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Jewish World Review Jan, 31, 2002 / 18 Shevat, 5762

Jonathan Rauch

Jonathan Rauch
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Don't Fear Bin Ladenism's Strength. Fear Its Weakness -- SUPPOSE you wanted to design a dysfunctional culture. What, exactly, might you do? Well, first of all, you would need to know what "dysfunctional culture" meant. Mediocre movies and bland cuisine? That would be Canada. No, in this context "dysfunctional culture" refers to something deeper: a culture's inability to pass along, from one generation to the next, values that build rather than erode social and personal peace, prosperity, and security.

Japan, among others, demonstrates that a resource-poor culture can thrive impressively; the remarkable accomplishments of the Jews show that neither an empire nor an army nor even a nation-state is essential. A large population can be a plus, but a very small country, such as Switzerland, can also do enviably well. Some theorists have described human beings as the "ultimate resource," but the real ultimate resource is human culture, the medium that knits individuals into societies and that transmits those societies' morals and manners across decades and centuries.

For a society -- as opposed to just a few people in it -- to thrive over time, it needs to transmit values and habits that encourage industry and thrift, learning and curiosity, and trust and cooperation. I'll go out on a limb. Absent a natural cataclysm or foreign conquest, any culture that transmits such future-oriented values will succeed, no matter where it is, how it starts out, and who makes up its members. Any culture that cannot transmit those values or that, worse yet, transmits their opposites will stagnate or fail, no matter how many advantages it starts out with.

OK. How do we create a culture that is sure to fail? A good place to begin is with misogyny. Women make up half the population, and where educating and acculturating young children is concerned, they tend to be the more important half. "The single most important factor determining how well children do in life is the mother's education," says Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. An excellent way, then, to interrupt the transmission of values conducive to learning would be to create conditions in which young women are deprived of educations. To strangle a society, start by kicking the girls out of school.

As for the schools themselves, you would want to see that not much useful learning went on there. Students might attend class, but they would be mostly passing time or, worse, learning antisocial habits. The curriculum would be too easy, too narrow, or both.

Even this might not be enough to douse the natural desire to learn. So you would also want to make the society hostile to critical thinking and intellectual endeavor. If someone challenged the approved view of things, or seemed too much the intellectual, you would want to marginalize her, taunt her, harass her, punish her.

Now we're getting somewhere. But creating a really dysfunctional culture isn't easy, so there is still more to do. To militate against thrift, you need to create a mind-set in which people live for the present, regarding the end -- their own or the world's -- as near. To suppress industry, you need to cultivate a victim mind-set, in which people are encouraged to think of themselves as being at the mercy of a hostile outside world. It would help to inculcate a certain amount of paranoia (blaming foreigners, capitalists, or Jews is always convenient), and so you will want to bring to the fore charismatic demagogues who specialize in finding conspirators and oppressors to blame for whatever is wrong with life.

It will be important, too, to ensure that only failure is viewed as success. If someone prospers, she should be regarded as a sellout. Failure should be seen as a credential, a badge of solidarity: as, socially speaking, success. Success, in conventional terms, should be regarded as a betrayal of the group or its ideals. If some lucky opportunity does happen to come along, people should be encouraged to turn it aside as an insult to their virtue or a threat to their way of life.

So far, so good. But one final ingredient remains, perhaps the most important of all. Civilized manners and modern politics work overtime to foster conciliation and compromise, to downplay or defuse conflict where it arises, and above all to stigmatize violence. Democracy, capitalism, and science are all social systems that channel conflict away from violence and toward productive competition (in science, as the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, we kill our hypotheses rather than each other).

A dysfunctional culture must do the opposite. It must heighten conflict at every turn, expose thin skins, and make even minor gestures of disrespect grounds for beating or shooting. It must glorify those who beat or kill for honor, glorify those who avenge the beatings or killings, and glorify those who die. It must celebrate rather than stigmatize violence.

Now we have it. Children brought up in our future-hating culture will live amid poverty, ignorance, and mayhem. Their own children will fare no better than they, probably worse. The children will grow up in a world without a future. Culture, human advancement's great engine, would instead become its enemy.

Where might one look for such a future-hating culture? One answer, right now, seems pretty obvious. Militant Islam (as distinct from mainstream Islam) subordinates women and their education, teaches a cramped and backward religious curriculum in its schools, punishes criticism and questioning beyond the narrowest of bounds, blames the West or the Jews or the Americans for its problems, discourages long-term thinking by focusing on the world to come, views economic success as a sellout to Mammon, chokes off political pluralism, and celebrates violence and death in the service of all of the above. One need not, however, look halfway around the world to find a future-hating culture. One can look at inner cities in America.

Militant Islam and the culture of what has been called the American underclass (a term that is admittedly hard to define) are very, very different. The differences far outnumber the similarities. Still, the two cultures achieve some of the same ends. Gangsta culture bristles with misogyny; early childbirth and absentee fatherhood disrupt and derail many girls' educations; schools often function as warehouses, or worse; studious children risk being treated as traitors; gangbanging and drive-bys make the future seem remote and sometimes irrelevant; more than a few demagogues point fingers everywhere and find ennoblement in poverty; all too often, violence looks like the surest path to status.

These are generalizations -- in fact overgeneralizations, to make a point -- about cultures, not people or races or religions. Most inner-city Americans want nothing to do with gangsta culture, just as most Muslims want nothing to do with bin Ladenism. The point is not that all or even most people in a future-hating culture are future-hating people (many are trapped), or that future-hating cultures are all alike. The point is only that future-hating cultures are not as exotic or alien as Americans might like to think.

Because dysfunctional cultures are dysfunctional, they tend to die out over time. But they are not helpless. They can prolong their survival by isolating themselves and demonizing the outside world. If that fails -- if the outside world filters in and if the talented and ambitious filter out -- they can lash out. They can bolster internal unity by fomenting external fear. The one sort of power a dysfunctional culture possesses, whether in Kandahar or Ramallah or Belfast or Chicago, is the power to terrorize -- through violence, charisma, and a swaggering embrace of death. The power to frighten the pudgy, prosperous bourgeoisie is the only kind of power against the outside world that some gangbangers and militant Islamists will ever know.

Islam, I think, will gradually pry itself free of bin Ladenism, just as America's inner cities are already backing away from gangsta culture. In the long run, dysfunctional cultures are self-consuming or hang on only in concentrated pockets. On their way out, however, they are explosively dangerous. They are containable, but at a cost. The people who want to escape need help leaving; the people who want to keep them captive need to be jailed or bombed.

For the past century or two in the Islamic world, future-hating values have tended to drive out future-embracing ones. Now the future is here. Hunters say a wounded animal is more dangerous than a healthy one. The task for the West is not so much to defeat militant Islam as it is to manage militant Islam's self-destruction -- possibly a trickier job. Looking ahead, beyond Afghanistan to Pakistan and Sudan and Saudi Arabia and other fever swamps of militant Islam, it may help to bear in mind that what initially looked like the clash of two cultures is better understood as the catastrophic collapse of one of them.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal. Comment by clicking here.


01/17/02: Next Stop In The War Against Terrorism: Damascus
01/03/02: Countering the smallpox threat
12/06/01: Discovered! The Mullahs' minutes, or: How to end Western society
11/05/01: Why Bush (Senior) Didn't Blow It in the Gulf War
10/01/01: Charter Schools: A New Hope For America's Latinos
09/20/01: What leaders said about the attack--and what they meant
08/22/01: They Secretly Cloned Mozart!

© 2002, Jonathan Rauch