This is a much belated response to Peter Saint-Andre and Michael Young on Republican Islamophobia, from my post of January 5. Given its length, I’ve decided to make a new post of my response rather than try to insert it into the combox.
Looking over the whole exchange, I can’t help thinking that the point I made in my original post has gotten lost in a thicket of meta-issues orthogonal to what I said in the original post. I don’t dispute that the issues that Peter and Michael have brought up are worth discussing, but I still think that they bypass what I actually said.
My original post boils down to the following claims:
- There is such a thing as Islamophobia. It may be an unfortunate term, but it’s a legitimate concept.
- Islamophobia is morally wrong—an injustice. It’s the analogue, in the Muslim case, of anti-Semitism in the Jewish case, or anti-Catholic bigotry in the Catholic case.
- The Republican Party (and the part of the political right that supports it) has now internalized Islamophobia and made it part of their essential platform and strategy.
- Claims (1)-(3) imply that injustice is an essential part of the platform and strategy of the contemporary Republican Party.
- A critique of Trump, like Wehner’s, that bypasses the preceding issues is fundamentally defective.
As far as I can see, neither Peter nor Michael has challenged any of those five claims.
In defense of (1) and (3), I originally linked to this article in Vox. For more detail, I’d suggest “Fear 2.0: The Islamophobia Network’s Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America,” by the Center for American Progress, and Christopher Bail’s Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream. I think those three sources do a good job of giving content to the abstraction “Islamophobia,” and by implication of indicating what’s wrong with it.
As for claim (2), I had intended to write a long post pursuing an analogy between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, but I now think that the point is too obvious to belabor at length. Setting aside some genuine conceptual complexities, we all have a basic understanding of the nature of anti-Semitism, and almost no one disputes at this point that it’s wrong. If so, it shouldn’t be difficult to extend the same logic and verdict to Muslims. If we can recognize anti-Jewish bigotry without endorsing the claims of Judaism, we can recognize anti-Muslim bigotry without endorsing the claims of Islam.
I also think that the following is relatively obvious: if we confronted anti-Semitism that was as widespread as the Islamophobia that now permeates our society, no rational person would regard the side-issues we’ve been discussing here as the main issue in need of discussion. No one would see the need to invoke a Civilizational Derby between Judaic Civilization and Western Civilization, concluding that the Jews lost it, and inferring that anti-Semitism is therefore excusable, justifiable, or unimportant. No one would think it appropriate to minimize the importance of anti-Semitism by asking about the (very real) causal relations that obtain among Jewish theology, Zionism, and terrorism—and then implying that since political Judaism has inspired terrorism, we’re prima facie justified in treating Jews as such as potential terrorists (granting the exceptions among them). And no one would think that if one of our political parties started exploiting anti-Semitism, the thing to do would be to focus on the most repressive features of, say, the Hasidic Jewish community, highlighting the Orthodox rituals that created a public health risk, suggesting that the time had come to put Hasidic Jews (at least) on a Dangerous Jew Registry, criminalizing adherence to Jewish law while we were at it, and making sure that no more Hasidic Jews emigrated here from Israel (or maybe, to adopt an Israeli practice, paying them to go back). When it comes to Islam, however, this is without the slightest exaggeration, the state of discourse in right-wing circles: what is hypothetical in the Jewish case is actual in the Muslim one.
Given claims (1)-(3), I think claims (4) and (5) are relatively obvious.
Contrary to what Michael says, I don’t see how (1)-(5) commits me to a “functional relativism,” or anything like it. Every claim in (1)-(5) is a straightforward instance of moral realism. The basic (realist) presupposition I make throughout is that bigotry is wrong and that religious people can be the objects of bigotry even if the religions they espouse are epistemically unwarranted, and lead in practice to injustice. The same thing can be said of political ideologies, after all. Marxian communism may be epistemically unwarranted and morally unjust, but (contra Ayn Rand) it doesn’t follow that McCarthyism is OK. (Frankly, at this point, I’m apt to say that the same point applies, mutatis mutandis, to libertarianism or Objectivism.) Nothing about my endorsement of (1)-(5) requires me to backpedal criticisms of Islam as a religion. And I haven’t in fact backpedaled criticisms of Islam as a religion; I’ve spent a fair bit of time making them.
As for the criticisms of my view that have been made, I don’t see their relevance to the claims of the original post.
(a) Suppose that we pit Western against Islamic Civilization, and that Western Civilization wins the Civilization Derby. It wouldn’t follow that any of (1)-(5) was false.
(b) Suppose that Islamic theology turned out to be essential to the explanation of Islamic terrorism. It still wouldn’t follow that any of (1)-(5) was false.
(c) Suppose that immigration creates massive dislocation (i.e., a net social loss), and that Muslim immigration would, too. That still wouldn’t provide an excuse for Islamophobia.
It doesn’t help that none of the factual claims stated in (a)-(c) is true or even clear enough to be true. I’ve partly dealt with (c) in a separate comment at the original post, where I discuss Douthat and Putnam, but for now I’ll focus on (a) and (b).
I regard myself as not obliged to discuss (c) in a fuller way because I think it’s a red herring. For one thing, there is simply no way that 10,000 or even 100,000 refugees can create massive dislocation in a country the size of the United States. We settled 400,000 Vietnamese boat people without massive dislocation, and more than 100,000 Cubans after the Mariel boatlift, also without massive dislocation. It defies common sense to think that an influx of even 100,000 Syrian refugees over the course of years would or could cause massive dislocation in this country.
I’m the last person to deny that an influx of Syrian refugees could lead to some dislocation, or that it could it lead to an increase in crime or terrorist attacks. But it flouts the facts to think that this is what Republican Islamophobia is about. The Republicans are not engaged in a subtle, rational, contentious conversation about how to balance the various concerns that arise when it comes to immigration or refugees. They’re engaged in a twenty-first century version of the sort of hysteria that put Japanese-Americans in detention centers, and that gave rise to McCarthyism. My own view is that they’re forced to this expedient because they have nothing left to offer. But whatever the explanation, I dig in my heels at the reality of the explanandum: the Republican Party has gradually become the party of all-out bigotry.
Regarding (a): The Civilizational Derby
The idea of a civilizational contest between Islam and the West is, as far as I’m concerned, incoherent. “Western Civilization” is a confused concept, and “Islam” is a religion, not a civilization. Liberalism is (I’ll admit) a relatively clear concept, but it’s not extensionally equivalent to “Western Civilization” (by a long shot), and is not the clearest foil to Islam.
If the question is whether liberalism is superior to Islam, I guess I’d say that it is. But I’d also point out that if the liberalism/Islam contrast makes any sense, liberalism is superior to Judaism and Christianity, too.
That said, it seems to me that the comparison of liberalism to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is problematic and puzzling: liberalism is a political theory, and Islam is a religion; to compare them is like asking, “Which is superior, free speech or fasting?” The latter question doesn’t really make sense because the political theory/religion comparison itself makes no sense.
The relevant comparison is one that compares like with like, e.g., liberalism with the political expressions of Islam. On that point, again, I think political liberalism is superior to political Islam, but then, it’s also superior to political Judaism and political Christianity. I don’t see any reason to think that political Islam is worse than Zionism, or that Muslims in power are obviously worse than Orthodox Christian Serbs or Lebanese Maronites in power–to say nothing of Muslim caliphs as against Jewish kings, or Ummayad rulers as against Byzantine ones, or Jewish conquests or Christian crusades as against Muslim jihads. I’m happy to have this argument in greater detail, but I’d still insist that it has nothing to do with the claims of my original post.
In any case, I would insist that a genuine commitment to liberalism requires a principled rejection of anti-Semitism, anti-Christian bigotry, and Islamophobia. It also rules out voting for an anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, or Islamophobic political party. In that sense, the Republican Party is an illiberal party, at least as judged by its current candidates for the presidency. I’m baffled about why Michael thinks that voting for the Republicans is consistent with voting for a form of cosmopolitanism. Whatever the Republicans stand for, cosmopolitanism isn’t it.
One might insist, with Peter, that liberalism arose from Western Civilization, so that Western Civilization should get the credit for liberalism even if Western Civilization has been illiberal. I don’t agree. For one thing, I don’t think that there is any entity called “Western Civilization” that can get ‘credit’ for anything. But if someone wanted to insist that “Western Civilization” must get credit for liberalism, I would just point out that no matter how you construe it, “Western Civilization” has to include Western Christendom, and liberalism arose from the liberals’ confrontation with Western Christendom. In other words, liberalism arose from obstacles internal to Western Civilization. I don’t think it makes sense for an obstacle to liberalism to get the credit for liberalism. That’s like giving Filmer’s defense of the divine right of kings credit for Locke’s rejection of the divine right of kings. The real credit for liberalism has to go to liberals.
It’s true that liberalism was a Western European phenomenon. If someone wants to say that this proves the superiority of the political system of the nations of Western Europe to everyone else, I’d be inclined to agree (I’ve never denied it), but with a proviso. The proviso is that whatever the merits of the nations of Western Europe, one reason for their success lies with the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by their citizens—freedom and prosperity purchased via slavery and imperialism. In other words, liberalism arose by reliance on illiberalism. There is simply no intelligible way of telling the story of the rise of Western Europe by bracketing slavery and imperialism.
Locke is a paradigmatic example of this. Locke was arguably the first liberal. He was also, not coincidentally, one of the earliest defenders of both slavery and imperialism in the New World. It was, incidentally, leftist scholarship that drew attention to liberalism’s de facto dependency on illiberal politics. Right-leaning scholarship has yet to catch up.
Europe’s reliance on slavery and imperialism not only has to temper our admiration for “Western Europe” considered as a single unit of historical analysis, but has to temper our criticisms of the world that the Europeans conquered and enslaved. The world has no doubt profited from Europe’s benefactions, but it’s also still scarred by its depredations. Virtually all of the “Islamic world” is a post-colonial, post-imperial world. If we ourselves haven’t outlived our own experiences with slavery and Jim Crow, we can’t expect that world to have emerged unscathed by hundreds of years of imperialism and slavery.
Regarding (b): Islam and terrorism
Islamic theology plays a role in the explanation of Islamic terrorism, to be sure, and in the explanation of a lot of other social ills endemic to the Islamic world (e.g., the treatment of women). But right-wing discourse on this topic strikes me as grotesquely uninformed, irrational, and exaggerated. It fails to take stock of non-theological factors that explain terrorism, and it fails to take stock of the fact that pious devotion to Islam is neither necessary nor sufficient for Islamic terrorism.
The most obvious factor it fails to deal with is imperialism. As I just said, the Islamic world” is also almost in its entirety the post-colonial world. Its suffering from dysfunction can’t be explained by Islam-as-abstracted-from-post-colonial considerations, or post-colonial-considerations-as-abstracted-from-religious ones. An adequate explanation has to integrate both sets of factors. But that’s not what you get from conservative discourse which, for ideological reasons favors the first sort of explanation, and has a vested interest in accusing its critics of favoring the second.
Now let me deal with the specifics of Michael’s claims:
Though I’ll readily admit that what offends me most politically is a matter or personal history and hence bias (and that this colors my guesses on the empirical questions of what causes which harms and benefits), I remain unmoved by the idea that (too many) conservatives are either egregiously culpably bad people – racists or xenophobes perhaps – or especially likely to cause social harms.
My recommendation: read the reports I cited in the links above. I think the empirical evidence they provide is unimpeachable, and I’d be puzzled by anyone who claims to be unmoved by the evidence they provide. If someone was still unmoved, I guess I would just ask them what if anything would count for them as evidence of the Republican Party’s being soft on bigotry. In fact, if anything, the CAP report understates the problem. It was written a full year ago, in February 2015. At the time, its authors found it hard to imagine that the attitudes they described would play a major role in the presidential race. But they were wrong about that: they have. So anyone unmoved by what I’ve said has to ask themselves how it is that every Republican candidate besides Kasich is guilty of Islamophobia, and that the one candidate who is least guilty of it, Kasich, has until very recently been at the bottom of the pack.
And by “guilty of Islamophobia,” I don’t just mean that they’ve made an unsavory comment here or there. As the CAP Report makes clear, the Republican candidates are part of an Islamophobic movement that has been building since 9/11, and that reached a tipping point around 2010 (in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and partly as a result of it). I happen to know this movement from the inside—in its earlier and somewhat more benign stages, I was part of it—and have actually dealt with the lunatics described in the report.
But you don’t need to have been an insider to get this: the report makes their nature crystal clear. And if you think that these people are fringe characters, I would just suggest putting the name “David Yerushalmi” into Google, spending fifteen minutes reading what you find, and then trying to suggest that he’s a fringe figure. (Or try “Sheldon Adelson,” the fringe figure who convinced Chris Christie to apologize for saying that the West Bank is “occupied territory.”) Table A1 of the report indicates that the movement in question commands funding of $56.9 million. That’s about half the lobbying budget of the US Chamber of Commerce, and the same size as that of the National Association of Realtors—the top two lobbying groups in the country in 2014.
To be literally unmoved by my argument you either have to reject (1) and (2), or you have to believe that the Republicans’ commitment to Islamophobia is epiphenomenal with respect to their popularity. But once you read the material I’ve cited, that becomes hard—impossible—to believe. You literally would have to believe that a $56.9 million lobbying effort came into existence by the political equivalent of immaculate conception.
Quoting Michael again:
Irfan, I worry that you are simply so offended by the anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and racism (culpable irrationality and immorality) of the Right that you cannot support conservatives or Republicans. Or perhaps you take there to be a very direct connection between bad character and bad results? If politics is mostly a practical task (not, say, the task of forming and maintaining a moral community), then I think we need to focus on likely results. For example, however much Trump justifiably offends me (at many levels), if he is a practical deal-maker, this is potentially quite an asset in being an effective politician and statesman. Though I don’t like irrational, morally corrupt cultures or social institutions, and though I believe that over time they do cause significant harm, what matters for me in political advocacy is the relatively-short-term horizon of likely effects. And we should all admit that we are pretty ignorant and biased on this extremely-complicated, empirical issue.
I find these claims really puzzling.
First, I should probably make clear that I don’t agree with the political right in the first place. Even if they didn’t have an Islamophobia problem, I simply don’t agree with what they’re saying, and would vote against them anyway. I also don’t think that the Republicans are in any sense more competent to govern the country than the Democrats. The economy has typically done better under Democrats. The Democrats are less militaristic than the Republicans. The Democrats are more sensitive to issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other bigotries than the Republicans. They’re less religious and less theocratic. And it’s a plus that they aren’t blinded by rigid libertarian/gun lobby/budget-hawk dogmas: just think of Flint’s water crisis, or the Republican attitude toward gun control or climate change. The Republicans’ wild-eyed commitment to the drug war suggests that they can’t even manage to get their own dogmas straight. And then there’s abortion. That the Democrats tend to be more intelligent than the Republicans, and show it, is just an added bonus on top of all of the straightforward policy issues where the Democrats are in my view superior to the Republicans.
Second, politics is a practical task, but “practice” isn’t reducible to policy wonkery. Politicians aren’t just policy analysts. They’re leaders. A policy wonk without leadership skills can’t successfully lead people through a crisis–or lead them at all. A leader needs moral discernment, moral credibility, empathy, imagination, integrity, and a reservoir of genuine (not faked) personal strength. So I think that politics is a matter of maintaining a moral community—just not by paternalistic means. In my view, Obama has done a better job of that than any president in recent memory.
Third, I’m baffled why anyone would think that Trump would succeed either at leadership or at “practical deal making.” He has zero experience in elected office, and he’s the most opportunistic of all of the presidential candidates, with Cruz coming in a close second. How could anyone use zero political experience and maximal political opportunism as a basis for predicting the “likely results” of his candidacy on any time horizon?
I also don’t understand why the short-term trumps the long-term. I’m 46 and expect to live until my mid 70s. Why shouldn’t my time horizon extend at least three decades? I don’t think it makes sense to admit that moral corruption causes long-term harm, and then to dismiss the harms it does by adopting a time-horizon that renders the harms invisible. How is that any different from a policy of sticking one’s head in the sand?
As I’ve said in my criticisms of Jason Brennan on character-based voting, I don’t think there is a “direct” connection between character and policy. I simply think that issues of moral character are relevant to voting (and politics generally), and that Brennan has done absolutely nothing to show otherwise. (It’s not even clear what he’s trying to say on the topic.)
In general, we shouldn’t reward immorality, especially egregious immorality; since elected office is a reward, there has to be some threshold at which it’s wrong to vote for an immoral candidate, even if we lack evidence that his immorality will affect his policy-making. It’s also politically wise to refrain from voting for people who are egregiously immoral in ways that are (or could be) relevant to their political performance (whether narrowly policy-centered or more broadly leadership-oriented)—and I think both Trump and Cruz fit this description. For instance, since politics requires some degree of truthfulness and a commitment to accuracy, you don’t want to elect a habitual liar. Since politics requires some degree of fidelity to one’s promises, you don’t want to elect someone who will break promises at will. Since American politics requires attention to racial issues, you don’t want someone tone-deaf to them. Since women are roughly 50% of the population, you don’t want an egregious sexist. And as Michael himself admits, since warfare is costly, you don’t want to elect someone who’s visibly cavalier about the resort to military force.
Put it this way: in the New York gubernatorial election of 2010, the Republican Carl Paladino faced Andrew Cuomo. Paladino promised to use eminent domain to stop the construction of the Park 51 Islamic Center (“the Ground Zero Mosque”); Cuomo opposed that. Is that a matter of “policy” or of “character”? It’s a matter of both. Does it prove that character always has a direct impact on policy? No, it proves that when someone is willing to advertise his willingness to engage in an egregious, obvious rights violation, and his opponent opposes that, it’s a serious mistake to vote for the rights violator. If I’d been a New York voter, I’d have voted for Cuomo.
One last example, for anyone who thinks that questions of character and of policy can be neatly disentangled, so that character becomes irrelevant to policy. How do we perform that act of disentanglement on the following Trump-generated mess from this week’s news from New Hampshire?
“Tomorrow is going to be the beginning,” Mr. Trump told the crowd. “I hear we have a lead. It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to me. Who the hell knows what the lead is?”
Yet in a new milestone for a campaign not known for its decorum, Mr. Trump echoed a woman in the crowd who referred to Ted Cruz by a vulgar term after a discussion of the Texas senator’s stance on waterboarding. (Mr. Cruz does not oppose it, but has been more restrained than Mr. Trump.)
After reprimanding her in jest, he repeated what she said: “She said, ‘He’s a pussy,’ ” Mr. Trump said with a smile. “That’s terrible, terrible.” He then turned away from his microphone as his fans chanted his name.
There you have it, in one fucked-up vignette: the sexism, the moral cowardice, the mob mentality, the Islamophobia, the contempt for law and rights, the reflexive desire to demonstrate one’s “strength” by torturing people–and the futile attempt to conceal one’s total ignorance of real political issues, and one’s total inability to discuss them in a rational way.
I couldn’t have made this example up if I tried. But I didn’t have to. The Republicans obliged me, as nowadays, they tend to do. A party that stoops this low doesn’t deserve to be voted for. It deserves to be crapped on. To turn William Buckley’s quip on its head: I’d rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Metacrawler White Pages for New Jersey than by the administration of whatever candidate wins the Republican Party. I don’t say that because I have much affection for my fellow New Jerseyans. I say it because you have to reach a certain depth of disillusionment to prefer New Jerseyans to anyone.
Postscript, February 17, 2016: Though it’s not on Republican Islamophobia per se, given that I’m taking a bit of a hiatus from blogging, I couldn’t resist one last criticism of Trump.
I belatedly happened to discover Trump’s views on the Bowe Bergdahl case. Anyone inclined to think that I’ve been exaggerating or overdoing my criticisms of Trump should watch that video. What it explicitly calls for is the extrajudicial murder of a person in government custody, not considered a flight risk, awaiting trial, and therefore presumed innocent unless proven guilty. (Nor is “presumed guilty” a mere pro forma presumption in this case; there is some real likelihood that Bergdahl is, and will be found, innocent of the most serious charges brought against him.)
I have trouble believing that any presidential candidate in the last 100 years has said anything as depraved as Trump’s casual call for Bergdahl’s murder. Disgraceful as he was, not even George Wallace at his worst called for the outright murder of his fellow citizens. Trump’s statement goes beyond Wallace’s advocacy of Jim Crow to the rhetoric of the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan at their worst. Even if we could somehow be convinced that Trump would never actually do what he claims ought to be done, a statement of this nature disqualifies a candidate from consideration for any elective office, and frankly, from respectable standing in public life.
Do ironies get any more grotesque than the fact that Bergdahl is an Objectivist of sorts?
Lt. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, the lead investigator, said at a preliminary hearing in September that Sergeant Bergdahl had delusional expectations for his deployment. The general also said there was no evidence that Sergeant Bergdahl, who identified with John Galt, the hero in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged,” intended to desert or that any soldiers had been killed while searching for him.
But set that aside. Who ever thought that the answer to the question “Who is John Galt?” would turn out to be Bowe Bergdahl?