A Time of Reversion

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A Time of Reversion
Chris Mooney

Along with inexplicable tragedy, it seems, comes a reawakening of long discredited ideas, theories and impulses. Amidst grief, we encounter reversion. The examples continue to accumulate: Ann Coulter calls for a holy crusade against the holy crusaders who attacked us. (Vintage 12th century.) A writer in the Washington Times calls for the use of nuclear weapons against Osama Bin Laden. (Vintage Cold War.) Americans grasp for meaning in the nonsense verses of Nostradamus (vintage 16th century), and in an Associated Press photo of smoke pouring from the World Trade Center towers that vaguely resembles the face of Satan. Jerry Falwell declares that God, furious, has withdrawn his protection from our sacred nation. (Vintage time immemorial.)

And now another awful and execrable idea -- vintage nineteenth-century -- has reared its head: Social Darwinism. Monday in The Wall Street Journal, the conservative Hoover Institution research fellow Shelby Steele contributed an op-ed titled, "War of the Worlds: The West must stop apologizing for the greatness of our civilization." Now, certainly there are some pretty nice things about "Western" civilization, and Steele lists a few greatest hits: "the concept of a social contract, the idea of the individual as a self-contained and free political unit with rights and responsibilities, free markets, the scientific method, the separation of church and state. . ."

But what's dangerous is Steele's attempt to suggest that these important political ideas were somehow the product of an evolutionary struggle between civilizations: It is not too much to say, as Francis Fukuyama did a few years back, that the West now represents -- all things considered -- the Hegelian "end of history." If the Second and Third Worlds now "Americanize," it is more out of Darwinism than a love of blue jeans and Big Macs. The evil of slavery and colonialism was that these oppressions kept their victims out of history, disconnected them from the evolutionary struggle. . .

The misguided idea that history has any purpose, intention, or natural sanction is a perversion of Charles Darwin's theories. Social Darwinism, courtesy of the philosopher Herbert Spencer, asserted that nature's grossest evils, distasteful in their proper context, are nevertheless somehow "meant to be" in human social contexts. What you get is what you deserve -- especially for the world's poor and disadvantaged. From here, it's no great leap to the notion that maybe it's our job to speed up the "evolution" of the Islamic world using any means necessary. And if they don't evolve? Then they're just another casualty of the struggle for existence. Bombs away.

The Role of Belief. Speaking of Charles Darwin, the great Oxford evolution explicator Richard Dawkins has published what is easily the most edgy and provocative thing yet written about September 11th's terrorist attacks -- even if you don't fully agree with it. Dawkins' Guardian article, titled "Religion's misguided missiles," draws attention to "the elephant in the room that everybody is too polite -- or too devout -- to notice: religion." Dawkins's point is that no matter how much we might not like to admit it, teaching "testosterone-sodden young men" that there's a "special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides" in the next life is an unspeakably dangerous and evil practice. Indeed, perhaps this could be said of the entire notion of an afterlife, given the way it allows a suicidal terrorist to behave as if death is not the end. Dawkins finishes: Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used. The trouble with Dawkins' analysis is that there are numerous elephants in the room.

For example, some commentators have pointed out that no one has ever heard of a female terrorist. Does this make the Y chromosome partly responsible? And what about the role of poverty and desperation in fueling the spread of fanatical religious beliefs? Still, credit Dawkins for saying something no one else dares to -- a virtue in short supply right now.

Let the Mass Media Propaganda Begin! Time magazine's rapid-fire special issue on the September 11 attacks is virtually all glossy photos of death and destruction -- but fair enough, that sells magazines. Yet what are we to make of the image of the Statue of Liberty on the back cover? And how about the column by Lance Morrow, titled "The Case for Rage and Retribution," accompanied by a picture of Trade Tower rubble with an American flag standing tall in the foreground?

Morrow writes: A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let's have rage. What's needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury -- a ruthless indignation that doesn't leak away in a week or two.Let America explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa. A policy of focused brutality does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory, diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness -- and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.

All of which is a good argument for turning to alternative media sources for your news.

Chris Mooney

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