Ignoble Savages

I’ve been posting a lot of political items lately; too many, really, as I don’t want political issues to dominate here. I also think I am giving the impression that I am far off on the right, when actually my opinions vary widely on an issue-by-issue basis – I tend to side with the Left on most social issues (gay marriage, church/state, abortion, drug laws, environmental and energy policy), with the Right on some others (affirmative action, gun control, border control, and a general aversion to socialism), and with the neoconservative Right on one issue only, which is foreign policy (to the extent that US influence is fairly and honestly brought to bear in a struggle against tyranny). I have defended, at length, our our decision to knock Saddam off his perch, but I agree also that the job was catastrophically bungled, and that certain heads that still issue orders should have rolled long ago. I also share the Left’s low opinion of George Bush generally – his swagger, his smug religiosity, his inarticulateness, his lack of intellectual subtlety, and his inability to admit and correct error – as I have made abundantly clear in any number of posts.

So I’ll try to ease off on the political rants. But not just yet; here’s one more.

Everybody seems to be linking to an article called Head-in-the-Sand Liberals by Sam Harris. I thought I should link to it too, just in case there are any waka waka waka readers who haven’t seen it already elsewhere. The essay discusses the attitude folks on the Left tend to have toward the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Here is an excerpt that resonates well with some of the comment threads in recent posts:

… despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

At its most extreme, liberal denial has found expression in a growing subculture of conspiracy theorists who believe that the atrocities of 9/11 were orchestrated by our own government. A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government “assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East;” 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully-fueled passenger jets smashed into them but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode.

Such an astonishing eruption of masochistic unreason could well mark the decline of liberalism, if not the decline of Western civilization. There are books, films and conferences organized around this phantasmagoria, and they offer an unusually clear view of the debilitating dogma that lurks at the heart of liberalism: Western power is utterly malevolent, while the powerless people of the Earth can be counted on to embrace reason and tolerance, if only given sufficient economic opportunities.

I have emphasized in boldface a key point that I have hammered on in these pages: the “Noble Savage” view, so common on the Left, and so utterly wrong, in which all that is violent or selfish in Man was put there by (modern, Western) culture, and none of it by Nature.

Do read this essay. Harris, like Richard Dawkins, tends to go overboard in his antipathy to all religion, but he makes good sense here.

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18 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    The author posits a straw man which does not exist. First, idiocy runs rampant and is bi-partisan. If 16% of Americans think that Bush caused 9/11, this says nothing more than a minimum of 16% of the American people are buffoons. Liberalism has nothing to do with it.

    When I worked for the company which produced People’s Court, I saw a survey which said that 26% of the American people thought that Judge Wapner was on the Supreme Court.

    However, the real weakness in his argument is that “the debilitating dogma” which states that “Western power is utterly malevolent” also has nothing to do with liberalism. Let’s compile a list of prominent liberals: Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Russ Feingold, Hillary Clinton, and the incomparable Keith Olbermann. Pick your own list if you don’t like this one. Which of them believes that the West is malevolent?

    Posted September 27, 2006 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Pete,

    You mean Judge Wapner isn’t on the Supreme Court? Why the hell not???

    I disagree with you on this one – I’ve had this argument over and over again, and you’ll never find a conservative who thinks the US is a bad influence on the world. It’s always, always, the hardcore lefties who think that, and I think it has to do with where they fall on the capitalism-socialism-communism axis. You’ve got the argument upside down: Harris’s point isn’t that all on the Left think the US is malevolent, but rather that pretty much all of those who DO think so – and they are a vocal bunch – can be found over there.

    Posted September 27, 2006 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    There are plenty of people on the right – Pat Buchanan is an obvious example – who believe that American intervention abroad is (or can be) malevolent.

    However, saying that this meme is “at the heart of liberalism” is preposterous. It conflates what a small but vocal fringe element says with an ideology which includes somewhere between one third and one half of the citizenry. Moreover, you would be hard-pressed to find any leading liberal who espouses this. You can always find nutjobs on both sides who will say all manner of silly things. However, it’s a cop-out to find the most extreme and least thoughtful people on the other side and claim that they represent an opposing ideology. That is why he is arguing against a non-existent straw man.

    Posted September 27, 2006 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    No, Pat Buchanan doesn’t think American influence is malevolent for the rest of the world; I’m sure he’d say they should be grateful for it. His objection is that it is an unwarranted drain on America’s resources. The fact is that if not all, then almost all of the people who think that Western power is outer-directedly malevolent are over on the Left.

    I certainly grant you that “heart of liberalism” overshoots the mark. Even if the range was off, though, the direction was accurate. But there are different takes on what motivates the attitude, too – some do in fact think that America should be influential in the world, but just in a different, perhaps less forward-leaning way, while others think that we have no right even to try to expand the sphere of our cultural influence.

    Posted September 27, 2006 at 11:39 pm | Permalink
  5. PatG says

    Those on the far right such as neo-nutzis are THE Most hysterical about the USA’s foriegn policy being wrong. (As it has been coopted by the Jews in their view).
    It is irksome to me how those on the right can define what is in the minds of those they disagree with on the left and then assume their interpretation is accurate. It is a very clever but completely dishonest tactic to form the arguement based on false assumptions.
    Patriotism is not just what the right-wing neo-cons say it is. Our founding fathers would be considered socialist lefties for the most part by that sort of name-tagging.

    Posted September 28, 2006 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  6. David Pauley says

    While ownership of the “malevolent Western power” dogma may be debatable, there is a much more common view that Harris is concerned with. In The End of Faith he argues that religious tolerance is just as dangerous as religious intolerance. Most liberals and conservatives will agree that religious freedom should not be challenged. Yet Harris finds that reluctance to criticize religious beliefs prevents us from confronting the real source of many problems in the world. Behavior that would be intolerable in any other context is considered acceptable if it is part of established religious practice.

    Avoiding the religious explanation may be what brings people to positions such as “the evil West” on one end and “they hate us for our freedom” on the other.

    Posted September 28, 2006 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Quite right, David – religious freedom is one thing, but religion seems to consider itself entitled to freedom from criticism, which is another matter altogether, especially as religion can take some highly toxic forms. This is also the point Daniel Dennett makes in his book “Breaking the Spell”, and while I haven’t read it yet, I imagine Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” covers this idea at length as well.

    The strongest forms of “multiculturalist” dogma (again something you’d look Left to find) seem to insist on tolerance of those who are themselves radically intolerant, a position that I think is completely indefensible – not only idiotic, but dangerous as well.

    Posted September 28, 2006 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  8. Patrick says

    The most rabid haters of the USA’s foriegn policies are the neo-nutzis who think we are being lead by Israeli sympathizers. These miscreants are not of the left.

    Posted September 29, 2006 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    As I pointed out to Peter above, the view you mention, Pat, is not the one I was talking about. Like Pat Buchanan, those are isolationist paleoconservatives who think that current US policy is bad for America. I’m talking about those Americans who think that US influence has a malevolent effect on the rest of the world.

    Posted September 29, 2006 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  10. Patrick says

    That’s not what it sounded like at first. It sounded like you were once again putting your projected interpretation of what you think we “leftists” are thinking and feeling into our mouths as if that is what we are saying. These are just your interpretations.
    You do not seem to understand that from ouir point of view the position we are taking is the most patriotic, nurturing and loving position that can be taken towards the nation and society we love so dearly.
    When it is being lead astray in the name of whatever is covering for our poor leadership’s true interests, as we see them, we tend to speak truth to power which undermines the power that you are supporting. That is the intent. We do hope to undermine the power of what we see as misdirection. We speak and work against policies being taken by our nation’s leaders, not our nation itself.
    I for one find it rediculus to accuse the left of being unpatriotic when it is the Constitution that is being undermined by the right-wingers at this time.

    Posted September 29, 2006 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Pat, you seem to be almost willfully missing the point, and you are imputing to me attitudes I don’t possess, and putting words in my mouth that I am not saying. Here’s what I am talking about, once again, as quoted from this post:

    …the debilitating dogma that lurks at the heart of liberalism: Western power is utterly malevolent, while the powerless people of the Earth can be counted on to embrace reason and tolerance, if only given sufficient economic opportunities.

    I have emphasized in boldface a key point that I have hammered on in these pages: the “Noble Savage” view, so common on the Left, and so utterly wrong, in which all that is violent or selfish in Man was put there by (modern, Western) culture, and none of it by Nature.

    That is a view that I have encountered often, and whenever I have, it has come from the Left, not the right. That’s it. Did I say that everyone on the Left feels this way? No. Do I think that everyone on the Left feels this way? Of course not. Did I say anything about anyone being “unpatriotic”? No. All I said was that I agree with Sam Harris that there are those who feel that Western Power is utterly malevolent, and that while I agree with my friend Dave Pauley that to say such an attitude is at the “heart of liberalism” is wrong, I have indeed noticed that this attitude seems to be found only on the Left. Do I love the Right, and hate the Left? Of course not. I disagree with the Right, and agree with the Left, about many, many things.

    In fact, you are making the same mistake that you are accusing me of: you seem to think that I believe that because folks on the Left criticize US foreign policy they are “unpatriotic”, but then you appear to be assuming that if I criticize the Left for attitudes or actions on their part that I disagree with, that that makes me an enemy of the Left, and a puppet of the Right. But that isn’t the case at all; I could even argue, if I wanted to be puckish about it, that it is my fondness of, and loyalty to, the Left, that makes it my duty to call them out when I see them going down what I think is the wrong path. How dare you question my patriotism?

    Lighten up, bro.

    Posted September 29, 2006 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    In fact, Pat, if you think a little more carefully about it, you’ll see that this makes perfect sense, and here’s why:

    If one has the feeling that Western (U.S.) power is “utterly malevolent”, one is going to look on that as meaning that a fundamental change needs to be made in American society. This is hardly an attitude one would expect from conservatives, who are, by definition, conservative. It is almost tautological that people holding such an attitude will align themselves with the Left, rather than the Right. And this very attitude is not so uncommon, particularly in academic environments, where the climate is skewed so far to the extreme left that even people like Ward Churchill can find a home.

    Posted September 29, 2006 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  13. patrick says

    Hey Mac,
    You are the most patriotic ex-Canadian I have ever heard of! God bless yr fervor and zeal.
    I just have never gotten the “utterly malevolent” line coming from the left as much as from the right saying that is what the left believes.
    I do think however that the world at large is seeing our nation that way more and more as we project our power in a manner that scares the bejeezus out of them.
    The way that the current administration comports itself scares many around the world as much as the jihadists do. Which is part of the point that people like Ward Churchill rely on to get the most bang for their controversal buck. Calling the wheeler-dealers in the trade center little Eichmans was cruel and shocking to many people. But his point was that there is a perception of greed and malace in cut-throat capitalism, and the yes-men perpetrate it…At the expense of causes for greater than rich people getting richer.
    Most of the world sees ridding the body politic of the Saddam regeme as a blessing. But the way it was done and continues to be exploited is a nightmare.
    The ends do not justify the means.
    And when people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and Bush can find a home in the White House, I dispair for our future and welcome even the Ward Churchills to upset the status quo if they can.
    And my love-light is shinin’ bright big-guy! never you mind…

    Posted September 29, 2006 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Well, you certainly couldn’t find a better example of what I was talking about than the bitterly hateful and virtuosically offensive Ward Churchill, who makes it abundantly clear that he despises everything about America (except, presumably, free speech and his paycheck), and who is about as far Left as you can get.

    But, Pat, I’ll leave you with the last word, if you like. We’ve certainly laid out our cases, and I’m sure we have more points of agreement than you might think. Discussions of religion and politics are tremendously polarizing.

    Posted September 29, 2006 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  15. patrick says

    Hi Mac,
    Last word it is-
    We do have many more points of mutual support and admiration than disagreement; which stems from our difference of opinion regarding the dangers of socialism vs the dangers of capitalism.
    My gist is that capitalism has the power and momentum right now. The political pendulum has swung very far to the right.
    That I know you to be devoted to a humanistic creed and yet do not work to bring balance back to the situation is why I get so passionate about yr threads.
    I think we need to adddress the short comings of the right at this time; as the right is in power. To bring up points that demean the left when an election cycle is so near seems to me to be counter-productive to the reinstating of a true balance of power so important to our system’s health.
    I have always supported the over-throw of despots and tyrants. But this administration is being very selective in who/what they address.
    The pipeline being built by Uni-Cal in Burma is an axample of the worst sort of US envolvement in support of tyranny right now. Whole villages are being inslaved to enable this project. The elected president of Burma -(Myanmar)- is under house arrest and the people oppressed as much as any in history.
    This situation we now support as part of our foriegn policy. WHY? I maintain that it is the same reason we are in Iraq. Only because it is good for Bush’s croney’s in Big-Oil and the MIC. Very little else matters to this administration. And I dispair that you are buying their list of “palatable reasons” for their reprehensible policies & greedy activities in Iraq, as a war on Terror. If that were the case we would have taken on the Saudis after the Afghans…Iraq is about biz, not jihadists, in my humble opinion.
    When the second largest contingent of armed forces in our supposed coalition are 20,000 mercenary operatives working for the likes of Black Water Inc. we are not fighting the “good fight ” over in Iraq. We are fighting for the materialistic greed so off-putting to the devout person of any faith or progressive philosophy seeking spiritual contentment as well as temperal benifit and well being.
    Our society’s capitalist values are not universally admired and do not provoke only fits of jealousy ending in terrorism. They also scare the hell out of many people who have seen the loss of culture and spiritual linkage with ancestral values as something to fight against.
    Love to ya & family too of course! -Pat

    Posted October 1, 2006 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  16. patrick says

    I have just spent an hour on Ward Churchill’s web-site. I find most of his positions to be well thought out and clear in historical accuracy.
    As a Native American who continues to see his race subjected to just more of the same treatment and abuse as has been typical through-out our nation’s history, he would be a fool to see the USA as anything but a menace to the world. I have to thank you Mac for leading me to find out just what a great man he is! His detractors should be ashamed of themselves for misrepresenting his positions so insidiously.
    I have known several members of AIM from my days out west. They were also freedom fighters against United States agressions. What we did as a nation to the native population is a crime. What we are doing in Iraq is also a crime. The greed inherent in our social structure will be our undoing.

    Also, you should see from yr stint in the music biz that to call what we in America offer the world as Culture these days is laughable. More and more it has become a “throw away” culture where only what generates profits matters at the time.The best of our truest native multi-racial culture – The Blues and Jazz is not even appreciated here as much as in Europe, Asia and Africa. And they maintain their own cultural richeness as well. But in the USA- hell- We threw that away also.
    There is so much to celebrate in the USA, like the Constitution, and we allow our own leaders to trash it faster than a jihadist can say “gotcha!”…these bums are not preserving the values of our once great nation as conservatives minght be expected. The neo-cons are selling us out as sacrifices to their own God-power, totally corrupted power. The checks and balances are almost gone. If that happens we’ll get to see just what this converser with God – who usurped the White House – REALLY has to offer us. And that IS the last word!

    Posted October 2, 2006 at 12:37 am | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Geez, Pat, I offered you the last word, not the last sixteen volumes. Give a guy an inch… Don’t you have any unexpressed thoughts?

    If you’re going to take advantage like that, I’m reclaiming some space here.

    …the greed inherent in our social structure will be our undoing.

    … what we in America offer the world as Culture these days is laughable.

    … Our society’s capitalist values are not universally admired and … scare the hell out of many people who have seen the loss of culture and spiritual linkage with ancestral values as something to fight against.

    … would be a fool to see the USA as anything but a menace to the world.

    I consider my point — that the view “American influence is malevolent” is a feature of the Left — to be amply demonstrated, in this case at least.

    Have fun with self-styled “Native American” Ward Churchill. He’s a sweet guy, and scrupulously honest, of course.

    Seriously, if this bitter fraud is your idea of a “great man” (I’ll go with his namesake, thanks) we have much less in common than I thought. In order for any discussion to be worth the effort, it is necessary that there be some common ground, some shared axioms, some fundamental points of agreement, but I am increasingly skeptical that this is the case here. Also, I have asked you to be pithy, and to avoid febrile ranting (which continues to be exemplified by effusions like “the neo-cons are selling us out as sacrifices to their own God-power, totally corrupted power“), but to no avail, it seems. I think further conversation along these lines will be utterly unproductive.

    Posted October 2, 2006 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  18. “Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Russ Feingold, Hillary Clinton, and the incomparable Keith Olbermann. … Which of them believes that the West is malevolent?”

    Intelligent people don’t give a shiite what they believe. But all of those f*ckers are malevolent themselves (yes, including the dead one).

    Seriously, Teeth Doberman?

    Posted February 1, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink