“Civilization and Its Enemies” by Lee Harris

“Civilization and Its Enemies” by Lee Harris

In a brilliant response to the quandaries of 9/11, a ferociously independent thinker argues that only the United States has the moral credibility to lead.

By Ann Marlowe

Feb 25, 2004 | When I am exasperated by some stupidity or cupidity in the Third World, I sometimes find myself thinking how much simpler it would be if we just gave them all statehood. Yes, just invite them into the United States — the annoying countries with oil, the annoying countries without oil, the ones where Christians and animists are killing each other, the ones where Muslims and Christians are killing each other, the ones where Muslims and animists are killing each other, and even the small charming countries that do not exasperate — if they want to join.

Half their people want to come here anyway; instead of worrying about visas and quotas and green cards and policing our borders, we could make there become a lot more like here, with decent-paying jobs and free public education and the rule of law and freedom of speech and the newspapers to prove it, with driver’s licenses and auto insurance and real roads and building permits and trash pickup and all of the rest of it. Farewell to child labor, honor killings, female infanticide, illiteracy, casual bribery. Liberals will have to stop whining about wars for oil, because the oil will be ours, and conservatives will have to stop whining about foreign aid, which won’t be foreign anymore. European intellectuals will have to stop comparing Ariel Sharon to Hitler, because the Palestinians will have a state, and it will be one of ours.

This modest proposal is only slightly more outrageous than the imaginative leap Lee Harris advocates in his startlingly original and visionary work “Civilization and Its Enemies,” which aims at nothing less than providing the vocabulary and theory for political thinking post-al-Qaida. Harris thinks that the world is at the brink of something he calls American “neo-sovereignty,” which means that America is recognized globally as having not only the power but also the moral credibility to lead. When a country is unable to restrain ruthless gangs operating within it, Harris argues, it must be the U.S. “who decides what is to be done” because “the United States represents the ultimate source of legitimacy in the world.” The U.S. also has the characteristics to serve as a template for remaking the world: “a practical design for the next stage of human history: a utopia that works.”

Our diversity, Harris says plausibly enough, is “a historically unprecedented microcosm of the rest of the world.” He asserts that Americans have created and mastered a social technique that can solve many of the outstanding human and humanitarian problems facing the world today. “We have figured out a way of living together, and others can learn it from us, if they are willing.” This sanguine assessment appears at odds with European public opinion and media, not to mention a generation or two of academic America-bashing, but Harris has an answer:

“There are many Americans who did not like Clinton as president, and many who do not like Bush, but only a handful disliked them so much that they would have preferred to see them removed from office at the cost of a civil war. This is how much of the world feels about the United States today. They bash us, and yet they recognize our legitimate authority … Indeed, the world is beginning to show toward us that cynical disrespect for authority that has always been one of the hallmarks of our national character … But this is fine, so long as the world is also displaying the other great hallmark of our national political character, which is to accept the legitimate authority even of men we can’t stand.”

Note the repetition of the word “authority.” Although he does not quite say so, Harris seems to envision a gradual drift toward American rule, where countries obey even where they do not love. As he has said earlier, “by agreeing to act like Americans [people] became Americans.” Acting like Americans means following the “code of honor” of what Harris calls, with an unfortunate disregard for euphony, “team cosmopolitanism,” which combines respect for the individual conscience and the rule of law, for office and for fairness.

To Harris’ great credit, he has not written yet another screed defending the West against the Others, or “traditional values” against “multiculturalism.” Diversity is one of the core values he envisions in the future of American neo-sovereignty. Harris, who is gay, invokes San Francisco’s Castro District as well as Detroit’s Muslim neighborhoods as examples of the America he envisions the rest of the world resembling and learning from.

Harris’ most controversial remarks are probably those defining what constitutes a state. He is caustic on the new “honorific concept of sovereignty” in which “the state is no longer restricted to a political entity that can in fact defend itself against all comers … it is now … an entity called into being by the formal recognition of the international community.” Thus he takes no prisoners on the subject of the “Palestinian state”: “If the Palestinian people were indeed a genuine state fighting a genuine war, they would have long since been annihilated root and branch or else forced to make a realistic accommodation with the state of Israel … That [Palestinian] state will exist as a viable entity only by virtue of the liberal conscience — and seemingly inexhaustible forbearance — of the Israeli people.”

Such outspokenness and common sense are not often met with in the pundit class, and Harris is an interesting character. A longtime resident of Stone Mountain, Ga., he was a divinity student, a mystery writer and a glazier before taking on the mantle of “reigning philosopher of 9/11,” in the words of Daniel Pipes’ jacket blurb. Only in America, as my people say. And perhaps Harris’ lack of the usual antecedents accounts for the absence of reviews. There is nothing worse than not knowing in advance what one is supposed to think of a book. (I should note that I know Harris slightly by e-mail; in the fall of 2002 I exchanged a few e-mails with him after his article “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology” appeared in Policy Review, a publication of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.)

“Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology,” which is incorporated in this book, made the point that the 9/11 hijackers didn’t have a rational program, or a larger plan. Indeed, they didn’t even announce who they were or what their goals were or how the attacks were supposed to further them. Their suicide-murders were nothing but symbolic drama. They were not Clausewitzian war. The hijackers professed what Harris terms a “fantasy ideology,” in which suicide was “not a means to an end but an end in itself.”

Harris says what most conservatives are too chicken to admit: American values are by and large anti-family

Harris’ debut was a nearly perfect essay in political theory: The model he proposed explains facts and answers open questions more elegantly than competing theories. For instance, why weren’t the attacks immediately followed by others? Because al-Qaida isn’t fighting a conventional war, it is engaging in theater, and “followup acts would have had no glamour, and it was glamour — and grandiosity — that al-Qaida was seeking in its targets.” Why is there no easy answer as to “what we did” to inspire such hatred? Because rational causes such as poverty and tyrannical governments in the Arab world did not create this fantasy ideology; America is just a prop in al-Qaida’s psychodrama. “There is absolutely no political policy that we could adopt that would in any way change the attitude of our enemies,” Harris writes.

If this book has an obvious flaw, it is Harris’ slighting of his motivations in beginning to write on these topics. Harris’ brilliant outpouring of political philosophy came after 9/11 and was spurred by the wounding of his country; his words sprung from the heart as much as the mind. But very little of what Harris says in his book takes into account the relative weights of heart and mind in determining how people live and organize their societies.

Take his remarks about the family and the difference between East and West: “Where the family rules, the team cannot prosper, and if the team cannot prosper, then neither can the society … the West got rich and free because it followed this pattern; the East remained poor and unfree because it continued to be immersed in the family … there is a cost (to the East’s choice) just as there is a cost to living in any one social order rather than another.”

Harris says what most conservatives are too chicken to admit: American values are by and large anti-family. But he doesn’t seem to think that there are any costs to the choice we have made.

He might have a hard time making his case for “team cosmopolitanism” to most of those people who remain immersed in the family, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in various other spots of current interest. They value depth of feeling over variety, continuity over change, security over upward mobility. And they would rather see the same 20 or 30 people day in and day out than live the way we do. They would rather call their cousin’s sister-in-law’s son at the passport agency than live under the rule of law.

Harris’ invocation of American subcultures betrays a somewhat mechanistic view of what a culture is. Like many Americans, I happen to enjoy our varied subcultures. But a society containing varied subcultures is a particular kind of society. Living in a family-oriented subculture in the Bible Belt or a religious Muslim subculture in Detroit is not the same as living in a traditional Christian or Muslim society per se. Some people want to live in societies that are relatively monolithic, just as some people want to be friends with those much like themselves in background.

Harris might also want to carefully distinguish the traditional, and pre-Islamic, structures of Middle Eastern society from Islam itself. As the French anthropologist Germaine Tillion pointed out 40 years ago, Islam set itself in opposition to tribalism and endogamy. If team cosmopolitanism aims to create “a society where membership is open to all who want to embrace the team ethos of their new community,” there is no better description of early Islam; it just so happens that Mohammed preached in an area characterized by clans and cousin marriage, and Middle Eastern Islam reflects this as much as it reflects the Koran.

There is a deeper philosophical problem with Harris’ view of our “way of living together.” Even here in the 50 (or will it be 80?) states, “team cosmopolitanism” doesn’t sound like much fun. The world of work that has been responsible for the great achievements of the West can be a dreary and unpleasant place. The good fellowship it provides is, even in the best case, pallid compared with family feeling and romantic love. Its cohesiveness depends on discouraging imagination, playfulness, contrarian thinking and risk taking, some or all of which most people enjoy. Teams can be fun, but they can also be nasty.

That’s probably why Harris was working as a glazier, not nestled in the bosom of a giant corporation or university (and why I work from my home as a legal recruiter, dear reader, to support my habit of writing for Salon). That’s why more and more Americans have turned to experiences that promise a warmer, mushier, more emotional or less competitive way of living. Fundamentalist Christianity is the most popular among them and the most socially influential in large parts of the country, but we should include chic bicoastal pastimes like yoga and studying the cabala too.

Many of us more-or-less conservatives — and I count myself in — have at one point or another found ourselves recommending to others, even to Others in the non-West, ways of life that we find profoundly unengaging ourselves. Harris has to defend “team cosmopolitanism” because it is the basis of most reasonable societies and it is exactly what fantasy ideologies rebel against. But he should acknowledge the costs, and not just in terms of the vanished sweetness of life.

“To force other cultures to stay permanently in the cake of custom imposed by the tradition of their ancestors,” he writes, “is a perverse way of expressing appreciation for their humanity.” I’ve heard this before: Why do you want this particular group of people to keep their quaint mud huts or rice terraces while you live in New York? This question assumes that custom is only a handicap and not a source of pleasure for traditional societies. It assumes that they take no joy in being who they are. And the remarkable thing is that whether or not you or I or Lee Harris would want their lives, they do.

“The West acknowledges the Other and is willing to compete with him,” Harris writes; “other civilizations would prefer that he not exist. It is the West that has gone to study the East, and not the other way around.” Even leaving aside the fact that this is true only, say, since 1492, that it ignores the intrepid travelers of medieval Islam and the fact that the Spain that sent forth the conquistadors had only just completed the reconquista — even so, this is rather like arguing that single people are more curious, lively and aware than married ones because they go on dates. People who are satisfied do not go in quest of something else. Nor, of course, do they blow people and things up in the service of fantasy ideologies. They stay at home. The lack of progress — look, no scare quotes! — in the East (I think Harris really means the Middle East) could also be seen as a sign that their society works for them.

Definitions of “West” and “East” also change over time. Until well into the 19th century, European Jewish culture was considered backward and “Eastern” by Christian (and even many Jewish) European intellectuals, and it mainly was. What happened? Jews were legally allowed to enter mainstream society and did. Dynamism is neither a property of particular ethnic groups nor of particular religions.

Harris’ book would have reached another level had he gone on — as I have no doubt he is capable of doing — to turn his erudition and originality to the flaws in our society. If it is worth defending, as most of us agree it is, it will still be so even when its fault lines are acknowledged. This is actually a better distinction between West and East than the one Harris draws. If there is anything that has constituted the strength of the West (keeping his capital letters), it’s our capacity for living with self-doubt.

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