Islamism and Liberal Regress

Any political movement that threatens the liberties and lives of disbelievers is a legitimate object of fear. Acknowledging a fear is neither cowardice nor prejudice. That depends on how one responds.

Islamism, the intensely political interpretation of Islam, is emphatically not the whole of a fourteen-hundred-year-old religion with more than one and half billion adherents. The works of Avicenna and Averroes alone are enough to demonstrate this. As a political philosophy, however, its tenets are more widely shared than some pundits admit. Denying this reality is no act of enlightened tolerance.

Islamism is a system of belief, not a race. No system of belief deserves immunity from criticism, which all religious authoritarians demand. Islamists do so by conflating objections to their ideology with racial prejudice against individuals. They resort to double speak. When they say “Islamophobia,” they mean heresy.

There was nothing senseless about the mass execution by Islamic terrorists of twelve people in Paris. The logic behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre was traced in a sympathetic op-ed by Islamist Anjem Choudary. A real Muslim, according to Choudary, does “not believe in the concept of freedom of expression.” They consider “the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves.”

To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, “Whoever insults a Prophet kill him.”

However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.

The satirists, in Choudary’s view, had only themselves to blame. After all, “the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” This line of argument should be familiar to anyone who has confronted an apologist for rape. As Lachlan Markay said, it “is the theological equivalent of ‘she shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt.'”

Fashionable cant aside, terrorism can work. As John Schindler said, if mujahideen “keep killing journos, as they did in Algeria, they will get their way.” Capitulation to their demands is easily recoded as “respect for religion,” and capitulation is a live issue.

Far too many progressives defend the right to blasphemy in abstract theory but condemn its actual practice. They wince at the Islamist demands, but they call for the same results. The right to blaspheme religion, as Jonathan Chait said, “is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.” Without the freedom to offend, there can be no freedom of expression.

Liberal abdication is something with which Salman Rushdie has had some experience. Eight years ago, Rushdie gave a candid speech on the moral and intellectual failures of the contemporary left. The speech remains timely, and it can heard (beginning at the 20:55 mark) here.

Some Activists Want Dead Cops

Liberal democracy requires a modus vivendi, which means a way of living together and arguing together without killing each other over political disagreements. Most Americans respect this foundation—most, but not all.


The demand: “No Cops No Prisons”

There is an insurrectionary left in this country. In recent weeks, they have incited riots and looting, assaulted police officers, and lead chants of “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” Fanatics on the left have argued for years that acts of violence and threats of violence are legitimate means to their political ends. No one who engages in this pernicious bullshit should be mistaken for an ally.

It is not enough for liberals to deflect blame and deny associations. We have an obligation to confront and discredit these fanatics, as we have done for years with the so-called Patriot movement. The militia right is fundamentally hostile to liberal order. Their coercive threats and criminal actions nullified whatever moral authority they may have once possessed. What happened at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas was no justification for the mass murder of civil servants in Oklahoma City. The same standard should apply to all Timothy McVeigh wannabes, regardless of whether they form militias or Black Blocs.

Assaults, property destruction, and the execution of civil servants are a kind of improvised despotism. They are a decentralized means for stateless autocrats to coerce the rest of us. These imperious actions are not a deviation from revolutionary anarchism but its culmination. Anarchy means now what it has always meant: rule by a multitude of little tyrants.

Nonlinear Ideology

There is no linear spectrum of political beliefs. The neat binary of “left” and “right” is a fiction. It can be a useful in describing mundane factions, but it fails when applied to anything else. At the extremes, ideologies of the “left” and the “right” warp and fold back on themselves. North Korea’s familial tyranny is one such case. (The political philosophies of Max Stirner and Georges Sorel are two others.)

Brian Reynolds Myers is one of the few western experts to immerse himself in North Korea’s domestic propaganda. Back in 2010, Myers published a book called The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters. In a lengthy interview about the book, he said “the further you get to the extreme left, the closer you get to the extreme right.” He described North Korean ideology as a startlingly simple form of race-based nationalism, and he placed it at the point “where the extreme right and the extreme left meet.” The interview is the most enlightening thing I have ever read on the heinous Kim dynasty.

Abolishing a Petulant Veto

Last year, David Frum was one of the few pundits to offer a plausible solution to repeated threats of a government shutdown. Make continuing resolutions automatic:

The United States is not the only country to have budget disputes. Other democracies cope with these inevitable disagreements by the simple rule: If no budget can be agreed, simply carry over the previous year’s budget month by month until agreement is ultimately reached. While politicians negotiate, travelers can still renew their passports. Obvious, no? Why not here?

The fact is, most of the time, Americans already do this. Formal budgeting tends to sputter to a halt in periods of divided government. The continuing resolutions that fund the federal government were invented as exactly the kind of work-around that other democracies use. So let’s ensure that the continuing resolutions continue when they are needed most, when the differences seem most acute. The whole point of democracy is that there are no disagreements so acute that they are worth overthrowing the government and the state.

It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now. Liberals and conservatives can argue over what formula should be used to determine spending levels (maintain previous levels, decrease as the fiscal year passes to encourage Congress to act, adjust for inflation and population growth, etc.) Yet, almost any automatic mechanism would be better than the status quo, which is pathetic and despicable.

Of course, I am simply arguing for what should be done, not what I expect will happen. I am beginning to suspect that the primary feeling some Democrats have for Ted Cruz Republicans is envy.

Democracy and Illegal Protest

In the late 1960s, Sidney Hook wrote a lucid essay on democracy and social protest. Hook defined his position as “neither blind obedience nor uncivil disobedience.” Citizens in a liberal democracy, he said, “are free to disagree with a law but that so long as it remains in force they have a prima facie obligation to obey it.” The presumption should be against illegal action. When someone breaks a law they deem unjust, say, to dramatize why it is wrong, they should face the consequences.

The onus must be on the protester to justify themselves to their fellow citizens. Hook’s rationale for this belief was to “escape the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy.”

Tyranny is avoided by virtue of the freedom and power of dissent to win the uncoerced consent of the community. Anarchy is avoided by reliance on due process, the recognition that there is a right way to correct a wrong, and a wrong way to secure a right. To the extent that anything is demonstrable in human affairs, we have held that democracy as a political system is not viable if members systematically refuse to obey laws whose wisdom or morality they dispute.

Hook went on to condemn those “ritualistic liberals” who would substitute “for the absolutism of law, something very close to the absolutism of individual conscience.”

Properly rejecting the view that the law, no matter how unjust, must be obeyed in all circumstances, they have taken the view that the law is to be obeyed only when the individual deems it just or when it does not outrage his [or her] conscience. Fantastic comparisons are made between those who do not act on the dictates of their conscience and those who accepted and obeyed Hitler’s laws. These comparisons completely disregard the systems of law involved, the presence of alternatives of action, the differences in the behavior commanded, in degrees of complicity of guilt, in the moral costs and personal consequences of compliance, and other relevant matters.

It is commendable to recognize the primacy of morality to law, but unless we recognize the centrality of intelligence to morality we stumble with blind self-righteousness into moral disaster. Because, Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not wrong sometimes to lie to save a human life, because it is not wrong sometimes to kill in defense to save many more from being killed, it does not follow that the moral principles: “Do not lie!” “Do not kill!” are invalid. When more than one valid principle bears on a problem of moral experience, the very fact of their conflict means that not all of them can hold unqualifiedly. One of them must be denied. The point is that such negation or violation entails upon us the obligation of justifying it, and moral justification is a matter of reasons not of conscience. The burden of proof rests on the person violating the rules. Normally, we don’t have to justify telling the truth. We do have to justify not telling the truth. Similarly, with respect to the moral obligation of a democrat who breaches his political obligation to obey the laws of a democratic community. The resort to conscience is not enough. There must always be reasonable justification.

Conscience, like so many human facilities, is fallible. It can be less righteous than it seems:

Conscience by itself is not the measure of high or low moral ground. This is the work of reason. Where it functions properly the democratic process permits this resort to reason. If the man [or women] of conscience loses in the court of reason, why should he [or she] assume that the decision or the law is mistaken rather than the deliverances of his [or her] conscience?

The voice of conscience may sound loud and clear. But it may conflict at times not only with the law but with another man’s [or woman’s] conscience. Every conscientious objector to a law knows that at least one man’s [or woman’s] conscience is wrong, viz., the conscience of the man [or woman] who asserts that his [sic, recurs] conscience tells him that he must not tolerate conscientious objectors. From this if he is reasonable he should conclude that when he hears the voice of conscience he is hearing not the voice of God, but the voice of a finite, limited man [or woman] in this time and in this place, and that conscience is neither a special nor an infallible organ of apprehending moral truth, that conscience without conscientiousness, conscience which does not cap the process of critical reflective morality, is likely to be prejudice masquerading as a First Principle or a Mandate from Heaven.

The activist left, in Hook’s day as in ours, often claims that illegal protests are an exercise of democracy. In doing so, they are guilty of rhetorical deception. They redefine democracy not as “the presence or absence of democratic institutions,” but by “whether or not they get their political way.” The underlying conceit is authoritarian:

The rules of the game exist to enable them to win and if they lose that’s sufficient proof the game is rigged and dishonest. The sincerity with which the position is held is no evidence whatsoever of its coherence. The right to petition does not carry with it the right to be heard if that means successfully influencing those to whom it is addressed. What would they do if they received incompatible petitions from two different and hostile groups of petitioning citizens? The right of petition gives one a chance to persuade, and the persuasion must rest on the power of words, on the effective appeal to emotion, sympathy, reason, and logic. Petitions are weapons of criticism, and their failure does not justify appeal to the criticism of weapons. Some groups that have resorted both to civil and uncivil disobedience justify themselves by claiming that the authorities did not listen to their demands on the ground that their demands were not granted. This begs all the questions about the legitimacy and the cogency of the demands.

When the activist left resorts to rioting or worse, a threshold has been breached. Liberals are no longer dealing with overzealous allies who made a poor choice of tactics. We are dealing with enemies of the open society.

Propaganda of the Deed

V for Vendetta, the film which first sold that hyper-stylized mask of Guy Fawkes, is a myth. Specifically, it is the anarchist fable of propaganda of the deed. A liberator of all humanity strikes against tyranny and inspires a revolution. So goes the grandiose fantasy. The actual history has been far more squalid. It, too, has been given a cinematic treatment.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is the story of the Red Army Faction, which was a West German gang of urban guerrillas. The complex referred to in the title is psychological. Christopher Hitchens wrote a sharp description of this mindset in his review of the film:

There was a prevalent mystique in those days about the Cuban and Vietnamese and Mozambican revolutions, as well as about various vague but supposedly glamorous groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In the United States, the brief resort to violence by the Black Panthers and then by the Weather Underground was always imagined as an extension of “Third World” struggles onto the territory of imperialist North America. Other spasmodic attempts to raise armed insurrection—the so-called Front for the Liberation of Quebec, the I.R.A., and the Basque ETA—were confined to national or ethnic minorities. But there were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponized and organized group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honor of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy.

You may notice that the three countries I have just mentioned were the very ones that made up the Axis during the Second World War. I am personally convinced that this is the main reason the phenomenon took the form it did: the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do. And this was also a brilliant way of placing the authorities on the defensive and luring them into a moral trap. West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s is not actually holding any political prisoners. Very well then, we will commit violent crimes for political reasons and go to prison for them, and then there will be a special wing of the prison for us, and then the campaign to free the political prisoners by violence can get under way. This will strip the mask from the pseudo-democratic state and reveal the Nazi skull beneath its skin. [….]

It doesn’t take long for the sinister ramifications of the “complex” to become plain. Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts. (The gang bought its first consignment of weapons from a member of Germany’s neo-Nazi underworld: no need to be choosy when you are so obviously in the right.) There is, as with all such movements, an uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both.

The film, as Hitchens said, is indeed an acute portrayal of “the way in which mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical.” Any doubts or disagreements within the group “can always be attributed to betrayal or cowardice, resulting in mini-purges and micro-lynchings within the gang itself.” In this psychodrama, the revolutionary promise can never be falsified; it can only be betrayed.

Personal Data and Abuses of Trust

Like most Americans, I have concerns about how companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook handle data about their users. While I expect companies to use this data their own benefit, their actions should not cause me undue harm. Companies should honor the commitments they make in their privacy policies. They should be fairly transparent about their data practices, and they should guard against user data being pilfered for malign purposes. But for these concerns, use and abuse is a better distinction than privacy and disclosure.

The notion of privacy, as Benjamin Wittes and Wells C. Bennett said, is “something of an intellectual rabbit hole.” It is “so contested and ill-defined that it often offers little guidance” on the uses and abuses of personal information. So, Wittes and Bennett suggest the alternative notion of “databuse.”

The Constitution, as they said, “made no mention of privacy.”

The Constitution did not have to, because in the founding era, it was exceedingly difficult to invade privacy interests without also trespassing against personal property or impinging upon an individual’s freedom of conscience or right to keep mum—areas well covered already by the First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments. This arrangement did not stand up over time, however, given technological advances. Because of those, notions of privacy started to decouple from property and other rights, first in our minds and ultimately in our law. We created privacy because technology left previous doctrines unable to describe the intrusions on our seclusion that we were feeling.

Ironically, today it is privacy itself that no longer adequately describes the violations people experience with respect to large caches of personal data held by others—and it describes those violations less and less well as time goes on. Much of the material that makes up these datasets, after all, involves records of events that take place in public, not in private. Much of this data is sensitive only in aggregation; it is often trivial in and of itself—and we consequently think little of giving it, or the rights to use it, away. As a legal matter, this sort of data by its nature involves material we have disclosed to others in exchange for some benefit, and it thus generally lies outside of the protections of the Fourth Amendment—which does not cover the actions of non-governmental parties. What’s more, we often give this information away with the understanding, implicit or explicit, that it will be aggregated and mined for what it might say about us. It takes a feat of intellectual jujitsu to construct a cognizable and actionable set of privacy interests out of the amalgamation of public activities in which one has engaged knowingly, and which involved trades with strangers in exchange for benefits. The term privacy has become something of a crutch, a description of many different values of quite different weights that neither accurately nor usefully depicts the harms we fear.

Hence the need for a new conceptual frame:

Think of databuse as that core of the privacy spectrum that is most modest in nature. Databuse is different from broader visions of privacy in that it does not presume as a starting point the non-disclosure, non-use, even quarantining from human eyes of data we have willingly transacted in exchange for services. It does not pretend that the companies to which we entrust our data should take it from us with no ambitions to use it for their own gain—or that there is something disreputable or inappropriate about their doing so. It does not begin with the assumption that there is some platonic ideal of seclusion that a company is bound to honor on our behalf, even if we don’t want it or even if we prefer to have our data used to market us products we might want to buy. It does not assume we feel violated by the knowledge that others may have of our lives—particularly if others are machines and using that information to provide us services and conveniences we happen to want. It does not assume we want our fitness monitors to shield the number of steps we take from our friends or from people we have never met; it instead treats the dissemination of such data—in whole or in part—as an option we might or might not want to choose.

Rather, databuse asks only for protection against unwarranted harms associated with entrusting our data to large entities in exchange for services from them. It asks that the costs of our engagement with these companies not be a total loss of control of the bits and pieces of transactional, communications, and locational data that make up the fabric of our day-to-day lives. It asks, in short, that the companies be reasonable and honest custodians—trustees—of the material we have put in their hands. It acknowledges that they will use it for their own purposes. It asks only that those purposes do not conflict with our own purposes or come at our expense.

Wittes brought the same candor and clarity to debates about the National Security Agency. Most of his commentary can be found on the Lawfare blog, in posts like this one and this one. The best statement of his position was the essay “Legal Safeguards, Not Disarmament.”