  5. SCOTUS,

    Aristotle was not much of an empiricist. He observed but he did not experiment. Both Aristotle and Socrates based their pursuit of the truth on rational argumentation, not experimentation. . Aristotle thought you had to go out and look at the world but the testing of the conclusions one drew from such observation was left to logic. Testing the results of ones logical process by comparing its predictions to the real world was an alien idea. Indeed, we know of early greek empiricist like Democritis (who demonstrated the particulate nature of air) only through mocking references made by Aristotle to him. The idea of using nature as the tester of truth and not the reason of man flourished only briefly among the Ionians and disappeared almost entirely until Roger Bacon (the monk) and then Galileo.

    The philosophical or proto-scientific methods of inquiry in the West did not differ much from those used in other regions such as China, India or the Islamic world until the Renaissance. I think it was the application of empirical testing, done consciously in the sciences and unconsciously in economics and politics that caused the explosion in Western power at that time.

  6. Shannon, I’m not sure just what experiments Galileo performed, aside from the probably apocryphal tale about his dropping canon balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It seems to me that Galileo developed all his theories from observation and then tested them the same way. It was Aristotle, reacting against the rationalism of Plato, who made sensation, i.e. observation, the starting point of knowledge. The fundamental tenent of empiricism is precisely that. What’s more, good observer that he was, I rather think Aristotle would have found it significant if a prediction he had made didn’t pan out. Your fondness for Democritus and the other Ionians is, IMHO, misplaced. They were more wrong than right, while the contrary is true of Aristotle. Finally, the Golden Age of Islam during 8th thru 10th centuries happened because, at that time, their best scholars were throughgoing Aristotelians. Islam started to decline precisely when it turned away from Aristotle. As to why neither India nor China developed scientifically, not having Aristotle didn’t help, but I believe the main reason was the pantheism of both cultures. To truly analyze something, one must believe one is truly distinct from it.

  7. Scotus, thanks for the John Courtney Murray reference. That is a superb book, which has held up well for five decades.

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