Friday, February 20, 2015

David Brooks Tries to Define Islamic Extremism, Defines American Religious Extremism Instead

Truth eludes our Mr. Brooks again. Oh, well, his commenters found it for him.

David Brooks get paid a lot, one imagines, to represent the thoughtful conservative's muse. Instead, he more often than not unleashes the puzzled conservative's knucklehead. It's always wrapped in something that vaguely resembles moderate analysis -- while attacking Barack Obama's liberal failings.

That Barack Obama is neither a liberal nor a failure sometimes gets in Brooks' way. But enough. Here's what provokes actual thoughtful people this week. As background, remember that Fox News and other brainiac energies in the right-wingosphere are all atwitter because our president refuses to legitimize ISIS by calling them Islamist, maintaining -- reasonably, I claim -- that they don't deserve religious cover for their malevolent barbarism. So, then, Brooks avers:
The struggle against Islamic extremism has been crippled by a failure of historical awareness and cultural understanding. From the very beginning, we have treated the problem of terrorism through the prism of our own assumptions and our own values. We have solipsistically assumed that people turn to extremism because they can’t get what we want, and fail to realize that they don’t want what we want, but want something they think is higher.
Oh, yeah, Brooks, our mistake is that we think Muslims just want a bag of Fritos, a Pepsi, and a seat at an X-Men screening. Thanks for explaining the difference between what we want and they want, with them wanting something "they think is higher." Please continue:
At the summit meeting, President Obama gave the conventional materialistic explanation for what turns people into terrorists. Terrorism spreads, he argued, where people lack economic opportunity and good schools. The way to fight terror, he concluded, is with better job-training programs, more shared wealth, more open political regimes, and a general message of tolerance and pluralism.
In short, the president took his secular domestic agenda and projected it as a way to prevent young men from joining ISIS and chopping off heads.
But people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end.
They’re not doing it because they are sexually repressed. They are doing it because they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.
There it is, the requisite attack on Barack Obama. Trouble is, Obama's right, and Brooks succeeds in elevating the motives of ISIS. But I won't explain just how far off Brooks is. I'll let his commenters explain for us:
I've long pondered what is needed to cure religious extremism. So it would be a relief to have the answers from Professor Brooks, except that he's not got the answers.

He is right about one thing: "Extremism isn’t mostly about Islam. It is about a yearning for righteousness rendered malevolent by apocalyptic theology". Which explains America's very own brand of religious extremism that inflicts terror on non-believers in the form of highly effective lobbying against abortion, gay marriage, secular schooling, income inequality, employer-paid contraception, and a host of other issues based on malevolent theology. Separation of church and state, my tuchus.

He's also right in saying "These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year". Witnessed by the alarmingly broad swath of Americans who regularly vote against their well-being and economic interests.

Now, there's no shortage of nationalism in these people's America, so it would seem that nationalism alone does not cure religious extremism. And let's not forget that nationalism spawns empires and war, so, thanks but no thanks, Mr. Brooks.

American presidents focus on the economic and political level not because it's what they're comfortable talking about, but because those are elements they can actually influence. How a president can counter malevolent theology - in the middle east let alone at home - escapes me, and it would seem escapes Mr. Brooks as well.
Spot on. Next please:
It is a disturbing thought that one can substitute a few choice words or phrases in Mr. Brook's column and the situation that would be described is the pompous, self-righteous religious extremism so prevalent in our American society today. Anti-abortion, anti-climate change, anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-gay marriage, anti-secular schooling, festering gun ownership and the right to shoot anyone dead because of fear generated by different skin color, income inequality, corporation''s religious beliefs, and a host of other issues, all justified by religiosity, constitute our own special brand of terrorism.
These are the two most recommended comments by David Brooks' own readers. They hit the nail on the head and clearly decipher what's wrong with both Brooks' thesis-du-jour and the conservative view-du-monde.

His readers see what he cannot, or will not. And how ironic that his caterwauling articulates the religious right's fundamental flaws. Let's end with a comment that squares the circle:
Perverted spiritual ardor applies to both sides. George W. Bush consulted his God before blundering us into a war that has triggered many unintended consequences. Muslim clerics are in no hurry to fix the theology that permeates their society and motivates its madness. It's working just fine in their view.

Obama's secular response many not work, but the apocalyptic spiritual vision of conservatives seems just as perverted. If the goal is to avoid a theological battle that will bring on the End Times, secular seems the only sane way to go. Instead, we have a frightening line-up of the usual Republican suspects waiting in the wings, thumping their bibles, denying science and fomenting their own apocalyptic visions.

Rapacious Middle Eastern leadership has left millions of young men disenfranchised, displaced and unemployed. American military adventurism has made us targets for theologically-fueled anger. There is no quick fix to a problem that we have exacerbated for decades, but there will certainly be a protracted conflict that presidential speeches have no power to stop.
Amen to that.

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