War and Peace

In yesterday’s New York Times, the cultural critic and polymath Edward Rothstein discussed the central idea of Lee Harris’s book The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West, namely that the Enlightenment faith in the progressive ascendancy of reason in human affairs is a false hope.

Rothstein reminds us that throughout history, the martial hero been revered:

Except for now, it seems, and particularly in the West. Today we are so wary of the warrior that we would find it unthinkable to celebrate him with elaborate descriptions of the beheading or disemboweling of his enemies. Instead we think of the warrior as a fanatic, an extremist with a streak of the berserk…

Harris points out that the word berserk comes from Icelandic accounts of Norse warriors of the 12th century who were so fierce in battle they fought without armor and raged like wolves. They were called “berserksgangr.” These days we tend to think of all warriors as berserk.

It isn’t that we don’t recognize, at some level, a need for warriors. At least in our cinematic fantasies warrior heroes abound. But they are kept on a short leash; they need a license to kill. …

… We watch these figures or read about their exploits with a certain sense of superiority. We like to think we have transcended this kind of ruthlessness; we are no longer tribally bound, but universally concerned; we don’t imagine eliminating our enemies in battle, we imagine driving them to the bargaining table. The West, riven by tribal and religious wars for centuries, imagines that humanity is capable of overcoming that past. Genghis Khan has been superseded by Jimmy Carter. The world’s remaining barbarians, even those in our midst, will eventually come to learn the virtues of the Enlightenment, the powers of reason and the prospects of a democratic future. …

…By taking a long view of history Mr. Harris argues that the modern view of how to vanquish enemies is based on false ideas: first, that history progresses; second, that it progresses toward greater influence of reason; and finally, that reason, through its powers, can overcome all opposition. Our smug disdain for the warrior, he suggests, is based on a mistaken view of the powers of modernity and the Enlightenment.

In Mr. Harris’s view these errors are affecting the crucial confrontations now taking place between jihadists and Western liberal culture. We keep straining, he says, to see terrorists as if they were just slightly more extreme versions of ourselves, reflecting our own convictions, as if the jihadist were advocating destruction in the name of a version of liberalism.

A Palestinian blows himself up in a pizza parlor, a Shiite drives a car bomb into a crowded plaza of Sunnis (or vice versa), videotapes display beheadings and Internet sites herald massacres. Such horrific deeds are taken almost as proof of suffering, poverty, frustration. The surest cure for terrorism, the argument goes, would be to ameliorate injustice; in the meantime violence can be curbed with well-considered policing…

…Mr. Harris argues that by failing to characterize Islamist warfare accurately, the West deludes itself, even employing another Enlightenment idea — tolerance — to grant harbor to those who seek to destroy it. And the West implicitly affirms that, in the end, reason will triumph.

This indeed seems an accurate account of the contemporary liberal Western mind. I haven’t read the book, but will have to get a copy, I think.

Is Harris right? Yes, the adulation of warriors may derive directly from aspects of human nature that are deeply innate, but the very success of the Enlightenment in the West is evidence that such tendencies are not insuperable, in the short run at least. Might it be that there actually is a sort of sub-speciation effect taking place, in which brains that are better hosts for Enlightenment-style memes are actually selected for in Western societies, and selected against in others? Is the fact that liberal Western societies have a such a low birthrate a significant liability?

Can Enlightenment culture act ruthlessly enough to prevail against its vicious opponents, without losing its rational and ethical foundation in the process? Or will its progressive tendency to value pacifism and cooperation over martial valor constitute a fatal weakness?

Read Rothstein’s article here.

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