Sunday, November 15, 2015

Daesh's Dirty Fuel

The news about the Paris terror attacks hit me while we were enjoying an evening festivity on the beach. I was reading about a rising death count and hostages trapped inside a concert hall while watching my kids shimmy to "La Vida es Un Carnaval." It felt incongruous, to say the least.

I predict, like many others, that these attacks will continue and will grow in frequency. ISIS -- or rather, Daesh, to use the more appropriately derogative term -- is fueled by hatred whipped up to a frenzy. For an interesting perspective on why and how that hatred grows, Cass Sunstein offers a really interesting sociological analysis to complement the historical and cultural reasons that are also operative.


There is power in hatred, of course. It's an explosive passion, and it will fuel bold action. A people driven by hatred will leave a trail of destruction behind, like the smoking wreck following Smaug's orgy of destruction.

But how do you defeat a dragon?  Do you fight fire with fire?  Do you match their hatred with yours? Is the reaction of the West going to be to stir up a conflagration of fear, suspicion, and hatred against Muslims? Or is there some alternative way, perhaps a tiny chink in the scales that can be exploited?

Responding to hatred with hatred would actually be feeding the dragon. On the one hand, we have to respond to the threat with force -- I'm not suggesting we offer flowers to people who are beyond the point of rational dialogue and who have demonstrated a depth of depravity and evil that beggars the imagination. We must speak the only language they understand: power. They cannot be contained or reasoned with. They must be defeated with decisive strength.

But the moral fuel behind our response should not so much be hatred for them as love for our own cultures and peoples. Hatred is a dirty fuel that leaves pollution behind it in the form of hidden costs whose bill we have to pay later on. Politicians who use hatred to fuel their own rise to power are not inherently constructive people, no matter their claims to have the secret to a country's greatness.

I'm all for patriotism and loyalty to country. It might be because I see my country more through the prism of what it once was or what it ought to be, rather than what is really there. That's a valid criticism; it might also be a typical quality of love that it sees what we can be, not just what we are. But isn't also possible that who we could be is just beneath the surface of what we are now? Sometimes extreme events make us rise out of our mediocrity and catch a glimpse, once again, of our true mettle.

There can be an unexpectedly transcendent side to tragedies, because they can slice into the heart of a people and reveal what we are made of. In some cases, they also shape a national character, because we choose how to respond. And that choice, to some degree, defines us anew. As long as hatred or fear do not coopt our response, it can be an inflection point for growth and unity.

The jihadists want France and the West to be afraid and to begin to hate. They don't care if Muslims are the target of that hatred; in fact, they would be pleased to see Western governments crack down on Muslim populations and subject them to unfair treatment, because that would feed into their narrative that the West is an aggressor that hates Islam. Disproportionate or unjust restrictions against ordinary Muslims would drive new recruits into their arms. Likewise, the rise of xenophobic far-right groups would betray the West's highest ideals, corroding the national discourse and bringing out our ugliest impulses to exclusion, prejudice, and hatred.

In addition to the necessary use of force to crush Daesh abroad, we also have to look for the chink in the dragon's armor, the hidden weakness to be exploited. Is it the claim to religious legitimacy? In that case, as Graeme Wood argued, the best response would be to prevent its so-called prophecies from coming true. If the caliphate does not expand geographically, Daesh will begin to look like just another failed state, not the 21st century version of an inexorably victorious Mohammed. Is the weakness its own shaky unity with fellow jihadists? The power struggles between Daesh and Al-Qa'ida are still going on, and some foreign fighters have given up the fight, discouraged that they are not killing Assad's men as they had hoped, but are instead killing rival jihadists. Perhaps intelligence services could also focus on sowing internal discord within Daesh, so that they can no longer distinguish between friend and foe. If they crack down on their fellow jihadists, then many fighters would become ever more disillusioned and wonder, in their heart of hearts, if Daesh is really everything it claims to be.

Daesh's dirty fuel is its hatred of the West, situated in its simplistic good-versus-evil narrative. I think our efforts to crush them militarily (and also financially, by cutting off their funding and supply lines) should be complemented by a more subtle form of psychological warfare to dilute their passion and belief in their cause. The Vietnamese used psychological warfare against the United States, Henry Kissinger argued, by dragging out the Vietnamese War and making it seem like a road to nowhere, an ongoing hemorrhage of money and blood. Support for the war unraveled, especially on college campuses, and domestic political pressures contributed to its ending with a whimper, not a bang.

We need to try analogous tactics with Daesh. In addition to military tactics like airstrikes, we need to unravel its legitimacy from within, doing whatever we can to defeat the ideology, the hate-filled virus that infects and begets new zombies by the thousands. On the grassroots level in Western countries, I think the best qualified individuals to fight the virus are the Muslim communities themselves, perhaps even the Syrian refugees who can testify, firsthand, to the monstrosity of Daesh in their former homeland.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Between Magnetic Poles

Today I was translating a text about a painter from Andalusia and there was a line in the original that gave me a lever, a way of understanding or cross-sectioning the world we live in.

The line was "la sensibilidad artística andaluza se sitúa entre el caos creativo y el orden constructivo" [the Andalusian artistic sensibility is situated between creative chaos and constructive order]. It was referring to how two opposing poles coexist in the same society, reaching expression in the works of a single painter -- and yet instead of becoming a source of deadlock, frustration, incoherence, or conflict, they are a source of tremendous fecundity.

This set off a spiral of thoughts:

Tensions, oppositions, differences are all a gift. They are challenging to manage, but true creativity arises from the bringing together of completely disparate and unexpected realities, approaches, ideas, avenues of thought -- so the effort to harvest all those hidden fruits is well worth it. We can always do more together if we work through the tensions between our differences and find a superior "third way" that we would never have found if it weren't for the challenge of the other who makes us go beyond our assumptions.

Yet, the ordinary temptation is to view these differences as an obstacle to happiness, prosperity, harmony, and peace. The refugee crisis in Germany: what a challenge to integrate all of those Syrians who have just barely escaped from hell and who want to start a new life. They are from a completely different culture, religion, background. Germany: so precise, punctual, ordered... and refugees from chaos. Yet, what a tremendous opportunity for Germany to defy the darkness in its past by writing a more generous and humanitarian chapter in its future. The country that once sent trains of Jewish refugees to death camps in the East is now receiving another sort of refugee, also from the East, and giving them shelter and the chance at a better life. It looks like reparation.

Angela Merkel said that the current influx could change Germany's demographics, and that the nation as Germans know it is going to change. But perhaps there is also a deeper level to that change: not only will the external demographics change, but there will be a significant shift in the German identity, so laden with guilt even generations after World War II. It's a new beginning -- if, and only if, the inevitable tensions are handled with grace, patience, ongoing dialogue, and the quest for a better way than the false alternatives presented by groups on the political extremes.

I think of that also with the rise of Paul Ryan to the position of Speaker of the House. He is also facing a "house divided" between left and right, two factious extremes that cannot seem to agree on the time of day, let alone momentous questions that shape the future of a nation and impact the entire world. I think this is the direction that US leadership should take, both at home and abroad: we are always going to face huge differences of opinion, and somehow we have to take all those opinions to the table and work through them to find a creative solution on the other side. It is difficult, delicate work, and it requires tact, diplomacy, clarity, and extraordinary communication and leadership skills.

I think of this also in regard to the election of the next US president. What scares me most about Donald Trump is his simplistic bulldozer approach to problems that are so much more complex than he seems to acknowledge. How will he deal with Putin? "We'll get along." What?? What is his foreign policy program?  "I'll make America great again. No more losing deals on trade." What does that even mean? I picture him trying to bully his way across the international arena, accentuating all the worst characteristics of America abroad, trying to solve problems by throwing money at them, alienating our allies and sparking disgust and derision among our enemies. We can't afford that in our next leader. We need a statesman, not a bombastic demagogue whose baseline assumption is that money solves every problem and overcomes every difference.

Here is another thought: Islam, the religion of submission, often touted as the religion of peace. I think the essential genius of Islam is that it seeks to obliterate diversity and difference (in this case, of belief and moral praxis) by forcing submission to a single set of ideas. (Not every branch of Islam, of course, but the radical branch that endorses sharia law and jihad.) Radical Islam fears differences, and I wonder if it is because it is predicated on an idea of purity frozen in time, like an insect encased in amber, and any processes that involve dialogue and seeking out creative solutions to bridge differences are necessarily suspect because they also entail the possibility of change. Entering into dialogue with the Other tends to change us; it provokes shifts, sometimes small and sometimes seismic, in the way we perceive reality, ourselves, and the other. This is threatening to a system of beliefs whose lodestar is an ideal of pure [understood as unchanging, without innovation] religious practice. Radical Islam cannot adapt to the Other because it knows that the Other poses a threat to its fragile, brittle, rigid identity. It cannot change itself -- it will not change itself -- so it must change the other, force the other to submit. Only when the entire world has submitted to Islam will this radical branch rest, because then the threat of change will be gone.

Why are some people, or some groups, so threatened by change? Is it psychologically so difficult to assimilate change, to evolve with time, to be challenged and to find oneself adapting in response? I guess it is difficult to the degree that we approach life with the misguided idea that we have arrived, or that our work is finished.

I appreciate the constructivist idea that we are constantly making ourselves, as Kierkegaard also argued. Of course, there is an aspect of ourselves that is given and endowed and relatively unchanging (even on the physical level, I am not going to reach 6'2" because I cannot will my body to change however I want). Yet, on the spiritual level -- on the level of ourselves that engages in relationships that are not limited only to the physical -- we can change and develop in drastic ways. We are constantly "creating" who we are through our choices, not just in the externals of where we end up or what circumstances surround us, but in the very interior dimension of identity and convictions and moral fiber and allegiances. We are a constant work in progress. This is the human condition, so we should not be threatened by change at all. We should relish it, enjoy it!

So, tensions, oppositions, differences force us to grow. They demand effort, because we have to find a way to build a bridge between two opposing poles. But I think it can be done, and it can be beautiful! So the right way forward is not to fear those differences at all, but to approach them thoughtfully, looking for a creative solution, and being willing to be changed.