News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Barbarism and Fantasy

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Barbarism and Fantasy

In assessing a present state of affairs, though, it is instructive to look at history and see whether it can teach us anything by way of analogies that might bring present circumstances into greater forms of focus.

There are innumerable historians trying their hand at formulating a framework within which to see the conflict between Islam and the West. Taking off from the well-tested adage that those who frame the history gain an ideological right to wield power, we find in the US many on the right--especially the Neocons--attempting to use concepts borrowed from Cold War and WWII confrontations to assess the supposed dangers posed by Islamic terrorists. ...

Once the historical dust devils settle in several years, though, I am inclined to think that the historians will find that JGA Pocock is correct when he states:

The American universalism of the moment arises from another component of Enlightenment—the belief that if a state can have a commercial civil society and a free market, all other good things, including democracy and the separation of church and state, will consequently be added unto it. My professional bias tells me that there are historical preconditions that must be met before this can be true. (Pocock, "America’s Foundations, Foundationalisms, and Fundamentalisms," p. 8)
Pocock's historical perspective is enlivened by his recent massive study of Gibbon's work on the decline of the Roman Empire. Paramount in that work is the recognition of religion and barbarism and their roles in bringing about decline and renewal.

As Pocock is subtly quick to note, though, the Enlightenment notions of barbarism have their source in a rising capitalism and commerce that they believed would bring about civilization--or "mannered" culture, as Hume and Voltaire (and Gibbon) called it.

Yet, many Enlightenment historians and philosophers were aware of a tension between culture and the ancient value of virtue. This value is that which impels civilizations and people to maintain a personal relationship to their political and natural world which reflects a sense of unity with the forces and powers of the cosmos.

With the spread of mannered culture, however, virtue itself suffered decline. Capitalism unleashes an immense array of alienating passions and desires that ultimately must be bridled to ensure order and stability--for further expansion and civilizing influence.

Daniel Pipes (a Neocon historian) has gone on record as stating that Islamic radicalism represents a new barbarism. Basing himself on an emotionally charged description of beheadings and attacks on civilians, Pipes builds his case that Islamic radicals (if not Islam itself) is inherently barbaric. While there's little argument that these acts are indeed barbaric, one could accuse Pipes of misidentifying tactics with strategy. That is, just as terrorism is itself a tactic in a much larger military effort, so beheadings and other despicable acts are not the entirety of the effort underway by Islamic radicals to confront and somehow delegitimate the West.

Indded, there's surely a sense in which the extremists could counter these accusations of barbarity by pointing to the dark history of capitalist expansionism in other parts of the world, not least of which includes the Mideast. Heart of Darkness has become the ultimate picture of where the Enlightenment project has lead.

While these remarks do not present an exhaustive analysis of the conflict that will probably define the 21st century, it might at least indicate that those who wish to counter ensuing debacles need to rethink essential categories and concepts that so far continue to inform not only our way of thinking about history but also in manifesting it.

At the same time, those who wish to counter future debacles must begin the work of historiography that undermines the attempts by the radical elements in our own midst of wielding ideological power through refashioning history in their own terms.

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