We don’t always, don’t usually act from ideas

It’s odd to read Fouad Ajami’s tribute to Samuel Huntington as Israeli warplanes batter Gaza.

Huntington is best known, of course, not for his writings about the Palestinian question, but for his 1993 thesis of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the Christian West, which gained so many admirers and adherents after September 11th.

For Ajami, who now counts himself among the true believers, the thesis was an assault on the globalist zeitgeist of its era, proof that the dealings of Davos man could not secure peace and prosperity throughout the world. The passage that caught my attention runs as follows:

Critics insisted that men want Sony, not soil. But on 9/11, young Arabs — 19 of them — would weigh in. They punctured the illusions of an era, and gave evidence of the truth of Huntington’s vision. With his typical precision, [Huntington] had written of a “youth bulge” unsettling Muslim societies, and young, radicalized Arabs, unhinged by modernity and unable to master it, emerging as the children of this radical age.

But here’s the rub. The application and adoption of Huntington’s clash thesis after the events of 9/11 probably did as much to obscure the motives of those 19 young men as it did to illuminate them. Were the extraordinary acts of the 9/11 attackers really an attempt to “weigh in” on the success or failure of Davos or even to advance the “clash” between Islam and the West?

To consider actions as “evidence” of a social scientific “vision” always runs the risk of subsuming them under a grand theory — where they are bound to be lost or lose any of their original complexity as well as any trace of their humanity.

People have rightly worried about this when they’ve commented that Huntington’s thesis is much too broad: to speak of Islam today as a coherent “civilization” or of the Christian West in similar terms imposes a neat social scientific model on a complex and heterogeneous reality. Look within Islam today — in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Hamtramck, Michigan — and the picture is much more complex; visit most countries in Western Europe where the youth bulge is in evidence and you will gain the same impression: people don’t simply live in ideological blocs.

Human communities, villages, towns, neighborhoods, cities are not, can never really be the societies that social scientists talk about. Or at least they are organized less around ideas and causes than social scientists would have us believe. A civilization is not a cult. Or, to put it another way, to bomb Gaza is not just to bomb Hamas. That only works in military simulations, on TV or in the grand parlors of social theorists: it’s make believe.

That the 9/11 hijackers may have thought of themselves as emissaries of a cause, even of a lost civilization, the avengers of al-Andalus, seems likely; but then they took many steps in the days leading up to the attacks that seem wholly inconsistent with that notion. Maybe they only sometimes believed that they had hitched themselves up to a great cause. Maybe nobody can consistently and always act from such a belief. In any case, it seems to me that taking their suicidal delusions, or the suicidal theology of Islamic jihad, to explain their actions is simply to rehash jihadist apologetics without ever really trying to understand them.

It may be more difficult to consider how people act with or without clear and coherent ideas, or motives, or ends in mind, and it won’t yield anything like a grand theory; but it might just get you closer to the truth.

People — you and I — don’t ordinarily act from historical theses, nor do we usually carry the weight of history with us as we plan to act, despite what Hollywood and Huntington would like us to think.

Revolutionaries and assassins and other sociopaths may, at least when drafting their apologies or ransom notes or memoires. I wonder if they can always sustain the illusion, and if they do, how they do it. I wonder, too, if they share with the political scientists the same delusion about the coherence and consistency of human action, and the relation of action to idea.

And I wonder, further, if one could — just for kicks, or even in all seriousness — correlate the emergence of a particular type of sociopath, jihadi, revolutionary, or murderer with the emergence of a “social science” or a scientific view of society.

2 thoughts on “We don’t always, don’t usually act from ideas

  1. Bret L. McAtee

    There is never a time when we don’t act from an idea. Ideas have consequences and consequences are the result of ideas.

    Thanks for leaving your link at ironink.


  2. Louis V. Galdieri

    I guess I would caution: never say never, unless of course by ideas you mean some very broad and fuzzy notion of the intention behind an action, which would accommodate shame and guilt, love and lust, anger and the whole register of human emotions. That’s why, incidentally, the Bible or Homer or Shakespeare or even a good novel is ultimately a much better account of the human condition than any work of social science. To paraphrase Fritz Lang, the heart will always mediate between the head and hand. And even before we start talking about consequences I think we can agree that unexpected things can and usually do happen on the way to the hand from the head, from idea to action. Our ideas, after all, are mediated and understood and articulated through all the ambiguities and uncertainties and pitfalls of language. Finally, among the unexpected consequences actions can have are other, contradictory and conflicting ideas. Anyway, my argument is mainly about the inadequacies of social science when it comes to accounting for experience as it is lived, for history, in other words.



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