Wednesday, December 20, 2006


As I recently blathered on about, I think that part of being a "good" historian is to tone down the rhetoric and hyperbole while debating both the historical and contemporary. Also, it is also wise to avoid getting sucked into believing that there are always simple (reductionist) explanations for historical causation. Add to these the related temptation of scapegoating as explained by Mary Eberstadt.
... a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain -- many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys.
In other words, instead of focusing on the potential world-changing force that is radical Islam, many in the west are taking a sort of perverse comfort in turning towards familiar scapegoats.

Eberstadt explains that some on the right have taken to blaming "immigrants" for all of America's ills, while some on the left (including some libertarian's) have glommed onto the idea that "christianists" and/or "fundamentalists" are marching America toward Gomorrah. Then there is the popular Bush scapegoat, which many in the general public and the intellectual class find particularly appealling. But, Eberstadt explains, there are problems with this:
[One example is] Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (Penguin Press). Like so much else now dominating the nonfiction aisles, it apprehends one large truth -- that the current balance between reality and rhetoric has been altered in a way deleterious to us. It then scrambles that message, again like the other scapegoaters, into a version more palatable than what the actual one would require. In this case, the scramble ends in focusing blame and hatred onto one single man -- George Bush -- who also shares a key feature of attraction alongside other scapegoats: He is not going to strike back.

Like others who are Bush-haters simpliciter, Rich is too bilious to make a systematic argument. The result is a burning effigy of a book whose smoke obscures one fundamental point: Whatever else George W. Bush is about, what the record does seem to show and what even many of his enemies feel forced to concede is that he does actually believe in what he is doing. Because it can't allow itself to go there, The Greatest Story Ever Sold becomes as two-dimensional as its subject...

The trouble with putting Bush personally at the center of what ails us is much like the related trouble of relocating the illegals or the theocrats there instead: i.e., it tries to explain too much. In this, too, the parallelism of the scapegoats can be seen. He is a child of privilege who believes in nothing. No, he is an ideological Christian possessed of an unwavering and therefore dangerous faith. Which is it? He is a tool of the oil interests, of the neoconservatives, of the Christians; no, he is a puppet master of them all; no again, he is himself a puppet of Karl Rove. He is "someone who likes to compete and win at all costs" (Frank Rich); he is someone who has had everything handed to him and doesn't know what it is like to struggle (also Rich). And so on.
There are also those--Eberstadt points to a recent issue of Foreign Affairs--who have concluded that "9/11 was not that big a deal after all." Then there is Europe, which has closed its eyes to the Islamist threat in its own backyard and instead resorted to a ramping up of anti-American rhetoric. Yet, Eberstadt thinks that anti-Americanism may be nothing more than misplaced anger:
Perhaps these days, on the Continent, the widespread, all-explaining urge to lay everything at the door of the U.S. has little to do with America proper. Perhaps it does not have much to do either with the post-Cold War unipolar world. Perhaps it is not even really about Iraq.

No, perhaps the anti-Americanism of today is best understood instead as a way of being furious in public with somebody for the insecurities and anxieties wrought by Islamist terrorism in this world, including in increasingly Muslim Europe -- an option made even more attractive by the safe bet that Americans, unlike some other people, are unlikely to respond to this rhetoric, let alone to editorial cartoons, by burning cars, slitting throats, or issuing death threats in places like Paris and Amsterdam and Regensburg and London.

In the end, people are comfortable with scapegoats because they can understand them. They are "problems" that have been solved before. Throw out the illegals, demonize the motives of religious people, blame Bush or America for everything or put our head in the sand. All are easier than dealing with an entity that simply doesn't think about life and society like the West.

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