Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fantasy Ideologies

Are we at war with al Quaeda?  Almost seven years after 9/11, this fundamental question remains impossible to answer.  In war, after all, there are two or more sides, each seeking to achieve political goals.  Terms can be negotiated, surrender accepted.  But the goals of bin Laden and his devotees are inscrutable at best, and it is by no means clear that there is any authority, including his, with which the US could nengotiate terms or from which it could accept surrender.

In a provocative Policy Review essay, Lee Harris argues that "war," in the Clausewitzian sense, is the wrong metaphor to use in understanding 9/11 and its aftermath.  Instead, he says that Quaeda as possesses a "fantasy ideology," in which action, including violent action, is undertaken not primarily to effect any meaningful strategic goal, but rather to express and validate the actor's chosen self image.

Harris draws an analogy to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia.  There was no real prize to be won -- the nation offered neither a threat nor any resources to strengthen Italy.  Conquering it was merely a symbolic action, serving to illustrate the Fascist myth of a resurgent Roman Empire. In the same way, al Quaeda has no realistic hope of destroying America, much less the West as a cultural force; but that was never the objective.  Bin Laden seeks merely to illustrate the myth of a divinely-empowered Islamic militancy.

This is exactly correct.  Harris describes the behavior perfectly:  

What is common in such interactions is that the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props -- there is no interest in, or even awareness of, others having minds or wills of their own.  The man who bores us with stories designed to impress us with his importance, or his intellect, or his bank account, cares nothing for us as individuals -- for he has already cast us in the role that he wishes us to play:  We are there to be impressed by him.

As I said, Harris describes the behavior.  Sadly, he fails to use its proper name.  Like many think-tank professionals, especially on the right, he is more comfortable with intellectual history than with social science, and so he spends a lot of time sorting through William James, Vilfredo Pareto and Georges Sorel, when he might simply cut to the chase by calling this "fantasy ideology" by the name that psychologists have long given it:  narcissism.

Had he done this, his conclusions would have been greatly strengthened.  There is a lot of good writing, based on clinical study, about narcissistic personalities -- their magnetism, their ruthlessness, et cetera.  People who study business, for example, have read the psychology and started to come up with advice for corporate honchos who have a narcissist in middle-management.  (Bottom line:  they can get great results -- just remember that they have no loyalty, and don't care who they hurt, up to and including your company.)  An earnest effort to grapple with the effect of narcissistic leadership styles on geopolitics would be new and exciting.

Lamentably, Harris misses the boat.  His essay concludes with a tepid effort to find substitute metaphors for the present conflict.  Instead of "war," he argues, we should talk about "disease," to be eradicated.  Offhandedly, he suggests that this substitution would help people understand the need for racial profiling, making an embarrassing analogy to screening immigrants at Ellis Island.  Worse yet, he argues that President Bush's early characterization of OBL et al. as "evildoers" was right on target, and criticizes liberals who objected to the phrase because it "dehumanizes" the enemy.

This last bit shows the particularly partisan failure of Harris's imagination, in two related ways.  First, he proposes that to dehumanize the enemy is exactly what the situation calls for, on the grounds that by first dehumanizing us, they have effectively dehumanized themselves.  This is just nonsense.  The enemy is as human as we are, and can only be understood -- and fought effectively -- when we accept this, and deal with it.  Harris shies away from psychology for the same reason that incompetent interrogators gravitate toward torture rather than the more sophisticated and effective means of extracting information:  driven by moral outrage, none of them is willing to exert the intellectual self-discipline required to perceive the enemy as fully human.

And ths, of course, leads into his second partisan failure.  Harris lucidly describes the behavior of the narcissist -- or the "fantasist" -- and identifies it in the behavior of the enemy.  But he seems blind to the reality that the American response has also been far less than Clausewitzian.  What was, or is, the strategic goal of our Iraq invasion?  There is none; it is an effort to illustrate the fantasy of imperial potency.  Strategically, it has weakened the US beyond words -- alientating our allies, draining our treasury,  and limiting the flexibility of our armed services.  Trusting a magnetic leader whose ultimate loyalty is not to our national interest but to his own self-image, we have blundered into a combat which serves only to project a fantasy, and not to further any meaningful strategic goals.  Just like our enemy.

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