Saturday, October 07, 2006

Iraq mess redux



Just when I start to lose faith in my culture, a friend sends me the above clip. Watching it, I sense how Americans felt in 1942 when they compared Glenn Miller with the Horst Wessell song: Our values are so simply and directly on the side of optimism and humanity, that only a self-indulgent commitment to twisted cosmologies or historical narratives of revenge and righteousness could immunize a person from their appeal.

The biggest bane of humanity, as the Buddha tell us, is the desire for complexity when simplicity will suffice. It doesn't take much to make people happy. Mutual respect might be the simplest social code ever invented, and the Maslowian hierarchy is the foundation of personal happiness. Even so, it is nearly miraculous when large groups of humans cooperate on a level that allows most of them to be clothed, fed, and sheltered. Why can't we all just get along?

The quick answer is that civil society is a wonderful and rare thing, a sturdy oak that was once a tender sprout. Civil society is built on a historical consensus under which people internalize the socially defined rules for allocating status and control of resources. When a few people refuse to play by the rules, it is called "crime"; when many people refuse to internalize the rules, it is called "social breakdown"; when those people organize themselves into factions, it is called "civil war".

At the beginning of the Iraq experiment, Wolfowitz promised a massive laboratory test of Platonism. Wolfowitz assured us that the good was desireable, and that our society was good, so once obstacles were removed, Iraqis would naturally desire to emulate our social structure. Even if we ignore the conflation of contemporary American porno-capitalism with the ideal forms, it is hard to forget that Plato thought it utterly implausible that the average man on the street would be even be able to recognize the Platonic Good.

Thus far, the Iraq experiment has suggested that Plato's pessimism was thoroughly justified. The considered Islamist response to our efforts to convert them to our values has been that they are not just simple organisms willing to dance around to catchy tunes, and an economic system built around amplifying and exploiting organic pleasures and desires is an insult to their spiritual natures. In fact, their cosmology tells them that catchy tunes and organic pleasures are the snares by which Satan traps the souls of the unwary. When Islamists call us the "the Great Satan", it is not an overblown figurative rhetorical device. They call us "the Great Satan" because they believe that we are, in fact, "the Great Satan".

One of the lessons that the Romans learned in their attempted forcible assimilation of the Christians was that one cannot compel cosmologically deluded people to accept basic notions of civility if those cosmologically deluded people feel that their immortal souls are imperilled by civil society. More born Islamists are attracted to Western values than Westerners are attracted to Islamist values, and that is a general, human "proof" that our civilization is "better". But even an enthusiastic majority is not enough to establish functioning civil society: once can win an election with a slight majority, but the election is only meaningful if nearly all the participants agree to be bound by the result and the remainder are sufficiently socially isolated to be considered "criminals". Civil society is an organism, and an organism usually dies if a threshhold percentage of its cells are cancerous.

I opened this piece on optimistic note, and it would be so nice to close this piece with a clear proposal to solve the Iraq mess. Why isn't there an internet meme that offers a five point plan to ensure peace and stability in Iraq without compromising American values? Could we talk Ray into it? Now that's somthing I'd forward to everyone on my email list.

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