I read this book my freshman year of college in my first class with the teacher who would become one of my favorites and the reason I went to grad school. I revisited it in grad school for a class on social justice and novels with that same teacher. And I’ve returned to it this week for a reason. The author, Chris Hedges, is a journalist who worked as a war correspondent through multiple conflicts, and he writes in this book, among other things, about the impact of war and how it can become like a drug:
“I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it is over.
“The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.”
I know this is a long quote, but I think getting the full picture of this is important. Because in a lot of ways, politics and social movements function like wars. We divide into factions, us vs. them, and we draw our lines in the sand. For many who have been relatively uninterested or uninvested in politics until Trump was elected, the feeling of sudden purpose will be new to them, but it’s not new to many of us. In much the same way as our baser instincts take hold in sporting competitions, where we become competitive and close-minded, political investment brings out the fight in us. We dig our heels in, because we know we are right, and the fight becomes about winning rather than about people.
I think this is necessary to understand both to understand the other side and to understand ourselves. I ended my last blog post with the assertion that we have to win this fight, because the consequences of losing it will be dire. We are literally fighting for our lives and our freedoms, and for those of people we love and care for (even if we may not know them). I think there are just wars, fights we fight with a moral imperative, and in this case I believe that is what we’re doing. We’re fighting a social war to prevent the types of government actions and overreaches that would justify a real war to stop them. But most people who fight in wars believe in the cause, and the psychological impact of our war is the same as a “real” war, so we need to understand it.
The biggest thing, I think, is that war provides meaning to lives that otherwise are mundane. For most of us, we get up, we get ready, we go to work, we come home, we sleep, and repeat. In between this we slip moments of human connection and leisure, and most of us have causes that we care about, charities to which we donate, people we try to help and support. This is important, and the work we do is often important, but it doesn’t always feel important. People don’t ask about the meaning of life and question the nature of the universe because they are unconcerned with these things. They dominate our thoughts; religion exists to try to answer these questions. I don’t say this to imply any falsity in this pursuit, but merely as a truth we must all acknowledge. There are approximately 1,000 denominations of Christianity in the US and Canada, most of whom all believe they alone have the answers. There are 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world, and Christianity is only one of roughly 19 major world religions. I think it is safe to say that humans are concerned with meaning.
Wars give us a cause. An enemy to fight, a banner to raise, an obstacle to overcome. Trump supporters are feeling this same purpose.
“Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. Never mind the murder and repression done in our name by bloody surrogates from the Shah of Iran to the Congolese dictator Joseph-Desire Mobutu, who received from Washington well over a billion dollars in civilian and military aid during the three decades of his rule. And European states—especially France—gave Mobutu even more as he bled dry one of the richest counties in Africa. We define ourselves. All other definitions do not count. War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought.”
We are less likely than the right to wrap ourselves in the flag, in empty patriotism, to lash out against our perceived enemies. But the compulsion to see ourselves as flawless, to define ourselves in complete disregard of reality, is one we have to be wary of. There is a liberal bubble, and while I don’t believe it is as thick and large as the conservative bubble, we have to be certain that we are breaking it as often as possible. We must care about measurable facts and the real impacts on people, not on what is convenient for our existing narratives. That way lies “alternate facts” and fake news. I think this also means being self-critical. Asking: Am I being honest with myself? Is my privilege impacting my point of view? What is the foundation of my belief? What is the most rational version of my opponent’s argument?
I was sick this past week (which is why these blog posts were delayed a week), which meant I spent a lot of time in bed, drifting in and out of wakefulness. It also meant I had the time to start a new show. HBO’s “Newsroom”. The last question above was inspired by this show; the news show’s goal is to present, for voters and as a means of informing national debate, the best possible version of arguments on both or many sides of the issue. They are guided by reality, imperfect humans though they are. It’s an ideal we have to hold ourselves to. “When they go low, we go high.” Thanks, (Michelle) Obama.
Another thing that wars do is they divide us. The example from the book I’m about to give is focused on nationalist/ethnic conflicts specifically, but I think it can by applied much more broadly.
“Nationalist and ethnic conflicts are fratricides that turn on absurdities. They can only be sustained by myth. The arguments and bloody disputes take place over tiny, almost imperceptible nuances within the society—what Sigmund Freud calls the “narcissism of minor differences.” In the Balkans, for example, there were heated debates over the origin of gingerbread hearts—cookies in the shape of hearts. The Croats insisted that the cookies were Croatian. The Serbs angrily countered that the cookies were Serbian. The suggestion to one ethnic group that gingerbread hearts were invented by the other ethnic group could start a fight. To those of us on the outside it had a Gilbert and Sullivan lunacy to it, but to the participants it was deadly serious. It had to be. For the nationalist myths stand on such miniscule differences. These myths give neighbors the justification to kill those they have gone to school and grown up with.
“The Serbs, Muslims, and Croats struggles, like ants on a small hill, to carve out separate, antagonistic identities. But it was all negative space. One defined oneself mostly by what the other was not. The term Serbo-Croatian, for example, caused great umbrage to anyone who was not a Serb. Suddenly, instead of one language called Serbo-Croatian, there were three languages in Bosnia—Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian. And the United Nations, pandering to nationalist cant, printed public reports in all three, although the reports were nearly identical. Spoken Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian are of Slavic origin and have minor differences in syntax, pronunciation, and slang. The Croats and Bosnian Muslims use the Roman alphabet. The Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet. Otherwise the tongue they all speak is nearly the same.
“Since there was, in essence, one language, the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats each began to distort their own tongue to accommodate the myth of separateness. The Bosnian Muslims introduced Arabic words and Koranic expressions into the language. [….] Just as energetically the Croats swung the other way, dusting off words from the fifteenth century. The Croatian president at the time, Franjo Tudjman, took delight in inventing new terms. Croatian parliamentarians proposed passing a law that would levy fines and prison terms for those who use “words of foreign origin.” In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, waiters and shop clerks would turn up their noses at patrons who used old “Serbian” phrases. The Education Ministry in Croatia told teachers to mark “non-Croatian” words on student papers as incorrect. The stampede to establish a “pure” Croatian language, led by a host of amateurs and politicians, resulted in chaos and rather bizarre linguistic twists.
“There are two words in Serbo-Croatian, for example, for “one thousands.” One of the words, tisuca, was not used by the Communist government that ruled old Yugoslavia, which preferred hiljada, paradoxically, an archaic Croatian word. Hiljada, although more authentically Croatian, was discarded by Croatian nationalists; tisuca, perhaps because it was banned by the Communists, was in fashion. The movement, done in the name of authenticity, was patently artificial. It was a linguistic version of gingerbread hearts. It was a way in which a nation could find tiny specks over which to argue and establish an identity and go to war.”
This quote was significantly longer but, again, I feel like it’s necessary to capture the full picture of what we’re dealing with here. In war, people create ways to distance themselves from one another. Nationalist/ethnic wars circle around defining yourself by your nationality or ethnicity as opposed to the ways in which other people do not have that definition. But wars all depend on the ability to make our enemies less-than-human in our own minds.
We need to be aware of this on two levels. The first is in how we see our political opponents. It is easy to apply labels–easy oftentimes because they are accurate labels–like “Nazi” and “fascist” and “bigot” to those with whom we disagree. Another is “deplorable”. In doing so, we make these people less-than. For most liberals, we are not willing to call this any kind of inherent flaw. A person is taught to be a bigot, for example, not born one. But we do some mental cost-benefit analysis, and determine that any person who can support a historical figure who brought about the deaths of millions is dangerous. Anyone who can support the cruelty of our new president is frightening. We take their political opinions in their most basic incarnation and use that as justification for dismissing them as people.
The premise itself is sound. Neo-nazis are dangerous. Trump supporters are frightening. The things these people support create a cognitive dissonance for me that makes me question their fundamental values and ideals. But the truth is, I also know and love Trump supporters, and their support of neo-nazi policies are founded more in ignorance and fear than anything else. This does not make the things they support okay. It doesn’t mean we stop fighting. It doesn’t mean we accept their faulty and hateful premises as valid. But we must remember their humanity, even as we actively work against them.
We must do this not only for them, but for ourselves. Because it is easy, in war, to get caught up and lose thread of what is fair and rational. It’s easy to lose our empathy. But radical empathy is what defines us, and it’s not okay to lose it.
The other level we need to understand is the way Trump and his supporters are using it to further disenfranchise minorities. Trump made a point of doing this during his campaign, and it’s been enthusiastically adopted by his supporters. Undocumented immigrants are rapists and murderers, refugees are terrorists, Muslims are dangerous, black people are poor and live in inner cities and commit a lot of crimes, women who speak up are ugly and unsuccessful.
We know these things are happening, but we need to be particularly conscious of the mechanism involved. Just like repeating, continually, “Crooked Hillary” convinced people that Hillary was some kind of manipulative mastermind rather than your run-of-the-mill corporate Democrat, repeating these kinds of things will change the way people think about minorities and the way they thing about themselves. We need to be certain that we are countering this language, and that we do not fall victim to it ourselves.
For example, this past Friday, the husband and I were watching Real Time with Bill Maher.
I generally like Bill Maher. He’s offensive to both the right and left (though more to the right, obviously), and is a big proponent of free speech, which I support. He thinks we take political correctness too far, and speaks his mind, which I respect generally while still wishing he was a bit more nuanced when speaking out.
But this week he did this whole segment with Sam Harris where the two of them engaged in an arrogant, self-congratulatory conversation about how they were being realistic about Islam and its connection to terrorism in a way that the rest of the left was unwilling to be. They started out talking about how stupid the Muslim ban is, about winning a war of ideas, and about empowering non-radical people within the Muslim community to be whistle-blowers when their friends and family are more extreme to the point of potentially committing a terrorist act. None of which I disagree with.
But they also asserted that jihadism is inherently related to Islam and that the left trying to deny that is part of the problem. They argued that this is not just a fringe issue; that perhaps the people who will actually commit violence are the fringe but that there is a significant portion of Muslim people who support sharia law but do not commit violence to achieve it, and a significant portion of Muslim people who, while not supporting sharia law or jihadism, have problematic views about freedom of speech, the rights of women, and the rights of LGBT people.
Maher asks at one point, “Why do liberals, from a gut level, want to jump to ‘We’re just as bad.’?” He points out that size matters as there are entire “terrorist armies,” and that the KKK is not equivalent. Harris jumps in and says that we need to acknowledge the harm of colonialism and imperialism and the impact of our foreign policy, but…
I think what the liberals they disagree with so much know is that we’re all just people. Jihadism might be linked to Islam, but it’s in the same way that the Crusades are linked to Christianity. But they assert that terrorism will never end until we reform Islam (because two atheist, middle aged, white dudes are the ones who get to decide about reforming Islam), as if terrorism is solely linked to Islam. Listen, I know the Crusades were centuries ago, but they’re all the evidence I need that religious terrorism is something we are all capable of. In this particular moment in history, yes, a lot of the terrorists are Muslim. But the Muslim world is in a lot of turmoil right now, not least because of what the United States has done militarily over the past century. We know that instability is necessary to create a situation where people support mass violence, but for some reason we’re talking about religion.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but there are significant portions of the Christian community in America who believe that the US is a Christian nation, that Christianity should be our official religion, and that our laws should reflect the teachings of the bible. This is the justification for banning gay marriage, for example. Even among people who don’t support the KKK or the idea of Christian America, there are significant portions of the population that have problematic views on freedom of speech (Trump, for example), the rights of women (which we’ll address below), and the rights of LGBT people (See: the entire Republican party).
Sure, we have fewer Christian terrorists, but they kill more Americans than Muslim terrorists do. And last week I saw a study saying that about half of the people in this country believe a woman should be required by law to take her husband’s last name when she gets married. In my home state of North Dakota, legislators argued that we shouldn’t get rid of “blue laws” (laws that prevent many businesses from opening before noon on Sunday) because women should be home making their husbands breakfast in bed and because wives already have six and a half days of shopping to drain their husband’s wallets. Maher and Harris discussed the problematic nature of The Women’s March using an image of a women wearing a hijab as one of their symbols without realizing that doing so is just another variation of men making rules about the way women should or shouldn’t dress. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that we probably need to remove the log from our Christian eye before we try to remove the speck from our Muslim neighbor’s.
Religion is incidental. There are lots of Muslims who believe the Quran supports terrorism and a lot who don’t. There were a lot of Christians who believed the bible supported slavery and a lot who didn’t. Religious fervor is dangerous because it compels obedience in a way that few other things do, but it is a tool used by people in unstable and precarious positions, not a force unto itself. Have a nation that is significantly more powerful than us and predominantly populated by black people bomb the shit out of our country after decades of political interference and watch the KKK grow exponentially. It IS the same as ISIS, but our relative stability has produced a society with little patience for violent extremism.
But what’s important here is that they’re not drawing these distinctions. In response to criticism that they paint with too broad a brush, Harris responds, “We’re painting with statistics.” But that’s not precisely true. Without context, statistics don’t mean much. And in the meantime, they’re contributing to this association between terrorism and Islam which does nothing to help us fight terrorism and everything to make life in America more difficult for Muslim Americans. Doing this is contributing to the efforts to Other and alienate people of Islamic faith, the work of Donald Trump, and by packaging it as “common sense” and “just listing facts,” they silence reasonable opposition.
Hedges writes that, “The hijacking of language is fundamental to war. It becomes difficult to express contrary opinions. There are simply not the words or phrases to do it. We all speak with the same clichés and euphemisms.”
If both the left and right agree to this language where we pair a specific religion with violence, and label all dissenting language as the left being weak or denying facts or being part of the problem, we will eventually lose the ability to have a national dialogue about Islamophobia and this process of othering religious minorities.