A&L links to a Hoover essay by Lee Harris, “Al Quaeda’s Fantasy Ideology.” His definition of this fantasy might seem to have a wider application and interest to Chicagoboyz. That he has been making these arguments and we’ve been considering them for a long while now was brought home to me when searching our site for “fantasy ideology.” This seemed more in Shannon’s line but the first “catch” was an old, angry, and interestingly prescient post by Lex inspired by a current (at that time – Sept. 22, 2003) Lee Harris essay. Here is a passage from Harris’s current essay, in which he describes how he came to understand this fantasy mindset through the arguments of a friend of his forty years ago. The friend chose a completely non-persuasive anti-war (Vietnam of course) strategy and Harris explains why:

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.
It was not your garden-variety fantasy of life as a sexual athlete or a racecar driver, but in it, he nonetheless made himself out as a hero — a hero of the revolutionary struggle. The components of his fantasy — and that of many young intellectuals at that time — were compounded purely of ideological ingredients, smatterings of Marx and Mao, a little Fanon and perhaps a dash of Herbert Marcuse.

I think I’ve seen Harris make this argument before, but it certainly holds true to my understanding of my acquaintances who protest this war, of the entertaining and vacuous Code Pink demonstrators, but also of the endlessly snarky comments about believing in peace and life rather than death and war. I suspect this fantasy is why people can ignore the woes of so many countries’ adaptation of certain economic policies. Some on the left throw around words like “selfish” very fast and see others as being “bought.” But being bought by such fantasies isn’t all that great. A member of my Sunday School class became clearly angry when someone brought up the old teach a man to fish rather than give him fish aphorism; he argued: aren’t we supposed to think in terms of giving from ourselves. He transparently wanted to feel good about himself. But there are many ways to help: the most selfless is probably the soldier who risks his own well being to halt democide and ensure the rule of law prevails; a less noble (and certainly selfish in some ways) but important function is that of a banker who helps the dreams of a small businessman become a reality – a tax-paying, employee-paying, service-providing reality.

Lex’s comments are certainly worth revisiting. He was guarded, but we can see from some of the current fighting, some Iraqis are making the choices Lex hoped for, some of the local elections, the heroism of the votes in the national ones – it may not be a success but doesn’t seem to be sensibly described as a debacle. Still, could we have thought in 2003 that all the major candidates on one side in the coming election would believe we were not at war – whether metaphoric or not? Neither sees the potential for a larger conflict we would likely win but only after taking heavy losses and devastating the other. Would we have predicted future leaders would have the position that whatever the reality (on the ground), they would leave the field. Lex’s observation that “Americans, especially Jacksonian Americans, don’t like long, drawn-out, unresolved conflict. They like wars to end, with the enemy quite entirely dead or very, very chastised, so that we can go back to what we are good at: working hard and making money and minding our own business” seems to me true – at least of many. Still, some Americans, clearly, do want the war to end, don’t especially want the enemy dead or chastised, and find some pleasure in the idea of a Sadr or bin Laden (or Chavez or . . . ) thumbing their nose at us. It is they, the violent Ches of the world – not the soldier in the field or the president in the White House or the founders of our country or the average guy on the street – with whom such people identify. But we might remember that we are a strong people. And letting a situation become chaos is not likely to be good for us or those who challenge us. Neither small nor surrounded, we are not likely to take daily shelling with the generousity Israel does. (At least I hope not.) Lex’s conclusion:

Best case, we come up with a stripped-down export version of the American Way of Life and jam it down the throats of the Iraqis — they decide they like it, it catches on, the swamp is drained, and the terrorists have nothing to do and no frustrated rage to appeal to so they end up dead, in prison, or they settle down and give up. That is an idealistic longshot and Bush is a saint and a hero for trying to do it. More likely, there is a sad ending. The Iraqis prefer to murder each other and us rather than quietly making a living. Nothing good happens there. The jihadis get a second wind. They do what I think and fear they’ll eventually do, put a nuclear bomb onto Manhattan. Then the nice, Wilsonian, Bush/Powell thing goes out in the trash. Then we will get the real Huntingtonian war of civilizations. The gloves come off, and the Arab-Islamic world faces nuclear genocide courtesy of the US taxpayer. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. If we can’t have a win/win, then we do us/them. In that case, it’s us.
If Iraq can’t reprise Germany and Japan, then the Arab world is one giant step closer to reprising the fate of the Sioux and the Apaches. It’s really up to them.

Of course, in 2003 would we have forecast that there would be few attacks on our soil in the next 5 years? Sure, there are IEDs in New Mexico and snipers in Washington, but either our defenses are immensely more competent than I’d thought or the terrorists are immensely less so. But there is no way we can’t read that as good.

2 thoughts on “2003/2008”

  1. I think that there is a huge advantage simply to fighting back. For years we didn’t respond seriously to terrorist attacks. Finally we were hit so hard that we had no choice but to retaliate hard. Our enemies didn’t expect that. The fact that we fought back and (very important) have continued to fight back has been, IMO, a non-trivial component of the progress we have made.

  2. I think the default behavior of humans is to interrupt events as stories of human conflict, full of emotion and meaning. I think this drive is so strong that it gave rise to the human wide shamanistic beliefs that human type personalities drove natural events for human type motives.
    Since we’re inherently narcissistic, we tend to create stories in which we are the heroes. When enough people share the same story you get an ideology. Marxism, for example, is a story about how articulate intellectuals are the most important people in society and are destined to bring about a perfect world in which they benevolently dominate. Marx rather clearly started with this story and created his intellectual rationalization by deducing backwards from the desired outcome.
    Fascsim likewise grew into a narrative with heroes and villains.
    During the Vietnam war, leftists wanted to be the heroes in a story in which a small group of moral elites heroically turn against their own society in order to stop a great evil. To make a plausible narrative, they had to completely ignore the nature of communism or the dangers it presented. For the story to have a heroic ending they must ignore what happened afterward.
    The anti-democracy activists today likewise intepret events as a story in which Bush and Company are cartoon supervillians evil enough to start a war knowing they wouldn’t find WMDs but not smart enough to plant weapons to cover their assess. They ignore the expressed wishes of the people of Iraq and instead claim that they know best. After all , the hero always does.
    Leftists are especially prone to falling into a fantasy story because as articulate intellectuals they live in a world insulated from nature and non-human factors. They pay no direct cost for their fantasies. Indeed, one could argue that the more they fail, the more they are insulated. Leftists thrust into positions of responsibility often radically moderate their views.

Comments are closed.