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Tribal Failings

By (October 1, 2007) 2 Comments

The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West

By Lee Harris
Basic Books, 2007

Each society will seek to live its life regardless of the welfare of others. We know historically that some societies have destroyed others, as some species have destroyed other species. We know also of societies that have existed together. But we know equally that no society has ever long existed through the forbearance and charity of another. Each that has survived has survived by its own material power.

Lawrence R. Brown, The Might of the West

So opens Lee Harris’ The Suicide of Reason, and this grim assessment of human relations sets the tone for his book. Not long ago this would have been dismissed as passé, an anachronism belonging to an era when titans battled by proxy for control of international affairs. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed that free markets and free governments had triumphed. Capitalism was penetrating the darkest corners of the Third World, and a great rollback of tyranny was under way, while scholars and intellectuals struggled to come up with a conceptual framework in which to view this new era of Pax Americana.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man, argued that the form of government most widely viewed as legitimate in the world was the liberal democracy, and that it may be the endpoint in the evolution of human governance. A few years later, Fukuyama’s erstwhile teacher, Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order, posited that civilizations have supplanted nations and ideologies “as the central and most dangerous dimension of the emerging global politics.”

For Fukuyama, while the failing authoritarian governments of the last few decades “have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe.” He then sets out to explain why this is so, and in this explanation lays the foundation for his view of human political evolution. Fukuyama begins with science “because it is the only important social activity that…is both cumulative and directional.” The “unfolding of modern natural science has had a uniform effect on all societies that have experienced it…this process guarantees an increasing homogenization of all human societies, regardless of their historical origins or cultural inheritances.” And the logic of science “would seem to dictate a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism.”

But, he acknowledges, this is not enough. Capitalism has coexisted alongside authoritarianism in the past and in the present. To complete the picture, he turns to Hegel, who thought that man’s most distinctive universal attribute was his desire to be desired by others, to be recognized. Initially, this desire propelled men into combat. A victor was declared and the master/slave relationship was born. Since it was unable to satisfy this universal desire, according to Hegel the master/slave relationship was an inherent contradiction finally “overcome as a result of the French and…American revolutions,” in which mutual and reciprocal recognition of dignity is in turn recognized by the state through the granting of rights. Thus science and economics propel us towards capitalism, while our universal “struggle for recognition” propels us towards democracy. But given the ascendance of democracy, will a world full of satisfied citizens lead to the extinction of the alpha male, the “Last Man?”

Fukuyama’s argument is compelling, and important to remember because Lee Harris ignores most of it. What The Suicide of Reason puts forward is something of a bastardized combination of Huntington and Fukuyama’s theories, supported by a fatally streamlined political model. While he accepts Huntington’s assertion that amorphous and evolving “civilizations” constitute distinctly separate and competing entities, he adopts and considers only the last, largely speculative portion of Fukuyama’s equation. And he does it with far less erudition and grace.

Harris’ model for the great international conflict of our time is quite simple. A rational/tribal dichotomy explains the differences between the West and Islam, respectively. Our failure to recognize this dichotomy, and our failure to recognize the potency of the tribal system of human organization and acculturation along with the “law of the jungle” in which it operates, constitutes a potentially fatal error that might lead to a “crash” of civilization as we have come to know it. Silly on its face, it’s still a bit silly in depth, but there is also much of value to be found in these pages.

That being said, it is important to judge the final product against the book’s stated aims, and to judge Harris’ model in light of his explicit parameters. We’re told:

This book will not try to answer the question, Who is really right? Instead it will examine what are the strengths and weaknesses of both the rational actor and the tribal actor. It will ask, if we are facing a return of the jungle, who, in the long run, will win: the rational actor, and his culture of reason; or the tribal actor, with his culture of fanaticism. This is not a moral question…. Thus it is important from the outset to realize that the terms I use will be applied without any hint of censure or praise.

Yet right from the beginning his contempt for the decadence and multiculturalism of the West is evident, and by the end it becomes obvious from the simplistic description of our “tribal” enemies that he fervently wishes for us to prevail in the game of cultural king of the hill, if only we weren’t just so wishy-washy about the whole thing.

Historically, Harris claims, men have always behaved as tribal actors. Behavior was enforced from birth through the “visceral” or “shaming” code, instilling a potent reflex mechanism that confines behavior within psychosomatic boundaries, a conditioned, internal regulator that tells us right from wrong. This is the natural order of things. It is only recently, with the advent of the Enlightenment, that this has changed. Slowly, our own culture of mutually beneficial association and tolerance emerged, itself enforced by a “shaming code.” The chief distinction between the rational and tribal actor is their mindset, their focus. The rational (Western) actor thinks, “What is best for me?” The tribal (Islamic and otherwise) actor thinks, “What is best for my tribe?” The former enters into mutually beneficial relationships guided by enlightened self-interest, while for the latter, “the mere idea that his tribe could be wrong is unthinkable.”

Furthermore, the tribe operates according the “laws of the jungle,” where anything is justified in pursuit of victory. “Those who follow the laws of the jungle will regard as good and virtuous precisely those human qualities that are shunned and proscribed by the cultures of reason created by rational actors.” Confronted with tribal behavior, the rational actor explains it away in a flurry of politically correct euphemisms. We are reluctant to call tribal actors fanatics because we don’t want to acknowledge the challenge we face. President Bush calls the 9-11 hijackers cowards, and Harris asks, “by what stretch of the most flexible imagination could the men who perpetrated these deeds be dubbed cowards?”

He pretends to objectivity and claims not to judge whether a rational or tribal actor is superior. A culture of reason “is not necessarily superior: it is defined simply as a culture in which virtually all the actors are rational actors. Nor is a rational actor necessarily superior…he is simply a different kind of actor.” One can admire someone like John Brown, a tribal actor and a fanatic. One can also despise a rational actor. But he very plainly views the Enlightenment as a special achievement, and one worth preserving. There is nothing wrong with this, but shouldn’t we expect a rational actor to be a bit more truthful among his fellow rational actors?

Harris’ exploration of the Enlightenment and the influence of the Marquis de Condorcet is a crucial part of the book, and it is here that he is at his most convincing. Condorcet believed that education was the key to creating a society of rational people, and Harris persuades us that the maintenance provided by education has been essential to the perseverance of our “culture of reason” throughout these last two turbulent centuries (though education did not create rational culture, as we shall see). One might also add evolutionary effects of economic and technological development, a la Fukuyama.  

A culture’s willingness to defend itself is also one of the means to success, and here the author wants us to take a lesson from Condorcet. Contrary to modern assumptions, a sense of cultural superiority was a defining feature of Condorcet’s rational society and the Enlightenment in general. Harris contrasts this with the modern philosophy of multiculturalism, which he believes has made us weak and unwilling to face the reality of our conflict with fanatical Islam. The scent of contempt wafts off of the pages when Harris says that “the problem is that the multiculturalists have a profoundly shallow concept of culture: They see cultural differences as if they were merely differences in consumer tastes and preferences…as if they were analogous to a preference for pasta over couscous.” And this is a natural outgrowth of the West’s me-first, consumerist society.

In a tribal society, writes Harris, there will be “few, if any, choices given to the individuals…the consumerist multiculturalist approach overlooks the critical fact that every culture has both core values and incidental ones.” Muslims are generally fanatics, and something like jihad or the oppression of women are core values. Here Harris’ monolithic approach to Islamic and Western culture, and really to culture in general, evinces the problems with these sorts of neatly packaged theories. Reality becomes smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror.

How to account then for the huge variation in the Islamic world, especially among classes? Harris is inappropriately mum on the subject, with a few exceptions. He mentions the rejection of the middle and upper classes by the fanatic masses (Iran is his example), but ignores instances of coexistence. He inadvertently provides a partial explanation when he states that the order in the West is one of the self-preserving middle-class, but the reader must make this connection. If we add, for instance, Fukuyama’s scientific model with its technological advances and their homogenizing effect, we begin to see a more expansive, inclusive, and much more subtle picture. Again, this is all left to the reader. We should expect a book dealing with these important issues to at least give cursory attention to the complexities of modern society, but the end result is merely interesting, and not especially representative.

His description of the “rational” West is also suitably vague, as it must be to fit this sort of abstract theory. He brings up caveats to the strict rational/tribal dichotomy near the end of his introduction (rational actors willing to die for a cause aren’t being rational, they’re really being tribal, for instance), and we’re led to believe that this book will be more nuanced than it is. But this distinction, in the context of, say, actually examining a culture, is left unmentioned for the rest of the book, and is insufficient in any case. How, in the United States, do we account for the immediate, instinctive impulse to patriotism and jingoism, not just from the politician, but also from the ordinary citizen? Why must any criticism of America or its government’s policy be prefaced with praise? Is this the face of a rational or a tribal society?

While he correctly makes a distinction between fundamentalism in America and in the Islamic world, Harris’ interpretive framework does not give a satisfactory explanation for the difference. He ignores (surprisingly, considering the views he sets himself against) the question of democracy, which can become a fulcrum for discontentment and conflict, a prism through which these energies are channeled (a point well made in Stuart Hampshire’s Justice is Conflict). The pacifying effect of even a relatively stable democracy on internal conflict is evident here in the United States, where fundamentalists with ideas nearly as radical as the terrorists we face are content to broadcast their views on television or the radio. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson smugly claimed that the 9-11 attacks were god’s revenge on a nation of sinners. But if they were acculturated in a more “primitive” land, a more “tribal” society, one can easily envision them seeing the bombing of civilians as a useful way to stamp out abortion and homosexuality. Other examples here and elsewhere are legion. Harris correctly demonstrates the potency of the fanaticism, but he only examines it in a setting governed by the so-called “law of the jungle.” Often throughout the book, a reader with even a slight imagination will hear himself saying: “Wait a minute….”

Despite the failings of his rational/tribal model, where Harris is most successful is in evoking a more concrete sense of the uniqueness, the achievements, and the sheer luck of the West, and America in particular. There’s the obvious separation from the Old World by thousands of miles of water. But just as important, Harris points out, was the diffuse nature of settler expansion and the limited resources needed to fight against Indian tribes. This isolation allowed the fiercely independent Protestant pioneers to maintain their culture of rugged individualism and hard work, because there was “no need to instill a fanatical code of group loyalty.” Separation from the history of the Old World also helped these settlers to create a community where “work makes freedom,” because for such a community to exist at all there could be no class of elites who profited from the work of others. Contrary to Locke’s Second Treatise, these developments don’t represent a state of nature: they are the result of pure serendipity. But such conditions could not exist today, because the map has been carved, and there are no more New Worlds to discover.

Where Harris fails is in achieving his stated objectives. The Suicide of Reason was meant as a warning—a wake-up call to the soft, spoiled progeny of the Enlightenment. He points out in the introduction that a rational actor can be worthy of our contempt while a tribal actor can be worthy of our admiration. We’ve already seen that the expected intricacy fails to materialize. He had claimed that “this is an essential point,” but, disappointingly, it comes up in an entirely different context: in service to the author’s analytical model. The model runs as follows: we’ve all been raised believing in the “myth of modernity,” that the values of the West will triumph, if they haven’t already. But our complacency has rendered us vulnerable to the enemy, who plays by a different set of rules. If and when the “law of the jungle” returns, we in the West will be susceptible to a radical transformation. Our leaders, unable to understand the events set into motion, will be forced into a pattern of increasingly ineffectual defensive action. Clamor for change will surface among the population, rendering it vulnerable to the machinations of manipulative populist leaders. The result will be a calamitous “crash” of civilization and the regression of the West toward the values of the tribe, the “US versus Them” mentality.

Yet we were never persuaded that the growth of Islamic militancy could destabilize the world order; instead we were presented with a caricature. In fact, Harris makes a convincing case that the greatest threat to world stability is the incompetence of our own leadership. While his evaluation of Muslim society is by no means accurate, it at least imparts a feeling in the reader for the disdain felt toward the West in much of the Islamic world, or at least, disdain for Western foreign policy (a distinction, at least according to polling, that many Muslims make). He says “the great weakness of America’s post 9-11 policy was its refusal to grasp the fierce resentment of the Muslim world against the status quo represented by Pax Americana.” Failure to recognize this, led the neoconservatives and the Bush administration to believe they could successfully transform the Middle East. Though Harris gives them the benefit of the doubt in assessing their honesty in selling the war (in what seems like another dig at the left, he cloaks his defense of their sincerity behind a faux historical objectivism, asserting that the lessons of World War II, and reason itself, dictated intervention; there were no more options left, as there were no options left with Hitler), he’s quite harsh in his evaluation of their policy. The current escalating tensions and the threat of war between the United States and Iran serve to further underscore the point.

If his thesis were more grounded in reality, we would have felt, following this rather profound appreciation of our own luck and achievements, a weighty sense of dread at what might be to come. But instead of a devastating one-two punch, the book trudges toward its conclusion with a depressing lack of momentum. Nevertheless, Harris reaches his polemical and literary peak at the end. He sheds any pretense to objectivity, and hurls invective at the citizens of America.

Today…the word capitalism is used to describe a radically different ethos from the original ethos of delayed gratification and sacrifice for future generations. The whole point of consumerism is to live for the moment and to seize the day…the carpe diem ethos that has developed in America and the West has infected every aspect of our cultural and political life. Indeed, the end of history thesis, like its companion, the myth of modernity, is the perfect ideology for a carpe diem society: Why worry about the future? Today in America we want religions that make us feel good…even in politics…we prefer to follow our bliss. Those who would like to live in a peaceful world think it is enough to visualize world peace. Those who don’t want anyone telling them what to do vote libertarian. Indeed, American politics is threatening to become an exercise in fantasy ideologies…

Great stuff indeed, but it would have been a better book if he’d cut out all the verbiage about the looming “crash” of civilizations at the hands of a fanatical, monolithic Muslim society, and said to us instead: look at where we started, and look at what we’ve become.

In the preface to The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington provides for us the standard by which he believes we should judge his book, and it is one worth keeping in mind when reading Fukuyama, Harris or anyone else who attempts to explain the workings of the post-Cold War era, or the post 9-11 era.

The test of its meaningfulness and usefulness is not whether it accounts for everything that is happening in global politics. Obviously it does not. The test is whether it provides a more meaningful and useful lens through which to view international developments than any alternative paradigm.

Viewed in this context, Harris’ book fails. It puts forward a paradigm that fails to explain international developments better than others do. But considering the import of all that has been discussed, readers must ask themselves, “Can a book with an untenable thesis be worth reading?” In the case of Harris’ flawed but nonetheless thought-provoking latest, the answer is certainly yes.

Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.