The American Conservative, September 2009

american conservative september 2009One of the traits of this magazine is a tendency to grandiose theoretical explanations.  That’s one of the things I like about it; I’m into grandiose theoretial explanations myself.  It isn’t scholarly publication, and few of its authors have academic reputations to defend, so that tendency is not always restrained by the standards that keep theorizing under control in academic journals.  Sometimes that means that the magazine runs a provocative, bold idea that might not have survived heavier editing; sometimes it means that it runs something that’s just plain cheesy quality.  Again, I’m a pretty cheesy guy, so that’s okay with me. 

For example, this month Ted Galen Carpenter points out that Americans by and large are quick to view political disputes in foreign countries in a romantic light, seeing the ghost of Thomas Jefferson in all sorts of unlikely figures.  The next piece, by John Laughland, picks up on this same theme, explaining this American tendency as a sign of the influence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.  Laughland writes that “the key to understanding the West’s love of revolutions” is Westerners’ characteristic desire to believe that “politics can and should be a story with a happy ending.”  This desire has run rampant in the West ever since the thinkers of the Enlightenment undermined the traditional Christian belief that the cosmos was ordered in a hierarchy, that justice was to be found in that hierarchy, and that the ruler’s power should be limited because the ruler was subordinate to God.  Laughland identifies Immanuel Kant as “the greatest of all Enlightenment philosophers,” and summarizes Kant’s theory as a belief that ordinary reality is unknowable, but that the highest reality is “the categorical imperative- an abstract universally valid proposition that becomes real when it is willed.”  Proceeding from these rather drastic simplifications, Laughland declares that:

The attraction of Enlightenment liberalism, therefore, is the result of a deep emotional need for a philosophical sytem that enables man to create a reality in a universe he does not understand and thereby to escape from the difficulties of the world by believing that everything will turn out all right in the end.  Lacking a real belief in the afterlife, it also holds that the drama of human salvation is played out in this world, in history and politics. 

Again, this is a severe oversimplification, but it has a certain plausibility.  Where Laughland really goes off the rails is in his closing section, in which he argues that Enlightenment liberalism has an “objective ally” in Islam:

[B]ecause it has no priesthood, Islam, and especially Shi’ism, is fundamentally a “democratic” religion comparable to Puritanism and other forms of Presbyterianism.  There is no established hierarchy; the Koran must be read equally by all.  Of course Allah is supreme and Islam demands absolute submission to Him; on the face of it, this seems the opposite of the liberal model in which the individual is subjected only to himself.  But this very submission is egalitarian, creating a mass of individuals who are equal in their abstractness.  Moreover, God’s will is [merely] will, it has no correlation with natural law as in the Christian or Jewish traditions.  Islam is therefore a profoundly voluntarist religion.  Because Allah is absolutely transcendent and unknowable, he is like the Kantian thing-in-itself: mere command. 

Laughland claims that the influence of Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers is one of the reasons why Westerners behave as they do when confronted with complex political challenges.  So to say that Islam is an “objective ally” of this influence, and to liken it as an intellectual tradition to the theories of Kant (as parodied above,) is to say that Muslims behave as they do in world affairs, at least in part, because Islam, as an intellectual tradition, is “fundamentally” anti-hierarchical.  Laughland’s claims strike me as under-argued, to say the least.  If Laughland were analyzing the works of particular Muslim thinkers and comparing them, on the one hand, with the works of traditional Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians who had addressed similar questions, and on the other hand with the works of post-Enlightenment Westerners, then one might imagine that he could have formed an hypothesis that traditional forms of Christianity offer certain intellectual resources unavailable to followers of either of the other two traditions.  Further study might have tested this hypothesis.  What makes this passage cheesy is, first, the lack of any indication that Laughland has conducted such a study; second, his failure to limit the scope of his generalizations to some definite group, such as a particular set of texts, making instead blanket assertions about all of Islam; and third, the absence of any identifiable interlocutor to whom the passage might be addressed.  Laughland is not addressing himself to anyone who might contradict him or challenge his views, but is handing down pronouncements that no implicit reader would be in a position to try to disprove.   

William S. Lind’s piece about the Predator unmanned fighter aircraft shows a similar tendency to the grand theoretical explanation.  At least Lind’s theory is coherent, and germane to the subject at hand.  He quotes Colonel John Boyd, United States Air Force, “America’s greatest military theorist,” who points out that a commitment to build a big ticket weapons system puts a contestant in an unconventional war at a disadvantage:

Because complex weapons are expensive, they are usually in service for a long time, sometimes decades.  Soon after their introduction, most if not all of their operating characteristics are known, especially in the age of the Internet.  Our opponents can invent and deploy generations of simple countermeasures in the lifetime of one high-tech system.  They are “outcycling” us, in Boydian terms; they can go through many cycles of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting against our weapons systems while the systems go through only a single cycle.  Boyd argued that there are few more certain prescriptions for defeat.

Richard Gamble reviews The American Patriot’s Bible, by Richard G. Lee.  Gamble is the author of The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation, and defends a very old-fashioned form of Lutheranism against all forms of nationalism.  Gamble declares that the book under review “attempts with breathtaking audacity to synthesize Americanism and Christianity,” ignoring the wariness of this-world attachments at the heart of the Christian message.  Lee and his staff, Gamble charges, have searched the Scriptures selectively, looking only for what they wanted to find, and have come up with a “Christianity of power, moralism, and worldly success, not one of persecution, cross-bearing, and division.”  Lee’s book “combines the things of God and the things of Caesar at the very point where they most need to be kept apart.  When the City of Man sets up Americanism as its faith, the City of God is forced to dissent.” 

Daniel Larison reviews Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower.  For a long time, scholars described the events around AD 476 as the “fall of the Roman Empire.”   More recently, the dominant fashion was the “transformationist” approach, which emphasized the change of Europe’s economic and political systems at the ground level in those years, suggesting that the formal dissolution of the western Empire was a less significant event than it might have seemed.  Now scholars are reacting against the transformationist approach, arguing that titles like The Rise of the European Economy seriously misrepresent a period which was in fact characterized by violent upheavals and immense social dislocations.  Larison says kindly that Goldsworthy, a military historian who shows little or no interest in the economic, religious, and social changes that the scholars engaged in this debate have studied, is “critiquing both sides from a distance.”

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