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From the July/August, 2008
issue of Touchstone

 

Armed & Aggressive by John C. Chalberg

Armed & Aggressive

The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West
by Lee Harris
Basic Books, 2007
(290 pages, $26.00, hardcover)

reviewed by John C. “Chuck” Chalberg

Writing in response to Samuel (The Clash of Civilizations) Huntington and Francis ( The End of History and the Last Man) Fukuyama, Lee Harris invites his readers to consider the very real possibility that something very much more than a border dispute between the West and Islam is on the horizon and something a good deal less than a worldwide meeting of like-minded liberal, democratic capitalists is in the cards.

The Vulnerable West

Harris, author of Civilization and Its Enemies and a frequent contributor to Policy Review and the Wall Street Journal, wants us to ponder the fragility of Western success in the face of a resurgent Islam. He attributes that success to the triumph of rationalism in the West, and yet he warns that that very achievement has left Western “rational actors” vulnerable to those troublesome and persistent “tribal actors” that constitute “radical Islam’s threat to the West.”

He might have added that the twenty-first-century version of Western rationalism contains a heavy dose of feelings-based attitudes and politics. He might also have explained how and why this has happened.

But in this book he is content to deploy “rational actor” as a shorthand term for the mindset of individualistic Westerners pursuing material success and the good life here and now. Secularist to the core, this carpe diem version of enlightened (if not necessarily rational) self-interest likely contains the seeds of its own destruction, with or without an external enemy. That it has an enemy bent on hastening that destruction explains Harris’s apocalyptic title and argument.

He is concerned that what he calls the “suicide of reason” might well lead to the death of the West. Given the predominance of “live for today” thinking—and feeling—in the West, he concludes that Western “rational actors” are ignoring the threat and hence are “not acting rationally.” Will the West abandon its irrational ways and rediscover its own tribal roots in time? He hopes so, but he has his doubts.

Much of the book details the illusions of Westerners, who presume that all “laws of the jungle” have been transcended. As a result, many Christians and secularists among both Americans and Europeans assume that the rest of the world is composed of either fellow “rational actors” or those who are happily evolving into the same.

He also has serious doubts about the exportability of American ideas and institutions. The goal of creating Western-style democracies in the Middle East has not just been wrong, but “disastrously, mind-bogglingly wrong.” On the other hand, those who presume that a kinder, gentler version of pacific Western reasonableness is the answer to Islamic fanaticism are dwelling in a fantasy world of their own.

What to Do?

The United States is essentially a “fluke” of geography and history, and therefore an impossible model for others, including Islamic others. Islam is determined to impose its own model on others, especially Western others. So the question remains: What to do?

The choice offered by jihadists is that of “becoming one of them or being subjugated or even eliminated” by them. The “rational actors” refuse to take this seriously.

To add to the problem, America’s youth are being educated away from their tribal past and taught to have “contempt for the very traditions” that made Western greatness possible in the first place. At the same time, the Islamic world is producing young people who are willing to “die to keep their traditions alive.”

Here Harris reminds his readers of the full title of Francis Fukuyama’s tribute to the West’s victory over communism. Fukuyama presumed that “history” was over, that the entire world was on its way to becoming one world, namely, a world of, by, and for democratic capitalists, i.e., “rational actors.”

Harris, however, dwells on Fukuyama’s curious “last man” reference rather than his “end of history” pronouncement. He contends that Fukuyama was predicting a future without “real men,” which is to say, a world without alpha males and therefore a world without struggle and war. “The end of history is predicated on the end of testosterone.”

The problem is that, at this point on our way to the “end of history,” Fukuyama has proved to be only “half right,” and unfortunately, the West is the “wrong half.” We Americans are “drugging our alpha boys with Ritalin,” while Muslim societies are encouraging theirs to be “tough, aggressive, and ruthless.”

A strict Darwinian might have ended his tale on this troubling note, as in, “We are unfit and will not survive.” But Harris is not a strict Darwinian. Rational actor that he turns out to be, he is reduced to holding out for some sort of a historical about-face, namely, a return in the West to what he terms a “critical liberalism” shorn of “all utopian schemes,” a “militant liberalism” that refuses to tolerate those “unwilling to tolerate others,” as well as a liberalism that repudiates the “carpe diem culture” and resumes its “sacred duty” to teach the Western tradition to coming generations.

Crucial Christianity

Nowhere does Harris suggest that a return to Christianity might also be crucial to the survival of the West. This is curious, given his amply demonstrated awareness of the power of religion in the Islamic world.

But apparently he is too much of a Darwinian and too caught up in post-Enlightenment rationalism to entertain such a radical postmodern thought. Nonetheless, such a return might be the only answer to the stark alternatives of Western suicide or a cataclysmic armed clash of civilizations.

As G. K. Chesterton put it over one hundred years ago, it’s far better to create Christians than to destroy Muslims. And what better place to start such a process than in that part of the world that was once called Christendom?

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. letters@touchstonemag.com

 

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