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Responsa: Mark Greif and David Mikics

Part two, with more on French Jews, the real meaning of ‘radical,’ and the politics of the supermarket, from the author of ‘The Age of the Crisis of Man’

David Mikics and Mark Greif
January 21, 2015
(The U.S. National Archives/Flickr)

(The U.S. National Archives/Flickr)

Tablet takes you back to the future with Responsa, our new feature in which leading writers and thinkers exchange letters, discuss current and eternal ideas and books, reach conclusions, and issue authoritative edicts about matters both great and small. This week, contributing editor David Mikics and Mark Greif, author of The Age of the Crisis of Man, discuss the Charlie Hebdo cover, universalism, and the limits of religious devotion.

In part two of their discussion, published Jan. 22, Mikics and Greif debate the motivations of the Hyper Casher killer, the real meaning of ‘radical,’ and the politics of the supermarket. Click here to jump to the second installment.


David Mikics writes:

Dear Mark,

Your recent book The Age of the Crisis of Man made me rethink so much of what is going on in the world these days, including the terrible events in Paris and their aftermath.

At the end of The Crisis of Man you say there are two ways of talking about what human beings are and what they should be. Option 1 is to defend “man” or “the human” by standing up for universal rights, like freedom from oppression or freedom of speech. Option 2 is to be a relativist and proclaim the value of diversity: Different cultures have different versions of humanness, and we ought to recognize this. What’s important about your book is that you don’t take sides in this debate. Instead you argue that we have to think about the universal-humanist impulse and the relativist impulse together, to see how they developed together over the course of the modern age.

Last week some have said that we have the right to see the new Charlie Hebdo cover on our newsstands because freedom of speech is a true and universal human value. But that’s a weak (universal-humanist) argument. A much better (relativist) one is that we in the West have a tradition of making images of religious figures, including Muhammad. Until recently there was no problem with this. In the 1980s I taught Dante’s Inferno in English 129 at Yale, and we used Allen Mandelbaum’s Aeneid with drawings by Barry Moser, one of which featured a disemboweled Muhammad roasting in hell. The prophet was smudgy and hidden by shadows, but that was him all right. This was our custom. It’s also a custom—to shift the example—for buses and billboards in Jerusalem to now and then display pictures of women. If there are new demands to change these customs (especially under threat of death, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo), we ought to stand against the demands not because we are for freedom of speech but because this is just what we do. Does that make me a facile Rortyan?


Mark Greif replies:

Let me first say thank you for undertaking these letters with me. I had no idea what we would discuss—whether we would be talking about Saul Bellow and Flannery O’Connor and the novels and literary side of the book, or the history. I’m glad, though, that the book’s effort to reach the present moment really has done so. At least in your case. I certainly intended it to speak to the 21st century, not just the history of the 20th.

There are a lot of names for the two sides that seem to come out of the end of the 20th century. They still make people line up today as if they were on opposite teams. One side might say it stands for universal rights, while the other stands for the recognition of difference. Or the first might say that it defends human rights, while the other says it critiques power.

I do try to argue at the end of the book that the people of good will in both camps might want to be on the same team, as it were. At any rate, they ought to recognize that they come from a common tradition in which people have always conflicted, but ideas have always crossed back and forth in a chaotic and creative way that makes the whole idea of “two sides” seem foolish. Certainly I myself am convinced that if you want to think problems through, you’re better equipped if you have everybody’s tools and arguments at your disposal. If you’re serious, I mean, about truth and liberation.

Now, I’ve been thinking about the controversy about Charlie Hebdo all week, like everybody. I’m not sure it admits of an obvious solution that falls into the “two camps” model—I mean, I don’t think, once you really think about it for a while and dig down to the root of it, it’s a distinction or division of worldviews, in the conventional way. I think there are more important substantive beliefs at stake that actually divide people within the distinct worldviews as they are usually laid out. Universalism and relativism are old poles—at their simplest, the universalist position says that if something is true of human beings in one place it’s true for them in all places and societies, or ought to be, and freedoms valid in one place must be defended everywhere. The relativist position says that human groups actually develop unities and values and functional roles within each group, over historical time, as closed wholes; thus good and bad, right and wrong, and what constitutes real freedom may differ within different groups (though some values may also overlap between groups—you have to find out, empirically). Though universalism (also sometimes known as “objectivity”) and relativism are often coded “conservative” and “liberal,” respectively, the two approaches to value can in fact be used as grounds for arguments within all sorts of political agendas. Relativism—the sense that values exist and can be judged only within a closed group—supports the kinds of conservatisms, for example, that appeal to the norms of a community against supposed universal rights of individuals.

You’re absolutely right that, in addition to a universalist defense of the publication of Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Muhammad, there would be a relativist defense. The universalist defense might say something like: Freedoms of speech and of the press have proven themselves either to be fundamental rights of all persons everywhere, or indispensable to the preservation and freedom of individuals everywhere. They need to be defended against lethal violence and terror here and everywhere—their defense isn’t good just for Western countries, but for all countries; their value to human beings isn’t just for people of one religion or tradition, but everyone, even if not every group will be able to see that in every situation (and not all people endorse human rights or the inviolability of the individual conscience). But, just as you say, one can easily restrict one’s frame to France, or “the West,” and argue by the values of that society, or a particular group of linked societies and their tradition, that we do publish offensive pictures—that’s something that we do, for a variety of reasons and in the defense of a variety of values that those societies endorse, as do practically everybody within them (when there is not a particular topic at stake that affects one subset of citizens or another). What will fly in, say, Pakistan, or what people might argue even are particular short-term offenses to Muslim citizens within the West, don’t really come into it.

I don’t think, though, that these perspectives solve anything for this particular case. As you say, the Charlie Hebdo caricature publications can be defended, though in different ways, on either line of argument. But this somewhat assumes that one’s purpose is already to defend them, or that one knows that they ought to be defended. People seem to be arguing about the cartoons not so much because of their publication, but about whether we (as onlookers, who hate the mass murder of the cartoonists) have to “like” the cartoons themselves or say nice things about them—or nice things about Charlie Hebdo. And people are arguing about the meaning of republication by outlets, like the New York Times, which can show readers the offensive caricatures or just describe them without reprinting. The cruxes in these arguments seem completely different. One is just how much one dislikes religion, and wants to see it travestied—or whether one doesn’t hold the mocking of religion as a basic value. Another is how much one seeks to locate “power” and social class and domination in controversial situations. It is very much the habit of many of us to understand “critique” as the art of identifying hidden power, and championing the powerless. The mass murderers at Charlie Hebdo are, pretty straightforwardly, vile lethal literalist assholes. But one looks around for the subordinated in France and sees poorly assimilated immigrants from North Africa—and it is tempting to see the cartoonists as those who held the power of non-black skins, and the pen. Plus, at this moment of more discussion of American racism and violence against its African American populations, I think there’s been a tendency to read American racism into the situation of conflict in France—and I’m not sure the two distinct national racisms line up so well. Then there are matters of a sort of customer-service tolerance that we take for granted in America now with religion—as when the New York Times declines to reprint the caricatures, with the rationale that part of its readership in America is an American Muslim readership, like its Christian and Jewish and atheist readership, none of whom ought to be particularly snubbed or offended—if, indeed, portrayal of Muhammad is an inordinate offense to all Muslims, everywhere. Anyway, those are the things that seem to be at stake at the moment. I’m not sure any single dyad of conceptions cuts through all of them.

I happen to like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, personally, but that’s also because I have a dislike of strong religion, or, say, I have a wish to see it always neutered and secularized wherever it appears. I like the cartoons because I like that strain of satire, and of philosophy, that reduces all authorities that stand above people’s individual opinions to ordinary human scale. And I don’t have a strong feeling for the racial dimension that people claim to see in the cartoons; I wind up experiencing them as expressive of a contempt for religion in general, and not for a “race” or a “people.” But I can also see that I might be wrong, and there are a few things that would, or do, make me feel that I’m wrong in my liking of the cartoons, right off: the expression by people who are identified as “racial,” because Algerian or otherwise African, that in fact the cartoons do powerfully trigger racist codes and presentations; the expression by Western Muslims that, despite their own embeddedness in secular social norms, as all of us are so embedded, there is really something in their own experience of Islam that retains the prohibition on the depiction of Muhammad as a most fundamental thou-shalt-not of their faith—as all religions, even in modern secular societies, might retain some items that are just utterly taboo or beyond the pale and ought not be uttered or seen, for all religionists and not just fundamentalists.

It hits home: For a certain group of people, murdering some random Jews is a highly prized act of religious devotion.

As far as The Age of the Crisis of Man goes, of course it begins its history with a project of universalism undertaken by people who had fled the Nazis and wanted the Western nations to reject and fight the Nazis—to see them as tyrants from whom people must be liberated. It ends with a project of championing difference by people who had come to see Western consensus and violence and colonialism as using that old universalism to become a new tyranny—from which people must be liberated. And it’s hard to keep oneself from thinking: What kind of tyrants, if any, are radical Islamists for us—in the United States, as in France—who largely do their damage elsewhere? I’ll admit that now, even thinking through Charlie Hebdo, I ask myself: What would Hannah Arendt have said? What would Leo Strauss have said? And on the other end of the history: What would Foucault have said? What would Noam Chomsky say, now or in the past? For that matter, what would Betty Friedan or Stokely Carmichael have said? And would they be right? Their answers now aren’t obvious. But they aren’t inconceivable. And the book tries to give you a gallery of interesting minds to think with.

I’m sorry that was so long-winded! I promise my next letter will be shorter.


David Mikics replies:

Your email is full of nuances that I like and respect, and I find myself nodding my head almost the whole time. But one thing I disagree with: I don’t think that people are forcing themselves to like or to defend Charlie Hebdo because it’s what they’re supposed to do. I think that they’ve surprised themselves by how strong a feeling they—can I say we?—have about the whole matter. Even people who when they look at Charlie Hebdo see a dumb, unfunny poke-in-the-eye aging-pubescent rag now feel that they are the cartoonists, in just the same way that African Americans feel that they are Eric Garner, or Michael Brown. I’ve noticed this sudden sense that “they are us” with the kosher supermarket slaughter in Paris as well. It’s been the tipping point for some Jews I know who had been thinking up to now that the Jews murdered in France and Belgium were just tragic victims of some crazy anti-Semites. Now, after the siege and murders at Hyper Cacher in eastern Paris, we realize that we too are those people in the store; it could have been us, all it takes is being visibly Jewish, or being in a visibly Jewish place. Of course, we knew that before, but now it hits home: For a certain group of people, murdering some random Jews is a highly prized act of religious devotion. The murderers and the ones who praise them are not representative of Muslims in general, but that doesn’t matter. The next time we’re in Europe, visiting a historic synagogue or attending a talk about some Jewish matter, we’ll be in danger. We’ll think about the Jews who are in danger there every week, every time they decide to go to shul on Shabbat.

There are exceptions, of course, people for whom the Charlie Hebdo artists were crude provocateurs who have nothing to say to us. Tim Parks, a writer I admire, has dismissed the post-massacre Charlie Hebdo cover, which proclaims “All is forgiven,” as a vile caricature that reduces Muhammad to a penis (his face) and a pair of balls (his hat). I don’t see genitalia there at all; had Charlie intended to gross us out in this way, they would have let us know more clearly. Parks is straining to find something offensive in what is actually, as Paul Berman has argued in these pages, a deeply moving and thoughtful image.

With its new cover Charlie Hebdo decided not to go offensive but rather to say something profoundly equal to the occasion. What Charlie is saying is this: Only the prophet himself could forgive not just the cartoonists’ insult to his name—could even be so moved that he can’t stop feeling that he is Charlie—but also forgive the Islamists who murdered on behalf of him. Or does the forgiveness he’s offering to “his” blood-drenched zealots come from fear? Look at Muhammad’s eyes, he’s terrified.

All this would be impossible to do in words alone. Only an image of Muhammad could accomplish it. The cover makes a better case for what a cartoon can do, what art can say about politics, than anything I can remember. That’s why they are us, the dead cartoonists I mean. Their surviving colleague, the perfectly-named Luz, who made the new cover, speaks for everyone who thinks that art is necessary.

“What kind of tyrants, if any, are radical Islamists for us?” you ask, Mark. My answer is, after Charlie Hebdo, the kind that want to hear no one speak but themselves and who will kill you to make you shut up. And after Hyper Cacher, the kind who will kill you for what you are: a person not worth pitying, but worth murdering instead, because of your tribe.

And here we come full circle. What we’re seeing in the wake of Paris is what the radical Islamists mean for us, but also what they mean for them. They are the same kind of tyrants to people in Syria and Iraq that they are to people in Europe. The Yazidi or the woman or, often enough, the Shiite is the Jew, and the Muslim who wants to speak his (or, much worse, her) mind, however politely, is the obscene cartoonist.

The sense of identification I’m talking about is something I can’t help but feel strongly this MLK weekend. The identification branches out, it keeps going. I’m not sure that the émigré thinkers you mention can help us with the freedom we need to champion when radical Islamists threaten to change who we are, a threat directed first of all at the Muslim world—though I too am curious about what Arendt, for instance, would have said about the new totalitarian strain. What do you think?


On January 22, 2015, Mark Greif replies:

Dear David,

What would Arendt do? I’ve often thought I should make up a WWAD necklace. One certainly would like to know what she would have done, or said, in the face of the present day. But part of her charm is that she was surprising and unpredictable. Not unpredictable because she was inconsistent—rather, I think, because she did insist on thinking things through, in each new situation, all the way to the root. She was an intensely annoying figure to her contemporaries. Lately she has become another “inspiring” figure and source of sanctimony. I wish there were more room to try to think things down to their roots, and see what itineraries you wind up following, right or wrong, usefully or—sometimes—as mere exploration. People in her circles in the 1940s and 1950s liked to point out, in the face of doctrinaire leftists, that this was the real meaning of radical—at least etymologically—to go “down to the root.” And then to be prepared to tug up the roots—or defend them and nourish them—rather than keep plucking off leaves….

Anyway: I found your last letter really clarifying. I learned a lot from it, and I found it moving, too. I think we must read slightly different publications, though. My first reaction had been: Yup, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists are like us—I mean, literally like us: left-wing satirical writers with a strong anti-clerical bent, who tried to move people’s ideas by reframing their sacred objects in humiliating terms. Humiliating terms, however, which pointed back to a coherent idea of how religion, and strong beliefs of all sorts, should be taken. Beliefs are made by human beings, who piss, shit, sweat, bleed, show human vanity and sexual desire, who are likely to be moved by all those low things even in their highest ideals. Etc. etc. It’s hardly necessary to re-explain three-hundred years of Western humanist satire. Though it’s been funny (and, again, very moving) to see people try to do so in the last week. But certainly with Charlie Hebdo I did think, Hmmm, add to the list of things to prepare for: How to get out of the offices of a magazine or defend yourself when gunmen appear—something not so far from How to get your students out of the lecture hall when lunatic-student school shooter appears, and How to get out of the movie theater when “Batman” appears and starts massacring the innocents, and How to rush the cockpit when Islamists “hijack” the airplane. I don’t mean to be bathetic; part of what matters with these everyday fantasy routines is that they’re so fantastic—very much unlike the things that we do have to prepare for because they really do happen to “us,” like, how to care for aging parents, and whether to yell warnings at people who let their dogs go out on thin ice. I just mean that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were doing something that, in a sense, I understand as what I do, or would like to: I would be proud to write anything that was as “good” in its way as my favorite of the Mohammed cartoons, the cringing one where he says something like, “It’s tough, being loved by such a bunch of assholes.” (Because—to be sort of simple-minded and explain that cartoon here—it expressed in a nice way the logic of religion that “we” in a secular world have established: We humiliate fundamentalism by claiming it to be small, and small-minded, where its adherents want to feel so big; we naturalize the prophets, Mohammed, Jesus, or Moses, as humans who could feel feelings, even as “ethical examplars”; we make religion itself a matter of feelings, self-cultivation, community love, and ethics; we propose a religion whose right adherents, whom the prophets would like, are those who are decent and tolerant.)

My point was just my surprise that, turning to publications by people I figured would have the same reaction, they didn’t seem to identify with Charlie Hebdo, wanting to distance themselves from its means rather than its ends. So I was wondering if I was wrong, etc., and how to figure out what values really do lead to a meaningful debate—what else should I be thinking about, what am I missing, etc.

The thing is, one knows why such a viewpoint as Charlie Hebdo’s (which I share), is and should be offensive to people who believe in supernaturalism (God is God, not man), scripture and revelation (religion is divinely revealed beyond all human knowledge, not manmade), law (religion is commandments, not ethics and devotions), and faith (religion is obedience, not devotion). Killing the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was violence of an intelligible if not justifiable “political” kind even in secular Western terms. It was an assault on people who were actors in public, and who did engage in strife. The purpose of their strife was to change ideas by—well, say, by getting the children of Islamists, even just of the Muslim faithful, to laugh. One wants the child to say: OK, I can deal with religion reframed in that way; it works with a lot of the other things I like about life—I can be a human among other humans, and religion will be a human thing, too. That’s secularization. It so happens there’s another secular Western value that you’re not allowed to kill people for expression of ideas no matter how offensive. (Although you are allowed to kill people for a wide variety of other things, some of them pretty horrible and unjust; mostly we have the State do that unjust murdering for us, either officially or unofficially, rather than leave murder in private hands.)

Agh—I keep talking about Charlie Hebdo, and I meant to try to change the topic! Anyway, the first gunmen—even though after murdering everybody, and the Algerian policeman, they were jumping into their tiny French clown car yelling “We have avenged the Prophet!,” to which a secular mindset can’t help thinking, “Dude, the Prophet doesn’t care about cartoons!”—were at least operating within the terms of recognizable, even if illegitimate, political violence. The follow-up murderer, though, who started shooting people in the kosher supermarket, just made me put my head in my hands, and think: “Ohmygod, you are so—so—stupid!” Nothing more exalted than that. Because rather than believing in a divinity who cares so much about cartoons, that you can avenge him by killing the cartoonists, which is one sort of strange literalism, this was another sort of violence—real terrorism—that lumps all sorts of things by the most implausible “sympathies,” so to speak, sympathies which break down the distinctions necessary to discourse and society. For the kosher supermarket mass murderer, I think the sequence went something like this: The Israeli state, or all Israelis, are in bloody conflict with nearby Palestinians. Israel is a Jewish state. Palestinians are Muslims. I am Muslim. I guess I too am in a bloody conflict with Israeli Jews. Wait—France has Jews. I ought to kill them. I eat Halal, but they eat Kosher. Therefore I know just where to find them. The universe shouldn’t have room—I think Hannah Arendt would point out—for such a lethal mockery of thought, or thoughtlessness. Because it undoes all the distinctions that allow political thinking, political difference, ideas, and legitimate conflict, ever to occur. To seek out a place that is distinctly of the private world, backstage, a place for sustaining life—where people get their groceries, to cook for dinner, presumably mothers and children primarily—I think Arendt would point out that this is just the worst and stupidest imaginable act, because it attacks the preconditions for any ordinary life, preceding people’s political choices and conflictual existence. I do wish people would think more about the supermarket.

But I think a corollary of this way of judging relative wrongs—here I’m doing my Arendtian ventriloquism, as I understand it—is that actually too wide, flowing, and unanalytic a sense of identification on “our” side, lumping together of many different things rather than following out their distinctions and differences, is a bad idea, too. Because we won’t think well. We won’t be able to follow different effects to different causes; keep several incompatible ideas in mind at once, to judge among them; judge rightly. And one thing I do think Arendt would want us to try to keep straight about, is the question of proximity and distance. Time will tell—and near time, too—how much of a fluke the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket murders were. Should European Jews, and European writers, actually expect attacks—should they change their life on that basis? What does it mean, on the other hand, that we know quite clearly that, to be of the wrong religious sect, personal history, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, in Syria or Iraq, really is lethal—dangerous—not once in a while, but all the time? That’s why I asked, What kind of tyrants are murderous radical Islamists for us? Not in the sense of, how do we feel about them (I think it’s fair to say that one’s only answer, ever, is: “Not good”), but, rather, what does it mean in practical and daily terms, when we’re talking about a rare danger in one place, ours, but an enormous and steady danger in another place, “not ours”? Living in America or in France, I do think the questions we’re discussing are partly idle, because mostly fantasized, for each of us individually. I wouldn’t want to be set down in Syria or in Iraq north of Baghdad, where the questions would not be idle for any of us individually—and from a variety of sides—and not as “us,” but, yes, as Shia or Yazidis. I do think another thing Arendt would want us to distinguish pretty clearly is fundamentalism from totalitarianism. Fundamentalism concerns beliefs about the origins of motivation and right (revelation, obedience, supernatural justice) and consequent action. It can exist at the level of the individual. Totalitarianism is a trait of organizational structures, usually state or state-like structures. ISIS clearly has junior-grade totalitarian aspirations, none the less horrible for their secondhand and amateur qualities. The responses to those two different kinds of things—fundamentalism and totalitarianism—at the level of public discussion, domestic security, international politics, even military response, need to be very different.

Oh, wow. These letters are really dangerous! This is the kind of stuff I prefer to keep in my head, because it doesn’t go anywhere—doesn’t have much to say to anybody. I promise, next time I will really keep it short. I didn’t even mean to say any of that—I was going to talk about my book! Maybe you want to talk about something else from the book, where I can offer something from research and expertise rather than inner monologue. I hope so.


David Mikics replies:

Dear Mark, So much to think about here! By the end of this email I’ll get to your book, I promise, and I’ll try to make it hang together until then.

I don’t share your anxiety about there being too much identification: Of course, we are not in Syria, but we can and should imagine what it’s like to be there. That’s what I mean by identification. I don’t quite understand the benefit of underlining the “of course, we are not” there, in Syria, or Iraq. We know this: Identification is not projection. Not identifying strikes me as a much bigger danger: If you’ve never been a slave, or close to death in wartime, you are obligated to work hard to imagine these horrors. That’s what fiction is for, and history.

The primitive is back, as it was in the 1930s and ’40s, this time in the shape of radical Islam.

I’m with you: I disagree both with the Arendt cultists and with those who find her utterly wrong. Her strength was also her weakness: She superbly analyzed the pseudo-thinking that Stalinism relied on, but she was wrong to believe that this kind of pseudo-thinking was vital to Nazism or to anti-Semitism in general. By pseudo-thinking I mean something like: I am guilty of being an enemy of the working class because the party has decided that’s what I am. There were actually people (Brecht, for instance) who accepted this parody of logic—or pretended to, which amounts to the same thing under this system. Show trials, false confessions: the Nazis had no interest in the pseudo-thinking that Communism needed. The radical Islamists are in this respect similar to Nazis rather than Communists. No exhausting dialectics, no fake evidence. The parody of thinking that you attribute to Coulibaly is indeed what Arendt might have imagined to be going on in his head, but she would have been wrong. What he thought was probably, I’m guessing, something more like, Jews are evil, they’re enemies of Islam, killing them is glorious. He had no need for logic of any kind, good or bad. The same with the Kouachi brothers. They weren’t the victims of literal-minded false thinking: They didn’t believe their deity or their Prophet would be pleased by the killing of blasphemers. Their God was remote, unmoved, but their urge was simple and primal: We are loyal to Islam, which has enemies who deserve to die.

Picturing the Prophet as fully human, as in the Charlie Hebdo cartoon you write about so brilliantly, is fully à propos: for Muhammad was human. But God is not, and it’s the mission of monotheism, and especially Islam, to expel anthropomorphic fantasies. God doesn’t personally notice and respond to you when you do something good or bad, even if you do something spectacularly good or bad like saving a life or committing murder. Some theological work had to be done on the text of the Hebrew Bible to get to this point, but that happened pretty early on in the history of monotheism. I can’t resist citing Daniel Bell’s story: When he told his rabbi that he wasn’t going to have a bar mitzvah because he didn’t believe in God, the rabbi responded, “Do you think God cares?” (I could teach a whole class based on that line, but I won’t right now.) I can’t accept the opposition you suggest: There’s either a supernatural God whose commands are based on revelation and who demands obedience, or a humanized God who asks only for ethical action. Such an opposition is foreign to both Judaism and Islam, and to most of Christianity too. To follow a fully human religion, as all three of these are, means feeling the force of commands whose importance you could never explain and which therefore must be revealed rather than logically persuasive, like the command not to murder, or for that matter the command to keep kosher or halal. Murdering some random individuals for purely symbolic reasons, because they represent the enemy: This can never become a command. (You might ask, what about Amalek? But the prophets and the rabbis knew that Amalek was an internal, not a literal foe.) There is a hard grain of truth to the seemingly question-begging notion that Islamist terror cannot be a religious act. No act of terror can be religious, in the same way that killing your political opponents cannot be political. It violates the rules: politics is about public persuasion—not murder, which can never make political authority legitimate—and religion is about honoring life, not destroying it. In other words, human sacrifice got thrown out of religion for a reason. Addiction to violence and death is not championed in any scripture I’ve read. The holy books wrestle with the death drive, hoping to defeat it; they don’t endorse it. I’ve set before you life and good and death and evil, Moses says, implying that we realize the difference. And we do. Don’t we?

And that brings me back to your book. If I’ve been historicizing religion it’s only by way of saying that it took a while for humans to discover what religion properly is. Similarly, it took us a while to discover what politics really is. The definition of the human can be stretched, to be sure: As you put it in The Age of the Crisis of Man, man is malleable. But only so far. There are some thoughts we can’t seriously entertain: For instance, that human fulfillment means utter submission to the will of an arbitrary ruler, whether a god or a tyrant or the Party, or that addiction to death is happiness. These thoughts feel primitive, and they are. The primitive is back, as it was in the 1930s and ’40s, this time in the shape of radical Islam. We do well to recognize the differences from the earlier totalitarian temptation. But what if the differences are less important than the similarity?


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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston. Mark Greif, assistant professor of literary studies at the New School, is the author of The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973. He is a founder and editor of the journal n+1.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston. Mark Greif, assistant professor of literary studies at the New School, is the author of The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973. He is a founder and editor of the journal n+1.