Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ads, Jihads, and Savages

So over the last week or two, controversial ads have gone up in DC area metro stations.   They are relatively simple, and with a simple message.   Produced by a small collection of right-wing organizations, they say...well...read it yourself.

It's one of those peculiar but necessary things in our culture, this ability to speak things that might offend.  In this case, what is being said... clumsily... is that in the tension between Israel and the Muslim world, Israel is civilized and Islam is savage.

My own preference, quite frankly, lies with Israel.  I disagree with many of Israel's policies, and think that Likud's tendency towards nationalistic belligerence coupled with the repressive influence of the growing ultraorthodox population are problematic.   On the other hand, I could live there and say that.  I could write this without fearing that I might be imprisoned.  Israel is still free, for the time being, and that's worth something.

I could not say the same if I lived in Egypt now, or in Iran, or in Saudi Arabia.  In those places, practicing my faith would be problematic, and the safety of my children and my family would be in question.

But that this is true does not mean that I embrace either the intent or the spirit of this campaign.  It's not just unnecessarily truculent and unconstructive.  It's...well...it's kind of stupid.   And I mean that in the "not very intelligent" sense of the word.

The basic underlying assumption about civilizations and savages is off, for one thing.   Savages exist in a primal state, disordered and tribal and local.   Even at its worst, that does not describe jihad.  When jihad is presented as theological casus belli, it isn't just random acts of terror conducted by free-ranging feral madmen.  The Taliban's benighted and degraded form of Islam isn't the primary threat to Israel.

Relative to the state of Israel, jihad at worst describes a worldview forwarded by nation states who are using ultraconservative Islam as justification for their own power.  These are civilizations.  Iran, for instance, cannot be described as "savage," not in any meaningful sense.  Oppressive?  Sure.  Unpleasant?  Without question.   But that is not because it lacks for civil order and structure.  Savages generally don't have centrifuges.  I listen to Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, and I do not hear a savage.  I hear an intelligent, thoughtful, and remarkably dangerous man.

The ad is also stupid because it oversimplifies jihad, ceding the term to those who have turned it to the purposes of oppression and violence.  This foolishly broadens the terms of the conflict, which is not between Israel and Islam.   As a faith, Islam can coexist with Judaism.  Having spent much of the last month immersed in the Quran, I find myself convinced of this.

But is most stupid because the quote is an Ayn Rand quote, and she was not someone who had anything good to say about civilization.

The ad itself includes a link to Atlas Shrugged Dot Com, which leads me to think that perhaps it's part of a viral metacampaign to get people to see the honkingly horrible sequel to that wretchedly awful first movie.   When you're running a perfect zero on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, you have to pull out all the stops, I guess.

The Ayn Rand connection here is perhaps the most astoundingly ironic thing about this ad.  Why?  Civilization is a social phenomenon.  "Civilized men" are human beings who exist in society with one another, who share a set of values that bind them together as a people.  They freely cede some of their power to one another, so that all might live together.  That is the essence of civilization.

Ayn Rand's philosophy is radically antisocial, a cheap and easy nihilism in which the connections between human beings are functionally nonexistent.   The "heroes" in her novels are bright and feral creatures, apex predators that live by the ferocity of their will to power.  Randian Objectivism is relentlessly Darwinist, red in tooth and claw, with the strong ruling by their strength, and the weak...well... they don't matter.

Savage, in other words.