A Clash of Nihilisms

Two phenomena dominating U.S. politics are intertwined in a manner that few seem willing to appreciate.

The first is the reality of extremist Islamism, and its culture of jihad waged through means that include suicide bombing as an acceptable, even routine, tactic. The second is the moral collapse of the Left in the Western world. The wellspring, in both cases, is the same — radical nihilism, and the socially appropriate methods of finding existential meaning in a nihilist culture.

In the West, nihilism is essentially philosophical and has its roots in the logic of the Enlightenment. In reaction to the political role played by organized religion in Europe in the later Middle Ages (itself the result of social collapse whose defining moment can be sourced to the sack of Rome in 476), the trend among European elites was to move increasing far from the Church. Thus, scientism became supreme, and with it, a toleration for difference that culminated in today’s diversity movement.

The assumption underlying classical liberalism is that only through objectivity of fact and relativism of belief could a free society advance. The only truths to which the Left can admit, then, are those it holds (as a matter of faith, ironically) to be absolutely scientific; religion must be limited exclusively to the private sphere, if it is even to be permitted at all, and any other system of belief must not make claim to objective truth.

Of course, this is a problematic position. To claim that scientism is the only approach to truth is to ignore the intellectual problems wrought in areas where scientific rationality simply cannot hold court. And, there is a logical contradiction at the core of relativism — to wit, that all things are relative except for the one absolute that all things are relative.

This leaves today’s Left with … not much in its toolbox. Its scientism, being largely triumphant, is no longer capable of rallying the troops (despite the occasional jeremiad against “the theocons” in Washington). Its relativism, barring it from rendering definitive value judgments, leaves it incapable of responding forcefully to strategic shifts among civilizations that may imperil the very viability of Western civilization. With no core belief system that it can hold to be true (apart from scientism and relativism themselves), the Left cannot articulate a coherent defense of the West or even of liberalism. Hence the inanity of debate in Europe about Islamic immigration. Thus denuded of both sword and shield, all that remains for the Left is mere spit and bile.

This phenomenon is tellingly demonstrated in the behaviors of far-Left politicians in the United States and their cohorts abroad. They are capable, for example, of denouncing President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in the strongest of terms, but those terms are almost always ad hominems. Bush is stupid; Bush is evil; Bush is a monkey; Bush is a war criminal. Each claim is patently false, but for the Left, just making the claim is considered a heroic act of sophisticated truth-telling. Without core beliefs and an openness to non-scientific truths, the Left’s politics is little more than stone-throwing.

Of course, not all denizens of the Left are irrational hate-mongers, but even so, the response across the spectrum of Left-wing civility has been to rely increasingly on asserted value claims and not on reasoned arguments, and whether your source is the Daily Kos or the New York Times editorial board, too much of the Left’s political commentary is torn by its desire to assert value-laden truth-claims about non-objective subjects while attempting (usually inadequately) to preserve its scientific, relativistic orthodoxy. I am reminded of the trope used by a priest at my church, long ago, who punctuated an especially animated homily with the statement: “God cannot sin against Himself.” Neither can the Left betray its own basic assumptions without a fair amount of long-term psychological damage.

In the Islamic world, by contrast, the nihilism is more recent and is locused in demography. Because Islamic philosophy embraced a fundamentally Platonic worldview, it was more comfortable with authoritative pronouncements about the world than the Aristotelean West ever was. In an intellectual milieu wherein Koranic philosophy contains the definitive delineation of metaphysics, there is less need for experimentation or even a spirit of inquisitiveness. Thus, the Islamic world fell behind as the West’s technological lead widened — and with that gap came socioeconomic disability that is fundamentally incompatible with Islamic self-perception. Nihilism is a rational response to dealing with the divergence between the ontological claims of one’s faith tradition and the oh-so-obvious reality in which that tradition is lived. In other words: If the logical validity of a person’s scripture is undermined by the discrepancy between the world and what the scripture says about the world, then either a person must abandon (or at least, re-interpret) the scripture, or abandon the world. Radical Islamists have chosen the latter path.

The demographic problem of the Middle East, then, is fueling the radical Islamist assault. If the Koran says that God blesses Muslims with happiness and prosperity in this world, but you live in backward squalor, then the Koran must be false. But for idealistic youths who have no other socially acceptable outlet for their natural, biological aggression, there is a second option — to assume that Muslim civilization is under assault by the Other (Christians, for example) and that therefore it is the will of God that the oppressors of Islam be brought to earthly justice. Hence the attractiveness of suicide bombing. And given the number of young males, and the high birthrates in the Arab world, the nihilism of the contemporary Islamic intellectual position is explosively aligned with a burgeoning youth culture that grasps for meaning, recognition and tribal solidarity … and finds it in radicalized religion.

The twin gorillas of contemporary American politics are the moral vacuousness of the Left in response to a civilizational assault, and the proper response to militant Islamism per se.

The Democratic Party, the standard-bearer for the American Left, simply denies that radical Islamism actually constitutes a coherent threat. Against all the objective evidence presented over the last few decades (not to mention the assertions of radical imams across the globe), the Left rationalizes its inability to respond to the the threat by denying that the threat actually exists.

The Republican Party, for its part, has responded to the threat of Islamist demography but not to the ethos that feeds it. Invading Afghanistan or Iraq (or Saudi Arabia, or Iran) won’t solve the problem. True, it will mitigate it; Bush may be right that the best we can do is take the fight to the enemy on the enemy’s own soil. But the definitive resolution to radical Islamism can originate only from within Islam; Muslims need to reform from within. Until that happens, the best the West can do is simply to police the borders.

The confict in the West between the desire to respond militarily to provocation, and the desire to ignore the basic problem by treating terrorism as a legal problem, has created a less-than-robust reaction to militant Islamofascism. This weakness, in turn, is incorrectly perceived by radicals as a sign of (a) the emasculation of the West and (b) the favor of God. Both justify the tactics and beliefs of radical Islamism.  The circle becomes vicious, and the body bags pile up.
We are left, then, with a clash of nihilisms. The politically potent and aggressive manifestation of Islamic demographic nihilism is clashing with the morally vacuous and passive manifestation of Western philosophical nihilism. Whether a shift in demography or in political reality will affect the interplay of these nihilisms remains to be seen, but the outlook if things continue as they are is not encouraging — for Islam, or for the West. Perhaps the West will rediscover its faith in its own beliefs and institutions. Perhaps moderate Muslim leaders will stem the worst of radical behavior. Or perhaps the struggle will continue for generations.

Or perhaps one side will learn the wisdom of repudiating its own nihilism, thus freeing it to respond more effectively to the other. Some of us still dare to hope.

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