I was led to this video by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper. As commenters at Maureen’s blog said, it presents us with a chilling reality and prospect.
I’m not going to react to the video in the obvious way. Obviously, it is a brief, more detailed insight into what we already have knowledge of – religion become a disease of the mind, what the video tells us has to be present in our considerations every time we think about what to do in or about Afghanistan and Pakistan. Underneath this phenomenon is brainwashing. I’m not a professional psychologist or an expert in brainwashing, but I can see, first, that there are two forms of it reflected in this video’s account. The one more clearly brought to our attention is that of the children who the subjects of the video. But what of the men who are brainwashing them? Their backgrounds are, no doubt, varied, and while they may have had religious educations similar in some ways to those they are providing these children, we have no reason to believe that they were subjects of an effort quite so refined and purposeful.
Yet they are still willing to use and destroy other lives so cynically, still believing in the righteousness of a goal and of behavior that most of us would think evil.
Most people do accept, I think, that these Islamic extremists – the Taliban and others – are true believers, not simply strivers after power. In contrast, there was a tendency, I also think, for many to think that Soviet party members and the Marxists of Mao, for instance, were these kinds of cynics. No doubt – we know – many were. Certainly some leaders, like Stalin and Mao, were megalomaniacs. But many Soviets and Chinese were true believers. They perceived the world in that way. Surprisingly, perhaps, Mikhail Gorbachev was a true believer to the end – not in that repressive Soviet form, which he extraordinarily, courageously brought to its close, but in Socialism with a capital S, which he has said it was his hope to save, though he could not.
We could endlessly examine whether the extreme mental states to which these children are reduced are a difference in kind or degree from variances – distortions? – in perspective among most people. I think there are similarities, regardless, which I want to examine a bit here today and over the next two posts: “mosques” and “migrations.”
If we were to attempt to criticize the children, rather than the men so horribly abusing them, we would recognize that to assign them certain kinds of moral responsibility would make little sense. They have such a limited experience of the world, so limited knowledge of it and of its humanity, ideas, and possibilities, that they have few or no alternatives, as mental prospects, to the angle of vision along which their inchoate and limited minds have been so forcefully pointed. To ask them why they do not consider the views and humanity of Christians, Hindus, or non-believers would be to ask a literally senseless question. In less extreme, but real, fashion, this is the condition of inner city street gang members, who do know through the media and some personal experience a wider world than these suicide bombers in the making; however, consistently we learn that those who grow up in the culture of the gangs do not see any possibilities for themselves in that wider world. We know they are wrong, that they are confusing distance and difficulty with the unattainable, but this is how they see.
In his essay, “An Extravagance of Laughter,” Ralph Ellison describes how as a young newcomer to New York City from the South in the 1930s, he took advantage of many cultural opportunities he had reason to think, on the basis of race and inexperience, were unavailable to him. With consideration of W.B. Yeats’s concept of “the mask,” Ellison tells how he assumed a mask of experience and doubtless entitlement as he approached doorways from which he believed he might be turned away. In some measure, he made himself, remade himself, because he believed in the possibility of being other than he presently was. To be different, more, greater, better than we already are we have to be able first to see ourselves that way – to see the possibility of transformation, before the transformation. In Los Angeles, at its extreme, this notion is the fantasy-currency of career advancement in Hollywood: if you want to be a producer, people have to believe you are a producer even before you are one; they will not believe you are a producer if you do not believe you are a producer, and you start believing you are producer, and making other people believe it, by saying you are a producer, even when the only thing you have yet produced is the belief in yourself that you can be a producer. In Hollywood, these masks are like the hall of mirrors in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, with everyone shooting at illusions: enlivening fantasy and misleading fraud constantly intermingle in uncertain pleasure, a pleasure of uncertainty.
The young victims of the madrassa brainwashings likely know of no other possibilities. Many of the young gangstas do not believe the possibilities are real for them.
In political discourse, those who pretend to know all sorts of things – who are so full of opinions- frequently cease to believe, really believe, in the possibility of circumstance being perceived differently from the way they perceive it. They know that there are these alternative narratives of events and reality, but even people who would ridicule the notion of narrative, likely conservatives, will disparage alternative views as artificial constructs – essentially narratives – of malign or at best disingenuous intent. They abandon, if they ever had it, the capacity to enter sympathetically into alternative perspectives, which, of course, does not mean to agree with them or accept them.
If one reads the comments of conservatives in response to “The Open Mind” posts between me and ShrinkWrapped, what one sees repeatedly, is an inability on the part of many commenters literarily to see my claims and arguments for what they are. I am, in their eyes, “the liberal,” and so they frequently project onto to me what they believe to be liberal views that I do not, in fact, have, even when I may have actually stated the contrary. Often, commenters will not respond to what I said at all; rather they will set up the straw man of what “liberals” (they claim) believe and attack the straw man. Often, with pride, they will claim insight into the liberal mind and offer the pretense of an account of it, generally so condescending and belittling that it amounts to little more, effectively, than that liberals are morons, their minds addled with many moronic beliefs, and so they see the world in a moronic way. I quite understand.
Just yesterday, a well-meaning, gentlemanly conservative stated that I value the collective over the individual, when quite to the contrary, I do not, and so have never written anything of the kind; in fact, while arguing with ShrinkWrapped that I think the opposition so often set up between the collective and the individual is a false one, I stated that if compelled argumentatively to make a choice of priority, I would choose the individual. But this argument and fact went unperceived.
This is not a conservative phenomenon. It is observable everywhere: the inability, often against pretense, otherwise honestly to appraise contending views. It is dramatically apparent in the debates over the Israeli-Arab conflict. From a variety of postcolonial far Left, and increasingly liberal, demonizing views of Israel, no act on Israel’s part can be perceived as authentic and honestly motivated. The worst characteristics of the Arab world are conversely rationalized. I still recall, as a young man raised in a liberal Democratic, union household, feeling out over the 1960s and 70s the farthest reaches to the left I could travel. Much of this mental arm-reaching occurred in abstruse tomes, but nothing more deliciously and absurdly represented the boundaries I encountered than one late night listening on the radio to a then very popular New York City counter-culture DJ named Alex Bennett, who explained to a pained and puzzled caller why it was that Black Panther Huey Newton, while leading the struggle on the streets, was living in an Oakland penthouse. Newton had many enemies who wished to harm him, Bennett informed, and needed to live high above street level for his safety.
When I wonder how even a liberal like Peter Beinart – not a rabidly anti-Zionist critic of Israel – can so misread the myriad facts I read so differently, what I see at work includes three phenomena that I characterize with three visual terms, since I am speaking of perception: frame, focus, and foreground. Different individuals and political perspectives frame the subject differently, choosing to exclude and include information – parts of chronology, certain causal factors – in variance from each other. They focus on different events and facts, blurring some events to the point of near disappearance from view, with the subjects on which they choose to focus most sharply foregrounded in the consideration. The historical Jewish connection to the land may be cut out of the frame, or the Palestinian rejection of the partition that Israel accepted, as some people prefer to argue about the settlement era. The move to the Right of the Israeli electorate receives focus, while any causal chain leading to that move is blurred. The blockade of Gaza is now in the foreground, the genocidal Hamas charter and political program far in the background.
How much of this variance is the product of human perceptual difference based on a multitude of factors? How much of it arises from a commitment to distort the perspective of others? I’ll consider those questions more in 2. Mosques and 3. Migrations.