Fever Dreams of the Apocalypse

The allure of prophetic and messianic religion is not something many American pundits comprehend. Conservative Rod Dreher is a rare exception. Dreher views the Islamic State’s barbarism as something familiar and comprehensible, if you consider their “fever dream of the Islamic apocalypse.” In a post over at The American Conservative, he explained the intoxicating power of apocalyptic visions:

I was reading last night from a passage in the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), who writes about the messianic urge within societies. Excerpts:

It is not only upon interpretation of the meaning of history, but also upon the formation of the very category of the historical, that messianism has its bearing. History is created by the expectation that in the future there will be a great manifestation, and that this manifestation will be a disclosure of Meaning in the life of the nations. It is the expectation of the appearance of the Messiah or of the messianic kingdom. The movement of history is also a movement towards that messianic appearance which will bring with it liberation from slavery and suffering, which will inaugurate for man a state of happiness. Messianic consciousness is born in suffering. When suffering does not crush man it is changed into a terrible power. The dynamic messianic myth is turned towards the future. It is in this respect a contrast to pagan myths, which were turned not towards the future but to the past It was characteristic of the Greeks to be concerned with the contemplation of the cosmos and its cyclic movement. This postulates that the world is eternal and has neither beginning nor end, a world, above all, in space and not a world in time. No philosophy of history is to be found either in Plato or in Aristotle. It is in ancient Israel that the philosophy of history begins, in the revelation of God in history, which found expression in the consciousness of the prophets, and in the Book of Daniel.

But it is within Christianity, Berdyaev says, that a philosophy of history first became possible because it “introduced disquietude about the future, a messianic and eschatological disquietude.” He means that Christianity accepted and extended Jewish messianic hopes, foretelling an End of History, culminating in the Second Coming of the Messiah. In this way, history has meaning. It’s not simply random or cyclical events; it is going somewhere. We can only understand the meaning of history if we have a vision for where it is going, he says. This is not something scientific; this is something “prophetic.”

Islam, which arose in the Middle East seven centuries after Christianity, is messianic in that it also sees history ending with an apocalypse. And Berdyaev observes that Hegel was also driven by a messianism, though of the post-Christian sort. So was Marx. And so are the Western democrats of today, who may or may not believe in God, but who do believe in liberal democracy as the End of History. The messianic impulse is part of what it means to be modern (as opposed to ancient). This is something that contemporary Westerners do not seem to understand. At all.

Berdyaev says that formal religion domesticates and stifles the messianic consciousness among the people. “The priest has more and more crowded out the prophet,” he writes. “Ritualism is dominant. But ritualism does not confer any understanding whatever of the meaning of history.”

What he’s saying is that people have a deep craving for the belief that what they’re going through means something. That their suffering is not in vain. That events are going somewhere, however random they may seem on the surface. This is an essentially religious impulse, but it was shared by orthodox Marxists as well as religious believers. This is at the heart of the meaning of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. We cannot let go of our sense that existence has meaning, and that the meaning will be revealed if we wait patiently and expectantly. More Berdyaev:

The messianic consciousness and expectation creates history, proclaims a meaning for it and holds it together, and yet at the same time, so to speak, breaks down history and seeks to overleap it. This contradiction has to be accepted as a part of experience. In the same way as the first Coming of the Messiah was prepared among the Hebrew people, so now among all mankind the way must be prepared for the Second Coming; and it is in this that history has its justification. The goal is no less than the attainment of the creative fullness of life and the realization of the Spirit not only in human life but also in the life of the cosmos.

It is nothing less than re-union with God, and the advent of Utopia. The end of all suffering, and the fulfillment of time. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power, especially for the wretched of the earth, you are not looking hard enough. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power for the bored, clapped-out, shopped-till-they’ve-dropped bourgeois children of the West, you are not looking hard enough.

The most compelling book I ever read on eschatological fanatics was Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. The book is a sweeping account of the radical religions that thrived during the upheavals of late medieval Europe. It taught me that the expressions of this monomania are manifold and prone to moral derangement.

Paradox of Tolerance

Burning a cross on someone else’s front lawn is not something many liberals would defend as civil disobedience. We are often intolerant of intolerance—with good cause. Tolerance without limits would self-destruct. As Karl Popper explained:

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any constraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. The idea is, in a slightly different form, and with very different tendency, clearly expressed in Plato.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Reasonable liberals will debate what the limits are and how they should be imposed. However, there can be no question whether any limits should be imposed at all. Anyone who claims otherwise cannot be trusted to defend an open society.

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 political 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. But 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!” A faction of the left has argued for years that threats and acts of violence are a legitimate means 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. Coercive threats and criminal actions by the militia right 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.