by Victor Davis Hanson
This series written for Private Papers will appear in four parts.
Hating Bush, cultural relativism and the war against the terrorists
If the new hatred of George Bush is the natural expression of an elite that blurs truth and fiction, word and deed, then anger at a powerful America itself also is explicable in terms of the postmodernist paradigm. Because to the intellectual architects of the modern Left, the overdog automatically forfeits morality, the United States is in a particularly unenviable position as the world’s hyperpower. No absolute standards or recent history are necessary to place the mistreatment of prisoners in a proper context—not when televised pictures flooding our screens from Abu Graib show beefy, white uniformed Americans and poor, thin naked Iraqis. American misdemeanors of sexual humiliation and degradation by rogue soldiers and negligent officers are no different, as Senator Kennedy pointed out, from Saddam’s systematic efforts to institutionalize mass murder. The world watches every stray American mortar round in Najaf, as CNN centers its camera shots on a single fallen tessera from an interior ceiling of a mosque bristling with machine guns—in a way it does not much care about the leveling of Grozny or renegade Arabs’ mass murder of Black Africans in Darfur, Sudan.
Because the United States really is strong, its success so far in the present war of preventing a succession of ten or twelve 9-11-like mass killings has allowed elite liberals the luxury of their own truth—demonizing John Ashcroft without worrying in the last three years whether young males from the Middle East would habitually blow up their prep school children at St. Paul’s or Andover, calling Dick Cheney a Halliburton stooge without fretting about a nuclear device going off in Greenwich village, or voting for, then condemning, but never seeking to revoke the Patriot Act.
Victimhood has also been a hallmark of the Left for the last thirty years. It would be hard to account for the Left ’s general preference for Arafat’s Palestinian bombers over the noisy free voices in the Knesset or to tolerate Michael Moore’s various comments commending the Iraqi fascists in their war against the American effort to sponsor liberal democracy in Iraq—unless one remembered that race, class, and gender theory is predicated on the idea that, in fact, weaker Third World citizens are by nature victims of Western colonial oppression and not subject to the same standards of culpability.
Thus Islamic fascism may be predicated on religious intolerance, gender apartheid, autocracy, homophobia, tribalism, and patriarchy, but inasmuch as it is indigenous, a failure, and shares a long opposition to Western bourgeois capitalism, then its embrace of mass murder, suicide bombing, and beheadings must be contextualized by Western neocolonialism and exploitation. Or as Michael Moore concluded of the 3,000 dead on September 11th, “We, the United States of America, are culpable in committing so many acts of terror and bloodshed that we had better get a clue about the culture of violence in which we have been active participants.”
Nuance is the essence of relativist interpretation. Manichean notions of barbarity and civilization, Western culture juxtaposed to eighth-century Islamic fascism, good versus evil—these “reductionist” and “simplistic” notions of the present Bushworld simply cannot stand. If such clear polarities were to be valid, the entire foundation of postmodern thinking would collapse under the weight of reason’s ability to gather data, make informed decisions, and pass judgments that cut across culture, race, and sex—and thus to conclude that a Taliban Afghanistan or Saddam’s Iraq was a uniquely evil example of self-induced misery.
Perhaps Washington Senator Patti Murray is ignorant of the source of her own recent intellectual heritage, but we know the ultimate dividend of years of inculcating cultural relativism, when a U.S. Senator such as herself lectures Americans on their need to emulate the purported public works program of an Osama bin Laden, the feminist pioneer. “For decades [Osama has been] building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day-care facilities, building health-care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful,” Murray pontificated, before concluding that “We haven’t done that.”
Osama’s 1998 fatwa may claim open season on American men, women, and children because of the UN Iraqi embargo and U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. That both manufactured grievances can no longer be taken seriously even by his supporters, nevertheless has not led to al Qaeda’s renunciation of violence. But who, after all, would subject bin Laden to the same standard of accountability and logic demanded of George Bush—especially when he has purportedly according to Senator Murray set up Seattle-style day-care centers in Afghan badlands for the many wives of his terrorist lieutenants?
Relativism, of course, is also not new. We all know also that various manifestations of postmodernism are now embedded within the larger culture—everything from situational ethics, moral equivalence, utopian pacifism, and multiculturalism that share a common belief that absolute standards of judgment are a myth. But whereas in the past, arguments might have been waged over the validity of standardized tests, affirmative action, or the Western literary and artistic canon, they now have been superimposed onto critical issues of national security, if not our very survival in a time of war. And we are seeing the terrible results in the furious invective of an Al Gore, the mainstream acceptance of a Michael Moore, or the pass given to those who talk of killing the President.
So the current conflict against terror is the perfect postmodern storm, drawing into its whirl all the pathologies of the last thirty years to unleash a vehemence not experienced in recent political memory. The horror of 9-11, the public fatwas of Osama bin Laden, and Saddam’s prior crimes against humanity are merely problematic. Instead, we see a powerful United States, bullying indigenous people sitting atop oil resources in the Middle East, and bombing the long-suffering victims of colonialism and Zionism.
The powerless men in robes and with crude RPGs say it all—not their videos of heads rolling, not their suicide bombs studded with scrap metal, not their targeted assassinations of Iraqi women reformers. In this war our current enemies are not white men in suits of the nation state like a Hitler, Brezhnev, or Milosevic who orate from the balcony and threaten us with goose-stepping soldiers, but rather self-acclaimed wannabee resistance fighters of the Third World, who understand well how to play on contemporary Western therapeutic culture by claiming victim status and counting our own inability to discern right from wrong.
All you need to know is that we need oil, and that the impoverished Muslims of the Middle East have it. Why worry over the validity of the plots on an Afghanistan pipeline, a mysterious Bush-House of Saud conspiracy, or Dick Cheney’s Halliburton oil grab? They are simply competing discourses that compete with a purportedly dominant narrative of sky-high gas prices as a result of a cartel’s jacked-up petroleum, the entry of a Westernized and oil thirsty India and China into the global market, or a Hugo Chavez now gleeful over his new petroleum-fed notoriety. You can find the truth of the two conflicting discourses not by facts, but only by looking to see who is Western and powerful and who is not.
Consequently as Third-World former victims of neocolonialism, confronted by a powerful global American military, and suffering poverty that was American-, rather than self-, induced, the behavior of the Taliban, al Qaeda, Hamas, or Saddam Hussein need not suffer the scrutiny of a Western empirical critique. Middle East religious intolerance, sexual oppression, homophobia, fascism, and mass murder are sometimes duly noted as not nice, but always prefaced by qualifiers like “although” or “but”—as entrées to be followed by the real main courses detailing the culpability of the United States for inciting the desperate “to strike back” for selling some weapons years ago to Mullah Omar or Saddam.
The war is also one of stealth. Unlike World War II, there are no conventional fronts for a public to galvanize around, no easily identifiable tanks and planes emblazoned with red stars or swastikas. Our enemy is more a sinister Dracula whose methods are surreptitious and macabre than the muscular, in-your-face challenge of a Frankenstein.
Thus success hinges not on storming the beach, but on rooting out deep cells within the body fabric of the West itself—requiring patience, careful public exegesis, intelligence, surveillance, and counter-insurgency in battles whose pulse is often unknown to the public. But these tactics are precisely the bugaboos of the American Left that grasps that the public doesn’t yet really feel daily threatened by our bloodthirsty enemy. Successful surveillance that precludes mass murder earns the cheap calumny of McCarthyism; laxity resulting in slaughter on 9-11 is the subject of post-facto Congressional finger pointing. If young suspicious Middle East resident aliens are scrutinized and investigated, to the degree that potential terrorist cadres are broken up—precisely the situation since September 11th—then the second-guessing Left has the convenient leeway to talk about a return of Janet Reno’s Dachau.
The current war is a touchstone by which received postmodern wisdom is open and on display. The stealthy nature of our enemy, the dirty type of war we must fight, globally televised battlefields far away in the volatile Middle East or unknown here at home, the ability to punish our enemies without further endangerment of or much sacrifice from most Americans, Christian versus Muslim, West against East, strong opposed to weak, white in antithesis to brown—all these realities of this war in an almost uncanny way invite critique from the postmodern Left.
In contrast, should the United States fight a moral, defensive war against amoral aggressive terrorists and autocrats, seek democracy and social justice in place of fascism, promote religious and gender tolerance where prejudice was endemic, find that American military force, not UN discourse, saved lives, then what in the world would the deductive Left do other than stage plays and skits about assassinating George Bush, trash capitalism through the largesse of a currency speculator, cite historically high gasoline prices at home as proof of American petroleum theft abroad, or claim that American military police are the new Baathist henchmen?
If we seek to comprehend Ted Kennedy’s slurs or Alfred Knopf’s newly published assassination novel, it is true that election-year politics, the furor over the contested 2000 vote, and an unpopular war can account for some of the hysteria of the Left. So do the polarizing personality and particular background of George Bush—but only in part. These are, in fact, all epiphenomena of a much deeper pathology.
The Left now lives in a world without facts or particulars and the accompanying baggage of consistency. It is deeply suspicious and yet also envious of those who wield power, and believe there is no absolute and unbiased political, economic, or political criterion by which the United States can claim any exceptionalism or even much merit. So into this gathering storm, blew in a savvy Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein, and the result is a gale force meanness and craziness here at home the like of which we have not seen this century.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson