By Jonah Goldberg
Saturday, February 28, 2015
Over 20 years ago, when I was briefly living in Czechoslovakia, I visited Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed there. Even so, as Nazi concentration camps go it was pretty nice. That was by design. The Nazis used it as a Potemkin “Jewish settlement” in an effort to persuade the International Red Cross that the Nazis weren’t mistreating the Jews. To that end, they shipped out the malnourished and spruced the place up in advance of the Red Cross’s arrival.
In the grand scheme of things, this was just a small part of the Nazis’ effort to hide the fact that they were liquidating the Jews of Europe. They couldn’t hide their anti-Semitic brutality of course, but even the SS understood that openly murdering millions of innocents amounted to bad press they didn’t need.
In this desire, the Nazis weren’t alone. Stalin tried to keep a lid on the fact that he was murdering millions through starvation in Ukraine, never mind slaughtering unknown numbers of fellow Russians. The effort to keep all of it hush-hush was aided by cadres of useful idiots in the West. And not just useful idiots. Some of the unindicted co-conspirators knew and helped cover it up. Walter Duranty’s lies about the famine in Ukraine earned him a Pulitzer for the New York Times. The Pulitzer board still refuses to revoke the prize. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered up to 3 million of their fellow Cambodians. They buried the bodies and denied the crimes, they didn’t put out press releases. North Korea, right now, is the world’s largest gulag. In the last decade it has murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people through starvation or execution. But they deny this, to the great comfort of those who would have us continue to do nothing about it.
I bring all of this up to illustrate an interesting and dismaying fact about the Islamic State. Unlike every other recent genocidal movement I can think of, they don’t deny the charge. They celebrate it. They tweet it. They produce slick videos, boasting of their role as the proud butchers in the newest abattoir of humanity.
It’s said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. And in that sense we owe the Islamic State a singular compliment: They are not hypocrites. They are doing what they believe in.
The Challenge of Sincerity
Every now and then I run into someone. They say, “Hey, watch where you’re going!” and that’s the end of that. Other times (at a more reasonable speed), I encounter someone, invariably liberal, often in the mainstream media or working outside of politics, who asks me, “You don’t actually believe that stuff, do you?”
“That stuff” can be pretty much anything I’ve written or said of a conservative nature. The people who ask this question usually either like me, or think I’m smart, or both. And because they like me or think I’m smart, they assume that I must not actually believe what I believe. It invariably makes for an awkward conversation, particularly when it’s a relative. (It might not surprise you to know that the extended Goldberg clan is not exactly a right-wing Hebraic Tong.)
This is just a small example of a pervasive problem: the inability to believe that other people sincerely believe fundamentally different things. This is a human problem before it is an ideological problem. It afflicts people on the left and the right, perhaps not equally but close enough. Some of the sources for this confusion are actually huge advances in human civilization. The idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God is a moral triumph of the Judeo-Christian heritage. That belief often causes people to assume that we’re all fundamentally alike. And we may in fact be born that way, but we do not necessarily stay that way. It’s an understandable mistake given that the secular West is based on the deep-seated dogma of equality before the law (a dogma that rests on that Judeo-Christian heritage, FWIW).
It’s a glorious way of seeing the world in many respects, but it depends on other people seeing the world the same way for it to work. You can walk outside our world in an instant and discover that what you thought was reality was in fact a social construction. One needn’t get on a plane to the Middle East. Just put a hippie with a “Vegetable Rights & Peace” T-shirt in a maximum-security prison’s exercise yard. The last thing he’ll remember is a very large man named Tiny standing over him saying “Here endeth the lesson” as Tiny’s fist heads towards his face. By the way, this experiment works equally well with anarcho-capitalist stockbrokers, Unitarian guidance counselors, and anyone else who operates on overly rosy assumptions about the nature of man in general or Tiny’s sense of humor in particular.
This is why the “Jobs for Jihadists” thing has been so dismaying. It works on the assumption that the Islamic State doesn’t really believe what it believes — it’s just venting its frustrations with a bad job market, political corruption, and the cancellation of Firefly. As I said last week, obviously “root causes” play a role, but so does crop rotation in the 14th century. Eventually you have to take people and their movements as you find them. Now of course, maybe there’s a deeper strategy we’re all missing. Maybe Obama wants to give them all jobs so that he can move this fight into his comfort zone by declaring a global war on “workplace violence.” But I kind of doubt it.
What of Jihadi John?
Western Civilization is the bee’s knees, but it’s a lot more fragile than we realize (a point I will be making more and more in this space as it is in the wheelhouse of my next book). Again, unlike the Nazis, the Communists, and countless other evil movements, the Islamic State doesn’t hide its barbarism and doesn’t deny its horror. It broadcasts them to the world as a recruiting tool. And it works!
Sure, terrifying your enemies with atrocities is a very, very old tactic. But it’s been rare in the civilized world for a while now. And, when combined with the digital revolution and social media, this is uncharted territory.
While beheading Christians and selling little girls into slavery turns off a majority of the world, including a majority of Muslims, it turns on a lot of people all the same. One such person is Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a. Jihadi John. Now, ever since Mohammed Atta and his band of losers attacked us on 9/11, we’ve been talking about why relatively affluent and educated young men, many born and raised in the West (remember Johnny Taliban?), enlist in radical jihad. There’s lots of interesting things to be said about all that. But what interests me right now is a single, simple point. The appeal of modernity, democracy, and the liberal order isn’t nearly as powerful as we sometimes take for granted. Going by conventional reason and morality, it’s a no-brainer; even the oppressed and impoverished have a better deal in the West than they would with the Islamic State. And yet, the opportunity to slaughter innocent people, destroy priceless artifacts, rape little girls, set dudes on fire, crucify Christians, fight fellow Muslims and/or maybe die horribly in the effort speaks to something deep within them. The claim that these recruits are just criminals looking for an excuse is sand-poundingly stupid. If all they wanted was an excuse for criminality, they don’t need to fly to Syria for that. They can rob people outside their own homes. They want something more, something outside our extended order, something evil.
And what is dismaying to me is that they are honest about it. Normally, evil movements hide their deeds just well enough to give people who want to do nothing an excuse to do nothing. (Vladimir Putin is a master of this school of water-muddying.) The Islamic State, on the other hand, is marketing its evil. And it’s working. They may not use the word “evil,” but that really can’t be the hang-up, can it? I mean, I’m always hearing people say actions speak louder than words. When someone rapes little girls and sets people on fire, and openly brags about it, I don’t need to hear them also admit they know they’re evil. That’s asking too much of even evil people. Indeed, the fact that they don’t think it’s evil is what really puts the new-car shine on their evilness. What matters is that they do evil things and call them “good.”
And while few in the West say we should do nothing (thank goodness for small favors), we still spend a remarkable amount of time talking around the threat and its nature. I don’t think the Islamic State is an existential threat to the U.S. But I do know it wants to be. That alone is good enough reason to kill them all. Since when is posing an existential threat a minimum threshold for killing child-raping barbarian slavers?
What got me thinking about all this is a haunting letter from an Islamic State supporter in response to Graeme Wood’s phenomenal Atlantic essay “What ISIS Really Wants.” Apparently, Wood’s piece is quite popular in the radical Islamist community because it takes the terror group seriously on its own terms.
Note: In this letter the pro–Islamic State guy uses “Muslims” as synonymous with the group’s supporters. He says Wood’s essay is “grounded in realism” and:
argues that not understanding what is happening is very dangerous, especially if fighting a war, one must fight the war that is real, not the invented one that one wishes to fight. Perhaps ironically, your [writings] . . . are most dangerous to the Muslims (not that it is necessarily meant to be so on your behalf), yet they are celebrated by Muslims who see them as pieces that speak the truth that so many try to deny, but also because [Muslims] know that deep down the idealists of the world will still ignore them.What stands out to me that others don’t seem to discuss much, is how the Islamic State, Osama [bin Laden] and others are operating as if they are reading from a script that was written 1,400 years ago. They not only follow these prophecies, but plan ahead based upon them. One would therefore assume that the enemies of Islam would note this and prepare adequately, but [it’s] almost as if they feel that playing along would mean that they believe in the prophecies too, and so they ignore them and go about things their own way. . . . [The] enemies of the Muslims may be aware of what the Muslims are planning, but it won’t benefit them at all as they prefer to either keep their heads in the sand, or to fight their imaginary war based upon rational freedom-loving democrats vs. irrational evil terrorist madmen. With this in mind, maybe you can understand to some degree one of the reasons why many Muslims will share your piece. It’s not because we don’t understand what it is saying in terms of how to defeat the Muslims, rather it’s because we know that those in charge will ignore it and screw things up anyway (emphasis added).
All that talk about the Islamic State not being hypocrites reminds me I haven’t ranted about hypocrisy in a while. I think hypocrisy is one of the great misunderstood sins of modern life. Since at least the time of Rousseau, hypocrophobia has plagued Western Civilization. For many people, it seems that it is better to be consistently wrong than to be intermittently right.
Advice columns overflow like a backed-up gas-station toilet with letters from parents fretting over the fact that they feel like hypocrites for telling their kids not to do drugs, since they themselves experimented with drugs when they were kids. The asininity of this has always amazed me. A huge part of being a parent involves applying the lessons you learned from your own life in an effort to make your child’s lot in life a little easier or more fruitful. The notion that I should tell my kid to do more of her homework on the bus ride to school — like I did — or to start going to bars in high school — like I did — or to do any of the other dubious things I did just to avoid my own internal psychological conflict isn’t just objectively absurd but disgustingly selfish. This shouldn’t be a newsflash to any halfway-decent human: Being a parent isn’t about you.
Obviously, hypocrisy is often a bad thing, but what stings in the sting of hypocrisy is the pointy end of a principle poking you in the ass. What I object to is the morally lazy and intellectually cowardly (or maybe it’s morally cowardly and intellectually lazy?) way people respond to this fact.
The capacity to feel bad about our hypocrisy is literally one of the things that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. What makes us human is our capacity to create or identify ideals. They can be man-made ideals or divinely revealed ones, I don’t really care. But I do know that wolverines have no principles and are therefore incapable of being hypocrites. Animals only have instincts. Humans are animals too, but the capacity to hold our instincts at bay, or to channel them toward productive ends, is what separates us from other animals and forms the bedrock of civilization.
Given that we are all made from the crooked timber of humanity, the only guaranteed way to avoid hypocrisy is to abandon one’s principles or to make one’s sins into principles themselves. A glutton who orders the left side of the menu at Arby’s isn’t a better person if he exhorts his neighbor to pig out like him — but he would be less of a hypocrite. There will always be whorish men and women, and the world is surely better at the margins now that we no longer paint scarlet A’s on those who society thinks fit that description. But that doesn’t suggest the world would be a better place if moral slatterns persuaded everybody else to act like porn stars. “When Hugh Hefner moved out of the Playboy mansion the better to bring up his two young sons,” Ramesh wrote almost 20 years ago, “nobody accused him of not living down to his principles.”
I don’t want more hypocrisy in the world, but I’d rather have more of it than have none at all.