Belaboring the Obvious

Monday, January 22, 2007


... right-wing style. It's an odd thing. Membership in one of the right wing's welfare make-work institutes garners an individual the title of "intellectual." And yet, when the output of that individual bears no relationship to the actual intellectual pursuit of ideas, using accepted conventions of logic and thought processes identifiable to most people as sensible, the moniker "intellectual" never seems to be challenged. Because some Scaife-funded monstrosity of a "think tank" deems someone ideologically correct, the mainstream news outlets persist in the employment of that label (or its equivalent, "institute fellow"), even when it is profoundly unwarranted.

Case in point: Dinesh D'Souza's latest shit-stirring concoction, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.

Its premise, simply put, is to blame all non-neo-con influences for the attacks of 9/11. It doesn't matter that the neo-cons were in charge on 9/11. It doesn't matter that the neo-cons were obsessed with their goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein in a quest for military and economic dominance of the entire Middle East and ignored every warning to keep their ears to the ground for sounds of bin Laden coming. Any number of other outright fraudulent or disingenuous assertions populate the book.

It doesn't matter that the premise depends heavily upon blaming the very same free market forces otherwise extolled by the right wing, by asserting that non-neo-con cultural products have corrupted both the US and Muslim communities world-wide. Yeah, sounds pretty fucking flaky, but that's D'Souza's line of thought--Sayyid Qutb was right.

For those not in the know, Qutb was a prominent force in the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. His belief--based upon his experiences while studying education at the Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, Colorado in the late `40s--was that American society was decadent, its aims corrupt, and that Muslims would inevitably be corrupted by any Western influence, however benign (and, certainly, not all Western influence was benign, not by a long shot).

One of Qutb's complaints about American society, as he saw it in microcosm in then-little Greeley, was that Americans spent too much time on lawn care. It may be that Americans do, and might be a bit too competitive about it, but Qutb likely didn't know enough about American history to understand that suburban life was a very new post-war phenomenon, and that such interest in lawns not only reflected pride in home ownership unavailable to many prior to and during WWII, but was also likely an atavistic impulse originating in what had been, only decades before, a profoundly agrarian society.

Such is typical of Qutb's complaints about the United States. Upon his return to Egypt, he published them in an article, "The America I Have Seen," in Al-Risala, in 1951. Of that article, Rolf Potts says:

As travel reportage, "The America I Have Seen" doesn't exactly provide the reader with a vicarious window into living in the United States. Structured as a series of short, thematic arguments, Qutb's essay primarily attempts to prove that America--despite its great wealth and scientific genius--suffers from a corrosive moral and spiritual primitiveness. This thesis might have carried some rhetorical weight had Qutb backed it up with evidence from his own experiences, but--oddly--the Egyptian traveler didn't have many direct encounters worth sharing. Of the fifty-four brief sections in "The America I Have Seen," only eight allude to specific real-life observations; the other sections consist of broad generalizations and secondhand anecdotes. Perhaps his most memorable direct recollection is described as follows:

"In summary, anything that requires a touch of elegance is not for the American, even haircuts! For there was not one instance in which I had a haircut when I did not return home to even with my own hands what the barber had wrought, and fix what the barber had ruined with his awful taste."

Qutb's exasperation with American barbers humanizes him in an unexpected way: In spite of his relentless didacticism, we realize that our skeptical Egyptian exchange student was really just a querulous sojourner in an unfamiliar land, compulsively judging everything he saw through the rosy, idealized lens of his home culture.

Indeed, biographers have implied that Qutb's experience in the United States is what convinced him to reject Western values, but "The America I Have Seen" is clearly the memoir of a man who traveled to America seeking evidence for conclusions he'd drawn before he ever left Egypt. Never deviating from the Muslim fundamentalist assumptions he set forth in Social Justice in Islam (written before he visited the U.S. and published in 1949), Qutb's travel essay reflects the stereotyped sentiment--commonly encouraged by the Egyptian prejudices of his day--that America's material culture was morally inferior to the spiritual civilization of the Arab world. In fact, were one to strip the political cloaking from his essay, it's apparent that Qutb's experience of America was characterized by an oddly familiar combination of superficial experiences, paranoid conjectures, and passive culture shock.

What Potts does not mention is that Qutb's beliefs hardened after being jailed by Nasser for his political activities, in large part because of the torture he endured there (including being smeared with animal scents and then locked in a room with two German shepherds trained to attack on scent--Qutb had a heart attack during that particular incident). It was after that incarceration that Qutb began to believe that, in his estimation, Muslims made impure by Western ideas were fair targets for violent attack because even they did not know the extent to which they had been corrupted. When his countrymen tortured him, his response was to call for the extermination of not only those in the West, but his countrymen, as well. It was that call to violence which eventually caused Nasser to try him for treason and have him executed in 1966. In the meantime, his writings, smuggled out of prison, would have tremendous impact on a new generation of Muslim fundamentalists determined to eradicate "impurity" from Muslim life, among them, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, when tangentially implicated in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, would also be tortured in prison after trial.

The ramifications of that seem to have been lost entirely on the neo-con armchair intellectuals averring that torture is necessary to protect the United States.

But, from the culture shock of an Egyptian exchange student in 1948, D'Souza is able to find common complaint with him about the decadent and destructive activities of all those not neo-conservative. For all those not neo-conservative and not D'Souza, the fundamentalist nature of that cultural alignment with Qutb is obvious. It's simply another way of saying that only the fundamentalists in society have a firm grasp of "The Truth," and, by virtue of that grasp, are the only segment of society entitled to lead, entitled to define what is "acceptable" in the culture and entitled to be the moral arbiters of daily life. All others are, of necessity, part of the problem.

This certitude is what connects all fundamentalists, whether they be D'Souza, Osama bin Laden and his spiritual advisor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or the Pat Robertsons, James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells of American society, contradictions be damned.

And contradictions there are. When Sayyid Qutb condemned American life, he did so on the basis of preconceptions which had little to do with a newly-established post-WWII way of life. Now, almost sixty years later, the suburbia that became a fixture in America is, if Chris Hedges is right, in decline--not necessarily because of its inherent flaws, but, rather because of the economic uncertainties and social disruptions brought on by the very free-market forces espoused, in religiously fundamentalist terms, by the same neo-cons who find comfort in Qutb's cultural condemnations:

There has been, along with the creation of an American oligarchy, a steady Weimarization of the American working class. The top one percent of American households have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. This figure alone should terrify all who care about our democracy. As Plutarch reminded us "an imbalance between the rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics."

The stories believers such as Learned told me of their lives before they found Christ were heart breaking. These chronicles were about terrible pain, severe financial difficulties, struggles with addictions or childhood sexual or physical abuse, profound alienation and often thoughts about suicide. They were chronicles without hope. The real world, the world of facts and dispassionate intellectual inquiry, the world where all events, news and information were not filtered through this comforting ideological prism, the world where they were left out to dry, abandoned by a government hostage to corporations and willing to tolerate obscene corporate profits, betrayed them.

They hated this world. And they willingly walked out on this world for the mythical world offered by these radical preachers, a world of magic, a world where God had a divine plan for them and intervened on a daily basis to protect them and perform miracles in their lives. The rage many expressed to me towards those who challenge this belief system, to those of us who do not accept that everything in the world came into being during a single week 6,000 years ago because it says so in the Bible, was a rage born of fear, the fear of being plunged back into a reality-based world where these magical props would no longer exist, where they would once again be adrift, abandoned and alone.

The danger of this theology of despair is that it says that nothing in the world is worth saving. It rejoices in cataclysmic destruction. It welcomes the frightening advance of global warming, the spiraling wars and violence in the Middle East and the poverty and neglect that have blighted American urban and rural landscapes as encouraging signs that the end of the world is close at hand.

Believers, of course, clinging to this magical belief, which is a bizarre form of spiritual Darwinism, will be raptured upwards while the rest of us will be tormented with horrors by a warrior Christ and finally extinguished. This obsession with apocalyptic violence is an obsession with revenge. It is what the world, and we who still believe it is worth saving, deserve.

Those who lead the movement give their followers a moral license to direct this rage and yearning for violence against all those who refuse to submit to the movement, from liberals, to "secular humanists," to "nominal Christians," to intellectuals, to gays and lesbians, to Muslims. These radicals, from James Dobson to Pat Robertson, call for a theocratic state that will, if it comes to pass, bear within it many of the traits of classical fascism.

That movement, D'Souza persists, is secular, as well, but one wonders when his attacks on the culture find so much common cause with religious fundamentalists of both foreign and domestic stripes. As Katha Pollitt relates in a review in The Nation, "The Enemy at Home is not just slimy and nasty and silly, it's deeply confused. After all, who is urging Americans to combine with foreign powers against their fellow citizens? Not Bill Moyers. Who is saying we must adopt the mores of an alien culture or be destroyed? It's Dinesh D'Souza--surrender monkey."

Ultimately, D'Souza only proves that the right's comfortable associations with corporate media mask the intellectual poverty within the covers of his books. The media have helped him promote undiluted drivel by ascribing to him the appellation, "intellectual." That his grammar is generally correct and properly Dartmouth Republican in tone is no indication of intellectual rigor--indeed, it is designed to obscure the paucity of original thought in his writings and the sometimes downright absurdity of the conclusions he draws when depending only upon his fundamentalist conceits. When Stephen Colbert pried open D'Souza recently, he found the root of D'Souza's, and, indeed, all neo-conservatives' complaints:

COLBERT: But is all the responsibility Carter and Clinton’s? Doesn’t some of it lie at FDR’s doorstep? Doesn’t things like Social Security and Medicare and LBJ’s Great Society, doesn’t some of that send the wrong message to our enemies, that America cares about domestic issues and not just about foreign policy?

D’SOUZA: Indirectly, yes, here’s why.

COLBERT: I can’t wait. Can I guess? We never got to see him standing up, and, therefore, America doesn’t stand up for its principles?

D’SOUZA: No, FDR gave away Eastern Europe through Yalta, and then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Muslims had to fight back and that’s where bin Laden got his start.
[emphasis added]

Ah, if only we could return to the days of the Gilded Age and the White Fleet, all would be well with the world.

Intellectual? Only if that term now also encompasses those who embrace an absence of ideas and the abject failure to employ ideas as useful tools. Like many on the right today whose prominence has depended upon a reductive and simplistic idée fixe inherited from their previous generation, D'Souza is a caricature of an intellectual, a cartoon character. Maybe, a character from the Simpsons.

(image by HamJava)


Post a Comment

<< Home