The Scatterbrained Syncretist








Friday March 7, 2003

The inspections are working. We should give them more time.

The inspections are to verify Iraqi disarmament. Iraq hasn't disarmed, Iraq failed to disclose its weapons and is in material breach of Resolution 1441 (paragraph 4), so further inspections are pointless.

Certainly, both statements can't be true (both could be false). But does truth matter? It depends on who you ask.

This war is...umm...different. We can't even name the enemy. Partly that is because of a desire to show tolerance. The enemy claims this is a war against Islam. The West claims it is a war against extremism fascism al Qaeda terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, and how can you have a war against an abstraction? Doesn't the enemy have to be human?

This war is really different. Sometimes it is war between states (Iraq vs USA)...or at least geographical entities (Afghanistan vs USA). Sometimes it is a proxy war (Palestinians vs Israel). Sometimes it is law enforcement. Sometimes it is for bankers and lawyers.

Even this multi-layered description fails to define the adversaries. That is because the Muslim extremists are not alone. It would be proper to say this is a "time-war" between the modern and medieval if the two sides were the West and reactionary Islam...but much of the West is on the other side.

This is a war within the West too.

The Western conflict is between opposed epistemologies.

Westerners continue to advance the enlightenment program of using reason to test ideas. This approach freed our ancestors from the authority of tradition and brought us the scientific revolution and the creation of the modern world. That's the problem.

The modern world of individuality, freedom, self-determination, advanced technology (medicine, communication, manufacturing) is also a world that is polluted, alienated and frightening. The totalitarian state (whether fascist or communist) is a modern innovation as is the liberal democratic society.

How do we adapt to the shock of the modern?

Reactionaries refuse to accept the new world and want to retreat into the mythic past. They see their traditional life under attack being eroded by a progress they would prefer to reject. Turning away from a disturbing reality, some seek eternal truths in the words of ancient books. When man is unreliable and foolish, revealed wisdom is especially valuable. Reactionary fundamentalism is a natural response to bewildering change. Hostility to the modern can be expressed by efforts to return the world to its pre-modern state.

Pragmatists see the problems inherent in modernism as be overcome. The loss of traditional culture drives pragmatists to build a new culture. They retain their commitment to the enlightenment values of science, progress and reason.

Nihilistic progressives see the failure of the modern program where pragmatists see problems to solve and reactionaries see corruption to be destroyed. Where a pragmatist sees progress and prosperity, a progressive sees materialism, waste and exploitation. Where pragmatists see science as advancement of knowledge and material comfort, progressives see frightening weapons, industrial pollution and class oppression. Logic itself is sterile and dehumanizing...and like the hothouse romantics, postmodernists prefer passion and reason.

Like fundamentalists, postmodernists retreat from the world of stubborn things into a universe of malleable words. Their deconstruction of a troubling reality transforms everything into a reassuring narrative.

Each of these three adaptations is a choice about the nature of knowledge and truth. Members of each group debate in very different ways.

So...are the inspections working?

A reactionary Muslim might see the inspections as a blasphemy. An inversion of the proper authority of the Muslim over the infidel. The only "work" that the inspections could be doing would be that they are forestalling an invasion of Iraq. For Saddam, the inspections are a shield.

The pragmatist uses inductive reasoning to examine the facts (Saddam hasn't disarmed) and the text of Resolution 1441 (Saddam must immediately disarm or is in material breach) and concludes that there is no compliance to verify...the inspections are pointless. They distract people from the task of problem-solving.

The postmodernist employs the narrative of power, race and victimization as a lens through which to view the facts and the text. The text, of course, can mean anything you say it means. The facts are a matter of opinion, merely a mental construction to use as an instrument in a narrative. If the inspections obstruct American exercise of power, they are a shield for Saddam.

Each of these groups can have coherent discussion within the group. However, discussion between members of different groups (playing by different rules) has not been very productive. Since progressives and fundamentalists prefer narcissistic romantic narratives to messy things, they share ways of thinking and talking about events. It is no surprise that these two groups, who seem so opposite in their values have forged a paradoxical alliance.

Like the fundamentalist, the postmodern nihilist argues deductively...beginning with a narrative and assembling facts to support it. When facts are just pliable interpretations, almost any facts can be shaped to support the narrative. And when reason itself is viewed as oppressive and limiting, the narrator has incredible freedom to claim almost any logical relationship between facts and the narrative that he chooses...who's to say it's wrong? The postmodernist is at liberty to select which facts are to be considered and which can be conveniently ignored.

Beginning with a narrative that views power as unjust domination and oppression, the fantasist assigns appropriate roles to the parties to the conflict. The powerful state is America (or Israel in that conflict) and America's opponent is cast in the role of victim (Iraq, the Muslim world, €urope...whoever is resisting American hegemony).

Arguments are constructed to reinforce the narrative. The most useful arguments are the most subjective so, typically, these arguments are about invisible motivations..."It's all about oil" or "Bush wants revenge". Since these arguments are invented projections, they are irrefutable. How can one prove a negative about the content of another person's mind? If one argues that it would be easier and cheaper to get Iraqi oil by lifting the sanctions, the nihilist (like conspiracy theorists) can easily dismiss the claim with "that's just your proves nothing". Even if one demolishes the "all about oil" argument it makes absolutely no difference because the narrative isn't derived from the it isn't weakened. The nihilist just moves on to a new argument to support the narrative. "Why don't we attack North Korea?" if the fact that North Korea is different from Iraq proves an American double-standard (suggesting a sinister hidden motivation).

Discussions like this are a merry-go-round where riders go up and down and around and around...but never get anywhere. They are not supposed to get anywhere. A point of view that eschews phallocentric logic and treats facts as utterly subjective cannot be effected by either logic or evidence.

And that is the point.

The invulnerable stability of this viewpoint provides ample protection against the troubling uncertainty of modernism.

The pragmatic modernist works in the opposite direction, beginning with observations of events and attempting to draw logical inferences. This difference in direction leads to very different conclusions:

The September 11 attacks were beyond most people's expectations...yet they happened. This demonstrated that our ideas about the world were inadequate. Pragmatists needed to reassess (previously misunderstood) statements and actions by terrorists. This review forced people to recognize that by ignoring hostile actions, America had encouraged escalating assaults on our civilization. September 11 demonstrated that Islamist hostility to the West represented a real threat to our survival.

The US government formulated a response to this threat that is called (for lack of a better term) the War on Terror.

The anti-American demonstrators contradict this analysis with arguments about unjust motives."America's reckless bloodlust" or "SUV driven greed for oil" are accusations that address neither the facts or reasoning behind this they are utterly ineffective. With claims that this war is a result of American support for Israel, nihilists attempt to forge a link between events that is irrelevant to the question of national defense. Since the pragmatist views the war as a defense of civilization, dubious arguments about root causes and moral judgments fail to question the underlying conditions or logic justifying this war.

Because these groups use language and argument in completely different ways the debate has been fruitless. Postmodernists perceive pragmatist positions as immoral support for a regime of global oppression while pragmatists view nihilistic rejection of basic facts as either feckless sophistry...or more likely willful blindness and stupidity.

In the simplest of terms, this stalemate shows that you can't play a game together if you don't agree about the rules. And you can't have a meaningful discussion until you agree about the meaning of words.

So...are the inspections working?

America says that the words of Resolution 1441 have a plain meaning and Iraq is in material breach.

France says that whatever the words say, the job of the UNSC is to prevent an American military solution to a problem that UN diplomats have nurtured for 12 years.

This is why President Bush said,

"And the fundamental question facing the Security Council is, will its words mean anything? When the Security Council speaks, will the words have merit and weight?"

That will depend on whether the Security Council speaks in a reactionary, modern or postmodern voice. If the modernist UN rejects reason modernism, it will destroy itself in in futile self-contradiction.