Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Narnia, Game of Thrones, and the Stormlight Chronicles: the Reenchantmant of Fantasy (Part I)


(Happy birthday to Lionel Spiegel.)

I drive my son Kalman to and from pre-school most weekdays. In the car, he usually asks to listen to Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. You can clock an average trip as the amount of time it takes to get from the beginning of the book until Mr. Tumnus confesses that he is in the pay of the White Witch as her kidnapper. Kalman knows that the White Witch is bad because she is the government and she makes it always winter. I guess I can live with him not picking up on the "and never Christmas" part.

Lewis opened with one of the finest dedications ever. Writing to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, Lewis apologized to the teenage girl that she grew up faster than he could write but he hopes that one day she will be old enough to read fairy tales once again. This a good example of one of the key concepts in Lewis' writing, reenchantment; that one can once again fall in love with the things of childhood that one's more cynical self had abandoned as part of "growing up."

Reenchantment should be understood as a response to Max Weber's notion of disenchantment and Friederich Nietzsche's more poetic "God is dead." Disenchantment is the notion that under modernity our very way of thinking is materialistic and does not allow us to truly operate within a supernaturalist framework. For example, early in the Wardrobe, the other children are simply unable to believe that Lucy has traveled to Narnia; to them, it is simply not possible that she could be anything else but either a liar or insane. They are prejudiced against belief even though logically there is nothing to suggest that portals to other universes do not exist.

It is important to understand that contrary to conventional secularist theories of modernity, Weber was not claiming that modernity had intellectually refuted religion and people, particularly the educated, will no longer believe. On the contrary, such a prospect will cause many people to cling more tightly than ever to the outward forms of religion. Thus, it may even appear that religion is doing better than ever under modernity with more people attending church and insisting on hardline fundamentalist interpretations of the faith. That being said, such religiosity only serves to cover for the fact that religion has been fossilized into something that people practice out of tradition but lacks the ability to truly inspire its adherents. In this sense, disenchantment stands as a far graver threat to religion than simple secularism. If people were convinced by argument to abandon religion then it might be possible to engage in apologetics and win them back. On the other hand, if people stopped believing not because of any argument without even realizing that they no longer believed then it is practically impossible to ever bring them back.

In addition to religious disenchantment, Lewis, in his own personal experience, confronted a more tangible disenchantment, World War I. Lewis was part of a generation of young Englishmen, who listened to their teachers and did the "right and honorable thing;" they marched off to the French trenches to be slaughtered in the mud, sacrificed to pay for the political and military miscalculations of their elders.

World War I was the death of heroism. In an earlier generation, a man could be said to be brave to stand tall in the face of enemy fire and resolutely march forward. One might die in the attempt but one could believe that he was sacrificing himself to spur his comrades on to victory. During World War I, that became suicide. Thus, the very ethos of heroism led men to their deaths in utter futility. It should be emphasized that dying was never the issue. Young men have always been marched off to war by their elders and died in great numbers. What was new here was this sense of futility that robbed one even of the ability to honor the dead for their sacrifice. By contrast, World War II could once again offer a cause to die for even as it brought the new disenchantment of the massive aerial bombardment of urban centers. As with disenchantment with religion, what was at stake was less an intellectual attack on heroism but the inability, at a gut level, to take heroism seriously in the first place. Someone who seems heroic must either be a scoundrel trying to deceive others or a fool to have bought into such nonsense.

As with fellow veteran J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis' use of fantasy can be seen as an attempt to become reenchanted with heroism. For example, in Narnia, the children are able to abandon the air raids of World War II for a land in which chivalry is still possible. This reenchantment must be understood as something distinct from enchantment. The horrors of the World Wars were real and there can be no going back. That being said, the fantasies of Lewis and Tolkien were attempts to acknowledge the incomprehensible horror of what they experienced yet still allow for heroism. If the blood and the mud were real, the courage shown by the men was equally real.

This project of using fantasy to resurrect heroism must be understood within a larger effort to bring about the reenchantment with religion. Was it not that earlier generation of disenchanted believers with their mixture of Christian ritual now supplemented with a sense of duty to king and country and a confidence in progress all while being hopelessly naive regarding the implications of industrialized warfare that had sent all those young men to die? Perhaps, it was not heroism that was obsolete, but the ideologies of modernity? (See Joseph Loconte's Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War.)

If one could recover heroism, perhaps it could lead back to faith and to a religion that might once again be relevant to a modern world. As Screwtape, the Satan of Lewis' disenchanted world, notes, the very fact that non-believers (much like the teenage Lewis, who was then an atheist) march off to war, to give themselves to a cause larger than themselves places them at risk of becoming open to the "enemy." Part of what is going on here is the ability to believe in things that are beyond the physical senses. Disenchantment works precisely by taking the physical as the gold standard of what is real. Thus, before the debate even begins, the spiritual has already lost to be relegated to being less real. The moment we introduce something that is non-physical yet more real than the world of the senses, the spell of disenchantment is broken and the process of reenchantment can begin.

Regardless of this wider religious context, a major aspect of Lewis and Tolkien's legacy to fantasy as a genre has been a kind of optimistic faith in heroism in the face of modern cynicism. (In Lord of the Rings, this optimism is only sharpened by the fact that the book is fundamentally a tragedy.) Thus, it could only be expected that if Lewis and Tolkien represented a kind of enchantment with heroic fantasy, it would produce a backlash of disenchanted fantasy. The most important example of this has been George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. This series is a repeated exercise in both the physical and ideological murder of heroism. Those like Ned Stark and his son Robb, who risk themselves doing the right thing, do not come out ahead. It is not even that they die achieving some noble goal. On the contrary, they come to ignominious ends marked by utter futility. On the other side, you have the anti-heroism of Jaime Lannister. Jaime commits regicide and incest even as the former probably saved lives and he is faithful to his sister as his one true love. To Martin's credit, Jaime fails to be a simple caricature of chivalry. Rather, (much like the more comic Harry Flashman), readers can still love Jaime for his simple honesty in knowing himself to be a scoundrel. In a world without moral absolutes, hypocrisy is the only sin and honesty in one's sinfulness the only virtue.             

Friday, November 17, 2017

War Criminals, Lone Wolves, and Terrorists: Definitions and Implications


With the recent rash of shootings has come a renewed debate over the distinction between a terrorist and a lone wolf. (Clearly, both whites and non-whites can be terrorists.) With Islamic terrorism and the Israeli-Arab conflict always in the news, there is the debate as to what is terrorism and what is a war crime. These issues tend to bog down into polemics so there is a benefit to offering specific definitions for the sake of clarity. Imagine three criminals standing before you, an SS officer, an angry white man and a member of ISIS. All three of them have murdered a classroom full of children so there is no doubt that they are all very bad people, who deserve punishment. The question becomes how they may be treated. The SS officer and the white man, as a war criminal and a lone wolf, have rights while the ISIS terrorist does not.

The SS officer is in uniform and a member of the German armed forces. As such, though he is a war criminal, he is protected by the social contract your country has with Germany. We must accept that he has rights and cannot simply be tortured to death. There is a benefit to declaring him a war criminal in that the German government, by putting him in uniform, has placed its entire leadership and population as guarantors of his good conduct. Ultimately, they are the ones truly responsible for his conduct; the fact that he is the immediate cause of the crime is incidental. Think of the uniform as a loan contract in much the same way as a paper currency that can be called in. The government can disavow the soldier; at which point the uniform becomes null and void. This would render our war criminal an out of uniform combatant and thus a spy/saboteur. As such he has no rights and can be tortured or killed at will without trial. Alternatively, his government can choose to acknowledge the soldier, but this would force them to make some kind of restitution to the satisfaction of the victim's government (or social contract insurance agency). Failure to do so would allow the government to take to seek satisfaction in blood. This would allow for the bombardment of German civilian populations and, afterward, the execution of German political leaders.

The lone wolf shooter is not protected by any uniform but, even though he is a criminal, he is still a citizen with rights. His crime does not imply a larger rejection of the social contract so the social contract continues to protect him. As such, he must be given a trial. To be clear, what makes him a lone wolf and not a terrorist is the fact that he lacks any larger material and ideological support structure. This, admittedly, can make it difficult to tell the difference between a lone wolf and a terrorist. It is quite possible that the entire distinction may rest on the discovery of a pamphlet in the person's possession or a history of visiting a terrorist website.

This brings us to the terrorist. The most important thing about a terrorist is that he is an out of uniform combatant just like a spy/saboteur. This means that not only is it permissible to not grant him any rights, it may be necessary. Consider that the distinction between soldiers and civilians is crucial to the maintenance of civilized order even and especially in a time of war. This distinction requires that soldiers be easily identifiable with uniforms. Unless the penalties for violating that distinction are severe no country would ever bother to hold them.

Not only is the terrorist, by definition, guilty of endangering civilization by undermining the social contract, the so-called human rights activist who attempts to grant the terrorist rights is also guilty as he has rendered the line between soldier and civilian meaningless. Thus, we must recognize an antinomian "true" human rights, which involves torturing the terrorist. The very act of torturing the terrorist, regardless of the information he might provide, is protecting civilians from harm. The belief in the principle that terrorists do not have rights is precisely what is giving civilians rights. The person who objects to this is himself the real violator of human rights and it is as if he personally tortured innocent people. (To be clear, what is necessary is the belief in the moral rightness of torturing terrorists, which likely requires the occasional literal fulfillment. This acceptance allows for demonstrations of mercy in individual cases. Just because the Law is righteous does not mean it is always right to fulfill the Law.)

As you recall, the distinction between a terrorist and a lone wolf killer is the existence of a material and ideological support system. What differentiates the terrorist from a war criminal is that the terrorist's support structure is not one with which we have any kind of implied social contract relationship. We need to respect the rights of the war criminal in order to demonstrate that we were true to the social contract and justify placing his country's leadership and people outside of it. By contrast, we never had any kind of social contract with the terrorist organization. Furthermore, terrorist organizations, while they may possess a leadership and funders, lack a clearly identified civilian population to pay the price for their crimes. For example, while it was morally permissible to bomb German cities for Nazi war crimes, bombing Afghani cities in retaliation for Al-Qaeda terrorist crimes would have been far more problematic. Since there are no civilians to pay for terrorist crimes, we are justified in pursuing the leadership in a more aggressive fashion. Since terrorist leaders may prove more elusive than war criminal political leaders, this leaves the captured terrorist to pay the full weight of the crime. This is despite the fact that ultimately his role was only incidental as compared to the terrorist leaders who planned the action and provided the physical and ideological support to make it possible.

A large part of the debate over who counts as a terrorist revolves around the implied assumption of a support structure. For example, if you already accept the existence of an entity called "radical Islam" or that Islam is an inherently violent religion than you will be inclined to see any violent Muslim as a terrorist. On the other hand, if you believe that complaints about Islamic extremism are simply cover for "Islamophobia" than you will dismiss any charge of terrorism. Similarly, in regards to white supremacists, if you believe that there really is something racist underlying white American culture than you are going to be more likely to see someone like Dylann Roof, who massacred a black church bible study group in Charleston, as a terrorist instead of simply as a misguided and disturbed young man.

Keep in mind that the distinction between lone wolf and terrorist lies completely within the realm of intention; was the crime committed as part of a larger conspiracy by a non-social contract organization to pursue their political goals. It is not just the individual terrorist that we need to make assumptions about but a wider network of people to the point of even calling them a group. Therefore, as none of us can read minds, we can never prove whether someone is one or the other; it is simply a judgment call. This has become even more so in recent years as the line between the terrorist support structure and its perpetrators have become more tenuous. For example, the 9/11 hijackers received direct material support from Al-Qaeda so it is very difficult to pretend that they were just some guys who decided on their own to crash planes into buildings. Contrast this with ISIS terrorists where ISIS merely has to operate a website and angry Muslims draw inspiration to engage in ramming and knifing attacks. It is hard to say that someone who happens to read an ISIS website before committing murder is an ISIS terrorist.

The consequences of who gets the terrorist label are literally a matter of life and death and demand caution. If Islamic terrorism exists. than someone operating a pro-ISIS website calling for jihad is a terrorist and can be shot on sight without the benefit of a trial. (As per the Julius Streicher principle, such speech is not really speech but a conspiracy to commit murder.) If we are wrong, then we have a martyr for free-speech on our hand. Before you give the go-ahead to killing radical Islamic bloggers consider that by the same logic we should probably recognize that white supremacists exist as a movement and not just disturbed individuals, then the government should have responded to the Charleston shooting by going door to door and executing white supremacist bloggers and radio show hosts, particularly those that directly influenced Roof.

While we can never prove anything in any particular case, we can demand intellectual consistency. If you are quick to condemn Islamic terrorism, but bend over backward to deny that there can be white supremacist terrorists there is a problem. Similarly, if you refrain from using the terrorist label unless they are white men, you are not being honest.