Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dave Considers Suicide Bomber Alien To Him

The other Bruschetta Boy (the real one) has already posted below on DA's Violence in search of a cause: what a famous book tells us about terrorism. I think there's more to be said.
To get the jokes out of the way. Shorter DA: I've just come back from holiday, and I'm not au fait with recent developments. Let me give you my thoughts on a three-week old story, and by the way, I read a book.
Most readers will know that DA is a former lefty (I think he would not disagree with his; his own term these days, I suspect, would be 'moderate'). He was, as my colleague noted, a student radical, and one whose University Challenge team answered all questions with the name of a Marxist radical. His father was a Marxist economist. He studied history at Oxford and Manchester. One would think that, with such a background, he may have read a page or two of Karl Marx.

One word is particularly popular, not least with clergy: alienation. It's ubiquitous: you can add practically anything you like to "alienation" -- youth, race, poor schooling, poverty, unemployment, dislike of materialism, rejection of sexual mores -- yet it still absolutely fails to explain why this person will think it right to explode other people, and all the other “alienated” (by now comprising a good half of the population) won't.

First, why is the word 'alienation' ubiquitous? Might it be the influence of the Young Hegelians? Wikipedia defines alienation as:

It is considered by many that the atomism of modern society means that individuals have shallower relations with other people than they would in a traditional community. This, it is argued, leads to difficulties in understanding and adapting to each other's uniqueness (see normlessness). This is sometimes also referred to as commodification, emphasizing the compatibility of capitalism with alienation (a common theme of the early work of Karl Marx). ... Tönnies' "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft" ("Community and Society") is about the loss of primary relationships such as family bonds in favor of goal oriented secondary relationships.

"Alienation" is a technical term, and one DA ought to be familiar with. DA seems to have taken the "Hmph! Stupid word" approach. Now he could have explained further. He could have said that he's outgrown his earlier Marxist stage, and that Marx may well have cast the word "alienation" about and would very likely have applied to underqualified, unemployed young men who form a disctinct sub-culture, and who can, with some reason, apply their lack of success to prejudice against them. He could have taken my favoured course which would be "Marx meant quite a lot by 'alienation' and he expected his use of the word to be interpreted along with the whole of his writing; these clergy (who are unlikely to be historical materialists) are using in a much looser way. Really, they'd like to say these young men are all a 'bit thing' aren't they? but they realise of course that there are no invites onto the 'Today' programme, or to write Guardian comment pieces if you use language like that. So they have appropriated Marxist jargon because it's polysyllabic and authoritative, but without actually understanding it."
Now if alienation is indeed meaningful, it may be possible to discover some correlation between it and examples of alienated behaviour. Perhaps not everyone who is alienated manifests this behaviour, but then as the number of cars rises, so do the number of accidents. Mere car ownership does not explain why this particular crash now, but it's a necessary condition.
(And now I frame it like that, I realise that it is possible to answer one of his commenter's points: "Why don't we [women] blow up a few trains and buses then?" But women may be manifesting disturbed behaviour (and as a consequence of alienation) -- anorexia, self-harm, bizarre body modification. There are Female Suicide Bombers. And Emily Wilding Davidon's action, while not murderous, looks pretty extreme to me. (Another reason is that women qua women may be excluded from power: Cherie Blair is (they say) brighter than Tony, but she's in Number 10, all the same. It's just that women don't get power by acting in concert with other women.)
Having thrown "alienation" out, DA then seems to bring it back in via Truman Capote.

Smith best fitted the profile of the alienated.

Before he dismisses it again:

Dick Hickock, however, seemed to have a very different experience. He was white, and came from a solid farming family. He was bright, too. If he was alienated, it would have had to have been for entirely different reasons.

(Note that the Marxist use of the term concentrates on present circumstances, rather than the ontogeny of a neurosis. People are alienated because they are powerful, in futile jobs, and not because Mommy didn't love them.)

The histories [of Smith and Hickock among others in a study in The American Journal of Psychiatry] revealed in each a severe degree of sexual inhibition. To all of them adult women were threatening creatures . . . All of them too had been concerned throughout their early years about being considered ‘sissies’.” And all had suffered “severe emotional deprivation in early life”.

Ellipsis in original. This makes me suspect that 'alienation' is the wrong term here. We've moved into something more like psychological profiling. The problem now is that the suspect in the airport terror case and the suicide bombers last July do not appear to fit this profile. Perhaps if there are detailed psychiatric reports when this is all over, we will see evidence that they do meet this criteria. But, personally, I doubt it.
DA concludes with what he thinks is really to blame:

[C]ertain preachers or certain organisations provide a space where blowing up planes can be made to seem like a wonderful act.

As if happens, I'm largely sympathetic to this. I think most young men, are for a time, as DA says of Richard Reid, "violence in search of a cause, not the other way around." We see a lot of this: whether in Old Firm matches, or the enthusiasm with which people enlisted for WWI, despite never having left their own counties in most cases, and probably knowing nothing about Belgium other than there was a ruck going on there. The real problem is where and how they channel their energies. I don't know the solution, but I hope it involves a lot more cricket and lot less mosque-going.
I realise that this has been over-long, and I did think about not posting it. However, as luck would have it, this afternoon I came across a member of the clergy using 'alienation' is just the loose dilettante way I described earlier in (of course) tehgrauniad: Soon after the bombings of 7/7 a group of Tory MPs wrote a joint letter to the Spectator, arguing that Muslim alienation was exacerbated by declining standards of public morality. (Spectator letters are behind a subscription wall. However the Beeb summarises.)
So where am I on this? I think there's something in 'alienation', but not as it's thrown around by the clergy. And I think there's something in personal history, too. And to reuse (again) my current favourite Nietzsche quote "Insanity in individuals is something rare — but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."
Where DA is on this, I'm less certain.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is one excellent Nietzsche quote.

I don't know the solution, but I hope it involves a lot more cricket and lot less mosque-going.

Surely that depends on who's doing the preaching?

8/31/2006 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger the management said...

Anon, in many ways, you're right. That is, I largely agree that who is preaching is important, and I also agree that most preachers aren't pernicious. OTOH, I'm British, and despite the best efforts of the government, still proud to be so. And I think the best compromise for all religions is at most weekly, or better, annual or bi-annual religious observance.

I also think explicit moral teaching: 'thou shalt not'/'you should' presented as a lecture is entirely worthless. (I'd like to separate this from 'moral philosophy' as investigation into and study of moral precepts which may be useful and/or interesting.) It's no better than classroom lectures on 'how to play rugby' or 'how to dance' would be. Morality is dealing with other people, and a thing one learns by doing. I believe (but can't prove) that extra-curricular activities (sport, music, drama), and even playing are better for developing a moral sense than sermons. In short, I believe there is such a thing as too much mosque/church/synagogue attendance, especially for the young, and its ceiling is very low. Also less mosque-going (and the phrase carries a resonance for me of the Larkin poem) should mean fewer - and perhaps better quality - preachers. (Even if you strip away the tabloid bile, I don't see how anyone can view Abu Hamza as anything other than a nut.)

So while that remark may seem bigoted, I did not intend it to be, and I stand by it. If I had kids, I may even prefer that they attend CofE schools - proper ones which use the King James Bible, not some trendy recent translation - because the hymns are good, and the great thing about the CofE is almost no one actually believes that crap any more.

8/31/2006 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah. You view is certainly not bigoted. The history of Christianity is largely a history of hypocrisy, but this is exactly what Christianity teaches us to expect. The conception of moral exhortation bequeathed to us by the Victorians is wreathed in all manner of disgusting associations, but it does not follow that nothing worthwhile can be done in this department except moral philosophy. Your denunciation seems to encompass Pericles' funeral oration, Plato's allegories in the Republic, the Sermon on the Mount (!), the sermons of Butler, Dunne, Newman et al, and much else that is so obviously of value that any criterion that rules them "entirely worthless" must be mistaken. You may complain that these are not "presented as a lecture" in the relevant sense, ie drily and didactically. But then you should have said "presented as a bad lecture", and we all could have agreed that that was to be avoided.

8/31/2006 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Backword Dave said...

Anon, I see your point, though I'm off the opinion that the examples you give are only understandable *after* one has reached similar conclusions of one's own. I stand by my point: I don't believe virtue can be taught in words, though speeches on virtue can be very well put.

I may be overly cynical, but I remember than Nero was taught by Seneca; Achilles who was nothing but a headbanger (though my favourite character when I first read the Iliad) was surrounded by philosopher types making nice speeches; Cromwell knew heady thinkers like Marvell and Milton (if I haven't got my epochs mixed up) and still left Ireland in the mess it's taken centuries to only partially resolve.

Socrates and Jesus exhorted with the best of them. They were also both killed.

But I'm really only trying to fit moral teaching (how did we get on to this) in with carpentry, mathematics, medicine, dance, and other things one mostly has to do to understand. OK, there may be a place for preaching, but it's a small place. I distrust serious Muslims who really pray five times a day for the same reason I distrust Ruth Kelly: it's too damn much.

8/31/2006 06:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Aaronovitch on Any Questions (Radio 4) with Peter Hitchens, chap from MPAC and tory vice-chairman.

Friday 1st Sept - 20:00


Saturday 13:15



9/01/2006 07:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your current fave Nietzsche quote appears in a letter in today's Guardian (9 Sept) from an MEP called Glyn Ford.

9/09/2006 02:58:00 PM  

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