Saturday, February 11, 2006

Islam and Western "pragmatism"

I've heard it personally from two sources now: the "pragmatic" response to the Muslim cartoon furor (if you don't know what I'm talking about, see here) is to avoid inciting more violence. When we get down to the specifics of what such avoidance entails, we see that it amounts to appeasement. It works like this: for the "pragmatist," it is abundantly clear that certain Muslims are prone to overreaction. Knowing this as we do, we Westerners would be at fault for provoking such people, because provocation in the awareness of Muslim oversensitivity is malicious. You know the angry dog will bite you if you keep prodding it with your foot, so it's your fault if you get bitten. What's more, provocation is impractical: how can we expect to change Muslim hearts and minds when we adopt a confrontational stance?

I'd like to devote this post to a rebuttal of such "pragmatism" in favor of a better, more realistic pragmatism that actually takes human nature into account and aims for a long-term view of the problem. The "pragmatism" outlined above represents, at best, a kind of superficial, short-term reasoning that leads people to believe appeasement to be the best course.

First, what is pragmatism? Generally speaking, people use the term when they want to set themselves apart from those they consider unrealistic. Unlike unrealistic people, pragmatists view themselves as grounded in reality. The implied value judgement is that grounding in reality is better than being unmoored from reality-- e.g., because one is too idealistic, or because one spends too much time daydreaming. A pragmatist prides him- or herself in taking a hard-nosed, practical stance, one that answers the immediate exigencies of the situation, and sees phenomena for what they are, not for what they might or should be.

Over at Oranckay's blog, commenter Sonagi offers an example of his style of pragmatism:

There is no contradiction in my thinking. I am a pragmatist who believes we must all weigh the benefits and costs of our actions. It is unwise to do something that will have a negative outcome simply because we have the right or worse, simply to show that we have the right.


Let me give you a real-life analogy. One of my neighbors has a steady stream of visitors, who occasionally park in my parking space. I have the right to have any vehicle parked in my space towed. I do not exercise this right because I suspect that the neighbor is a drug dealer, and I fear retaliation. I have two choices: call a tow and risk my car being vandalized or park an extra 3 meters away. I choose to walk the additional three meters. Getting indignant at a druggie won’t cover the cost of a new windshield or worse, medical treatment. Even though I make this choice, I have not lost my right to that space. I can change my mind anytime and call a tow.

To sum up my thinking: we ought to pick our fights carefully.

The idea that we should "pick our fights carefully" is legitimate. I agree that we should. But Sonagi says this by way of critique of those Westerners who, Sonagi feels, unnecessarily aggravate the situation by loudly insisting on their rights to free speech, etc.

My reply to Sonagi in that thread was this:

If the drug dealer using your parking space decides to use it every single day… what exactly have you gained by giving in to cowardice? The drug dealer learns the lesson that he can act with impunity.

Where the appeasing "pragmatist" misses the point is in his assessment of human nature. The assumption that things will get better, if only we lie low a bit, is not particularly courageous. More important, it's not realistic. As a teacher, I've been in plenty of situations where I've made the mistake of being too friendly, to my cost. Those situations happen less frequently now, because I've learned the wisdom of being firm, and especially being firm in a timely manner.

When it's time to discipline a student (or your child, or Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jong-il), you must do so swiftly, surely, and without rancor. Discipline must be seen as the direct consequence of wrong action. If the disciplined party has an inkling that the discipline was meted out in anger, or in haste, or belatedly, he won't respect it. If discipline is meted out inconsistently over time (e.g., Rumsfeld shakes hands with Saddam in the 1980s, then orchestrates his capture a couple decades later) this will also lead to disrespect.*

Many Muslims perceive the West as weak. While Westerners consider self-criticism a virtue, many outside our borders view our self-criticism, our culture of debate, as mere indecisiveness or lack of conviction. It doesn't help matters that we, as a culture, often are indecisive or at loggerheads. The Muslim world was encouraged by France's and Germany's opposition to America's designs against Saddam. Saddam himself probably thought we wouldn't go through with our war,** perhaps hoping that the ghost of Charles de Gaulle and his "contrepoids" (counterweight) philosophy would prevail and stay America's hand.

The West and its allies occasionally shoot themselves in the foot: Kim Jong-il, for example, relies on Seoul's and Washington's indecision to get what he wants, like a child adept at "playing" his parents. North Korea, in the role of the spoiled brat, knows it can sit back and make demands of its far more powerful interlocutors. In the end, Seoul and Washington gain nothing while Pyongyang continues its illegal nuclear program, its counterfeiting, its drug trafficking, and its systematic oppression of the North Korean people-- all while spewing outrageously self-righteous rhetoric whose crazed tone I often wish we matched, just for fun's sake.

The Muslim perception of the US, before 9/11, was that we were weak and would respond limply to an attack on our soil. The same Muslims have judged Europe the same way, and many European countries affirm the Muslim assessment of Western weakness daily. While it is fine for Western governments and newspapers to appeal for calm on both sides and to remind us that we should treat other religions and cultures with respect, it's another thing entirely to ban the reprinting of the Muhammad cartoons as a sign of so-called "respect."***

Sonagi's drug dealer has nothing to worry about. The police don't seem to be prepared to do anything serious, and Sonagi isn't about to make waves. The wild-eyed Muslims who make death threats against the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists (some of whom are in hiding) and burn foreign embassies have nothing to worry about, either. Why worry, when it's obvious that actions against the West have no negative consequences? Theo van Gogh is dead, and it's his own damn fault for prodding the angry dog with his foot. Blame the murder victim!

But perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves. The pragmatic appeasers want to cut Western action off at the root: they would prefer that we stop openly acting outraged about Muslim outrage. Some, like Sonagi, seem to feel that we should feel outrage but then do nothing-- that we should, in fact, compromise with oppression by reducing our own range of movement to accommodate the violent Other. This is a comfortable, lazy position that allows us to pretend we have the moral high ground even as that ground is rapidly eroding beneath us.

Others feel that dialogue with the wild-eyed Muslims is the best answer. While I'm a staunch advocate of dialogue (interreligious, intercultural, diplomatic, etc.), I'm under no illusions that the people out there destroying embassies and threatening infidels with death are going to sit down calmly and listen to rational discussion. As far as I'm concerned, most of those people are already beyond redemption. Dialogue is reserved, then, for moderates (in the Western sense of the word, not the Muslim sense). What's more, we need to be focusing on the next generation of Muslims-- the children, the ones who are impressionable. If we don't move to communicate with them directly, they'll grow up just as indoctrinated as the current generation of willful idiots.

Above, I quoted Sonagi as saying:

It is unwise to do something that will have a negative outcome simply because we have the right or worse, simply to show that we have the right.

I understand what Sonagi is getting at, but I reject this claim. The attitude makes no sense. Sonagi's position immediately leads me to ask, "How can we know what is permissible to do?"**** This is the conundrum faced by the politically correct, who envision society as an up-tight place in which no one would dare think of offending anyone else. I proudly advocate the right to offend, and demand that offended parties unpucker their sphincters and relax. If you want to protest, fine. If you're planning to get violent, don't be surprised if someone shoots your stupid ass.

The politically correct, in their eagerness to keep everyone fiddling happily while Rome burns, forget the value of shakubuku. The term is closely associated with the Nichiren School of Japanese Buddhism,***** and refers to forceful polemic for the purpose of convincing one's audience. In the American idiom, we call this "shaking one's tree." For the politically correct, such an approach is inconceivable: people couldn't possibly respond well to a strong, challenging tone! But American comedians tackle issues of racism and sexism routinely and rebelliously; American audiences, composed of people of all races and both sexes who have real stakes in such discussions, don't quit the theaters in outrage when the comedians start their shtick. Quite the contrary: they laugh their fool heads off! That, folks, is the sign of a civilized society. Our comedians, most of them masters of shakubuku, educate us even as they infuriate us.

[Aside: I'm reminded of a riddle. Question: Why will the meek inherit the earth? Answer: Because that's the ONLY damn way they're gonna get it.]

Religious satire is a venerable part of Western culture. The creators of South Park have suffered no Christian death fatwas for their satirical portrayal of Jesus Christ (I'll be curious to see whether they have the guts to tackle Muhammad now). True: Trey Parker and Matt Stone might not fare so well in the Christian parts of, say, Nigeria. But they're in the West, and thank God we've got them. They help us avoid taking ourselves too seriously.

What worries the "pragmatic" appeasers is the same thing that worries bad parents. A bad parent, when faced with a child's demand, gives in quickly because that's easier than doing what's right (and didn't Albus Dumbledore warn Harry Potter that we'd have to make the choice between what is right and what is easy?). Such a parent is afraid of the initial kicking and screaming, unable to think beyond the kid's squalling to the ultimate effects of consistent discipline: respect for the parent, better behavior, and, in the end, a more fulfilling parent-child relationship.

The "pragmatic" appeaser wants to paint himself as being the one who sees the situation for what it is. To some extent, he does. He correctly anticipates that continued exercise of free speech in the face of Muslim anger will lead to even more Muslim anger. But he is unable to see beyond this: firmness in our collective conviction as Westerners can teach such Muslims that they cannot erase a basic and treasured value simply by playing the bully.

True pragmatism recognizes that human nature responds to firmness, decisiveness, consistency, and conviction. This is not to say that the West should cease all internal debate to give the impression of absolute solidarity: no Muslim would believe such a posture now. But we should be absolutely unrepentant about what our rights are and how freely we enjoy them. This doesn't mean throwing sensitivity out, but it does mean being proud of the breathing room we allow our own resident jerks, dickheads, and assholes-- many of whom are not merely buffoons, but also, in their own weird way, teachers.

Since we're talking about true pragmatism, which involves seeing the situation as it is, I'll observe that the current Muslim anger is not merely a sudden explosion of outrage. It is quite calculated. As has been noted by others, many of the demonstrations in various countries have been spurred, tacitly or openly, by those countries' governments. The original Jyllands-Posten publication was in September of 2005. The cartoons appeared again in Egypt in October, 2005. While there may have been some small-scale outrage when those images appeared at the time, in neither case was there anything like the rampant stupidity we're witnessing now. The time-delay nature of the outrage is suspicious.

This puts a wrinkle in the discussion I'm having with the Pragmatic Appeasement School. If Muslim outrage is, to some degree, a tool being manipulated by Muslim governments, how does it help matters for us to strive for appeasement? Sonagi asks us to choose our battles carefully, but from what I've seen, we've been far too passive for too long, and the battles are being chosen for us. Extremist Muslims are relying on the gentler aspects of our culture to spare them from the potentially frightening and devastating consequences of their own barbarity.******

A true pragmatist takes more than a short-sighted view. Like a good parent, he harnesses the power of ideals and takes a future orientation, because those ideals provide us practical direction, guiding our actions and leading us-- those of us with courage, anyway-- to something better than the present. If a pragmatist is sincere in his evaluation of the consequences of his and others' actions, he'll do more than cede Lebensraum to the Muslim idiots currently making headlines (or to drug dealers in parking lots), and he'll stop insulting the rest of us by assuming the wrong things about human nature. You can't be pragmatic when your observations are fundamentally mistaken.

*The UN is perhaps a better example of what happens when your discipline is inconsistent. UN sanctions, for example, did little to impress Saddam. Other murderous regimes also take the UN lightly: condemnation produces little more than a shrug from the tyrants. The slaughter in Darfur continues. North Korea allows no close supervision of food distribution. Iran has now stood up in defiance of the UN Security Council (which wasn't planning on acting for several weeks or months, anyway). In the comments thread at Oranckay's blog, Sonagi referred to the UN Declaration of Human Rights as "toothless," and s/he has a point. But it's toothless precisely because the UN has almost never followed through on any of its warnings. See the psychology I'm talking about?

**Newbies to this blog might not know that I opposed the war. I don't consider myself either liberal or conservative (in the American senses of those terms), but I failed to see the practical long-range benefit of trying to "establish democracy" in the Middle East. Removing Saddam from power and establishing military bases-- that I might understand. But nation-building has been a hard sell for me, for reasons you'll find on this blog if you dig around.

***Muslims and non-Muslims are right to point out that the West itself puts limits on freedom of expression. American TV recently "bleeped" the Rolling Stones during the Super Bowl, for example; we have a bizarrely prudish TV culture, often a disappointment to relaxed Europeans.

The current disconnect in the "cartoon war" between Muslims and Westerners lies in the conflation of the theological and the political-- quite natural for Islam, which admits no secular reality, but fundamentally antithetical to the pluralistic, secularistic Western mindset. Many offended Muslims see the cartoon issue in terms of blasphemy, which is a religious notion. They then move from that thought to the idea that there should be no published blasphemy in our culture, which shifts the discussion to the political.

****The adjective "permissible" galls me. Whose permission do we require? Radical Muslims'? Are we allowing others outside our culture to determine what we should and shouldn't do? Might as well put those burqas on now, eh? It's wrong for women to show too much skin, after all, and our TV shows, which are broadcast beyond our borders, must be causing our Muslim brothers and sisters a lot of distress. By this logic, we really should do absolutely nothing, because we can never be sure how we might offend someone-- Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, etc.

*****Remember Dennis Quaid in the 1980s movie "Innerspace," chanting Namu myoho renge-kyo! Namu myoho renge kyo! to a petrified Martin Short to persuade him to leap out of a moving truck? That chant-- In the name of the Lotus Sutra!-- comes from Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren School.

******Even France, for God's sakes, is building up its stockpile of nuclear weapons. President Chirac has made clear that he keeps the nuke option open for terrorist nations.


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