Friday, November 5, 2004

Sculpture near my bike shed Posted by Hello

Do ideas really matter?
(Part 2: the power of myths and the politics of fear)

Ladeen’s speech (below) was a shining example of a central argument of the BBC2 documentary “The Power of Nightmares”: that Neo-con thinking is built around the need for national myths.

The documentary series (not without oversimplifications) sets up two philosophical grandfathers of the Islamic fundamentalist/Neo-con conflict and draws parallels between their world view and their selling of it.

It selects two 1950s philosophers – Kotb, an Eygptian teacher who spent time in the US, and Leo Strauss, a conservative academic – who both saw in Western liberalism a nihilistic, secular individualism that was destructive of society.

Their remedies were different. Strauss saw the need for an elite who would restore American unity through “necessary illusions”, the myths that hold a society together, including that of a unique national destiny.

Kotb saw the need for an Islamic elite that could integrate the benefits of western technology without the materialistic nihilism that seemed to accompany capitalism (a contagious false consciousness that alienated sufferers from their faith). Bin Laden is allegedly a student of one of his followers.

“Nightmares” depicts a small, well-placed group of Straussians who turned to politics over academia. Within the (then not terribly powerful) moralist wing of the Republican party they found a base receptive to their programme to reinvigorate national myths through the rhetoric of good and evil. (A strategy enabling them to bring a huge evangelical Christian movement into the Republicans for the first time, radicalising an often libertarian, small-government party).

Their rhetoric painted the Soviet Union as the source of all evil, the sponsor of all terrorism, and a threat out of all proportion to that it actually posed. Unusually, “Nightmares” paints the CIA as the standard-bearers for truth against the ideologues: CIA “bean-counters” were convinced that the Russian military was a relatively weak opponent.

The Neo-cons, especially Russian expert Professor Richard Pipes, didn’t want to hear it: if the CIA couldn’t find evidence of what must exist, then the logical conclusion was that the Russians had hidden it so well the CIA couldn’t find it. The absence of all evidence was taken as proving military capacities at the limit of imagination.

Thus, “Nightmares” argues that the USSR was largely an imaginary foe. Critical to this is Afghanistan. The Neo-cons decided to expel the USSR from Afghanistan no matter what: so they armed and funded local Islamic extremist movements. Gorbachev, seeking a negotiated settlement that would allow his country to leave with dignity, was rebuffed. There would be no compromise. Gorbachev prophetically warned Reagan that the people he was backing were no friends of democracy.

The USSR was driven from Afghanistan, and shortly after collapsed. Both Neo-cons and Islamists saw this and, wrongly, presumed: (1) the two events were directly related; (2) it was their efforts that had achieved this; and (3) if they could beat the USSR (a superpower) they could beat anyone.

In fact, the USSR was simply an unsustainable economic and political mess that was bound to collapse.

In the absence of the USSR, a new enemy was needed: for the Neo-cons it became the “tyrants” of the Middle East, for the Islamists it became the USA.

The series posits that both Neo-cons and Islamists were losing popular support (the Clinton era, the fratricidal madness of Egypt and Algeria) by 1997. Ironically, it was September 11 that revitalised them both: giving one a clear enemy and the other a massive symbolic victory.

Both are left fighting an enemy they have largely imagined: a nihilistic empire bent on the destruction of Islam; a unitary state-sanctioned global terrorist network (“al Qaeda” allegedly being a US coinage to cover largely unrelated groups and individuals so they could be prosecuted under anti-Mafia laws).

It’s provocative stuff, and following the Bush victory raises the prospect that the real war of ideas is not with “Islamists” but within democratic societies themselves.

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