Archive | July, 2016

On Terrorism

24 Jul

When compared to other forms of unnatural death for people living in North American and European democracies, terrorism barely registers. You may have heard these stats before, but allow me to repeat some. Domestic violence kills 500 times more people each year than terrorism. Americans are more than 1,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than a terrorist attack. Ditto non-terroristic forms of gun violence. There are about 5,000 drug and alcohol-related deaths for every one American killed by terrorism. Americans are even slightly more likely to be killed by falling furniture (yes furniture!) than terrorism. However, I don’t remember the last congressional hearing on unstable dressers.

Instead, the United States has spent about $4,000,000,000,000 on the War on Terror, or $16,000 for every American. And this is all for a threat, that since 2002, has never killed more than 35 Americans in a year. Even in France, which has faced more terror fatalities than any other Western democracy in the last 12 months, only 1 in 300,000 people died due to terrorism. Something so insignificant is not only believed to be the biggest threat to the United States (in December 2015, 40% believed it was the most pressing issue for the US government to address, and another 21% said it was the second most pressing), but it is driving the foreign policy of the most powerful country on earth and many of its allies.

How to stop the lunacy? We need a broader cultural shift in how we think and talk about terrorism. Terrorism needs to be understood as something that does not fundamentally threaten our society, our democracy, or way of life, or even our lives. We need to get to the point where when a terrorist attack happens, we say, “that’s terrible,” just as we might with any other tragedy, and move on with our day.

(An aside: My argument only applies to North American and European democracies. In many other parts of the world, “terrorist” groups also have the ability to hold territory and the potential to topple governments. The threat presented by these groups, both in terms of political turmoil and loss of human life, is very different, and it is important to not confuse the two. Additionally, in the North American and European contexts, I’m writing about jihadist terrorism, rather than terrorism committed by far-right groups. The latter is more prevalent, but is rarely considered a major threat.)

We can still mourn. But even in mourning, we must be careful, for there are risks, both internal and external. Internally, mourning the victims of terrorism, especially when attempting to mourn equally for those killed in Paris and Baghdad, can prove to be overwhelming. Sadly, people are killed by political violence all around the world all the time, and mourning each death individually can leave us overly fearful that the same fate might befall us. Externally, there is the danger that our emotions can overwhelm prudent responses to terror. Too often, it is felt that the only way to mourn victims properly is to stress that only monsters could have taken their lives. Perhaps this provides some immediate comfort, but in the long-term, it is deeply dangerous. It leads to the stereotyping of entire ethnic, religious, and national groups as violent, and prompts policy responses that overlook the political context in which violence occurs and prescribes overwhelming force as the only possible solution. Donald Trump and his fellow fear-mongers are major beneficiaries of this impulse.

Despite these dangers, mourning can play a positive role. Beyond the potential emotional benefits, it can also serve as an opportunity to learn about why violence occurs in different parts of the world, and hopefully what can be done to prevent more.

Taking a step back, it is important to consider how terrorism came to dominate political discourse. At the most basic level, terrorism is scary because terrorism is the killing of random people for political reasons. It seems there are three psychological biases at play here. First is the fear of randomness. Because it’s impossible to predict exactly where and when terrorism will happen and who it will target, it’s hard not to think, when reading about Western victims of terror attacks, “it could be me.” Even if statistically, the chances are infinitesimal, terrorism is hard to rationalize. Second is the fear of violent ideologies. In popular discourse, terrorists are seen as ruthless, driven entirely by the will to kill others not like themselves. Additionally, terrorists are frequently imagined as working together as part of a wider, coherent conspiracy, and that their supposed ideologies are simply the product of their upbringing. This in turn spawns the assumption that entire identity groups hold pro-terrorist ideologies. Third is the fear of people unlike themselves, which amplifies the fear of violent ideologies. Most Americans have a poor understanding of Islam and know few Muslims, and so claims that America is at war with an entire religion can appear credible.

In reality, support for groups like ISIS is pretty small, and even out of those that support the group, few are willing to carry out violence. Additionally, many of the motives for individuals to carry out terrorism are non-political, such as wanting to become someone in life or wanting to fit into a group of friends. Many pundits will lump yesterday’s Munich shooting in with other jihadist attacks simply because the attacker had Iranian citizenship, but initial information suggests jihadist ideology played no role in the attack.

The current responses to terrorism are failing, and will always fail. The fear has led us to imagine terrorism as primarily a problem of terrorists: there is a finite number of terrorists, and if they are killed, terrorism will cease. But terrorism exists in a broader social and political context, and violence used to kill terrorists will almost always prompt others to feel that their culture is under attack. It is important to acknowledge that many terrorists are responding to grievances such as unemployment, social isolation, and unequal international relations, and to remember that addressing these can help reduce tensions. But we must also remember that terrorism will always exist in some limited form. Even if all the injustices of the world were all ironed away, some people would still feel that their freedoms and privileges were being impinged on, and that violence is the only solution.

This conclusion may be unsettling, but acknowledging both that terrorism will exist and that it is fundamentally not very threatening is crucial. Because terrorism itself is not profoundly dangerous; government responses to terrorism are. States can wield far more violence than terrorist groups, and state violence can lead to wars that kill thousands of Westerners and hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners. Counter-terrorist policies can take away our freedoms and cause us to turn on entire identity groups. No terrorist group in North America or Western Europe could alone dream of such a success.


Brexit, Expertise, and Finding Meaning in Political Life

10 Jul

On both sides of the Atlantic, openly xenophobic and anti-establishment movements are gaining momentum. Brexit and Trump, two movements that would have been impossible to imagine even two years ago, are proudly ignoring facts, stoking racism, and at least in the case of Brexit, winning. Why?

I believe the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise are not mere blips, and instead underscore two central problems in modern Western democracies. The first is the failure of expertise, specifically that of elites, to convince the public of its worth and veracity. The second is the failure of liberal political movements (Democratic Party in the US, pro-EU Labour/Conservatives in the UK) to provide an attractive version of the future that people can latch onto.

Some writers have asked whether we’re living in “post-factual democracies” and focused on how information is distributed, especially with the increased use of social media. While there are certainly some interesting effects of social media, like the political clustering it produces, the issue is much less with how information is distributed than with how it is interpreted. For Brexit’s claim that money sent to the EU would be given to the National Health Service or Trump’s claim that Mexicans are rapists to be believed, people have to be so distrusting of the current political system that they’re willing to set aside all the facts and norms associated with it. Yes it might not be true, but the system is much less trustworthy.

It is not that we’re living in a dystopian present, and that there was a recent past where people could easily separate truth from lies. But what has changed qualitatively it seems, is that people are losing faith that liberal political movements and governments will produce the political outcomes they aspire to. While it would be comforting to adopt a Marxist critique, and attribute the relative unpopularity of pluralism solely to austerity and liberals’ reticence to bank hard left, thus fully embracing social democracy, it would neglect the ideological component. Over the last two and a half decades, intellectuals and politicians are failing to shape a vision of politics that provides meaning to the individual.

I’m not sure this failing is particular to the current crop of leaders and thinkers, and is partially the result of popular expectations in the current historical moment. The fall of the Soviet Union represented the vanishing of an obvious, existential threat to Western democracies, providing leaders with few excuses for economic and social stasis. Simply, it is difficult to assure people that the world can only get better, that all the major struggles have been overcome, when it seems the next generation might be worse off.

In the absence of rapid material progress for the upwardly mobile, politics also needs a powerful ideological component; something people can find meaning in, something people can identify with. Technocratic, incrementalist politics, so common among today’s liberal political parties, does not deliver this. Part of the problem is that the institutions representing the international order that liberalism aspires to evoke little sentimentality. Few people feel personally involved in attempts by the UN or World Bank to solve the world’s problems through multilateral diplomacy and development. Not only in international organizations, but also in national governments, there is a growing economic and cultural gap between those that make decisions and those that are supposed to benefit from them. This encourages suspicion of these institutions and those within them. Hillary’s historic unpopularity is a testament to this dynamic.

This is where nationalism, and other forms of identity politics of the dominant, come in. Unlike technocratic liberalism, nationalism provides its disciples with an identity and a mission. “Make America Great Again” is compelling, because it serves both as a call to action and a vision for the future. And especially in an era when it seems pluralist politics can’t deliver the goods for all, nationalist movements like Trump pledge to restore a supposedly marginalized group to its imagined previous prosperity, implicitly at the expense of outsiders. Not only does nationalism become attractive as a antidote to failed liberalism, but anti-politicians, who deride the norms of political life and even basic decency, like Farage, Trump, and (Boris) Johnson, appear “authentic”, untainted by the failure of political institutions.

The need for meaning in politics is well-articulated by Shadi Hamid here, speaking about Islam and political life in the Middle East:

As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, ‘Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?’ But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It [can be] about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise…There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering. I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives…

Hamid isn’t the only one to make such an argument. In Modernity’s Wager, Adam Seligman posits the need to reincorporate the sacred (i.e. religion) into Western societies to prevent extremism from flourishing outside mainstream political life. Now Seligman was writing in the early-2000’s, immediately in the aftermath of 9/11, when religious extremism seemed to some a potentially catastrophic threat to Western liberalism. Fifteen years later, it’s clear that’s not the case. But Seligman isn’t wrong about the need for meaning in politics, but it is not clear to me that that meaning has to be organized religion, especially as religious adherence declines rapidly in Western democracies.

In the last half-decade, several leftist movements have sought to challenge liberal technocratic hegemony. There’s Sanders in the US, Corbyn in the UK, PODEMOS in Spain, and Syriza in Greece. They have all adopted an anti-elitist, anti-capitalist approach to politics, leading many to describe them as “populists”. I am, however, deeply skeptical the term has any meaning (Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is relevant here; it’s on my bookshelf but I haven’t read it yet).

Most basically, what all four do understand is the need to make ordinary people feel that they have an active role to play in politics. They have largely done so by painting a picture of the majority of society engaging in a struggle for survival against a small, wealthy elite. While this may or may not be the right story to tell, liberal political parties need to incorporate similar approaches. It is certainly important to recognize that “left populists” are not perfect, and sometimes promote impractical strategies. However, do liberal elites really have any other choice if they want to to fend off racist, xenophobic, and nationalist elements? The liberal order is not as strong as it once was.

For liberal/left intellectuals, the success of politicians in both creating a form of politics invested with meaning and delivering goods and services is of tantamount importance. Academics aren’t always looked at as beacons of knowledge in today’s society, especially on the right, and it doesn’t help when the politics that many academics espouse are unpopular. However, there’s still intellectual work to be done. As John Sonbanmatsu argues in The Postmodern Prince, the left needs a new way to view the world following the fall of communism. Postmodernist theory remains obtuse and terribly impractical, while technocratic liberalism isn’t cutting it either. Intellectuals need to do a better job of sketching what the future might look like and how to realistically get there if there is to be a renewal in trust of the academy’s expertise.