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Monday, March 9, 2015

The clash within civilizations, authority versus liberty

by John MacBeath Watkins

I submit the following as evidence that the world now faces, not a clash of civilizations, but a clash over what civilization should be:
...the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.[5]

-- Sayyid Qutb, The America I Have Seen

Sayyid Qutb was an early firebrand of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a fundamentalist who feared his people would be seduced by western culture. In the passage above, I hear lust and repression, envy and condemnation.

Qutb never married. He was a fierce critic of secular Egyptian society and a supporter of a severe form of religion which would be superior to secular law. He wanted to conserve the values of traditional Muslim society, and feared his people would find western, secular society more attractive than the society he wished to see.

We have people like that in our own society, opposing sex education, the teaching of evolution, marriage equality for homosexuals, and other ways people would take liberties with their notions of traditional values.

And Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he fears the decadence of western culture. He's had laws passed for the repression of homosexuals, for example. In a 2013 speech, he said:

Too often in our nation's history, instead of opposition to the government we have been faced with opponents of Russia itself...
...
Another serious challenge to Russia's identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.

And indeed, he seems to regard the Maidan movement that overthrew his corrupt allies in Ukraine as a threat to his own power in Russia.

It is not the particular religion or ideology of American fundamentalists, Islamists, and Russian nationalists that these have in common, although a certain prudery seems to be an element of each. The common thread is the authoritarianism, the desire for order, and the condemnation of the liberties of the libertines.

Theodor Adorno would have would have identified these as elements of the authoritarian personality. He measured this on what he called the "f-scale," for Fascist. The traits he identified were:

Characteristics of the Authoritarian Personality (Horkheimer and Adorno)

  1. Conventionalism. Rigid adherence to conventional, middle class attitudes.
  2. Authoritarian Submission. Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.
  3. Authoritarian Aggression. Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.
  4. Anti-intraception. Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tenderminded.
  5. Superstitions and Stereotyty. The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.
  6. Power and ‘Toughness’. Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and t oughness.
  7. Destruction and Cynicism. Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.
  8. Projectivity. The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.
  9. Sex. Exaggerated concern with sexual ‘goings-on.'
 (The source for this list is in the link, just click on the quote.)

Now, it strikes me that any ideology or in-group can contain people with these traits, from self-righteous hipster assholes to conservative preachers and "citizens for decency." Most will be attracted to conservative causes.

I actually met a man who organized "(name of his hometown) for Decency" who liked  to come into the newsroom of the local paper, pick out an attractive young female reporter, and start showing her sexually explicit pictures, and talk about how disgusting they were. His particularly repellant combination of lust, repression, and authoritarianism seemed extraordinary to me at the time, but it is really just an extreme form of the authoritarian personality. Less extreme versions of that personality are, in my opinion, part of what holds society together.

Every civilization needs some degree of conservatism, some value placed on tradition and order. But for a civilization to learn and grow, it must also be open to new ideas and new experiences, and in a time when the world faces rapid change, these needs are in conflict. The psychologically conservative will be disturbed by the disorder of rapid change, while those with minds more open to change, the need to adapt society and leave behind old prejudices will lead them in a different direction.

When people look at Islamist extremists, and tell me that this is a clash of civilizations between Muslim and Christian civilizations, I can't help but think of that disgusting "citizen for decency." The clash is not between religions, it is between tolerance and intolerance, between liberty and authority.

What we are seeing is not a clash between regions or cultures or religions. We are seeing a clash between people who want to conserve traditional values and people who want to open society up to new freedoms. Tip the balance one way, you have the Islamic State, tip it the other and you have San Francisco.

When the world changed slowly, these groups were not much in conflict. New experiences were rare in Egypt's Old Kingdom, and the need to adapt to a changing world was rare. We no longer live in that world, and many people are made profoundly uncomfortable by this, while others delight in it.

Count me as one of the delighted. And I am happy to see that surveys of young people show them sharing more and more of my views as I get older, because they are adapted to the changes that have occurred. I was a damn hippie kid, and not a great fit with society. Today, more and more people agree with my views. But I still recognize the need for a counterbalance, even if I sometimes become impatient with the way people cling to what I feel are outmoded views.

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