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Motivations of Men

The problem with Bush’s freedom rhetoric is that it appears to not be true. Hezbollah and Hamas, and the populations that support them, desire the destruction of Israel above all, and are willing to endure warfare and dysfunctional societies to bring it about. The Sunni insurgents in Iraq want power more than anything else, and are willing to kill and maim to gain it. The Shia militias, in turn, desire revenge against the Sunni. ~Rich Lowry, National Review

Via Doug Bandow

Let me say first that it is extremely rich that the callow, ridiculous editor of National Review would presume at this point to speak about deeply held conservative principles and understandings about the fallen nature of man, since these things hardly ever came up at NR c. 2002-03 when wiser counsel about the complexities of culture and the passions of men might have availed something.   

But there is something a little odd and more than a little condescending about this.  It is as if the liberal universalist yuppie has taken his first steps out of his own, sheltered neighbourhood to meet with a brusque reception at the local bar full of people he has never seen before (except maybe on TV) and does not really understand.  After an evening at the bar that sees him get into a nasty brawl with someone over an ill-chosen phrase about liberation, he is confident that “those people” are simply savages who simply want to obey their lower desires.  That must be what they want more than anything else.  Nobody likes people like this yuppie, because he makes no effort to understand the motivations of his fellow man.  “If they do not respond as I do, or as I would wish them to, they must be bent solely on evil or destruction or vengeance–that’s the only explanation!”

For the dedicated Hamas and Hizbullah types, destruction of Israel is probably high on their to-do list, but I think we would make a terrible mistake if we assumed that this is what even many of these fanatics desired “above all.”  Presumably many of them do desire power, of course, and wish to lord it over their neighbours and avenge old slights, and this is true in the Iraqi context as well, but then every man desires power of some sort.  Even the urge to “be free” is a desire for a certain kind of power, an autonomy, an immunity from mistreatment, a means to express one’s will and, in a democratic context, a desire to participate in government.  To speak of equality is also to make a claim about power–you believe that no one else should really, ultimately have more power than you, at least not permanently.  You believe there is a certain minimum level of power that you should always retain–over yourself and vis-a-vis other people.  That is what “rights” are supposed to be–embodiments of power that you are able to use to protect yourself.  No one wants to have a vote unless he also wants some measure of power–but it is typically power as a means to something else. 

Thus it is with most men.  Rare is the maniacal lunatic who simply wishes to keep acquiring power; most seek power and use violence to achieve certain ends, of which the destruction of their enemies may be only one and perhaps not even the most significant.  Most often we can tell what motivates a man by looking at his loyalties, associations and actions.  Hizbullah has changed and morphed over the years to become a Syro-Iranian front group, no doubt, but its members and sympathisers presumably see in it something more than that and understand their allegiance to it in terms beyond the old “death to Israel” motto.  Whether they are profoundly mistaken or not does not matter if we are trying to understand their motivation–even if they are profoundly mistaken, as indeed they are, they have committed themselves to an idea that will not permit them to so easily acknowledge this in any case.  And so we must try to understand what function this allegiance plays in winning the loyalties of so many people. 

Take Hizbullah, for example.  Why would someone belong to it, much less fight for it?  Do we suppose that it is simply rooted in the “pride and hatred” of fallen man, or could it possibly be that men may be driven by good desires that they corrupt by foul means?  It seems entirely likely that the desire for the destruction of Israel stems from some powerful loyalty, some important feeling of belonging and devotion that gives meaning and purpose to what these people are doing.  The destruction of Israel, if they could realise it, would only be incidental–what they want, I suspect, is some sort of status or dignity for themselves and their people that they feel is lacking and that they believe Israel has taken from them (or, at the very least, that if Israel were gone they would be able to reclaim what was supposedly rightfully theirs).  In any event, that is what they desire above all. 

So what would draw someone to Hizbullah?  First, it is a form of identity, an expression presumably of being a Shi’ite and thus presumably some form of fulfilling some idea of religious obligation or religious belonging as a Muslim; second, it must have some nationalist-cum-patriotic resonance built up by the mythology of Hizbullah-as-resistance-group; third, it must be tied into personal and family networks that lend real meaning to the associations that members of this group have; fourth, Hizbullah has provided some limited services to people in southern Lebanon, which presumably inculcate a certain degree of loyalty among the recipients, who may then look on Hizbullah as benefactors and patrons of a sort. 

The fighters are probably relatively young men, most of whom would have been growing up in the chaos and violence of the civil war, so they would have been attracted as young men to vehicles of violent resistance and groups that would give them a sense of concrete identity.  This would cause them to value Hizbullah as a social and religious group in its own right, no less than youths in other countries would be attracted to gangs or extremist groups.  All of them will have grown up or lived during the time of the Israeli occupation, which would have embittered them against the Israelis and also solidified their ties to Hizbullah as a vehicle for opposing them.  Their motives might be religious and/or patriotic, they might be tied into some personal trauma or some story of family dishonour they feel obliged to set right, or they might stem from any number of other sources.  Their motives are presumably as complicated as those  of any people in the world, and it is embarrassing that the best one of the top figures at National Review can manage is the stupid alternative of freedom on the one side or hate, repression and massive, vengeful bloodletting on the other as the viable options available to these people as their primary desires in life.

Lowry talks about the Sunni insurgents wanting power more than anything else.  In one sense, this is entirely true–they are trying to get back what they believe their sectarian community had before the invasion.  In this sense, it is narrowly about power.  But thereasons why they are doing it must be more varied and meaningful than that: they are doing it to restore their status, perhaps a sense of dignity, perhaps the ever-important honour that needs to be avenged after the humiliation of the last few years; at the same time, some Sunni insurgents are probably also fighting out of a mix of some sense of religious, tribal and patriotic obligations, just as any other man would.  There is also the settling of scores with enemies old and new, the payment of blood-debts that they feel obliged to “pay” out of obligation to their kin or their ancestors or to abstract honour, which is the inevitable form that seeking justice will take in a society where there is no general or effective law. 

There is something sick and perverse in the idea that if every man does not desire “freedom,” he is therefore primarily be out to bludgeon in his neighbour’s skull or be bent on killing Jews, as if the range of human motivation was so limited and as if there were no diversity of human motives beyond these starkly opposed poles. 

Even when, elsewhere in the article, Lowry shows some sense of the complexity of motivations among these people, it is still with the condescending tone: they may prefer these values, but obviously they are mistaken.  Their culture has befuddled them with archaic notions.  Thus Lowry:

And while, all things being equal, people surely prefer to live in freedom than under a dictatorship, culture ensures that things are never equal. Someone living in a tribal or traditional culture will view the world differently, and have different values, than an atomized individual in the West. He might value sexual purity more than freedom, thus insisting on the repression of women. He might value his religious conviction that all of the Levant should be Muslim-controlled over freedom and life itself. He might hate the dishonor of foreign occupation more than he loves anything.

This still sets things up in an irremediably negative light, as if someone despised the dishonour of occupation for its own sake or relished in being able to hate something just so he could have something to hate.  Obviously, he despises the dishonour of occupation because he loves his country or, at the very least, he loves honour.  Though obviously taken to absurd extremes in the Islamic world, the decency, modesty, chastity and honour of women was a concept familiar to and beloved of our civilisation for a very long time until fantasies of emancipation convinced us that we had found a better way–protecting a woman’s honour used to be worth life itself for some men who adhered to certain high codes of conduct.  Though our understanding of honour and theirs differ greatly, and our treatment of women and theirs differ greatly, there should be nothing alien about the idea that someone would prefer to keep their women chaste, pure and honourable, not out of malevolent intention or a spirit of domination, but out of profound respect or at least out of the desire to preserve reputation and honour. 

It is not surprising that the promise of eternal reward, whatever we may think of it or his creed, trumps things as transitory as freedom and life–we used to understand this when we understood more about the Christian tradition than the mere leftovers of the doctrine of original sin.  The triumph of your creed, which we used to think meant something, is something that most men in the Christian and Islamic worlds in the last 2,000 years would have understood to be inherently glorious.  As recently as 90 years ago Chesterton could say through the mouth of Adam Wayne in The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

There were never any just wars but the religious wars.  There were never any humane wars but the religious wars.  For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of man, the virtue of a man.

Against that, what does this “freedom” have to offer?  Not much, in fact, and even if these men were inclined to weigh fairly the goods they value and the goods of the free society they could still conclude that the goods they value are more important, more lasting and more meaningful.  That we find their creed and their application of the concept of honour abominable in their effects is beyond doubt, but that they are motivated to do these things for reasons more complicated and interesting than the desire to repress, destroy or hate is shockingly clear.  

So the universalist yuppie says to his friends back at the villa: “I used to think that everyone was equal and desired the same things that I did, but now I realise that people who do not desire what I do are irrational savages.”  How quickly a universalist can go from praising the universality of freedom and the general dignity of man to declaring entire groups of people to be motivated by nothing better than power-hunger and bloodlust.  So much for the universal aspirations of Man!  If I were a lazy, stupid pundit whose only means of making an argument was name-calling, I think I might associate that sort of despicable view of other men with an unpleasant title reserved for the worst thought criminals on the planet, but I hope that my argument will have made my point for me.

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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