The New Way of War: In Defense of the Civil Disobedient

by Adam Katz (Dec. 2006)


        What is unique about our war with totalitarian Islam is that, on the face of it, our enemy is absurdly weak, the sources of its power so limited.  The Mullahs of Iran have run their country into the ground in their not yet thirty years in power; the Taliban lasted a mere six and managed perhaps as much destruction.  They have shown a capacity to destroy and none to construct, and even their powers of destruction are extremely limited, with only the possibility of them obtaining nuclear weapons posing a serious danger; and we can easily stop them from obtaining such weapons, as no one will deny that, if it comes to it, we could destroy the technological capacity of the Iranian state and quarantine virtually all sources of penetration of totalitarian Islam into Western society.  The possibility of a Pakistani state under Islamist control possessing nuclear weapons complicates matters, but even here, we could make that outcome extremely unlikely by razing the tribal borderlands where much support of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is found and, perhaps, targeting the Islamist-friendly secret police directly or in concert with President Musharraf (or any future president who wishes to continue to live).

        In fact, the real source of their power is in the high probability that we will do none of these things; indeed, we would probably find that the power of totalitarian Islam is directly proportional to the likelihood that not only will we not carry out these simple (albeit difficult and consequential) policies, but that we will do everything in our power to avoid constructing policies that would in turn increase the likelihood that we might confront such options or even come to see them as reasonable.  Thus, the effect of each terrorist or Islamist outrage is to create the odd fear of what we might do in response.

        Everyone knows that we will not do the worst—we will not employ all the force at our disposal, and this further means that we will also not use any amount of force that would have, morally speaking, the same effect as using all of that at our disposal, thus dramatically reducing the actual force available to us (would it really matter if we dropped one or 200 nukes?).  This implicates us in a double bind—it is virtually impossible for us to use the “right” amount of force because anything short of utterly obliterating our enemies demonstrates that we have already introduced into our calculations a whole range of what we consider unacceptable costs, many of them intangible and immeasurable, most of them determined by the actions of others, usually those who take no responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

        I am not going to argue here that we should do the worst, or introduce into our deliberations the various “pros and cons” of doing so.  But we must first of all realize that that simply taking for granted that certain options are off the table leaves in our enemies’ hands the only weapon they really need:  the power of blackmail.  A blanket and thoughtless refusal to consider employing the destructive force at our disposal takes on the nature of a taboo, which is to say something we rush to renounce because it is also our deepest desire, and realizing that desire would represent our own destruction.  On this account, genocidal or even omnicidal nihilism is the very essence of our advanced, Western, democratic, capitalist civilization.  We must understand the plausibility of this account for many of our fellow citizens before we reject it:  if we take “Auschwitz” to be the foundational event of our postmodern era, and to be foundational because of our universal complicity, however indirect, then the converging tendencies of capitalism, nationalism, imperialism, mass politics, uncontrolled scientific and technological development, all constitutive of the modern world, can easily be taken to lead inexorably to the precision targeting of whole populations on grounds of “purity,” “progress,” “efficiency,” “stability” or perhaps some other criterion yet unanticipated.  And, given the existence of nuclear weapons, the operation of such tendencies, unrestrained, would end up targeting us all.

        In that case, how to restrain such tendencies, to defer such desires?  If modernity is driven by rivalries between social forces with control of what is “human” ultimately at stake, coupled with increasingly destructive technologies, nothing less than a taboo, or a new form of the sacred, will do.  What we have come to call “PC” or multiculturalism is nothing other than the bundling together of a range of taboos aimed at restraining these rivalries—the very incoherence and improvised nature of political correctness and multiculturalism point to the cobbling together of prohibitions out of the experience of various “scares,” real, hyped and manufactured, involving the “excessive” labeling of enemies, the codification of racial differences, the introduction of scientific norms into spheres reserved for moral judgment, and so on.  Anything, in short, that, if taken to its “logical conclusion,” could lead us to “Auschwitz,” can be brought under the taboo.  This, of course, makes the possible extension of the taboo virtually infinite:  the more refined our multicultural sensibilities, the more previously unexceptional practices appear as “hate crimes.” 

        If my analysis thus far is correct, our contemporary polarization involves competing faiths and not a narrowly political disagreement at all.  One faith, the one I have been describing, White Guilt, or what Eric Gans calls the “guilt of the unmarked toward the marked,” presents as “marked” anything “stigmatized” as “abnormal,” in both the “normative” and merely “statistical” sense.  In a free society, we have a right to believe that over the long run, these two senses of the normal will tend to converge (what is decent will also be what is widespread); for White Guilt, this convergence is the most virulent source of violence against the “Other” (mere statistical difference is marked as deviance).  Insofar as Auschwitz, for all of us, is of the order of a revelation, the worshippers at the altar of White Guilt can no more be argued out of their faith than they were argued into it.

        One form of the sacred can only be countered by another, and the only effective weapon is sustained sacrilege aimed at undoing the presumed causal link implicit in any mode of sacrality between transgression and the contamination of the community.  Which raises the question, what is sacred for “us,” who I will define as those who take the present crisis as a call to renew our stake in Western civilization (as opposed to those who would simply enjoy its results)?  But, more fundamentally, what is the sacred in the first place?  For Eric Gans, whose “originary hypothesis” regarding the origin of language has been the foundation of my argument, the sacred emerges along with the first sign, which simultaneously produces the human.  I will now briefly review Gans’ hypothesis and then show how it provides us with an understanding of sacrality that can be shared by secular and religious alike, and is adequate to our present political and cultural needs.

        For Gans, the first sign emerges on what he calls the originary scene, in the originary event.  We begin by presupposing the advanced mimetic capacities of those primates who were our immediate predecessors; we further presuppose the tendency of mimesis to lead to rivalry:  if I take you as my model, I must want what you want, ultimately, exactly what you now possess.  We can then further presuppose the recurrence of mimetic crises, in which the very existence of the group is put at stake due to such violent eruptions.  We must then imagine an event in which one, and then more, and ultimately all, of the members of the group put forth what Gans calls an “aborted gesture of appropriation.”  This gesture embodies the renunciation of the object, and can then be imitated in turn.  Here we have the first sign:  a cultural invention (the first one) which can be repeated, and which has a “meaning” irreducible to the biological or ethological characteristics of the members of the group because this meaning depends upon a common attention and “synchronized” behavior with regard to some central object.  The “pecking order” which maintains cohesion in the animal group has been overridden in the mimetic crisis; only the sign, sustained by all, can now protect the group from its own propensity toward violence.

        Representation, then, is the deferral of violence; the human emerges as that species which poses the greatest danger to its own existence.  No person of faith, I believe, need object to these formulations, and we generative anthropologists can engage in dialogue with even the most “fundamentalist” believer because the object which has been commonly renounced is now the first sacred object insofar as that renunciation is the foundation of (what is now) the community.  The object has, almost literally, saved us, because we can’t help but attribute to the object the “power” which has enabled our renunciation (that “almost literally” marks the point at which it would be a dialogue and not an identity with believers in the literal truth of scripture).

        What follows from Gans’ hypothesis is that our primary obligation as participants in a culture is the defense and extension of the prevailing sign of the community, which is the result of a series of modes of deferral and reciprocity that have evolved through innumerable events hearkening back in form and outcome to the originary one.  Generative anthropology resists both cultural relativism and utopianism:  it is capable of distinguishing between higher and lower cultural forms in terms of more or less advanced, comprehensive, and replicable modes of deferral; while it recognizes that social and moral progress can only proceed through crises and events which we are always in the midst of, and not from any external or “rational’ standpoint. 

        More directly, GA, leads us to a defense of modern market society and a constitutionalist order, while acknowledging the debt of both to Athens, Jerusalem and Rome.  What is sacred for us is the incommensurable liberty of each individual, and market society allows for the constant differentiation which answers to such liberty while deferring the resentment generated by the unleashed mimesis characteristic of our modern order; and constitutionalist politics acknowledges the authority of those founding events whereby political society, relying upon the Judaic revelation denouncing any concentration of ritual and distributive power, establishes a covenant banishing tribal loyalties and commanding that we direct our resentment toward any privileging within the legal order of a particular individual or group. 

        We have what we might call a “minimal” faith, then, to counter that of White Guilt, one that can unite Christians, Jews, those Muslims who accept the status of Islam as one faith on the marketplace of faiths, and secular believers in individual liberty, intellectual and spiritual autonomy and limited government.  We can even confront White Guilt on its own, sacred terrain, because for us, “Auschwitz” has revelatory power as well:  our universal complicity and answerability to “Auschwitz” lies in the testimony of the victims of the Nazis, which we (or those who were “us” then) did not hear or act on with sufficient urgency.  Our obligation to this voice is to be prepared to hear it before it is too late, which also implies the defense of those institutions and norms capable of registering it.  But this also means modifying those institutions, which did fail (and one needs no claim of moral equivalence to accept this), and whose failure lay in our reliance upon their normal functioning, our assumption that their normal functioning was adequate to the crisis.  But a crisis requires the retrieval of the sacred origins of our institutions, and the most prominent political form which this retrieval has taken post-Auschwitz is civil disobedience, which signifies nothing more than that all of us are responsible for the consequences of our actions, no matter where we may be found on the “chain of command.”

The kernel of truth in White Guilt is that if we were to unleash the full force of our might against what would inevitably be a relatively powerless opponent we would simultaneously be planting the seeds of civil war in our own society.  The truth is, we don’t really fear producing further uprisings among the “wretched of the earth.”  Our fear is that if some of us made others of us complicit in genocide we would no longer be able to live together.  Rather than a conventional shooting war among factions in the West, the aftermath of going “all out” would be gradual poisoning of relations as we all look at each other and see reflected our own dereliction of duty to resist our collective “re-primitivization” (to use Mark’s Steyn’s term), or our inability to match the re-premitivization of the world with anything other than a thoughtless mimetic response.  It is true that if we turned out to be capable of that, there is very little that we could assume (of each other and ourselves) that we wouldn’t be capable of.  The power of White Guilt lies, I would suggest, in this implicit threat to withdraw consent and initiate (or, perhaps, accelerate) this process of civilizational suicide–for White Guilt, this is a form of blackmail, applied in perfect harmony with victimary blackmail, which itself aims at inducing this civil war cum civilizational suicide (it might be compared to the strife introduced among a family, one of whose members is being held hostage, with any decision, made by any member, being potentially the fatal one, with no criteria for deciding what that might be–in such a condition of suspense, the maintenance of solidarity would become extremely difficult, the temptation to be ready to displace blame onto another almost irresistible).  But we could only resist this power to the extent that we recognize the destruction White Guilt continually pre-empts in its own virtual reality as a genuine possibility.

Civil disobedience, meanwhile, simultaneously provokes, represents and defers such civil strife.  A refusal to obey unjust laws, the insistence upon putting such disobedience on public display, and an acceptance of the punishment due to the law breaker both defies and respects the ruling authorities and prevailing social covenant; it compels supporters and opponents of the unjust law to present themselves accordingly, and to begin sorting out so far unacknowledged divisions across the whole range of institutions and social strata.  The civil disobedient presents himself as an example, and demands only that everyone else explicitly follow or repudiate that example.  The civil disobedient, in other words, is a political sign who intensifies social antagonisms while absorbing them into himself (or themselves), ready to be a scapegoat while representing the futility of all scapegoating.   The civil disobedient, like the martyr or saint, is a rarity who transforms the universe of moral possibilities and whose possibility serves as an index of the political health of a society.  A paradoxical index, to be sure:  the necessity for civil disobedience clearly indicates serious flaws in the social order, but its vigorous presence reveals that the resources for correcting those flaws are present, while the spread of the qualities characteristic of the civil disobedient (one who does what he wants and in doing so comes to want to do the right things) would lead to the ultimate disappearance of the thing itself.  (I would add that on what we might call the esthetic level, genuine civil disobedience requires ingenuity, inventiveness and a sense of “form”:  the law must be broken in just the right way, so as to create a double bind for one’s fellow citizens whereby either suppressing or permitting your transgression undermines the law in question—in fact, we might say that this esthetic criteria is the best way of telling whether the civil disobedient is in fact right about the unjustness of the law he or she confronts.)

Civil disobedience represents our highest traditions, which are all bound up in the divine liberty first introduced into the world by the revelation of the Mosaic God, the liberty to begin anew, to initiate a chain of actions irreducible to either biological or social causality.  And there is also, then, a kind of “spirit” of civil disobedience which requires, in our social analyses, that we leave open a margin of possibility that such freedom might manifest itself at any time.  This is highly relevant to our present war against totalitarian Islam and, more precisely, to the question of whether we want to emphasize the “totalitarian” or the “Islam” in that formulation.  If constitutionalists are going to present and sustain a united front against the metastasizing forces of alliance between White Guilt and totalitarian Islam, we will need to address, at some point, this mini civil war in our own ranks, a civil war between those who believe our ultimately enemy is Islam (while allowing that individual Muslims might repudiate or—less likely, it seems—lead a dramatic transformation of Islam) and those who see our enemies as those who have “hijacked” a faith we could otherwise accommodate or even welcome.

My proposal is that we defer any attempt to settle this disagreement while searching in concert for policies that will not only work no matter which claim turns out to be true but will provide us with a steady stream of “data” helping us to answer it if the time comes when we no longer have any choice.  Even if we stipulate that an honest, thorough and objective analysis of Islam provides no grounds for hope that Islam will ever be able to live in peace with the non-Islamic world, much less with modern norms of freedom and tolerance, we are faced with the equally compelling claim that human beings have repeatedly, throughout history, done the “impossible” and found unprecedented means of deferring destructive conflicts (of course I don’t claim that they have always, or even usually done so).  And that the more we look for signs of the “impossible” the more likely we are to find (and thereby enhance) them while, conversely, the more we ready ourselves to exclude them due to the weight of “precedents,” the more certain it is that we will miss or dismiss them.  What we want to create, in that case, is situations where social interactions outside of Islamic norms must be registered and processed publicly.

The implication of this argument is that the best policy we could adopt right now is what would, I acknowledge, essentially be a radicalization of the Bush Doctrine:  a combination of “pre-emptive” war aimed at regime change with a defense of the civil disobedient.  I also acknowledge that such an argument is not likely to be particularly popular at the present moment, which I consider to be a low point in the war against totalitarian Islam, with the incessant pounding of the forces of White Guilt (the Left, national and international and the media) now inducing severe strains among conservatives, who, in the wake of the recent Republican defeat, seem quite ready to throw each other and in many cases the Iraqi people (who are blamed for a failure that is made more likely by that blame itself) overboard.  But this is why it is precisely now that such an argument needs to be made.

Two questions or claims account for the opposition to the Bush Doctrine by conservatives in particular; these objections were never adequately addressed by the Administration, but they deserve to be, and I will now try to address them so as to make my argument for the radicalization of the Doctrine.  First, what happens when free elections bring inimical or tyrannical regimes to power, thereby intensifying the problem they were meant to solve?  Second, simply because it fits our strategy to transform these societies along these lines, there is no reason to assume that the “human material” comprising them is at all fit for the transformation.  These are, of course, related questions, touching upon the unreadiness of the Arab and Muslim worlds for liberal democracy, and they also raise more basic questions about the cultural prerequisites of democracy and the actual political conditions (beyond elections) that we are willing to consider genuinely democratic.  I will not argue that the claim that Muslim societies are unsuited for democracy is overstated, although I believe the argument can be made, with regard to Iraq and Iran in particular; rather, I will simply stipulate to that claim, so that we can confront the questions in the most minimal way. 

So, when Muslim countries vote, they elect Islamic fundamentalists, terrorist gangs, and Parliaments which make Sharia the law of the land.  Two possibilities present themselves here:  one, we are now at war with a nation which has deliberately, collectively chosen that war; two, we now have an imperfect ally, whom we must continue to support and pressure, while our alliance begins to reach into civil society, promoting certain groups and tendencies over others (preferably by drawing upon our own civil society).  In the first case, we shift our support to those excluded and persecuted by the new order, framing our pressure in terms of the rights of groups we assert a special interest in (say, Christians, or women), while constraining the new government in everyway possible—short of war if possible, by including war if necessary.  And if war becomes necessary, well, we must be ready to transgress the doctrine in order to save it.

And even in this case we will have, again, at the very least, brought such societies out of what Lee Harris calls the “fantasy ideologies” which enthrall them–in the Muslim world, in particular, the fantasy of an eternal “resistance” to the West, to the Crusaders, to imperialism, to Zionism, to whatever–a resistance without criteria and without measurable consequences because the West’s dependence upon Middle Eastern oil means that we can neither ignore such victimary resentment (as we might do if it were coming, say–but this is why it is not coming–from Africa) nor settle accounts with it once and for all.  The Bush Doctrine, effectively implemented, would introduce symmetry, accountability, even a structure of causality into our relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

And regular elections are not a small thing, regardless of the contempt in which many seem to hold “illiberal democracy”; or to put it differently, there is no Chinese Wall between the liberal and illiberal variants:  the illiberal democracy will before too long liberalize or cease to be a democracy.  Moreover, the historically privileged route of gradual liberalization, development of a middle class, extension of the franchise and of civil liberties has pretty much been closed to us in the Muslim World.  Perhaps in countries like Jordan or Morocco, the development of a more liberal, and then more democratic culture within the framework of a fairly decent and legitimate monarchy is possible–even in these cases, that possibility is fading, if not gone.  Elsewhere, such regimes were destroyed long ago, and so there is no middle ground between autocracy and democracy.  Without elections, freedoms will never be taken seriously, and the longer you delay (imagine if we had not yet held elections in Iraq on the grounds that the “conditions were not yet ripe”), the greater the suspicion that you will never hold them, or if you do, only when you are assured of the results (which, by now, is also impossible, so that if you do hold out for favorable results you will look incompetent as well as repressive, a deadly combination). 

To accept the result of elections, once, twice, three and then four times, to have one ruler or party voluntarily step down in favor of another repeatedly, is already to exhibit some of the habits of liberalism, which are really simply advanced habits of deferral:  if I am capable of letting the other side win and rule for awhile because I know I will get my chance I will also be ready to let the other fellow speak or practice a different religion because when he is in power he will let me do so as well.  So, there is absolutely no reason why the simple act of repeated elections can’t take us quite a bit of the way toward genuine liberalism.

And why, after all, would people who have not yet done so, people who are used to dominating or being dominated, habituate themselves to such a regimen of deferral if not for the simple reason that they have experienced the alternatives (or have stepped back from the brink of them), have found those alternatives to be too horrible to undergo again (or contemplate), and are thereby kept on the only path capable of keeping those alternative at bay.  Indeed, could the origins of freedom and democracy lie anywhere else than in some pact made by antagonistic tribes which found themselves unable to conquer but capable of destroying each other; or found themselves facing a more formidable foe who could be defeated only with their combined powers?  Once such a pact, displacing the particular ritual center of each of the tribes or groups involved in favor of the sacralization of the pact itself, is secured and repeated, the details can be filled in afterward.  And for countries in the Muslim world today, those alternatives must be, on the one side, the far more horrible damages ethnic groups and states are capable of inflicting upon each other today and, on the other side—us.  To put it crudely, what must supplement the deficiency in cultural prerequisites is our giving these countries absolutely no other choice—once we decide we have no other ourselves.

And here, it seems to me, is the answer to those whose variant on the arguments I have been addressing focuses on Islam and the doctrines of violence, imperialism and intolerance built into it doctrinally and historically.  We could, perhaps, quarantine the Muslim world, but if we wanted to set up conditions under which Muslims themselves would be forced to confront the consequences of Islam in the modern world, and to either reform it accordingly or abandon it (and, first of all, to open a space in which Muslims could discuss these alternatives freely), then the radicalized Bush Doctrine I am proposing would provide the best conditions for that as well.  Only a genuinely political space, even an only partially open one, would make such contests over the fate of Islam possible:  fine, a democratically elected Parliament will implement Sharia, but then they will have to pass laws which actually define its meaning, bringing it into the secular realm; imams may be given a privileged place in the political order, perhaps akin to a Supreme Court, but they will also come under public criticism for their decisions.  We must have the patience to allow such processes to play themselves out, while at the same time setting some outer limits regarding, say, the execution of “apostates.”  In the meantime, while maintaining some degree of neutrality in supporting the processes established by a given state, we will also be free to insist upon some of the international prerequisites of internal democracy like, say, allowing missionaries to operate freely.

Predicating our relations with the world on the defense of the civil disobedient means to find allies wherever spaces are open or might be open within which civil disobedience would be meaningful in the first place.  It is often observed that civil disobedience is irrelevant in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s USSR, or Saddam’s Iraq—but even here we should not discount the examples which, however ineffective at the time, might, say, preserve some needed bit of honor for the German people that might make it possible to begin again following the catastrophe; and note that in Brezhnev’s USSR there could arise a Solzhenitsyn, a Sakharov, a Sharansky.  Still, let’s accept that it is in the American South or British India that such a form can best flourish and reveal its potential:  the line we are looking for is that between a social order in the dissident is locked away or murdered and only international pressures which intensify hostilities have any chance of making a difference, on the one hand, and on the other hand a social order in which the civil disobedient can draw upon internal and external allies who need not openly challenge or sever friendly relations with the government in question.  Our foreign policies should be organized primarily around clarifying that line and evincing determination that those countries on one side will be moved, willingly or not, to the other side.  Of course one could point to the paradox here of forcing others to be free but, first, that only holds on the collective level, while we deliberately shift our focus to the individual who, in fact, has not been asked; second, how can those who reject freedom in the name of the group complain about being forced; and, third, we can simply tolerate no longer states in which public opinion remains inscrutable to outsiders because we simply have no way of knowing what such states might be capable of—and there is no way opinion can become transparent to outsiders while bypassing the insiders.

        In our 9/11 world, defense of the civil disobedient converges with the rejection of victimary blackmail, that perverse form of exchange whose power derives from an intensification and partial reversal of existing asymmetries:  the victimary blackmailer can threaten to take from us what we are most attached to because he has demonstrated his own repudiation of that possession (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness).  Victimary blackmail is the logical conclusion and complement of White Guilt because it asserts in practice the assumption that the existing moral order is a sham given the power and privilege asymmetries it protects, while delivering the punishment the White Guilty among us believe we deserve.  The rise of White Guilt has encouraged totalitarian Islam, as the representative of all victimary elements within today’s global marketplace, to believe it could successfully instigate a corrosive, even terminal civil war amongst ourselves.  The answer is to transform our war with totalitarian Islam into a civil war within the Islamic world between, simply, those who wish to share the world with us and those who don’t; to do this as a way of deferring the potential civil war at home threatened by the moral infection of White Guilt; and the way of squaring this circle is by deploying that unique Western political instrument, the covenant, with those civil disobedients in the Muslim world whom we defend, and are seen to be defending, with all the inevitable compromises but ultimately with all our might.  At least a slight majority of constitutionalists, first of all in our own country, must be built and maintained for this policy, and this is only possible if we explicitly assert as our policy objectives, such as the defense of Christians, Jews and other minorities as well as women throughout the Muslim world, which can mobilize our interests and concrete solidarities as well as our idealism (I would further agree with Mark Steyn that part of building such a majority would be undermining structures of White Guilt operative domestically, such as the welfare state and the broader entitlement mentality—all a great source of possible exercises in civil disobedience—but I will leave that question out of this discussion). Nothing less will be necessary to preserve, or perhaps even rebuild, the basic terms of social interaction and even causality in a world where the worst is a real possibility.  And the first step is the calling of bluffs, the only really infallible weapon against blackmail, since it sends back into the blackmailer’s court the very divisions he wishes to impose upon us.


To learn more about the originary hypothesis and generative anthropology, you can visit Eric Gans’ Anthropoetics website, which includes the on-line journal Anthropoetics and Gans’ on-line column, Chronicles of Love & Resentment:



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