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The Left’s Ideas Deficit Strengthens Islamists

ISIS offers its recruits a vision of wild and violent abandon. To eradicate it, we need not only better guns but also better ideas.

Liel Leibovitz
November 25, 2015
Photo of Joyce Carol Oates: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Photo of Joyce Carol Oates: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Photo of Joyce Carol Oates: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Photo of Joyce Carol Oates: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

This weekend, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates took to Twitter with a question. “All we hear of ISIS is puritanical and punitive,” opined the Grand Dame of American letters. “Is there nothing celebratory and joyous? Or is query naïve?”

Query isn’t naïve. Query is telling. Having distinguished herself as a political idiot earlier this year by leading the march of folly against awarding PEN’s freedom of expression award to the surviving members of Charlie Hebdo, Oates has emerged as one of the more eloquent tellers of a story gripping large swaths of the population formerly known as the American intelligentsia. Oates’ meta-narrative is the story of the struggle between those enlightened enough to see the intricacies of oppression everywhere at play and those benighted brutes who are halting progress by trampling the weak and spreading bigotry and bias. The latter look at ISIS and see murderous zealots; Oates and her fellow feelers, on the other hand, high on empathy, demand that we see joy and beauty–or at least “nuance”—in the beheaders’ violent spree, which, after all, was provoked by our own cruel insensitivities and will only stop once we recognize the legitimacy of our executioners’ grievances.

This, more or less, is contemporary progressivism’s big story. You can hear variations on it in the yelps of the mindless freaks at the University of Ottawa, who insisted on banning a yoga class because the practice of stretching one’s limbs in certain positions was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” or in the demands of the crybullies at Smith College, who vowed to bar reporters who didn’t pledge solidarity with their causes from covering their rallies. It’s there in the mumblings of the bobos in the 11th Arrondisement, who, while still scrubbing the blood of their friends and neighbors off their neighborhood’s sidewalks, were quick to condone their attackers and blame their government for the violence. And it’s alive in the wailing of the Israeli left, who meet every Palestinian wielding a knife, an ax, or a gun with soft apologies for having the temerity to ride the bus or shop for fruit or walk down the street on a warm fall day. Some specifics may vary from Yale to Tel Aviv and from Paris to Missouri, but the underlying worldview remains the same, a unified theory that holds that history is a battle between the “oppressed” and the “oppressors,” and that should be a matter of life and death for every good and decent person to stand on the side of the “oppressed” while working to dismantle the “structures of privilege” that make the oppressed so justifiably mad.

To say that this worldview is destructive would be banal. To note that it is vulgar should be obvious. But this particular thought-virus isn’t just some harmless affectation you pick up on campus, like Marxist jargon or proficiency in beer-pong. As wild as it may sound, it’s also, sadly, a threat to the entire way of life that allows moronic Western people of whatever race, religion, or sexual orientation to natter on about such nonsense while their peers invent laptop computers and cell phones and solar panels and life-saving medicines and all the other little things that make our lives both pleasant and possible.

When we speak of defeating ISIS and its surrounding culture of Islamic triumphalism—and those of us untroubled by micro-aggressions and cultural appropriations and the other drivel pumped into our culture by the PC brigades speak of little else these days—we consider not only how many bombing sorties or boots on the ground it would take to eradicate the murderous jihadis, but also how we may go about countering their narrative. Like every ideology, ISIS’, too, is not without its complexities and peculiar idiosyncrasies, but it’s successful because it ultimately comes down to wild abandon.

Would you rather, it asks the largely poor and often ignored in Brussels and London and Lyon, be a dentist with a small car and a mortgage—or a lieutenant riding shotgun in a Toyota Land Cruiser with the power to take life whenever you please? Would you rather trudge through a floundering marriage in a two-bedroom flat in the grimy part of some crumbling European town—or have three wives who are bound to obey your every command and whose hair and ankles are visible to no man aside from yourself? Wouldn’t a kick-ass surge of adrenaline be great just about now? Wouldn’t you love to live life without any earthly consequences for your actions, which are sacred in the eyes of all true believers, and run amok, like a character in a Harmony Korine spring break flick, with the certain knowledge that when you blow yourself up you will go to heaven where you will get blown over and over again by doe-eyed virgins like a dude in a never-ending porno loop?

This may not be the kind of joy that is most familiar to Joyce Carol Oates or the broad fellowship of NPR listeners, but for many others it’s enticing stuff, which is why throngs of young people, many previously uninterested in the doctrines of Islam, pack up and leave for Syria. And every time they do, it’s not only a victory for ISIS’ narrative but a resounding failure for our own. While the terrorists have offered a coherent and simple vision with which to tempt the dejected and the meek, what alternative do we offer? Our authors, thinkers and academics, the very people once entrusted with the work of helping society make sense of itself and its values, have only one answer on their shelves, which are otherwise bare: The West is a purveyor of racism and sorrow and oppression, devoid of any virtues and undeserving of pride, let alone the spilling of blood.

A young would-be jihadi surveying the world after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, for example, would’ve found a surprisingly coherent nexus between the rationale of the homicidal Kouachi brothers and the public letter many of our most prominent writers composed to express their disagreement with honoring the Kouachis’ victims. “To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized,” Oates and her fellow travelers wrote at the time, “a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.” Perversely, instead of honoring the victims, our writers and thinkers rushed to justify the jihadis.

It’s not that the jihadis care what Oates writes; they don’t. But some of us do. And by justifying their psychopathic narrative–which also celebrates the enslavement of women and throwing gays off high buildings–she and others like her become unwitting tools of jihadi terror, which is not, despite the pictures of dead bodies, a form of physical warfare—in which a few dozen dead civilians killed with AK-47s count for exactly nothing next to arsenals of supersonic jet fighters, cruise missiles, and aircraft carriers—but cognitive warfare, which works by depriving your enemy of the will to defend himself. The point of terror is to terrorize people, so that they stop fighting back. That’s the only way terrorists can ever triumph.

If we are ever to fight ISIS and win, then, we would do well to begin by telling the grievance freaks to take a hike, and offering up a narrative more compelling than the murderers’ invitation to bloodshed and chaos. These will not be easy tasks. Our intelligentsia is a pretty worthless, pathetic group of people who live off foundation grants and academic sinecures that demand right-think as the price of continuing to cash a check; more capable creative types fled long ago to places like Silicon Valley or even Hollywood, where the checks have four or five additional zeros on them, and everyone is busy doing real creative work. For the rest of us, there’s not much left but television shows and Internet memes and celebrity gossip. Netflix and Amazon Prime and Snapchat are the gossamer that makes life amusing, but they are not substantial and are unlikely to convince anyone contemplating jihad to choose our banner instead of ISIS’ black and bloody flag.

Unless we come up with a real shared vision that trumps fear with hope, unless we forge anew the bonds that once held us tightly enough to go and fight big wars against humanity’s worst, we are doomed. The post-modernists, post-colonialists, neo-Marxist, proto-Fascists in academia may shriek that this is not possible, that society is a fiction designed solely to mask oppression and marginalization, that we should focus on the struggle between disparate identity groups rather than encourage all to have faith in the better angels of our human nature. But we know better. We’ve seen what this and other countries can do when moved by the call of liberty, and we know that the promise of freedom will always trump the perverse satisfactions of cruelty. But we must evoke these values loudly and clearly, drowning out all of those who, for one reason or another, have lost their capacity for rational thought. Otherwise, to borrow a once and future useful phrase, the terrorists win.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.