Monday, December 17, 2007

Hitchens, Chanukah and Imperialism

Christopher Hitchens recently produced a vulgar screed against Chanukah with his Slate article entitled "Bah, Hanukkah." The general impetus which stimulates, for Hitchens, attacks such as this, is the frightful imperialist dogmatism of secular tribalism. The aggressive imperialist attitude that the West should invade the near-East due to the perceived or real fact that the West is more secular, more advanced and simply better is, outside of being objectively ethnocentric and possibly racist, clearly dangerous; it is precisely what Stalin argued for.

This tribal attitude appears to be the underlying motivation for Hitchens’ scurrilous historical screed against Chanukah. Hitchens makes manifest the vulgar tribal tendency through the failure to make the fundamental distinction between historical religious content and the content of the religion’s adherent’s beliefs and practices. The vast majority of modern Jews, virtually all of them so far as I can tell, do not view Chanukah as a celebration of Jewish fundamentalism, as Hitchens erroneously claims in his screed, but rather, Jews view Chanukah – a holiday of far less religious significance than Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavu’ot, in fact, Chanukah is not even mentioned within Jewish scripture – as progressive Christians view Christmas; as a time to share with family and community, to give and receive gifts, share love and fraternity and celebrate life, which is why the rituals are family-based and communal.

Hitchens then castigates Michael Lerner for observing that “Hellenism was ‘imperialistic,’” which, in the case of the Seceucid Empire, it clearly and without controversy was. I know little about the relevant history, but, is it not the case that the Maccabean Revolt was, in fact, a revolt against the imperial invasion perpetrated by the Seceucid Empire? The answer seems clear enough to me. This being the case, clearly the Maccabees had the right to defend themselves against the invading forces, regardless of the alleged archaic, cruel and fundamentalist nature of the form of faith they practiced and believed in. A culture’s alleged general irrationality and backwardness is neither a justification for nor an argument in favor of its invasion and oppression.

This really is the heart of the matter. Hitchens is of the Stalinist opinion that secular betters not only have the right, but even further, the actual obligation to invade, convert or destroy the culture and society of those whose faith is found to be wanting. This is nothing more than the militant tribal atheism as preached by Stalin, finding direct parallel with the pronouncements of Mohammad as dictated in the Hadith, incidentally, the founder of the religion Hitchens could not see destroyed soon enough.

Norman Finkelstein has observed that Hitchens lacks principle and that this lack of principle accounts for the opportunist outbursts that Hitchens is well known for, his recent screed against Chanukah being only the most recent example, his opposition to abortion being another. Finkelstein pointed out that “two altogether opposed political stances can each draw an audience’s attention. One is to be politically consistent, but nonetheless original in one’s insights; the other, an inchoate form of apostasy, is to bank on the shock value of an occasional, wildly inconsistent outburst.” Finkelstein’s point being that Hitchens lacks principle and relies upon the shock value of wild outbursts in order to get the audience’s attention, for reasons which seem clear enough.

I believe that this is roughly accurate – as is evident in the debate about the Iraq war between Hitchens and George Galloway, wherein Hitchens mocks those in the crowed who oppose imperialism[1] - but, even more relevant still is Noam Chomsky’s observation that Bolshevism – which Trotskyism is a variant of, the tendency which Hitchens self-professed for some time – and bourgeois market-society, corporate state-capitalism, share many similarities, such as central management and a vanguard of revolutionary conscious, intellectual betters[2], the ranks of which Hitchens would clearly count himself among.

Chomsky observes that “similar considerations may explain in part the appeal of [Bolshevik] doctrines to certain segments of the Western intelligentsia, as well as the ease with which many of the same people switch to the more typical stance of the intelligentsia: service to their own state, either in a managerial or ideological capacity. The doctrine of state worship has not dramatically changed, though it is shaped by a different assessment of how one can gain privilege and a degree of power.”

I believe that this background sheds light on and helps better understand Hitchens’ apparent lack of principle and undeniable abandonment of the socialist left. It’s not so much that Hitchens lacked leftist principles, it’s that he shared the principles of the kitsch-left, of Bolshevism, and that these principles were and became ever more indistinguishable for him from the principles of the bourgeois intelligentsia emanating from within the corporate ruling class of market-society.

[1] Imperialism being, as it is, an integral and central concern of the left, this was one of the early and unambiguous pieces of evidence that Hitchens had become a political apostate. His scurrilous attack on Chomsky – the very same ad hominem attack the right has been churning out to fit the varying circumstances since the sixties, the one which can be read in its laughably crude and ignorant form in The End of Faith by Sam Harris – being yet another.
As Finkelstein correctly points out, attacking Chomsky is something a bit too much like a political coming of age ritual, every far-right hack and left-apostate has engaged in this orgy of propaganda, from Hitchens to Kaplan, Harris to Horowitz.

[2] Mikhail Bakunin critiqued this conception of a ruling intelligentsia as being "a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars,” who will seek to create “the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and elitist of all regimes.” Bakunin’s critique anticipated Antonio Gramsci’s exposition of the “organic intellectuals,” the “thinking and organizing element of a particular fundamental-social class. These organic intellectuals are distinguished less by their profession…than by their function in directing the ideas and aspirations of the class to which they organically belong.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


"Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.” – Noam Chomsky.

At this point in time many atheists and non-believers revere Sam Harris as one of the preeminent “new atheists.” My blog post entitled “Secular Tribalism” was in part a response to this phenomenon of “new atheism;” which is nothing new, the term is misleading for several reasons, it’s simply extremist, narrow-minded and tribal atheism.

The entire phenomenon of new atheism has emerged mostly from the smoldering rubble of the twin towers. It is more of an emotionally hysterical response to 9-11 than it is of scientific inquiry; thus accounts for the sudden concern for “Islamic terrorism” when, in fact, such terrorism had been occurring for years.

Sam Harris is one of the leading figures of the assault on religion, from violent to benign, and argues that terrorism as it is emanating from the Arab world is produced within and through the paradigm of Islam. Were it not for the metaphysical beliefs in the principles of martyrdom, argues Harris, the Arab world would not be producing suicide terrorism. However, Harris relies upon neither empirical evidence nor any sort of scientific data set; he simply propagates anecdotal stories and intuitive hearsay.

Scott Atran, the world's leading specialist on the subject of terrorism and also, if it is of any interest, an atheist, points out that, through studying every case of terrorism recorded in modern history, there is found an inverse correlation between suicidal terrorism and such things as Mosque attendance, knowledge of the Qur’an and involvement with Islam. Suicide terrorism is motivated by moral outrage stemming from desperate situations and small, tight groups which form strong familial bonds. The moral outrage being stimulated by, for instance, the ongoing military occupations of the West Bank, Gaza and Iraq and all of the evil which then necessarily follows.

Taking a more historical view of this one can go all the way back to what is referred to as the “Golden Age of Islam,” which spanned from approximately the eighth century to the fourteenth or fifteenth. During this time Arab culture did very well with the presence of Islam. The Andalusian philosophers usually debated within the confines of Islam. On can take a look at the work of Ibn Rushd, for example, a semi-materialist, and find serious philosophy which incorporated Aristotle’s work. During the so-called “golden age” there was a lively and diverse Islamic intelligentsia ranging form the orthodox to the utter heretical.

Extremists such as Harris either have to ignore or distort this period. Some go so far as to argue that the end of the golden age was the result of Islam itself. Scott Atran points to the “golden age” and the fact that “all of a sudden it disappeared” and then asks “what happened, was there a flip-flop of an essence?” His response, as is mine, is of course not. As he continues, there “were massive waves of Mongols and other Asian hordes and then the colonials completely sundered the Arab heartland.” The devastation of the Arab world not being the inevitable product of Islam, but rather, Western colonial-imperialism and its nefarious consequences.

Atran points out that only now is the Arab world being reconstituted, very slowly, and that the “jihadis see themselves as the vanguard of a massive, transnational, media driven political awakening of which the Arabian mythos…is the motive to reconquer dignity.”

The usual and predictable response of the extremist to this history is to charge the individual who is presenting it with offering apologetics for Islam, for calling for “understanding” of terrorism as if to justify it.

This is, of course, standard propaganda. No one is arguing for the understanding of terrorism in order to justify it or excuse it. Serious people, such as Scott Atran and Noam Chomsky, are calling for understanding in order to better understand the sources and motivations for terrorism in the full range of complexity in the socio-political and historical contexts from which they arise to therefore be more equipped to eradicate terrorism.

In the Arab world there are very serious grievances felt by the populations and from these grievances terrorist groups organize and use as a pretext said grievances so as to appear as a vanguard of the oppressed and impoverished. If anyone is at all serious about eradicating terrorism, one would not only combat the terrorist groups, an entirely valid tactic, but, they would also address the very real and serious grievances of the populations, in order that terrorist bands no longer be able to present themselves as a vanguard of the so aggrieved.

Unfortunately, powerful states such as the United States, Israel and Russia are not concerning themselves with said grievances. They are instead occupying Middle Eastern territory, carrying out collective punishment – which only serves, as security analysts have for a long time pointed out, to further radicalize the populations and embolden the terrorist elements – and, in fact, organizing, supporting and arming various terrorist groups. It must not be forgotten that the mujahadin, which later became al-Qaeda, was organized, armed and trained by the CIA in order that they might be used in the proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

To solve the problem of “Islamic terrorism” requires a deeper and more serious analysis of the situation from which it emerges. The reactionary and blind response that is the claim that terrorism is motivated solely by the principles of Islam is just plain ignorant. Another very serious factor which must be either ignored or dismissed by the extremists such as Harris is that the extremists are viewing, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson - a well known astrophysicist and, like both Atran and Chomsky, also an atheist – “suicide bombings as some kind of intrinsically noble exercise within the paradigm [of Islam] and abhorrent from the outside, but, would there be suicide bombings if the Islamic community had their own air force and tanks? I don’t think so. They would be invoking the military machines that the rest of the West has available to itself.” Atran responds by saying that the jihadis he interviews “say so quite specifically”; which accounts for the fact that when attempted suicide bombers are interviewed and asked what their motivations were they rarely if ever invoke Islamic metaphysics, instead referring to the plight of their benighted brothers and sisters in the Occupied Territories, the moral outrage Atran speaks of.

The real threat of “Islamic terrorism” is not a threat of the religion of Islam, for Americans and the West generally, the real religious threat comes from Christian extremists, not radical Muslims, it is a threat of Western Imperialism and the blowback which it quite understandably and predictably instigates. The religious threat in the United States, again, comes from Christian extremism rather than radical Islam. The United States is one of the success cases of Muslim integration. The only problem, and it is a real problem, stems from anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. However, this is not to imply that criticism of Islam or of Islamic practices is parallel to bigotry. The point is that the hysterical claims that Arabs and Muslims, by virtue of being either Arabs or Muslims, are lesser than other people or are more dangerous and savage, are claims manifesting the most archaic form of bigotry that should at least have the decency to present itself from under a white hood, in order that there be no confusion.

This sort of conflated anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry Edward Said referred to as “Orientalism” in his book of the same title. Said argues that “Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. . . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge…My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence — in which I do not for a moment believe — but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting…I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries which was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism.”

So-called Islamic terrorism is not only largely the product of colonial-imperialism, but, furthermore, it is then incorporated within the intelligentsia as propaganda to help further the imperial ambitions of the state power to which the intelligentsia is subservient. Such is the case of the conjured al-Qaeda hysteria. As Scott Atran points out, al-Qaeda is no longer a going threat and the mujahadin do not constitute an existential threat at all, they never have. Orientalism and this conjured al-Qaeda hysteria – Islamic terrorism – is nothing more than the new paradigm of imperial propaganda; it has now effectively replaced the anti-Communist cult which stoked the fires of the Cold War mythology.

Harris plays his atheist part in perpetuating this imperial propaganda by incorporating the ultra-right screeds produced by the neoconservative likes of Samuel P. Huntington, Bernard Lewis and Alan Dershowitz and then regurgitating their theses in his books, articles and speeches.

Ultimately, to solve the problem of terrorism, keeping to just the terrorism of others, does not include the eradication of the religion of Islam, it requires a solution to the socioeconomic and political conflicts which readily give rise to general discontent and moral outrage which are then used as pretexts by terrorists so as to fashion themselves as a vanguard of the people.

In this sense, Northern Ireland is a perfect example. Though some people, such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, pretend that the conflict was solely motivated by religion, it was clearly a political conflict. The solution of the conflict was not to eradicate religion. As Chomsky points out “The right approach [to solving the problem of terrorism] is not only well known, but has been carried out with success…IRA terror was quite a serious matter. For a long time, Britain responded with violence, escalating the terror. Finally, Britain (with US support) began taking seriously the real grievances of the Catholic population. Terror reduced, terrorists were isolated. Northern Ireland is not utopia, but the improvement in the past decade is remarkable.”