Can we expect rational man from tribal society?
by Bruce Thornton
April 26, 2008
The New Individualist
A review of Lee Harris, The Suicide of Reason. Radical Islam’s Threat to the West (New York: Basic Books, 2007)
Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” This dictum threatens to be prophetic of the West’s war against Islamic jihad. Our failure to understand the true origins and nature of jihad is as dangerous as our blindness to our own peculiar cultural weaknesses. As Lee Harris argues in his new book, both failures of knowledge are contributing to the “crash of Western civilization.”
Harris is an independent writer whose first book, Civilization and its Enemies, unabashedly called on America to accept its role as a superior civilization threatened by barbaric fanaticism from without and self-loathing cultural relativism from within. His new book explores in more depth the peculiar weakness of the liberal West: its “exaggerated confidence in the power of reason . . . [and] profound underestimation of the forces of fanaticism.”
The persistence of fanaticism, these days in the form of Islamic jihad, challenges the West’s cherished myth of inevitable progress fueled by the increase of knowledge and the improvement of human life. Yet such progress is not guaranteed, for “the law of the jungle can never be abolished.” The utilitarian and materialist goods by which the West judges progress — the “carpe diem” principle of “maximizing the happiness and pleasures of each individual” at the expense of one’s community, the world, or the future — are not typical historically of most peoples. Indeed, the existence of “rational actors,” as Harris calls them, people who in the pursuit of “enlightened self-interest” adjudicate conflict through “rational procedures,” is an anomaly, the “historical offspring of the specific cultures that produced the first generation of rational actors.”
Contrary to the assumptions of liberal West, then, such “rational actors” are not the “natural” man towards whom all humanity is evolving. Rather, “tribal actors” are more typical of humanity, those peoples who put the survival and flourishing of tribe ahead of the individual’s happiness, who unthinkingly accept and never question the superiority of their tribe and its values, and who work for the tribe’s success at any cost, particularly at the expense of other peoples deemed inferior simply because they are not members of the same tribe. Such people are “fanatics,” willing to die and kill for the group and its values, and unwilling to trade away those values for the material goods we in the West prize.
Because we assume all peoples prize the same goods we do as “rational actors” — individual autonomy, tolerance for other individuals and their differences, and a preference for negotiation and compromise over force — Harris argues that we are unwilling to recognize Muslim fanaticism, a denial evident in the way both left and right attribute jihadist violence to material or political factors — “poverty or a lack of democracy” — important to the West, rather than seeing such violence as the expression of fanatical loyalty to Islam and a resentment against the ascendancy of the infidel West that Islam dominated for a thousand years. This mistake dangerously weakens us in the current struggle with Islamic jihad, for, as Harris points out, it is fanaticism that “has made history, over and over again” by seizing the “historical momentum” and forcing a complacent status quo to react to the fanatics’ aggression.
Harris traces the history of these Western ideals through the works of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Condorcet, exposing along the way their contradictions and unexamined assumptions. The latter, for example, put his faith in the power of education to enlighten all people and free them from their old irrational superstitions. Yet Condorcet fails “to grasp the powerful hold that the tribal mind will always command over those who have been raised by the tribal shaming code.” Harris defines this “code” as a pre-cognitive, non-negotiable “visceral attitude that is impervious to reason,” one manifested as “horror, shame, revulsion, embarrassment, anxiety and so forth” in the presence of actions condemned by the tribe. The purpose of this code is to make sure its members live and behave in ways approved by the tribe, and thus reinforce the tribe’s values and ensure its survival. Rather than a force of instability and chaos, as we in the West assume, a fanaticism shared by a whole society and reinforced by the shaming code “operates as a way of assuring a complete consensus of values and homogeneity of thought.” As Harris shows, it is the “popular fanaticism” of Islam that made Muslims the masters of one of the world’s greatest empires: “Muslim fanaticism works, and throughout the centuries it has worked with spectacular success.” Thus it is no surprise that Muslims today, chafing at lost glory, are attempting to reanimate that traditional popular fanaticism.
In Harris’s analysis, the West has transcended the old tribal “shaming code” by instilling another that reinforces the goods that “rational actors” should pursue. Moreover, the development of rational techniques and powerful technologies catapulted the West into its current dominance. Yet his important point is that this seeming progress into a higher civilization did not happen because such a way of life is the natural and inevitable end of all humans, but because of fortuitous circumstances and accidents of history. As such, it is vulnerable to new changes and shifting circumstances. The Western nation that today best embodies the liberal democratic ideals of “rational actors,” the United States, is the result of several “happy accidents” of history and geography, rather than the necessary culmination of progressive human development. There is no “end of history,” then, for the power of fanaticism can return and prey upon the weaknesses of the West — particularly the habit of seeing its own values as universal and inevitable.
This unwillingness to acknowledge the persistence and power of fanaticism has been especially dangerous in the confrontation with jihad. Islamic popular fanaticism has been traditionally expressed through jihad, the communal imperative to spread Islam through conquest. Harris rightly dismisses the sophistries of apologists and “jihad deniers” who argue that jihad is merely “the struggle within the soul of each Muslim to overcome his own failings and sins.” Instead, Harris locates the modern revival of jihad in the long tradition of Islamic holy war whose “goal was not rule over a multicultural domain, but to create a single unified culture under Islam,” which is the only legitimate spiritual and political order for all humans. The current jihadist revival, then, makes perfect sense for Muslims, since jihad has been “the historical agent by which Islamic culture has come to dominate such a vast expanse of our planet.”
But, Harris asks, can the jihadists win? He identifies four factors that suggest they might.
The first is the demographic explosion of Muslims in Europe, all the while Europeans do not reproduce even at replacement levels. Thus a potential jihadist fifth column is spreading in the heart of the West.
Second is the naïve idealization of democracy, the spread of which in Muslim countries will not create cultures of “rational actors” but “will end by empowering those who are most opposed to the very modernization that the West wishes to bring about in Islamic culture.”
Third, the West has abandoned the idea of “cultural protectionism,” instead seeing pride in one’s own culture and its superiority as a species of benighted intolerance rather than as a necessary defense mechanism. This self-loathing has been institutionalized in multiculturalism, which encourages Westerners “to feel ashamed of their own cultural traditions” as racist, exploitative, and intolerant, not to mention inhibiting the individual’s desire to pursue his own happiness according to his own desires.
Finally, Western cultural decadence weakens our defenses and gives traction to the jihadist hatred of the West. Living off the accumulated cultural capital of our more hardy, realistic, and brutal ancestors, we moderns are “intensely individualist, absorbed in the present moment, hostile to all forms of traditional religion and authority, champions of materialism, consumerism, and hedonism.” As such, we believe nothing is worth killing and dying for, leaving us weak in the face of a fanatic enemy, for “an intolerant ethical code will always end by trumping a carpe diem ethical code.” Given that we in the West have demonized “high-testosterone alpha males” and have institutionalized contempt for Western civilization, the West is obviously vulnerable to radical Muslims who “encourage their alpha boys to be tough, aggressive, and ruthless,” and who teach their children “to be willing to die to keep their traditions alive.”
For all his pessimism, Harris offers “two political paradigms” that could reverse what he thinks is the coming “crash of Western civilization.”
The first is “enlightened tribalism,” which “retains the tribal distinction between Us and Them, but the basis of this distinction is that our artificial tribe is made up of people who are determined to preserve our own historically unique popular culture of reason.” While living by “universally respected and impersonal rules of reasonable behavior in resolving their disputes and differences,” enlightened tribalists will nonetheless be aware of how different — and “ethically superior” — they are from cultures of popular fanaticism, and they will never assume that such fanatics are “just like us” and want the same goods.
The second paradigm is “critical liberalism,” which abandons “utopian schemes” for making the rest of the world into copies of the West. It will realize how exceptional is the existence of “rational actors,” and accept the need “to instill its own ethos in the next generation” in order to protect that hard-won good from those who would destroy it. Such a liberalism must “assign duties, and does not merely hand out rights.” And most important, it must abandon the flabby “tolerance” and cultural relativism that excuses violence and fanaticism.
The goal of these paradigms will be to protect our own “unique culture of reason from being subverted or undermined through an abstract ideal of tolerance that forces tolerant men and women to tolerate those who have no interest in tolerating others.”
Harris is a tragic pessimist, and his analysis of the weaknesses of reason and individualism is trenchant. Yet he is no anti-rationalist or reactionary. He makes it clear that our traditions of reason and individualism are indeed superior, which is what makes them worth defending and fighting for. But he recognizes too that they are exceptional and hence fragile. His approach is almost Darwinian, in the sense that the main issue is sheer survival: for no matter how superior a culture is, if it can not defend itself, then its superiority is meaningless. Thus for the West to survive, we need to know our own shortcomings and the nature and aims of the enemy. But if we persist in our ignorance, we will end with the “suicide of reason,” the “dismal prospect of a return to the brutal law of the jungle” that has governed humanity for most of its history, “and from which certain lucky cultures have miraculously managed to escape — and, even then, only by the skin of their teeth.”
©2008 Bruce S. Thornton