Home/Daniel Larison/Actually, It’s Almost The Opposite

Actually, It’s Almost The Opposite

Over at Tapped, Janna Goodrich points out the following quote from Glenn Beck:

More and more Muslims now hate us all across the world, and it really has not a lot to do with anything other than our morals.

The things that they were saying about us were true. Our morals are just out the window. We’re a society on the verge of moral collapse. And our promiscuity is off the charts.

Now, obviously, as Janna points out, this argument is appealing to conservatives because it’s a way of condemning social liberalism. It’s an unusually loathsome way of condemning social liberalism, but hey. Strange bedfellows and all that.

However, there’s another reason that this argument has generated a certain amount of conservative appeal lately: it perpetuates the trope that “they hate us for our freedoms.” And if they hate us for our freedoms, guess what? It means they don’t hate us for our actions. And that means there’s no need for us to change anything we’re actually doing in the Middle East.

And that’s a pretty comforting thought for conservatives, isn’t it? ~Kevin Drum

Drum has caught on to a small part of the answer, but it is naturally the one that serves the interests of his “side.”  U.S. foreign policy, the actual projection of power and the use of force in and against other countries, is the fundamental cause of anti-American terrorism.  That is, or ought to be, blindingly obvious.  This isn’t to say that jihadis haven’t been killing people for a very long to spread the domain of Islam or that they won’t keep killing people to that end and for the sake of purist interpretations of Islamic law.  They will.  But the reason why any jihadis have made a point of starting to kill Americans is very simply that we have made  it our business to base our armies in their countries and dictate the political futures of their countries.  Other Westerners have come under attack, for the most part, to the extent that their governments have aided us in wars against them or occupations of Muslim countries.  Any analysis of the problem that fails to acknowledge this overwhelming factor–as D’Souza’s famously fails to do because of his own weakness for hegemonism–will miss out on a lot. 

The “they hate us for our freedoms” line is pure garbage.  I don’t know how else to put it.  Sayyid Qutb didn’t like how Coloradoans danced in 1949, but he didn’t make it his life’s goal to attack Americans or to urge others to attack Americans and drive us out of the Near East…because we weren’t in the Near East and Muslims around the world had no reason to feel any particular animus towards America.  Things that our government started doing in the last thirty-odd years have brought us to this sorry predicament, so it is only fitting that people in our government who keep getting us deeper into that predicament will tell us that they and their predecessors had nothing to do with the problem.  However, people who note the difference between the counterculture of the ’60s vs. pop culture of the ’40s to argue against D’Souza’s use of Qutb also miss something important: it was not the cultural modernisation already taking place in the ’40s or the greater cultural radicalism of the ’60s that provoked the discontent and outrage of traditional societies around the world, but rather it was the export of American pop culture to the world in the decades that followed that lit the fuse.  In many respects, the export of that culture has triumphed over local resistance (I have strong doubts that this is a desirable thing), but it has generated hostility to the general experience of globalisation and rapid cultural change and those processes are unavoidably associated with the United States because so many of the largest multinationals are associated in the minds of people around the world with this country. 

It seems to me that any analysis of anti-Western and anti-American sentiment and actions that does not take into account the corrosive and dislocating effects of commercial (and cultural) globalisation will fail to understand why there is resentment and resistance.  Reaction against the displacement and economic and cultural insecurity created by globalisation acts as the oil that keeps the gears of more specifically political and violent protest moving.  If people in other nations have experienced rapid cultural change or even dissolution of their old traditions and habits because of modernisation and a demagogue or cleric or intellectual can take advantage of that and point to a combination of Western economies driving globalisation, Western moral decadence and overweening Western governments using their political and economic supremacy to meddle in and/or destroy other states, these voices can make plausible arguments that their nation’s woes can be laid at the door of America and the West while at the same time reinforcing their own convictions in their moral and, often, religious superiority and putting themselves on the side of the weaker nations that are being trampled under by hegemonic policies in a kind of solidarity.  Most powerfully of all, hegemonism actually gives these voices tremendous credibility, because hegemonic policies actually are unjust and destructive, and the West has become in many respects morally decadent by any meaningful standard, all of which comes together to make resistance seem not only desirable but absolutely essential to their cultural and national survival. 

But Drum stumbles here pretty badly when he tries to link what Beck said (basically, “they hate us for our immorality”) to the “they hate us for our freedoms” trope.  The latter is the product of people who think that there is basically nothing fundamentally or even incidentally wrong with America or its policies in the world, and that the only conceivable reason why anyone would want to do us harm is that we are free.  This would be funny if it were not so dangerously detached from the real world. 

Whether or not you define that freedom in a way that allows for license and hedonism, casting terroristic violence as an attempt to repress our freedoms makes that violence seem both purely irrational, and therefore impossible to contain or quell except by superior firepower, and absolutely limitless (i.e., it cannot be deterred, undermined or cut off at the source).  It is the perfect justification for perpetual war and a perfect justification for a perpetual war fought in the most ham-fisted, counterproductive way possible (thus guaranteeing that the “Long War” will be very, very, very long indeed).  It also helps to distract critics who have legitimate complaints about state encroachment on actual freedoms by constantly warning civil libertarians that they are helping to facilitate the establishment of shari’a in this country by weakening the government’s ability to spy on the general population and bomb Arabs with impunity.

However, this trope that “they hate us for our freedoms” is almost exactly the opposite of what Beck said.  To say that millions and millions Muslims around the world hate “us” for our immorality and decadence is to make hatred of us have some plausible, explicable cause.  Worse yet, it suggests that the cause of this hatred is remediable, which is exactly what the “they hate us for our freedoms” crowd cannot stand–the idea that “we” should or can do anything to stop anti-American hatred and violence is, as far as they are concerned, not only ludicrous but is itself immoral “appeasement.”  Liberals like Drum don’t like that the ox of social liberalism is being gored in all this talk of immorality, obviously, but nothing could be further from saying “they hate us for our freedoms” than to accept, however, indirectly or vaguely, some responsibility for anti-American sentiment.  Indeed, the two positions would have to stand in sharp contradiction, since the solution that Beck might propose would involve the curtailment of things that today fall under the overly broad rubric of freedom.  Far from agreeing that “they hate us for our freedom,” this Beck position as it is stated above would say, along with D’Souza, “they hate us for how we misuse our freedom” or perhaps even “they should hate us for some of these so-called freedoms that are actually just forms of rampant immorality.”  Those who say “they hate us for our freedom” believe that everything is basically fine with America just the way it is in every respect (yes, there might need to be a little tinkering here or there, but fundamentally there are no real problems), while anti-hegemonists and cultural conservatives alike are able to recognise that there are things that are deeply awry with government and society.  Naturally, maintaining both of these positions tends to make one unusually unpopular, since it flatters the prejudices of neither major bloc. 

What is potentially quite interesting is what might happen if we could somehow miraculously get together the large constituency on the left that focuses specifically on U.S. policy and the fairly large and, I think, growing constituency on the right that focuses on cultural decadence to create a popular cause demanding the dismantling of the hegemony and moral renewal.  The only problem is that the two groups generally regard each other’s America as the heart of the problem that “their” America has with the rest of the world.  I promise a nice steak dinner to anyone who can come up with the plan that unites these two basically mutually antagonistic groups together in a force for anti-imperialist cultural regeneration. 

Now, because D’Souza’s book stated a very similar argument to Beck’s in a way that was bound to irritate everyone there is a tendency for everyone of all political leanings to reject it in its entirety.  I tend to give his diagnosis (i.e., traditional societies are appalled and outraged by low Western morals, and Islamic societies are outraged to the point of contempt and violence) a little more credit while rejecting his solution (i.e., ecumenical jihad), but I disagree with his diagnosis to the extent that he thinks that the entirety of the Islamic world will somehow become pacific and cease all hostility towards the West that it has demonstrated in the past if we start giving serious thought to Tertullianesque plans to veil our women.     

People on the right object to D’Souza because he “blames America first” (not that these folks would be satisfied if someone blamed America fifty-ninth–America is never to blame for anything ever in some folks’ minds, and especially not for anything that the U.S. government does) and people on the left, well, they don’t much care for the whole “your godless liberalism brings down the wrath of jihad upon us” idea.  Almost everyone is getting something pretty important wrong in this “debate,” but the main stumblingblock to acknowledging that each side has something worthwhile to say seems to stem from what I might call the Larison Amendment to the Dougherty Doctrine (Mr. Drum may be familiar with the doctrine, since it first appeared in the pages of the Monthly): jihadis want to kill us because we tolerate your cultural and political preferences, but they would stop wanting to kill us if we all followed mine.  Now it just so happens that some people are much more right about this than others, and the trick will be to find some way to convince most of the main groups contesting this claim that most of them are partially correct.   

Drum calls the kind of argument embodied in the Larison Amendment “unusually loathsome,” but it is, in fact, an argument that everyone uses at some point in every foreign policy argument.  Neocons use it when they say that the only way to defeat jihad is to engage in massive foreign wars and spread democracy (with relatively less emphasis on the latter), which is basically to say the only way to defeat jihad is to endorse the insanity of neoconservatism, and every other group can be found saying something similar: only we can defeat jihad…by doing the things we’ve always been proposing that we do anyway. 

Put another way, it comes down to whose America you “blame first” for foreign hostility.  Many on the left blame “Red America” first because of military and foreign policy (even if these are policies that their elected representatives also endorse), and cultural conservatives such as D’Souza will blame “Blue America” first, while the people inured to both trashy popular culture and the warfare state refuse to accept any responsibility for backlashes against Western cultural degeneracy broadcast throughout the world or for destructive hegemonic foreign policy conducted in their name.  People horrified by both (people like me) tend to blame the America of the megalopoleis of New York, Washington and L.A. (i.e., not the bulk of the real America, but the other, rather dreadful America that most of the world encounters in one way or another), while people who live in the megalopoleis regard our problems with the world as a product of excessive Christian fundamentalism, Southern militancy and heartland chauvinism.  So, basically, we all continue to believe that the usual suspects (whoever our usual suspects are) are responsible for the problems in this country.  One group of us is much more right about this than the others–guess which one I think has the right answer. 

If Drum’s reaction is any indication, however, the people in the megalopoleis are not going to be inclined to accept the diagnosis of the anti-imperialist reactionary from flyover country.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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