From Martin Anderson to Charlie Hebdo and back

I woke up yesterday morning, looked at the obituaries, and resolved that before the day was done, I had to say something about the passing of Martin Anderson, described in The New York Times’s obit merely as “a conservative economist who helped shape American economic policy in the 1980s as a top adviser to President Ronald Reagan.” According to the Times, Anderson “died on Saturday at his home in Portola Valley, Calif. He was 78.”

By day’s end, however, Martin Anderson’s peaceful death at 78 had come to seem like an irrelevancy, hijacked and displaced by the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris–a sick and sad replay of recent events in Peshawar and Ottawa, among other places. This video is eloquent testimony to the dignity of Paris–of France–in the wake of the attacks. (Nicholas Kristof properly points out–in an otherwise soporific column in this morning’s Times–that more people were killed in a suicide bombing in Yemen on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks as were killed in Paris. It’s an interesting question why “we” are more focused on Paris than on Yemen, but “we” are.)

It always feels a bit corny to insert a flag into a blog post, but after the anti-French stupidities expressed over the last decade in the U.S., I think we kind of owe it to them.

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The truth is, I never particularly liked the Muhammad cartoons for which Charlie Hebdo became famous, and for which its staff has now been targeted. I found them tasteless, pointless, unsubtle, and unfunny. But in the wake of the attacks, the slogan du jourJe Suis Charlie–happens to be true. We have the right to be discursively tasteless, pointless, unsubtle, and unfunny. No one has the right to kill us, or even to lay a finger on us, for it. And we each have to fight, or at least struggle, for that right. Those of us who don’t fight the enemy directly, with weapons, at least have a responsibility to declare our opposition to that enemy, and in so doing to stand in solidarity with its victims–thereby making ourselves a target for its attacks.

In other words, we have to do from afar what the people of Paris have been doing in the streets of their city. We have to stand up–and stand out. That’s what flags are for. Ironically, the word jihad captures exactly the right nuances here, denoting a form of struggle that combines elements of violent fighting and non-violent struggle. What we need against the jihad of the fanatics is a counter-jihad of our own, one open both to Muslims and to non-Muslims–to anyone who stands to become a victim.

From the looks of it, the attackers in the Charlie Hebdo case appear to be “homegrown” French Muslims, members of France’s alienated underclass. In a strange way, then, the obituary for Charlie Hebdo bears an indirect connection to the one for Martin Anderson. The connection is supplied by the fact that both concern the causes of violence in an alienated underclass (where “causes” includes the agency of the attackers themselves).

Unfortunately, The Times’s obituary focuses on Anderson’s years in the Reagan Administration, making only cursory reference to his first book and masterpiece, The Federal Bulldozer (1964/1966).

An expert on welfare and relations between state and federal governments, Mr. Anderson published his first book, “The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949-1962,” in 1964. Years later he became a crucial architect of Reagan’s New Federalism — the handing over control of government programs to the states.

The passage conceals more than it reveals about the book. The first sentence seems to suggest that The Federal Bulldozer is fundamentally about welfare policy or state-federal relations. It isn’t. The second sentence suggests that The Federal Bulldozer provides the blueprint for Reagan’s New Federalism. It doesn’t. The author of the obituary seems randomly to have sandwiched an allusion to the book between random facts about Anderson that she felt obliged to cram into the obituary, whether or not doing so made for accurate or coherent reading.

In my view, The Federal Bulldozer deserves canonical status up there with Michael Harrington’s The Other America, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice, and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. All five are must-read texts, especially for Americans: original, path-breaking, and interdisciplinary discussions of social issues that permanently affected the way we think about those issues.

The Federal Bulldozer is an unsparing critique of “urban renewal.” Whether you agree with Anderson’s conclusions or not, you can’t ignore the facts he puts on the table: he lays bare in exacting detail what happens when a government decides to “renew” a city by brute force, displacing its inhabitants and violating their rights in the name of “progress.” You don’t have to be a fan of the Reagan presidency to appreciate its claims; in fact, it helps not to be one. You just have to think that there are limits to what the state can do to “improve” the lives of its citizens, especially when “improve” is such a contentious idea, and the intended improvements “improve” some people’s prospects at the expense of others’. There’s a book waiting to be written about why it is that intelligent libertarians like Anderson have so often felt the need to make common cause with conservative Republicans like Nixon and Reagan, on the assumption that the Nixons and Reagans of the world are the closest approximations of liberty and justice to be found in American life. But until that book is written, feel free to ignore the Republican politics of Anderson’s later years to read what he had to say about urban renewal in The Federal Bulldozer.

Here’s a passage from Introduction to the Paperback Edition of the book:

The question that we should have asked in 1949, when the federal urban renewal program started, is long overdue now: Is it right to deliberately hurt people, to push around those who are least able to defend themselves, to spend billions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money, so that some people might be able to enjoy a prettier city?

That answer is your own, and for those whose morals permit them to answer yes, there is another question: Has any city been ‘renewed’?

Here the answer is no. The federal urban renewal program has been, and continues to be, a thundering failure–with one important exception: it has exhibited an amazing talent for continued growth. (pp. vii-viii)

Here’s an excerpt from the book’s penultimate paragraph:

The personal costs of the program are difficult to evaluate. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forcibly evicted from their homes in the past and it will not be long before the number passes the million mark. The indications are that these people have not been helped in any significant way. Their incomes remain the same, they are still discriminated against, and their social characteristics remain essentially unchanged. …On balance, the federal urban renewal program has accomplished little in the past and it appears doubtful if it will accomplish much in the future. This raises a serious question: On what grounds does the federal government justify continuing and expanding the present program?

It is recommended that the federal urban renewal program be repealed now. (p. 230)

Three years after Anderson wrote that, race riots broke out across the country. According to the Kerner Commission’s report, urban renewal played a major role in producing those riots (though, for the record, the Kerner Commission ultimately came out in favor of an “expanded and reoriented” form of urban renewal):

Urban renewal projects, which were intended to clear slums and replace them with low-cost housing, in fact resulted in a reduction of 2,000 housing units [in northern New Jersey]. On one area, designated for urban renewal six years before, no work had been done, and it remained as blighted in 1967 as it had been in 1961. Ramshackle houses deteriorated, no repairs were made, yet people continued to inhabit them. “Planners make plans and then simply tell people what they are going to do,” Negroes [sic] complained in their growing opposition to such projects. (p. 70)

I don’t mean to imply that the depredations of urban renewal justify or even excuse rioting (whether in Newark in 1967 or Ferguson in 2014), much less that similar conditions in France excuse or justify the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. (For a good discussion of rioting, applicable both to 1967 and to 2014, see Jonathan Bean’s classic article, “Burn, Baby, Burn,” in The Independent Review.)  I just mean to draw attention to a correlation: where you have the conditions that create a permanent or semi-permanent underclass, you can expect spectacular violence, even if the violence has its proximate causes in a lunatic ideology and/or the idiosyncratic psychoses of individual criminals and psychopaths. (And even if some of the attackers are rich.) If you gather such people into an army, they become the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or ISIS. If you concentrate them in certain underclass neighborhoods, and treat them badly enough for long enough, they become rioters. If you disperse them, they become the sort of terrorists we’ve seen in Peshawar, Ottawa, and Sydney. You can find people like that anywhere, even where the going is good (just think of school shootings in the U.S.). But you can practically be guaranteed to motivate them to act out if the going stays bad for long enough–as it has for decades in France.

I’m the last one to deny that Islam has a role to play in the explanation of Islamist terrorism. I think most educated people have by now been able to grasp that it does. But it’s worth remembering that even a paradigmatically Islamist coup like the 2007 Jamia Hafsa siege in Pakistan began, as so many such disputes do, with a clash over land: it began when the Capital Development Authority of Islamabad asserted the right to demolish mosques in the name of the Pakistani equivalent of urban renewal (thereby implying that the state owned the mosques and could demolish them at will). Islam is an idea, but we can’t understand the role an idea plays in the physical world unless we grasp how it relates back to the physical world.

That’s what our anti-Islamist ideologists have failed to do. They are instinctive Hegelians: as far as they’re concerned, the Idea of Islam enacts itself as world spirit and somehow induces Muslims to kill in the name of God. But which Muslims, and why them? The implicit answer seems to be an appeal to concomitant variation: more Islam means more violence; hence the more Muslim a person is, the more prone to violence he’ll be. But this explanation founders on an obvious fact: some Muslims are very devout, but disinclined to violence; others are very violent but disinclined to devotion. We can either accommodate this fact at face value (“the face value interpretation”), or re-interpret it so that the non-violently devout are less Muslim than the violently non-devout (“the revisionist interpretation”). There are plausible arguments to be made either way, but–at face value–I think the face value interpretation is more plausible than the revisionist.

The face value interpretation suggests the need to get our minds around the other part of the explanation for terrorism. Supposing that Islam has a role to play in the explanation of Islamist terrorism, why does it play that role for some Muslims but not for others? What is it that the differentiates the religious terrorist from the religiously devout non-terrorist? In the first case, my hypothesis is that religion serves to intensify a sense of alienation; in the second, religion serves to confirm a sense of belonging. The first leads to violence; the second does not.

That leaves us with a different set of questions, however. Why do some people fasten on the alienation-inducing elements of religion, and others focus on the elements that confirm  a sense of belonging?

I don’t have a full answer to the question. Part of the answer, I’d speculate, is that in the nature of things, religion lacks the conceptual resources to differentiate successfully between the two elements, and all of the Abrahamic religions are a relatively seamless blend of both alienation- and solidarity-inducing elements (including elements that alienate believers from reality itself). Every religion requires some commitment to fideism, and fideism undercuts the conceptual resources you need to make the relevant distinction. As a lapsed Muslim, I can identify the features of Islam that still appeal to me (and many do), and reject the features that don’t (and many don’t). I’m free do that because I don’t regard any part of the faith as binding on me. But I couldn’t do that if the whole faith were binding on me. If it were, I’d have to find a way to accommodate every genuine element of the faith. And I don’t think that can be done in a way that allows for a clean distinction between alienation- and solidarity-inducing elements of Islam (or any Abrahamic religion).

The other part of the answer is that where you find a propensity to religiously-induced alienation, you invariably find state-driven socio-political dysfunction. State-driven socio-political dysfunction is dysfunction driven by coercion. It’s much easier to induce a sense of alienation in someone if you take from him–or people like him–his sense of control over his physical (or economic) environment. Unemployment will do it (I’m assuming that a significant aspect of unemployment is explained by state policy). So will some equivalent of urban renewal, or some form of over-regimentation or over-regulation (recall that the Arab Spring began as a response to over-regulation). Add a long history of state-sponsored coercion to the mix–whether in the form of Jim Crow or the colonization of Algeria and its aftermath–and you induce a stronger sense of alienation, especially, I think, if the state-sponsored coercion in some sense represents the democratic will of the dominant majority. Add widespread racism to the mix, and the toxicity increases.

So far I’ve focused on factors external to the persons in question. But those are far from exhaustive. Some people subjected to those conditions become criminals or terrorists, but some don’t. What distinguishes the two groups?

Here, it seems to me, one needs to appeal either to straightforwardly moral or psychiatric predicates–the predicates that, in my view, do the most explanatory work, even if they do so in the context of background factors of the sort I’ve been describing above. There is the sheer psycho-pathology of a certain kind of male who refuses to accept responsibility for his life, who egregiously fails to negotiate life’s relatively ordinary trials and tribulations, who lashes out at others for his own perceived (and often accurate) sense of inadequacy and failure, and who feels an abiding sense of humiliation and shame for his perceived (often accurate) sense of failure. There’s also the role played by a confused discourse in which one side offers caricatures and cartoons of its adversary, and the other side responds to those caricatures with a tribalized sense of grievance and resentment.

That may well be the tip of the iceberg, but “that,” it seems to me, is the set of beliefs and circumstances that unites rioters and terrorists, and serves as a partial explanation of their otherwise unintelligible violence. People feel the need to lash out when they feel out of control, and they feel out of control either when policies external to them rob them of control, and/or when they themselves act in ways that subvert their own autonomy, or when both things happen nearly simultaneously. The result is the need for a fantasy life that seems to restore a sense of control, and religion is the perfect source of the most violent fantasies as well as of the prospect of apparent control. (So are secular ideologies, including Marxism, libertarianism, and Objectivism–a topic for a different post.)

In short, a terrorist is a control freak who’s out of control. The most dangerous thing you can do is to laugh at a such a person, which is what Charlie Hebdo did. The result, as Charlie Hebdo themselves predicted, was mass murder.

Mr. Charbonnier, like the other Charlie Hebdo journalists, published under his pen name, Charb.  His last published cartoon appeared in Wednesday’s issue, a haunting image of an armed and cross-eyed militant with the words, “Still no attacks in France,” and the retort: “Wait! We have until the end of January to offer our wishes.”

No one deserves to die for predicting his own death. There is no way to justify initiating force of any kind in response to a speech act that doesn’t itself initiate force. So there can be no justifying or rationalizing what happened yesterday in Paris.

But we owe it to ourselves to come up with a better way of conceptualizing Islamist violence than the one Charlie Hebdo offered. We can’t negotiate our way out of the quagmire by means of cartoons, caricatures, and derision. As Spinoza puts it, “I have taken great care not to deride, bewail, or execrate human actions, but to understand them” (Political Treatise, I.4). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deride, bewail, or execrate terrorism. It just means that understanding comes first. It also means that if we lack understanding, we have to seek it. And the truth is that a decade and a half after 9/11, we do lack it. But we still have time. And God knows, there’s no shortage of data to work with.

Postscript (added later). Here’s a thoughtful and insightful interview on Charlie Hebdo with Jacob Levy, of McGill (the link goes to a 3:08 minute interview at BBC’s The World). I’ve commented there on the inconsistencies and hypocrisies involved in French attitudes on free speech. I’m no expert on French politics, but I’ve discussed the politics of Islam in France in this longish essay in Reason Papers (esp. pp. 174-75 and 179-81).

PS 2: An excellent piece by Hussein Ibish at Book Forum, “The False Piety of the Hebdo Hoodlums.”

PS 3, January 9, 2015: (apologies for the problems with paragraph spacing; this happens from time to time, but I don’t know how to fix it):

Events are taking place in France faster than I can keep up with them here. Meanwhile, David Brooks aptly reminds us that he’s not Charlie Hebdo, not that anyone would have thought that he was. One passage in his column particularly cries out for comment:

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home. …

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.