Monday, June 05, 2006

American Derangement Syndrome

For my fans who might be looking for another "Aloha Snackbar!" or "Dan, Rather Twisted!" all I can say is 'Come back again, but not today.' Today is one of those 'serious' posts.

Today is a reading of an excellent and insightful treatise posted by Richard Landes, of Augean Stables, only part of which is included below.

American Derangement Syndrome


(The picture is of the site, on Mount Carmel, where 5000 representatives of every race, creed and tribe met in May, 2001; to commemorate and celebrate to Coming of the One Whose mortal remains are interred under the gold-domed building, and Whose Coming was promised by Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster and Krsna.)

Baudrillard on 9-11: American Derangement Syndrome and the Ideology of Resentment

I recently got a book by Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason. (Hat tip: Lawrence Barnes)

His treatment of the liberal response to Islamism is excellent, and in it he quotes Jean Baudrillard, one of France’s most “brilliant” sociologists. The passage is worth quoting here since it embodies so much of what is wrong with French — and by extension, European, and by further extension, “progressive”, anti-Americanism — a staggering and spectacular insight into American Derangement Syndrome.

Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism Le Monde, November 2, 2001

That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, — this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

In the end, they did it, but we wanted it.

Give him credit for honesty. For those innocent Americans who are not familiar with French discourse, allow me to unpack this remarkable piece of prose. Part of what Baudrillard is trying to say is that when any nation or culture becomes as powerful as the USA, it provokes a resentment so deep that others wish to see it destroyed.

On one level, this is true. Even as some people around the world shed tears, somewhere deep inside was a thrill at seeing the mighty brought low. And this is a deep-seated instinct in humans, as Helmut Schoek has argued so persuasively in his book, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. But it is, as he explains, a zero-sum emotion with a terrible cost.

He is aware that such sentiments are “unacceptable for the Western moral conscience” (Schoek argues that Western economic development is based on a partial renunciation of envy), but he defends himself. This is not a base reaction. Baudrillard deals not with emotions we can control, but with “facts” — and the key “fact” is that “everyone without exception… must dream of the destruction…” Not one to take responsibility for his base emotions, Baudrillard wants to claim that his feelings are a) universally shared, and b) an entirely predictable response to American hegemony.

If one does not take that into account, the event loses all symbolic dimension to become a pure accident, an act purely arbitrary, the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics, who would need only to be suppressed. But “we know very well” that this is not so. Thus all those delirious, counter-phobic exorcisms: because evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire. Without this deep complicity, the event would not have had such repercussions, and without doubt, terrorists know that in their symbolic strategy they can count on this unavowable complicity.

Now that we’ve established the objectivity of these emotions, we begin to understand how they give meaning to this deed, how it transforms it from a mere marginal, extremist act, into one of symbolic power. The complicity of which he speaks is the intense emotional sympathy that people like Baudrillard and others who share his profound resentment of American hegemony feel. The terrorists know they can count on this “unavowable complicity.”

Of course, Baudrillard, being brave and honest, a Nietzschean superman, can avow the unavowable. (Later in the essay, he calls on us to go “beyond Good and Evil.”) It doesn’t matter so much that the sentiments here expressed are precisely what Nietzsche viewed with greatest contempt — ressentiment. Apparently Nietzsche was entirely correct in using the French term to designate this particular sickness of the soul.

It is worth noting here that the reference to the terrorists knowing they can count on this complicity recoups a remarkable chronological relationship between 9-11 and the delirious hate-fest directed against both the USA and Israel at Durban which had just finished four days earlier on September 7, 2001. (Contrast this with the prayerful and joyous commemorations and celebrations, of members of every tribe of humanity, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, May 21-23, 2001) This UN sponsored event (Durban, NOT Israel), intended to inaugurate the 21st century with a world-wide conference dedicated to eliminating racism around the world, turned into its opposite, a non-stop, grotesquely unhinged assault on the USA and Israel, a platform for every kind of hatred as long as it was directed against white “racism,” at once passing over in silence the live racism of Arab slave trade of black Africans, and offering these same active racists a feast of hatred aimed at their enemies. As the Israeli representative noted in his speech to the conference:

But here today, something greater even than peace in the Middle East is being sacrificed - the highest values of humanity. Racism, in all its forms, is one of the most widespread and pernicious evils, depriving millions of hope and fundamental rights. It might have been hoped that this first Conference of the 21st century would have taken up the challenge of, if not eradicating racism, at least disarming it: But instead humanity is being sacrificed to a political agenda. Barely a decade after the UN repealed the infamous ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan described, with characteristic understatement, as a “low point” in the history of the United Nations, a group of states for whom the terms ‘racism’, ‘discrimination’, and even ‘human rights’ simply do not appear in their domestic lexicon, have hijacked this Conference and plunged us to even greater depths.

Bin Laden clearly had planned 9-11 well before Durban, but as he recently commented, he could have called it off. Instead, not only did Durban not discourage him (which it might have had it raised the hue and cry about Muslim racism), it almost surely led him to believe that the world would cheer him. And, as Baudrillard reveals less than a month later, Bin Laden was not wrong.

This goes much further than hatred for the dominant global power from the disinherited and the exploited, those who fell on the wrong side of global order. That malignant desire is in the very heart of those who share (this order’s) benefits. An allergy to all definitive order, to all definitive power is happily universal, and the two towers of the World Trade Center embodied perfectly, in their very double-ness (literally twin-ness), this definitive order.

In case you haven’t caught on, Baudrillard loves this “malignant” resentment. For him it is the spirit of anarchy that is “happily universal.”

No need for a death wish or desire for self-destruction, not even for perverse effects. It is very logically, and inexorably, that the rise to power of power exacerbates a will to destroy it. And power is complicit with its own destruction. When the two towers collapsed, one could feel that they answered the suicide of the kamikazes [sic] by their own suicide. It has been said: “God cannot declare war on Itself”. Well, It can. The West, in its God-like position (of divine power, and absolute moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself.

The epigrammatic French of “No need for…” seems to mean “[We have] no need [to posit] a death wish or desire for self-destruction” in order to understand this reaction. The reaction is logical, inexorable.

Again, we return to Baudrillard’s attempt to disguise his base emotions in logic, objectivity, inexorability. No need? But what if, whatever its source, however powerful its pull, this reaction is self-destructive, it does reflect a death wish, it is, however “understandable,” profoundly perverse? From the perspective of people who find liberation of both themselves and their fellow citizens in their pruning back of envy and resentment, however limited our success, Baudrillard’s indulgence in this emotion seems like an act of profound self-destruction. Especially given the circumstances. It is precisely this resentment which will destroy the Europeans, which makes them vulnerable to demopaths and the Eurabian future in store for them. It is, in part, what brought down Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

There is another interesting element in this paragraph of suicidal denial. “The West,” he tells us in his characteristic tone of certainty, “in its God-like position (of divine power, and absolute moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself.” Actually, the whole point of the West’s success, intellectual as well as moral, comes from its willingness to be more modest about its claims and hence tolerant about dissent, and more self-critical about its behavior. If there are God-like claims to divine agency and absolute moral legitimacy, it comes from the Muslim terrorists, whose ideology apparently holds little interest for Baudrillard. His statement, shorn of its willful ignorance and projection should read: “It has been said, ‘Europe cannot declare war on itself.’ Well, it can. The Europeans, in their radical bad faith and envy (of American hegemony, and relative but clear moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself.”

I skip some of the text to focus on his analysis of American hegemony.

When the situation is thus monopolized by global power, when one deals with this formidable condensation of all functions through technocratic machinery and absolute ideological hegemony (pensée unique), what other way is there, than a terrorist reversal (literally, transfer) of the situation? It is the system itself that has created the objective conditions for this brutal distortion. By taking all the cards to itself, it forces the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the stakes are ferocious. To a system whose excess of power creates an unsolvable challenge, terrorists respond by a definitive act that is also unanswerable. Terrorism is an act that reintroduces an irreducible singularity in a generalized exchange system. Any singularity (whether species, individual or culture), which has paid with its death for the setting up of a global circuit dominated by a single power, is avenged today by this terrorist situational transfer.

Now it gets interesting, because here we see most clearly Baudrillard’s sleight of hand. America unquestionably dominates the global scene in an absolute fashion: it monopolizes power, takes all the cards for themselves. This is important, since were it not so, the resentment would not be objective, but subjective, and therefore, those who feel it might be held responsible for it.

Now granted, since the “thiry years’ war” of 1914-45 and the rise of America to a position of global dominance, France has suffered from a loss of prestige that it once had. But America’s dominion bears little resemblance to the kind of truly suffocating and contemptuous hegemony that France … had exercised when they dominated the globe. And yet, in order for his ressentiment to operate symbolically, it must be unquestionable, “objective”ly true that American hegemony leaves no room for anything else. It must be absolute in order to deserve the hatred it inspires.

But American hegemony is the least monopolistic, the least forceful of all the cultural hegemonies known world-wide… hegemony lite. And the French in particular, have been the recipient of the most generous (and historically unprecedented expressions) of America’s lack of imperialist instincts, having twice been saved by American forces and twice given back its independence, the second time with a great deal of foreign aid and a seat with veto-power on the UN Security Council. As Walter R. Meade notes:

This phenomenon [of anti-americanism] persists despite the fact that few countries benefited more from the American security umbrella in the twentieth century.

France has done very well in the world where America exercises hegemony. They have pursued, often at the expense of the USA, their own way diplomatically, economically, culturally. They have prospered as never before, and had a stable and durable republic as never before. In other words, if there is a people who should not be resentful of America, but rather grateful, it is the French. And yet, among the vast array of anti-American forces taking shape so ominously around the world, they are among the leaders of the pack, with this passage from Baudrillard as a flag flying on the prow of that ship.

So what are the “objective conditions” of her resentment at this hegemony? Read the rest for yourself, below, and follow the links. Karridine is proud to give you this essay by Richard Landes, and available in its totality at (Signoff)

As far as I can make out, the hegemonic force that suffocates French society, especially among the elites, allowing — at least where the USA is concerned — a “pensée unique”, is resentment that the Americans occupy a place that should be France’s, a sentiment they share (unwittingly?) with the Arabs. When stripped of its intellectual gloss, what we here witness is the deep frustration of the French — and the Europeans — that, by rules that allow them to win, they cannot. No matter how hard they try, by the rules of meritocracy and voluntarism that dominate so much of modern societies choices — what movies you go to, what products you buy, who generates successful innovations — they come in a painful second to the US. Could this be why Europeans find it so easy to explain Palestinian hatred of the Israelis as “intolerable despair” and “hopelessness.” They experience the same “identification” with the “intolerable” helplessness of losing competition to the Americans that the Palestinians feel in their efforts to win their zero-sum competition with the Israelis.

The “absolute” hegemony of the US actually resembles more the feeling of despair that overcomes an athlete when he realizes that some other athlete will consistently beat him. [The Euro and the EU — and Eurabia — were supposed to allow Europeans to compete successfully with the US. But no, things are not working out as they wished.] Does that mean you blow up the stadium, or cheer when someone else does it? This is not “objective grounds” for hatred. This is the height of subjectivity, and height of base motives. But Baudrillard can’t stop himself, and it must be someone else’s fault. Into the spell of words he plunges.

Terror against terror — there is no more ideology behind all that. We are now far from ideology and politics. No ideology, no cause, not even an Islamic cause, can account for the energy which feeds terror. This energy does not aim anymore to change the world, it aims (as any heresy in its time) to radicalize it through sacrifice, while the system aims to realize (the world) through force.

Say what? There is plenty of ideology at work here. But never mind. The energy is, indeed, emotional. It is not, however, a force of nature, a juggernaut that will wipe everything out in its path. And, having studied many heresies, I do not recognize his sweeping generalization — or even his invocation of this base resentment as characteristic of “any heresy in its time.” Garbing his emotions in grandiose disguises — a radical, self-sacrificing heresy, an energy that drives world history, Baudrillard has managed an ideological coup. Now the “system” by which America has achieved its unique hegemony becomes the symbolic expression of “force”, and the violent reaction it inspires, the epitome of liberating resistance. But it’s just the contrary: American (Western liberal) hegemony comes above all from “voluntarism“, and the resistance comes from the very forces that produce the most suffocating, force-driven, self-impoverishing hegemonic societies — envy, theocracy, patriarchy, honor.

Baudrillard insists there is no need for discussions of “self-destructiveness” and “suicidal impulses.” I beg to differ. Only by confronting and renouncing this debasing envy and the distorting lens it focuses on everything — a phenomenon to which Baudrillard’s own essay bears eloquent testimony — is there any hope that Europe can save itself. Baudrillard seems to think himself a successor to Nietzsche — bold enough to look the painful truths right in the eye and speak them aloud. But when I read this convoluted and self-deceiving indulgence in the very resentment Nietzsche despised, I’m filled above all with the sickening sense of witnessing someone who should — were he sufficiently aware — be experiencing Sartre’s “nausea”. Indeed, if anything, Baudrillard has taken Sartre’s place as both a brilliant useful idiot and a patron saint of “bad faith.”

As long as he avoids the freedom to chose to which, as Sartre claims, he is doomed, and indulges in the bad faith to deny that he (and “everyone else”) has that freedom, he (and everyone else he so inspires) is doomed. As the scripture he probably has no time for would advise him: “choose life.”


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