DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Neoconservatism, Islam and Ideology: The Real Culture War

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Traditional American conservatives must come to grips with what has happened to their movement. While old-style libertarians like William F. Buckley and Gingrich-era combatants such as Pat Buchanan and John McCain blink in astonishment, even dismay, the very definition of "conservative" has been shattered and the word taken over by a new brand of neoconservatism that has proved fundamentally different, though fantastically effective (so far) at seizing power in the world's greatest democracy.

Demonstrating that history is too weird ever to have been made up, the new 21st Century Neoconservatism has forged a bizarre alliance among several major groups with very little discernable ideological common ground, other than a shared hatred of "liberals." That is, there appears to be very little common ground, until you probe more deeply.

What could possibly unite this coalition whose chief components are:

  1. A sub-set of aristocrats seeking (with great success) to use government as a free source of new wealth.

  2. A sub-set of messianic "Left Behind" Christianity that actively hungers for a final confrontation between Good and Evil, culminating in a stage-drama end of the world predicted in Revelations.

  3. A movement of doctrine-focused intellectuals -- many of whom are neither Christians nor aristocrats -- pushing a particularly aggressive version of nationalism with a theoretical, neo-platonic basis and its own fervid sense of non-religious but messianic mission.

Now of course there have always been Odd-Couple alliances (see sidebar, below) in politics. The "Left" has long been a hodge-podge that jumbled socialists with fervently anti-communist AFL-CIO labor organizers, feminists, populists, globalizers, anti-globalizers and so on. Certainly older versions of "conservatism" combined pragmatic businessmen and libertarians with patricians, Dixiecrats, isolationists and those whose fealty to historic values included severe suspicion of change. (This is one of many reasons that I have long despised the "Left-Right Political Axis" which does nothing to shed light on the matter.)

ODD-COUPLE ALLIANCES: No civilization has lacked conspirators at all levels who strove to augment their power. (Hence the common theme in most of our modern myths -- Suspicion of Authority.)

Moreover, in most cultures aristocrats would strive to further enhance their high position by grasping the reins of government for their benefit. From a historical perspective, what could be more unsurprising? (Can you find an era when it did not happen?) Moreover, odd couple alliances were common. Caesar and other patricians allied themselves with leading plebians for mutual benefit. In Weimar Germany, the Junker aristocratic class nurtured the Hegelian-mystical National Socialist Party, despite mutual loathing, in order to join forces against the Communists.

Still, the neocons seem, at first sight, to make up an especially bizarre coalition of convenience between groups obsessed (respectively) with market-manipulation, apocalyptic moral confrontation and fiercely nationalistic social philosophy. At risk of oversimplifying terribly, I'd like to squint and peer, trying to puzzle out what these component groups share and how they differ. Knowing full well that models and metaphors cannot really describe complex human beings, I'd still like to find a way to explain their movement's success so far... and what it may mean to our civilization.

What do the three branches of neconservatism have in common? Each appears to be fired by simmering resentment toward cultural enemies, unified by ritualized incantations, propelled by both nostalgia and proud indignation. Members of each sub-movement feel bolstered by firm belief in their own virtue by nature and as a class. Each of the groups listed above expresses utter assurance in a sense of either social or mystical or imperial destiny. This shared trait of transcendant confidence manifests in forceful assertiveness, driven by profound emotion and relentless determination to seize the tiller of history.

(What's that you say? "Others do all those things, too?" Well, yes. Hold that thought.)

Certainly no one can dismiss the Neoconservative Coalition's combined effectiveness, having together seized control over all three branches of the U.S. government and having quite effectively divided the spoils according to each group's appetite. But of course, since satiability is not among their common traits, no achievement or victory or treasure can ever slake the angry determination described above. Insatiability may indeed be the strongest shared attribute (see sidebar) of all.

STRONGEST SHARED ATTRIBUTE: For example, the relentless effort to both reduce taxes on the rich and reduce accountability standards for the small but potent CEO/Board-level executive class. Top percentile tax cuts that are right for economic down-turns ("stimulus") were also right for times of prosperous surplus (hand it out quickly, instead of paying off the debt), or for times of increasing deficit ("deficits now will spur greater revenues later"), and even in time of war. Since there are no circumstances under which advocates can perceive halting the push for more such benefits for their own elite class, and then more, "insatiability" is an applicable term, whatever overlying rationalizations they use.

Group #1 -- the "Aristocrats" -- is busily running up record deficits, while group #2 -- the "Left Behind" Christians -- has been promised the U.S. Supreme Court, and group #3 -- the "Neo-Cons" -- has been rewarded with the U.S. Military as its private toy. None shows any sign of yet being satisfied or slaking its hunger for more.

What these three allied groups frantically avoid is ever contrasting their profoundly incompatible views of the future -- the one thing that ideally should most decisively affect your choice of political soulmates. We'll come back to that, and the reason that neoconservatism must always focus on the short term battle at-hand, never looking more than a few years down the road.

But first, look back at those common attributes... resentment toward cultural enemies, ritualized incantations, insatiability, nostalgia, belief in their own virtue by nature and as a class, confidence in ordained destiny.

If these traits sound familiar, there is another movement on Earth with powerful similarities to all three branches of American neoconservatism, down at underlying levels, where it really matters. That similar movement is Islamic fundamentalism.

Bear with me. For these militant ideologies all share a long list of traits that seem deeply rooted in human nature, especially the ongoing allure of idealistic dogma.

In order to make this point clearly and starkly, I'll put aside the klepto-aristocrats and apocalypts for a while, concentrating on the branch of neoconservatism that would seem, at surface, to be the most unlike Islamic fundamentalism. Group #3 in the list above, the scholarly intellectuals -- many of them superficially unreligious -- who are pushing a ferociously idealized secular nationalism and aggressive version of Pax Americana, all based on a proclaimed devotion to Western Civilization.

How can I relate Platonist Neoconservatives to radical Islam?

In May 2003, the New York Times published "A Classicist's Legacy: New Empire Builders" by James Atlas. It describes the impact of Professor Leo Strauss on many leading neoconservatives, Bush administration officials, journalists, and intellectuals, e.g. Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol, Gary Schmitt, and Francis Fukuyama. A refugee during WWII, Strauss subsequently taught classical political theory in the uniquely faux-European intellectual ambiance of the University of Chicago, stressing the notion -- brought over from his festered home continent -- that classical Greek and Roman philosophy is the key to political wisdom for today as much as in the past (see sidebar). His followers have since promoted neo-platonism -- devotion to a paramount system of well-ordered beliefs, in preference to gritty secular pragmatism.

TODAY AS MUCH AS IN THE PAST: How can anyone, reading Thucydides, Plutarch or Gibbon, imagine the Greeks, Hellenists or Romans had anything to teach us about political wisdom, except as cautionary warnings? Few figures in the annals, other than Pericles -- and maybe Cincinnatus -- behaved with the level of maturity we now demand from Cub Scouts.

In March 2003, The New York Times Magazine published "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror" by Paul Berman, describing the writings of Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential philosophers behind modern Islamic radicalism. Qutb's teachings call for political and social movements that will create a new society, defeating corrupt modernism, and especially dualism -- the division of the world between sacred and secular realms. These teachings found fertile ground in a network of Islamic schools founded under the aegis of the Wahhabi sect, and lubricated with revenues from the sale of Saudi Arabian oil.

What commonalities could I possibly see between Islamic fundamentalism and today's American neoconservative movement?

I suggest that these are two of the most vigorous and driven essentialist or incantation-based ideological movements of our time. Nostalgic, resentful, and grounded upon unquestionable core liturgical teachings, each is driven by a sense of destiny and contempt for those who disagree. It is vital that we pay attention to these common elements -- and many others -- along with their implications.

Now of course American neoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism would -- at first sight -- appear to be polar opposites. Indeed, that appearance is deliberately promoted by both groups. Many neoconservatives speak of struggle -- even war between the Christian and Muslim worlds -- just as followers of Qutb do. They call for a return to values-based decision making in American society, with those values clearly and explicitly rooted in core religious traditions. While emphasizing cultural conflict with liberals and humanists within Western Civilization, they promote aggressive opposition to non-Western cultural styles overseas.

[image from Russia-InfoCentre]

Addicted to Rationalizations: Hypocrisy and the Neocons

The confrontationally religious side of neoconservatism is exemplified by Tim LaHaye, co-author of the extremely popular Left Behind series of books. A former leading operative in neoconservative Republican campaigns, LaHaye writes longingly of hastening the End of Days when the secular-temporal Earth will be destroyed and replaced by an idealized and scripturally prescribed Kingdom of Heaven. (Links: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and Unknown News.)

Of course many of the Straussian neocons are not Revelations-centered Christians. (Or, for that matter, aristocratic kleptocrats.) Indeed, there are some among the Straussians who claim to adhere to what I call "enlightenment values" -- including a belief that democracy will help to make a richer, better, wiser secular world, opening boundless possibilities for an improving humankind. Their most broad and philosophical statements speak about the role of Pax Americana in helping all humanity to achieve endlessly higher goals within a vast and ongoing temporal universe.

Some find it odd that platonist political thinkers who profess such beliefs would so closely ally themselves with fundamentalist apocalypse fans like LeHaye, whose image of the future might seem absolutely and diametrically opposite. But those who find it odd simply do not understand platonists, who can rationalize anything.

Such jarring incompatibilities are glossed over because neither group wants to ponder them (see sidebar) -- or any of the deeper issues posed (for example) in my "Questionnaire on Ideology." Instead, their alliance is based on that most visceral of all ancient drives, the loathing of a common foe. In this case the reviled (shudder) and evil Liberals.

JARRING INCOMPATIBILITIES: Among those who have successfully blurred this boundary are Tom Delay, Bill Frist, Zell Miller, Trent Lott, Rick Santourum, and Justice Antonin Scalia. All have closely associated themselves with Christian Reconstructionists AKA Dominionists while at the same time staying close to the Straussians.

Again, this remains possible only because the long range future is either banished from discussion or dismissed as unimportant compared to a shared, near term political agenda. Glossed over is the fact that they are on record simultaneously supporting visions of a desired/imminent apocalypse and notions of a burgeoning, space-faring and ever-richer humanity, led toward an ongoing golden tomorrow of Platonic excellence by Pax Americana and its class of philosopher kings.

If these two visions of tomorrow are compatible, no one ever seems to think it necessary to explain how. What this shows is that rationalization trumps vision. The future, which should be the core focus of ideology, is -- as it was under Marx -- relegated to window dressing. What truly matters is one thing: The near-term cultural war.

This shows yet again how complex things can get, and why people keep buying reassuring (if idiotic) simplifications like the "left vs. right political axis."

In fact, Straussian incantations often resonate with fellows like me. I believe in many of the same goals that they publicly avow, and even some of the overall strategies they prescribe. Unfortunately, in their case, it really is a matter of spouting incantations, lacking any true loyalty to the underlying spirit of the Enlightenment. For example, most of the Straussian neocons evidently despise (as both Strauss and Plato did) the "common man" they profess to admire. (Or else they would have put accountability -- the Enlightenment's greatest tool -- at the top of their agendas, rather than helping to repress it.) Likewise their eager and frequent willingness to use Plato's "noble lies" (or rationalized excuses), in support of their privileged position as a wise philosopher leader-class, reveals true contempt for the masses.

Moreover the true romanticism of the Straussians can be heard whenever they lapse into their own version of apocalyptic language. Not in Biblical terms, but using jargon that is just as focused on ordained triumph in an ultimate test of pure, opposing essences.

All of which might be excused since (according to the Enlightenment) they have a right to their beliefs. But most revealing of all is their blitheringly incompetent and shortsighted execution of those goals, harming both America and Pax Americana at almost every level. Since they are nowhere near as incompetent when it comes to theft, graft and other acts of self interest the idealized "goals" must simply have been rationalizations, all along.

What appears stunning to me is how few have pointed out the deep commonalities between American neoconservatism, Islamic fundamentalism, and every other prescriptive dogma that wracked and afflicted the Twentieth Century. The one common theme uniting all of these ideology-based systems is a burning contempt for the secular, pragmatic, accountable and tolerant legacy of the Enlightenment. Especially its promotion of skepticism toward the subjective, self important mind games that allow each of us to play tricks upon ourselves.

[image from Gamers Alliance]

Genealogies of Ideology

Let me clarify the genealogy, which unites all of these disparate quasi-fundamentalisms. To start, we'll go back in time.

Both communism and fascism credited their philosophical underpinnings to the German platonist, Hegel, whose if-therefore style of incantation offered quasi-scientific-sounding rhythms, but had nothing whatsoever to do with science (see sidebar). These pseudo-religions -- along with Freudianism -- seemed to offer a new path to bright-educated elites in the West who had become disillusioned with nationalism, the same way that their grandparents grew disenchanted with priests and kings.

NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH SCIENCE: See The Open Society and its Enemies, by Karl Popper, or my own The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?

Each of the dogmatic systems offered during the first half of the 20th Century revolved around simplistic outlines of human nature, preached by persuasive arm-wavers, without reference or exposure to experimental verification. Each demanded all-or-nothing fealty. Each excused the rise of obligate oligarchies who were licensed to interpret Truths while spurning Enlightenment systems of accountability. Above all, each rejected the scientific practice of making falsifiable (testable) statements that may fail or survive real world experimentation.

Exactly the pattern we see in followers of Leo Strauss today. And, yes, in Islamic fundamentalism.

Of course, Islamic fundamentalism is not a direct sibling to communism, fascism, freudianism or neoconservatism, all of which are Western and platonist. Qutb and other Islamists claim to despise these Hegelian, European dogmas. But deeper common roots are shared, so blatant that the word "cousin" certainly applies.

Deeper than Plato, deeper than the Koran, all of the above are romantic movements, basing their notions of pure truth upon written incantations of essential truth, rather than contingent and evolving science. All offer simple descriptions of human nature and simpler prescriptions for achieving both happiness and an ideal society. All dwell on some form of past golden age while emphasizing some variety of nostalgia.

All of these romantic movements push apocalyptic visions of an ordained, final confrontation, polarizing the world into "them versus us" camps, a tool for fostering consolidation of support under great leaders who require little or no accountability. No other validation than their own (or Heaven's) will. Foes are not seen as potential partners in pragmatic negotiation, but as targets of deserved annihilation.

Let's be honest and balanced. Some on the modern "left" share all of the above traits. From nostalgia and polarization to mantric dogmatism and simplified models of human nature, from simplistic prescription-writing to an emphasis on correct incantation, they follow the pull of human romanticism, which has roots far deeper in our past (and possibly our genes) than the less-satisfying ambiguity of pragmatic enlightenment. The left has its own demons -- communism was a deadly sickness -- and polemical pollen of left-wing platonism wafts across the land, stinging the eyes of people who are trying to actually solve problems and get things done.

Let's pick our fights carefully, though. Platonist romantics of the left were dangerous during the bad old evil empire of the USSR. But that wing is pretty pathetic right now. They sputter and rant, but dogmatic leftists have no power to harm the Enlightenment they despise. They cannot do much to America or the West. For now.

No, at the moment, we are in far more danger from other romantics. From those who follow Sayyid Qutb and the Wahabbis, hoping to stir a billion Muslims into jihad against the West.

And those who would "defend" the West by using Muslims and Liberals as bogeymen. Turning America away from the path of Ben Franklin. Steering us back onto the dismal, failed track of Plato, Hegel, and Strauss. Those who would turn "freedom" from a topic of complex conversation and a practical tool for living into a simplistic warm/fuzzy mantra that stands for "our side."

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell portrayed a future world divided into hostile zones, each dominated by dogmatic oligarchies that were free of accountability, keeping their nations in perpetual, futile war so that the prols would stay distracted from the real enemy, which was dogmatic oligarchy itself. (See "George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.") The only beneficiaries of such artificial hostility were the oligarchs themselves. That is exactly what the neocons would do with their "cultural war" against liberalism and against the Muslim World.

We must learn to recognize this trick -- one of the most basic used by tyrants, ever since Gilgamesh. We can recognize it and then turn to our own arsenal. Calm. Patience. Accountability. Passionate eagerness to keep trying new ways to save the world, while flexibly abandoning methods that fail. Turning away from nostalgia and worship of the past, in favor of improving tomorrow, step-by-step.

And moderation. Plus a dedication to the tentative and contingent nature of truth, as it is seen by fallible human beings, none of whom will ever view the whole picture clearly.

But together, our civilization can see better, day by day.

[image from Matthew W. Hunt]

The Real Cultural War...

There is a cultural war going on, all right. Not between East and West. Or between North and South. Or Islam vs. Christianity. Nor is it based on that ridiculous political metaphor and curse bequeathed to us by the French -- left versus right. Not even faith vs. humanism. All are distractions.

The struggle is between panic and confidence. Between those -- both left and right -- who preach that we must enslave our minds to simple doctrines, and those who know that free people can argue, learning from each other, using all of the tools at hand to raise a generation of human beings who are smarter and better than we are.

That is the fundamental reason why all dogmas -- even the best ones -- are vile traps. For if we succeed at this practical, achievable, near-term goal... if our children -- and children across the world -- do turn out to be smarter than us... then who the hell are we to tell them what doctrines to believe?

If children can be wiser than their parents, then that is the only worthwhile goal. And by definition, if they grow smarter and wiser, they will find our dogmas childish. They won't need them.

Our job is to do whatever is pragmatic in order to leave those bright boys and girls somewhat better minds and knowledge in a somewhat better world. If we do that job (a hard job!) well, that means they will have a clearer idea than we do (or Plato did) what's right and what's wrong!

They will be smart enough to figure out for themselves what to believe.

And that -- in a nutshell -- is my pragmatic version of the Dogma of Enlightenment.