It is quite interesting how just a few short months ago we were burying the Republican Party. They were in a state of disarray with a crowd of presidential contenders each of which seem to be more flawed than the next. And Trump was the worst of the bunch. As his momentum grew there were more and more articles and analyses decrying the state of the Republican Party explaining how Trump was going to destroy it. The reliable sensible old guard (Romney, McCain, Bush) were not only abandoning candidates but actively working against them. Romney’s pointed and vitriolic attacks on Trump were shocking coming from the cool businessmen Republican. So what happened? How did one of the worst candidates who is the least prepared and lacks the basic manners for the job get elected?
It turns out that the Republicans can’t take credit for getting Trump elected, but the Democrats can take some blame. And it wasn’t Hillary’s fault either. Her campaign made mistakes but it was not the technical and strategic components of the campaign that made the difference; it was the smug identity politics of the left; it was that sense that if you disagree with me (a good liberal) you must be some simplistic uneducated fool who is racist and sexist. And I am equally guilty.
Liberalism is a political ideology fundamentally concerned with inclusion, rights, and individual freedom. In recent years it has become associated with sharp group identities demanding recognition and a tension between “celebrating differences” and seeking the commonalities that bind us together as a nation. Our history of privatizing ethnicity and religion, and using the overarching American national ideals (democracy, individual rights, etc.) as common factors has served us well. It has meant over the years that our personal identities are not wrapped up in religion and ethnicity but in political philosophy designed to treat each other equally. But as those “rights” became increasingly group identification rights such that groups were clamoring for distinction and difference rather than commonality the differences and cleavages amongst us became the focal point. Consequently, as the title of this essay indicates, public argument and deliberation to solve problems receded into the background as individuals foregrounded their personal identities and private pain.
Liberal activism in the service of identity politics – to the exclusion of other issues – has been making progress along with a smoldering grassroots reaction and intensifying disdain for the other side. Finally, we ran into Trump who was equally as skilled at a self-righteous and aggressive style of discourse and thereby became the voice of the disenchanted. It’s important to underscore that the liberal group agenda is responsible for improving group political rights and battling the racism and discrimination it is so recognized for. The “group rights” agenda is responsible for reshaping civic life and addressing inequities burdening minorities as well as other segments of society. But the evolution of those rights into an arrogant identity politics rather than a unifying political agenda has left us with the contentious group distinctions we are experiencing and its accompanying polarization.
The recent presidential campaign was a despicable display of politics that was almost free of discussion of issues, uncivil, tacky, shallow, and polarizing. It failed its responsibility to our foremost political requirement, which is to use democratic means to shape a society into a fair and governable unit. This of course includes respect for individual group identities but in the future might require more emphasis on those things we need to do together rather than separately.
Just when you thought you had heard of about every atrocity and psychotic group behavior, ISIS creeps into your dreams like a nightmare from ancient history. Beheadings, chemical warfare, mass murder, destruction of cultural, religious, and artistic sites are all tools for new political theory. Then, as the world sort of drifts into a coma rather than sleep we get nightmare 2.0 in the form of theocratized rape and slavery. Apparently, the Quran justifies rape and slavery as long as you pray properly beforehand and stay within the religious leaders “Handbook Governing Rape”. Yes, as David Brooks reported in the New York Times on August 28, ISIS leaders have a handbook to govern how to handle rape and slavery and it even has a helpful question and answer section. The example section below is from the David Brooks opinion article on Friday, August 28, page A21. Question 13 below is from the religious leader’s handbook of when rape and slavery are theocraticly justified
“Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty?
“It is permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however, if she is not fit for intercourse it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.”
Anonymous, writing in the New York Review of Books, and Paul Berman writing in Tablet have confessed to confusion about how ISIS seems to defy some of the standard explanations for revolutionary movements. ISIS continues to succeed in gaining the respect of local communities, attracting foreign fighters from all sorts of cultures (some Islamic some not) and even managing an infrastructure of administrative efficiency, police services, military strength, and economic development.
How can this be!? Most experts, as Anonymous explains in the New York Review of Books, don’t get it. They admit to being confused. One explanation is that ISIS inherited Saddam Hussein’s Baathist administrative structure including a security apparatus and an officer corps. There is probably some truth to this but it’s not much of an explanation for the barbarism that defies human history. ISIS has transgressed every tick of human progress. Just when you thought there were times in history when the moral carcass of human nature lifted its head to inch forward in progress – the times of democratic flowering in Greece, the Reformation, religious tolerance, the Enlightenment, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, world organizations for peace – when you thought we had learned something and were progressing, ISIS comes along and reminds us that mankind has not really learned its lesson.
I suppose we are not capable of learning. Some generation seems to make progress, and we experience something like the Nazis and assume we’ve learned a lesson. But the lesson is for naught because a new generation is born of a blank slate; we can’t pass the lessons onto the next generation except through education which is itself subject to so many influences the that it is an unreliable teacher.
ISIS is raw and naked group identity. The individual members share a set of basic values and belief in enduring characteristics. This sense that a group’s history is unique and its traditions preserve the group’s identity and comprise it is particularly true of religious groups. ISIS’s desire for positive evaluation is so great that they can justify anything. They make intergroup comparisons and of course value their own group to such an extreme that anything, even the most despicable violence, is justified in the service of their group identity.
Durkheim theorized, probably correctly, that all societies made the distinction between the sacred and the profane and something becomes sacred the more it is associated with the collectivity and the power of the collectivity to protect, reward, and punish. The sense of tribal or group identity is the building block of religion.
Future posts will take up this issue and explain how intergroup conflict is particularly recalcitrant when it comes to religious group identities – but “recalcitrant” is too mild a word for the existence of ISIS.
You can read more about these issues here
Dying and Killing for Sacred Objects
By Richard A. Koenigsberg
Scott Atran developed the concept of “sacred values” to explain terrorism and suicide bombings. Does this concept illuminate Western forms of political violence as well?A Library of Social Science Newsletter (February 2006) was entitled “Dying for the Sacred Ideal.” More recently, my article “Killing and Dying for the Sacred Ideal” appeared in the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society (2009).
I discuss how people attach to sacred objects that are conceived as “more significant than the self.” Collective forms of violence arise based on the identification of “enemies” imagined to be acting to destroy a sacred object.
Warfare constitutes a vehicle allowing people to demonstrate devotion to a sacred object. Terrorists die and kill for Allah, for a Palestine homeland, or for the Caliphate. Western people in the 20th Century died and killed for sacred objects given names such as Germany, France, Great Britain and America.
Suicide bombers die and kill for Allah. A similar “moral proposition” lies at the heart of Western political culture: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Atran observes that devoted actors in the Middle-East commit to a sacred cause and make “costly sacrifices,” including dying and killing. These devoted actors die and kill in the name of moral imperatives “independently of concrete material goals.”
Based on 25 years of research on the First World War, I find it astonishing that historians and political scientists cling to a “rational choice” model of political behavior. Nothing was gained or accomplished by virtue of fighting this war—unless one views mass-slaughter and monumental destruction as an “accomplishment.”
Jay Winter—one of the best and most prominent historians of the First World War—concludes his magnificent eight-part video series (The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, 1996) in a tone of baffled bewilderment, summing up as follows:
Using Atran’s terminology, it is clear that the way the First World War was fought “defied cost-benefit calculations” (to put it mildly). Actions undertaken by participating nations were “all out of proportion to prospects of success.”
Comprehension of the First World War begins by viewing what occurred through the lens of sacred values. The First World War constituted a monumental demonstration of devotion. One might even characterize this war as a sacrificial competition, as each nation fought fanatically in the name of the “transcendent object” with which citizens had fused their beings.
Nazism, similarly, is a case study of how “sacred values” may generate death and destruction on a vast scale. Heinrich Himmler—speaking of the extermination of the Jewish People in a speech delivered to SS officers and Nazi officials at Posen in October 1943—declared: “We had the moral right, the duty to our own people, to kill these people who wanted to kill us.”
In his speech at Posen, Himmler concludes—speaking about the extermination of the Jews: “We can say that we have carried out this most difficult task out of love for our own people.” Just as a terrorist may claim that he carries out acts of violence for love of Allah, so does Himmler claim that genocide was undertaken out of love for the German people.
Hitler framed the moral imperative as follows: “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” Think of any case of political violence with which you are familiar. Doesn’t Hitler’s logic apply?
Political actors are usually aware that they generate violent acts that result in death and destruction. Under ordinary circumstances, these actions would be considered inhuman. However, when undertaken in the name of rescuing a sacred object, all other moral values are abandoned. Political violence constitutes a rescue fantasy: performing the noble, necessary task of saving a sacred object.
— Richard A. Koenigsberg, PhD. (718) 393-1081
Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.
The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.
In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”
When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.
Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.
So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.
I think we under estimate the communicative and reconciliatory value of just “not giving a damn about some things.” There was a story in the paper last week about a 26-year-old boy, Ethan Saylor, with Down syndrome who went to the movies with a caretaker. When the movie ended his caretaker asked him to wait while she went to get the car. The boy walked back into the theater and sat down when the theater personnel came in and told him to leave. The theater manager called mall security who forcibly removed the boy from the theater while he was crying and calling for his mother. Somehow, while restraining the boy and wrestling him out of the theater he went into distress and died. The theater manager and the mall security agent were more intent on upholding rules and “doing their job” then they were concerned for the safety of Mr. Saylor. Who cares if this young boy was in the theater without a ticket? It was not something worth “giving a damn about.”
Along a similar vein, I was listening to Charlie Rose interview the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Khazaee. At the end of the interview Rose asked the ambassador if he had seen the movie Argo about the escape of some Westerners from Iran during the revolution. Khazaee said that he had seen the movie and there were numerous mistakes such as Iranian linguistic conventions for “hello” and “goodbye.” He then went on to demand the movie producers (that would be George Clooney) apologize to the Iranian people for this great insult. Such heated and indignant insults simply demand retribution! Again, I thought about how these demands for an apology were more damaging than anything else and tensions would diminish if people just “didn’t give a damn.” Read the rest of this entry
The below is an excerpt from my book “Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict.”
The preference for one’s own kin is powerful. But identities are not fixed at birth. They are subject to developmental and social influences. They are not flimsy and change at will, but they are constructed out of the surrounding interactional environment. As Suny (2001) argues, identities are fashioned by the stories groups tell about their history, nature, homeland, and common descent. People change identities over time because such identities depend on networks of associations and proximity to others. An Israeli-Jew who lives in Israel will identify as “Israeli” but his son or daughter who moves to the U.S. will identify more as an American. The over arching “American” identity is very important here because it serves as a common identity category that helps perpetuate a commitment to a more general civic allegiance. Deep ethno-national divisions are most associated with violence and those situations where ethnic groups believe the state should cease to exist. The role of the deliberative experience in giving group members new communicative opportunities is most important for developing an over arching identity that can render each side more receptive to argumentative claims.
The actual nature and content of ethnic identity is a symbolic construction process done for instrumental reasons from instrumental resources. The conceptual difficulty with ethnic identity is that rigorous objective definitions of ethnic groups do not allow for variability and change or the importance of developmental processes and identity. Subjective definitions make it difficult to understand the nature and evolution of individual ethnic identity. Moreover, even if ethnic identity is not objective, and it is subject to social influences and manipulation, it remains an essential construct that is not only experienced as very real to people, but is strongly implicated in much human behavior. Instrumentalism is the idea that choosing an identity group is a practical decision that has potential beneficial outcomes. There is more human choice in instrumental notions of ethnic identity. Instrumentalism is how identity is formed. It is also the means by which identity is exercised. I will accept Brass’ (1996) description of instrumentalism as beginning with objective markers (race, religion, dress, food, dialect) but these are interpreted and subjected to change.
Instrumentalism recognizes a strong flexibility and developmental influence on identity formation. Yet, after an identity has been set it is very difficult to change. It is how people see themselves that matter. They may identify around a type of clothing at one time but something else later. This ensures that the group identity remains stable and only the token that refers to the group type changes. One is bound to his ethnic identity on the basis of personal relations, practical necessity, and common interests. Elites use these relationships to solidify identity groups for their own political interests. Slobodan Milosevic employed the rhetoric of victimization to characterize Serbs as in need of liberation through destruction. This was a clear instrumental use of political conditions to construct an interpretation of national identity.
Israeli identity is particularly interesting because it can serve as sort of laboratory for how social, political, and cultural resources are marshaled in the service of identity construction. And it is a good example of the instrumental construction of identity. Israel is a new state that differs from others in that it had no preexisting nationhood. The early Israeli immigrants shared no common culture, and new immigrants after the establishment of the state came from diasporic communities in many parts of the world. Still, Israel benefited from the common sense of Jewish nationhood. Even though this was not a geographically bounded national territory, and Jews lived as minorities with different languages, cultures, and appearance, they believed in a common ethnic descent. This included a common religious heritage, language, and affection for a territorial area (ancient land of Israel). As Smooha explains, these were the common bonds and ideological foundations of the state of Israel but the task of the Zionists was to organize these instrumental resources into an identity. Thus, Jews that began to settle in Israel were not called immigrants but “returnees” connoting their temporary absence from the homeland and their return to it with full rights. Various symbols of the state (e.g. Star of David, blue stripes, menorah) are taken from religious and biblical history, which is shared by Jews and easily identifiable by everyone.
Jewish ethnic identity in Israel has been strongly encouraged by assimilationist policies (Smooha, 2004). In order to seek a stronger base of unity the identification of ethnic differences was discouraged. Even though there were obvious differences (physiological and cultural) between Jews from Arab countries and Eastern Europe, these differences were less important than common Jewish ethnic heritage. All Jews are granted automatic and full citizenship. Jews from Arab countries do not go to culturally separate schools or are encouraged to foster a distinct Jewish identity (Smooha, 2004). There is certainly individual prejudice and economic and inequities, but these are outside official state efforts to fashion a cohesive Jewish ethnic identity. And, of course, nothing solidifies an ethnic identity like existential threat. The relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conflict ethos that permeates the culture, cultivates unity among Jews. Ethnic identity in Israel is produced and reproduced by politics, social class, and the ethnic separation that has characterized the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazi since the early days of the state. For the case of Israel, Smooha (2004) describes the persistence of ethnic identity and the major fault lines that divide ethnic groups (class, economics, cultural hegemony, conflict).
Identities develop communicatively in the context of relationships but the Israelis and Palestinians are in the unique position of developing group identities under conditions of conflict. When this happens, the open flow of information stops and individuals feel threatened. They feel destabilized and a strong sense of self preservation ensues. The impulse to respond in a violent manner is activated as an act of self preservation. This causes members of respective groups to “protect” themselves and “defeat” the other. The entire flow of information in the environment becomes distorted such that the normal refinement of ideas about ourselves that produces growth and development closes down. Group polarization becomes apparent and our negative images of the other become frozen in time. The development of our ethnic or group identity no longer incorporates new images of the enemy group, especially as contact with the other group diminishes or becomes informally restrictive. Under normal conditions processing new information that leads to identity change and development is self-protective and allows us to function and manage the world. But frozen identities under conditions of conflict close down the learning process as a new form of survival.
Identities become rigid as beliefs solidify and each group considers its view of events as most accurate. Attitudes about responsibility and blame take on great certainty. In Maoz and Ellis (2001) we found that Israelis and Palestinians argued from positions of certainty and because each side is relatively closed off from the other, their conclusions about resolving the conflict were formed in informational isolation. This resulted in conclusions that were unrealizable and based on zero-sum thinking because each side dismissed the other’s assessment. Identities fashioned in conflict are particularly characterized by the “blame game.” Since it is unlikely that one looks inward for blame, failures and responsibility are cast on the evil other. This protects a positive self image and maintains the group’s integrity.
Ethnicity is highly implicated in many political conflicts and involved in an identity development that is conflictual as well as ethnic. In other words, during the developmental process is when an ethnic conflict ethos can also become part of an adolescent’s fundamental ethnic identity. They develop not only recognition of membership in a descent group, but an oppositional relationship with an out-group is part of that definition. Strongly ideologically based Israeli-Jews and West Bank and Gaza Arabs, for example, have grown up in a societal milieu where the attachment process to their ethnic group includes an ethos of conflict. This culture of conflict supplies a steady stream of messages about what it means to be a member of an ethnopolitical group. The significant events in the developmental life of young people include religious, political, and cultural rites of passage that fuel ethnic distinctiveness. These are the conditions of intractability when identities are developed and defined in opposition to others. The identity is not one of simply a single implication of ethnic membership formulated normally with a customary amount of pride. Rather, it is a conflictual identity with double implications—the group membership is functional and allows for management in a difficult society, but then continues the conflict.
In work over the years with Israelis and Palestinians (cf. Ellis, 2006; Maoz & Ellis, 2006) it is possible to see the communicative and relational consequences of these conflict based identities. The protection of ethnopolitical group identity plays an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides feel threatened and the Israeli state stimulates a sense of humiliation for the Palestinians. And although the two state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state is now accepted by most Israelis, such a state continues to be threatening. There remains a zero-sum mentality that makes a solution that satisfies both sides still illusive. Both sides cling to ideas about what is “right” and have trouble finessing their positions because of their failure to continually process new information. Both sides have a long history of trauma and humiliation. The creation of the State of Israel was painful for the Palestinians and they feel historically marginalized and discriminated against, which has led to cycles of violence and revenge fantasies. The Jews, on the other hand, carry historical victimization and discrimination culminating in the holocaust. Hence, both sides have mirror victimization identities and are locked in a no win argument about who is more deserving. This sort of identity pain can last for decades or even centuries.
Speaker Gingrich caused a small stir the other day when he referred to the Palestinian people as “invented.” Gingrich typically prefaces these statements with phrases like “let’s be honest.” The preface “let’s be honest” is designed to signal the hearer that Newt has the truth and you are about to hear it. It implies that up until now all discussion about the point (in this case the construction of Palestinian national identity) has been tainted by indirectness, vagueness, avoidance of what’s “real,” and the dreaded political correctness.
Newt Gingrich considers himself an intellectual and a historian. And although I cannot imagine myself voting for Gingrich, I do enjoy listening to him and appreciate his argument-based approach to politics. Newt can make an argument and offer a perspective, something which I enjoy and appreciate always keeping in mind the difference between “perspective” and “bias.” But the speaker can tout his historian credentials all he likes; he remains shallow and incomplete with respect to a variety of issues – Palestinian peoplehood in particular this time. I’m waiting for one of Newt’s challengers to point out that all collectivities, all national identities, all “peoples” are invented.
Gingrich’s claim that the Palestinians were Arabs living on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire and never constituted a national or political entity – complete with state institutions, internal infrastructure, and recognition – is defensible enough. He is sort of technically correct. When the state of Israel was declared in 1948 there was no existing Palestinian state in the full sense of the term that was displaced by Israel. In fact, there was no consistent and organized call for a Palestinian state until about 1967. Many Arab leaders in that region of the country considered themselves to be part of Syria. Evidence has been marshaled to defend this point, namely, that most of the land acquired by Israel up until 1948 was purchased legally, the Arab Muslim population was migratory, and that some testimony before the Peel Commission suggested that the word “Palestine” was a Zionist invention.
But none of this matters. Gingrich doesn’t understand that all political and national entities are “constructed” and come into being over time. 100 years ago there was no Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Syria. These “peoples” were formed as a result of political alliances. The speaker has perhaps fallen into the trap of believing that because his own national group (American) is older and more established it is somehow more authentic. A society and its national institutions are constructed on the basis of cultural unity. If a group of people live amongst one another long enough they have the basis for inclusion and exclusion (ancestry, language, religion,). The attachment to a collective category such as national group (e.g. Palestinians, Canadian, French, Saudi) is primarily symbolic and utilitarian in some important ways. Thus, any time a collective group mobilizes in pursuit of goals and has a loyalty to this collectivity, including a preoccupation with its preservation, they are cementing their sense of peoplehood.
Even if we accept a conservative estimate the Palestinians have been organizing themselves around instrumental societal institutions for 50 years. They have constructed themselves in a manner consistent with acquiring control over resources, the solution to problems, and a defense against enemies. The basis for inclusion in the Palestinian national identity is no different than any other; it is by birth, language, and a commitment to the well-being of the collective identity. There are few, if any, national categories or groups in reality. There are always influences from other groups, languages, and ideologies and definitions of collective identities vary somewhat on the basis of emphasis or orientation. Hence, there are Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims and groups whose ethnic descent varies somewhat from others.
There are a few common characteristics that describe the development of a national identity. These characteristics tend to represent a pattern of evolution from scattered bands of people to a cohesive collective identity that has persistence. First communities undergo changes from a minority to majority conception of themselves. They see themselves as the dominant voice and presence in a geographic area. This process is still incomplete in the case of the Palestinians but is clearly moving forward. Gaza, the West Bank, and other disputed land must be settled first. Related to this, is the fact that Palestinians have moved from a pan Arab sense of themselves to a more precise definition of their own boundaries as a collectivity. Secondly, the Palestinians have increasingly focused their attention on development in the future rather than surviving the past. This too is still in the early stages and will progress as the Palestinians acquire structures and control of resources that have an impact on their own political well-being. Third, the act of inventing one’s sense of being a “people” is advanced as institutions advance for the realization of group interests. Turning to institutions as a mechanism to satisfy collective interests is superior to relying on tribal or ethnic affiliations and begins the process of transcending ethnicity and forging a civic identity rather than an ethnic one.
Speaker Gingrich needs to develop a more refined sense of how a people come to be. Why would a possible president of the United States even make such a statement? It is not only shallow but unproductive and certainly not conducive to a peace process. As of now, the speaker is stuck in simplistic categories of what groups are deserving of national identities. He thinks of these categories as finite and established; he thinks of them as nouns when in actuality they are verbs.