alien & sedition.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
  It's Really Not About Us, Except When it Is

Dinesh D'Souza has really caused hell for American conservatives. With his silly little book, he has inadvertently pinned cultural conservatives into a trap of their own making; he is openly asking for an alliance that everyone knew made sense but nobody outside the left had been willing to point out: between U.S. social conservatives and Islamic conservatives. He has illustrated, in grand fashion - and quite explicitly - the not-so-secret yearning of so many on the right for an American version of sharia law. And despite his best efforts to square the circle and insist that, still, it's actually the left who are in cahoots with the terrorists (even while rejecting everything they stand for), D'Souza has left conservatives desperately looking for a way to squirm out of the frame he has so artfully built for them.

The latest conservative intellectual to make an attempt at escape is Stanley Kurtz, the inveterate culture warrior, who has just reviewed D'Souza's book at the National Review. Kurtz declares that his "moment of culture-war overload has finally arrived." Better late than never, I suppose.

Of course, this is not going to be the violent denunciation D'Souza's foolish screed deserves. Kurtz is far too polite. Or rather, he's not too terribly opposed to D'Souza's thesis. Sure, it's "seriously misconceived." But it's also "thoughtful, provocative... serious and interesting;" it's a "fruitful error," one which can serve to provoke useful debate. Kurtz is hardly bothered by the slander against liberals - indeed, he seems to agree with it ("D’Souza is undoubtedly correct to finger the global spread of our “liberated” post-Sixties culture as a factor in the terror war.") But as long as the frame is "liberal values vs. Islamicist values," conservatives are trapped in the uncomfortable position of admitting (if only implicitly) that conservative values can look discomfitingly close to the latter. He needs other "factors" to discuss.

So Kurtz turns the focus to Islam itself. The problem, he argues, is not (liberal) Western culture, it's the pathologies within Islam that lead Muslims to be so easily offended by the West:
Yet, while Islamists may seize upon Hollywood films and international productions of the Vagina Monologues as symbols of their underlying objections to modernity, the more important sources of conflict are the distinctively Muslim social practices that generate such complaints to begin with.

In other words, if immigrant British Muslims weren’t secluding their daughters in hopes of preserving family honor and protecting an already promised marriage to a cousin back in Pakistan, they’d be far less upset with Western movies in the first place. What’s driving the distress is less the movies that a daughter sees at college than the fact that British daughters go off to college at all, freely meet men there, and freely choose their husbands from among those men. Other British immigrant communities, with less restrictive family practices, may occasionally grouse about cultural depravity. Yet the complaints are less frequent, less deeply felt, and far less deadly. It’s the marriage practice, not the movie, that counts.
Here the culture warrior is on familiar ground. All he needs to do is find a set of criteria that allows him to transfer his critique of liberal pathologies to a critique of Islamic pathologies. Hell, he even gets to keep "marriage" as the central point of analysis.

Now, if the true pathology is with Islam itself, then this suggests that Muslims will be offended by the West anyway, whether the libs are running wild or not. Kurtz describes this as a "clash between modernity and Islamic social life" (hung up as it is on practices like preferential patrilateral parallel cousin marriage), and he argues that "Islam has a long history of producing violent and radical sects ... in times of crisis." What this analysis allows Kurtz to do is to set up an opposition between American conservatives and Islamists, for it is the conservatives who represent Kurtz's ideal version of Western "modernity," which is defined by its Judeo-Christian commitment to individualist values and free choice in marriage.

Now, we have plenty of reason to be skeptical of the social conservatives' claims to represent such values anyway. But see if you can spot the massive gray thing in the room here.

The pachyderm-like shape becomes clearer when you read the series of responses Kurtz's review triggered at the Corner. Mark Steyn says "it's not about us":
Dinesh’s argument that America’s worthless porno-sodomite-lapdance culture is the root cause of jihad has one very big hole in it: He speaks in praise of "traditional Islam" and notes that most of the world’s people also live in "traditional societies" who are as revolted by our pop culture as your average imam. But how then do you account for the very problematic relationship "traditional Islam" has with other "traditional societies"? In Nigeria, in Sudan, in southern Thailand, etc.
Andrew Stuttaford says "it's not even just the Muslims":
The fact of the matter is that there is something in human nature that is drawn to violent religious fanaticism of the worst kind (usually bundled up in a grotesque puritanism). It's not just the Wahhabis. No religion (or quasi-religion such as communism) is immune from it. Think, for example, of the Maccabees, or the completely-to-be-expected Spanish Inquisition, or, for that matter, the zealots of the early Bolshevik era, or even, dare I say it, the foam-flecked atheism of Richard Dawkins. The more interesting question is whether some religions are more prone to it than others...
Jonah Goldberg says it's not the Muslims' responsibility to tell us that the queers are out of control:
It shouldn't matter. If gay marriage is wrong, it's wrong. If feminism goes too far, it goes too far. Jim Crow was wrong because it was wrong, not because it gave the Soviet Union talking points at the UN. So even if Dinesh were right that our "pagan depravity" prompts Jihadis to behead Jews and Christians, kill homosexuals, enslave women, hijack planes, and blow up buildings full of civilians, the fault still lies entirely with the Jihadis.
Gee... all that talk about the furniture and still nobody's mentioned the elephant.

The elephant, of course, is foreign policy. It's the fact that bin Laden himself has made it very clear why Al-Qaeda attacked the US, and it had nothing to do with Hollywood or with whose cousins were marrying who. It's the fact that every competent observer has pointed out that bin Laden has certain specific regional strategic goals, that his primary targets are secular Mideastern regimes (including the one we helpfully destroyed for him), and that Al-Qaeda has attacked the US because and to the extent of our status as an obstacle to and/or useful foil in accomplishing those goals.

Kurtz himself has dismissed this observation, for instance in this piece written shortly after the 9/11 attacks. To Kurtz and his ilk (and he's got a lot of ilk), any consideration of actual foreign policy choices - even one that might not lead the conclusion that our choices have been wrong per se - is nothing more than a howlingly outrageous attempt to "blame America first." It looks that way, quite probably, because the Kurtzes and Steyns and Goldbergs are generally quite ignorant when it comes to geopolitics. They are movement types. Their bread and butter is commenting on the social pathologies of everyone who does not live they way they think people should live; when foreign policy realities fail to bend to their wishes, they fall back on the same schtick: the problem must be with the way Muslims live. Or, if you're D'Souza, it's American liberal pathologies to blame after all. Once again, foreign policy is subjected to the ideological preoccupations of the social right; once again, they are hammers, so the problems of the world must all be nails.

None of which resolves their essential dilemma: culturally speaking, conservatives do indeed have more in common with Islamicists than do liberals.

But it sure gives them a lot to talk about.

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