Going to Extremes

Last month’s celebrity smack down on Bill Maher’s Real Time, not to mention the uproar it provoked, was especially entertaining since at least actor Ben Affleck dispensed with the aura of aloof rectitude while discussing the crackpot theologies of jihadists. Projecting an even-tempered civility is typically of utmost import. The New York Times sets the gold standard in this regard. But Affleck, recently of Gone Girl, loosed his ire while debating the supremely self-assured, mind-melding duo of Maher and Sam Harris, author of bestseller The End of Faith and charter member of the New Atheists. Affleck called Harris’ views racist and sick, and suggested that he and Maher were coloring the entire Muslim world with the blood-red brush of terrorism. It amounted, in Affleck’s view, to something like Orientalism, the clichéd and childlike caricature of Asia that Edward Said attributed to the West. Maher was at his condescending best, sniffing that Affleck simply didn’t understand, after which the actor’s face resolved into a frozen sneer.

Throughout the show, Harris deposited into the conversation numerous facts and figures intended to indicate the extremist character of the Islamic faith. He is a brilliant fashioner of damning critiques of religion. But the religion debate will probably never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. The texts are too contradictory and the interpretations manifold, not to mention the yawning gulf between those who argue from a premise of reason and those who begin with belief. But you don’t have to be a Christian to read Patrick Cockburn’s latest description of life under ISIS to be repulsed by their power-crazed fundamentalism. On the other hand, you don’t have to be Muslim to start plotting your revenge after your family has been droned into the dirt.

While Harris and others quite rightly illuminate many of the nonsensical claims at the heart of the world’s great monotheisms, their fervor for the issue fills the void left by the absence of debate on the destructive doctrines at the heart of our own society. Is a strict literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture the only impetus for wanton attempts to enforce piety, a contradiction on its own terms? Is there anything else that might drive religious communities into zealotry?

Far sighted, mirror blind

As we fulminate about extremist Islam, we often overlook the general problem of secular ideology, and in particular the neoliberal ideology of the United States. It isn’t only religion but ideology that radicalizes. What was the hallmark of the 20th century if not mass slaughter induced by secular ideologies? Chairman Mao and Chinese Communism, the Führer and National Socialism, Stalinism, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Japanese State Shintoism and the cult of kamikaze self-obliteration. You don’t have to look far to find examples of secular ideologies imbued with a proselytizing military or ritual self-sacrifice. You could do worse to suggest that ideology is a kind of secular religion and religion a form of faith-based ideology.

Like those secular varieties of monomania, neoliberal capitalism vow economic and military jihad against any and every nation that does not accept its core tenets: privatization, deregulation, downsizing of federal bodies, the liberalizing of labor markets, the repression of collective action, and utter reliance on perverted Bretton Woods institutions for any kind of financial support.

Even though it was founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was a movement against that kind of Westernization. Most recent movements either had a similar animus or were born from the rubble of bungled Western interventions. Like al-Qaeda. Like the Taliban. Like Hezbollah. Like ISIS. This doesn’t make those organizations any less repulsive. It simply reveals that perverse ideologies can be radicalized by resistance to other perverse ideologies, in this instance neoliberalism. For this reason, it might be argued that—in the modern Arab world—religion is a rationalizer of deep feelings of injustice or inequity, not their prime mover. Perhaps, as Harris suggests, Islam is the ne plus ultra of religious radicalizers, but it should be acknowledged that, crusader or car bomber, religion is often the ideological vehicle by which a sense of injustice, legitimate or not, is sublimated into a coherent worldview. People seem most likely to turn to their faith in times of suffering and have a decided tendency to amplify their spiritual commitment in the hope that it will lead them back to the peace or prosperity, or both, their lives lack.

Yet which perverted ideology has put more people in the ground this century, neoliberalism or Islamism? Are there more makeshift tombstones for Christian soldiers or Muslim villagers?

How many countries—all of them Muslim—has the U.S. bombed, invaded or occupied since just 1980, about a decade into neoliberal primacy? Here’s Columbia University’s Andrew Bacevich’s list: “Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.”

How many killed in those wars? More than a million? How many displaced? Ten million? That’s setting aside numerous similar “interventions” in non-Muslim countries. Under Barack Obama, the national sovereignty of other nations has become a truly transparent concept, freely violated by our robotic arsenal of sky raiders. Guided across borders by remote control, our UAVs fly in pursuit of terrorist suspects who, when found, are simply droned out of existence, though they wear no uniform or army insignia, and are never given a fair trial. Even the Nazis got Nuremberg. Bin Laden got a bullet in the skull. A deserving end, but how much better, fairer, and in keeping with our presumptive values, to have trotted him out before the world in the Hague, exposed his hateful ideology and discredited him before billions of moderates of every stripe? (While at the same time affirming the concept of a fair trial.) Of course, the reason why it was never done might have to do with the fear that he might have exposed the hateful ideology in the heart of Washington, as callous as it is xenophobic.

Hawks will claim that the left ignores the good American interventions do. This is a slim catalogue, but there can be just byproducts of intervention. You might argue it was good when we twisted Turkish arms to allow Peshmerga backup to Kobani. Or that U.S. was right to assist in Kurdistan, insofar as the Yazidi crisis was legitimate, when U.S. forces—at the request of Kurds—helped prevent a mass slaughter by bombing ISIS positions on Mount Sinjar, as well as airdropping humanitarian aid. But the argument isn’t that such things never occur, but that they are not the central objectives of our neoliberal regime, nor are they generally sufficient goods to balance the horrific anarchy interventions typically unleash, the Yazidi crisis itself being a case in point.

But neoliberalism isn’t simply a driver of military aggression. Look at the economic destruction it has wrought. Austerity across the global south for decades ignored by the West until it was inevitably brought home and applied to the society that bred it. Applied by the jack-booted financial terrorists of the globalized corporate class, another extremist minority, although this one is backed by the collective power of the world’s most fearsome military. Paul Craig Roberts once wrote that America was unique in history in that it was the first government to deliberately destroy the living standards of its own people. That’s because the calculus of profit is the sole ethic of neoliberalism, which is perhaps the perfect marriage of capitalism and imperialism. Or perhaps rather the revelation that imperialism is the vanguard of capital, and capital the cause of imperialism.

Likewise, self-determination is the singular blasphemy that neoliberalism cannot abide. Unlike the Christian faith, although not unlike Islamism and its antecedent Gulf theocracy, blasphemers are condemned to hell here and now. There’s no waiting in fear and trepidation for judgment day. There’s no being stuck in a purgatory of terminal anxiety. Judgment is instantaneous. A bill of indictment in the form of crushing sanctions, which is excommunication from the “international community”, followed by either recantation and acceptance of the divine sacraments of the free market, or apocalypse now. Ask Gaddafi what resistance profited him. Read the tale of Fallujah on the tablets of Mesopotamian history. And lest an infidel think to resist with violence, just remember—the empire always strikes back. Of course, as high priestess Madeleine Albright assures us, the price is worth it.

Minority rules

Polls from organizations like Gallup and Pew and Harris frequently gauge American values and desires. The bulk of respondents almost never align themselves with the morality of neoliberalism. They are often in favor of more jobs, not fewer, more social spending, not less, less war-making, not more, and a general interest in the general welfare, not the general indifference to it that is the touchstone of the neoliberal faith. Which is to say that the true neoliberal believers are a comparatively small segment of society, as all extremists are, by definition. How marginal would they be, that queer alchemy of Chicago school academics, think tank luminaries, defense contractors, energy mandarins, financial profiteers, and politicians, were it not for their ability to buy influence, and through influence the state itself?

In some ways, much like the world community of moderate Muslims, we are held captive to a brutalizing extremist ideology raised from our own midst. In the spirit of free speech and the still-pressing need for rational critiques of monotheism, perhaps Ben Affleck ought to leave Sam Harris be, while the rest of us, gnostic, atheist or other, get on with business of removing the beam from our own eye before we pluck the metastasizing mite from the eye of the Arab. In a sense, neoliberalism has fostered this absence of self-reflection, and its corollary, the externalizing of every evil; it is a prerequisite for the practice of injustice. You mustn’t only be blind to your own behavior, but you had better despise and dehumanize your victim, too. All the better for a clear, or perhaps blank, conscience.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Breakfast of Champions, the headstone of infamous sci-fi author Kilgore Trout is shown. On it are etched the words, “We are healthy to the extent that our ideas are humane.” What a fitting epitaph that might one day be for our sad and sickly tale of endless empire.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.