Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In the Nineties I wrote frequently about the role of multiculturalism, leftist politics, and postmodern theory in the degradation of the humanities and social sciences. It was clear to many of us tracking these developments that since the Seventies, foundational skills and knowledge had been slowly eroded, their place taken by politics and dubious theory. Back then, the danger seemed confined to the elite groves of postgraduate education. As a consequence, liberal education, the “free play of the mind on all subjects,” as Matthew Arnold put it, and “the instinct to know the best that is known and thought in the world,” was being replaced by the “boots are better than Shakespeare” philistinism of political activism, and the “higher nonsense” of postmodern theory.
But our government’s feckless response during the Nineties to al Qaeda’s serial attacks, and the gruesome slaughter on 9/11 that climaxed those errors, made me realize that much of our foreign policy failures reflected some of the pernicious ideas that had escaped from the diseased groves of academe. The smoldering ruins and 3000 dead was a graphic reminder that ideas do indeed have consequences.
The foundational idea of both Marxist theory and postmodernism is the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the assumption that what we perceive as the true nature of things is a false narrative contrived by hegemonic power to keep us pliant and obedient as it pursues its nefarious, oppressive policies and practices such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, and sexism. In time the list would include homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, and a generalized bigotry against “people of color,” a category based on the old, reductive taxonomy of “scientific racism.”
From this perspective, the achievements of Western Civilization were a mere fictive construct designed to mask that history of bloody oppression. “Facts” and “truth” likewise were mere components of a “discourse regime,” arbitrary linguistic signs with no foundation in reality. “Multiculturalism” and “diversity” became the weapons for dismantling this regime by elevating and privileging the “other” of “color.” All political analyses were reduced to the Leninist “Who, whom”––Who is the oppressor, and whom does he oppress.
Of course, it is easy to see the fundamental contradiction in this narrative. If truth is just a construct that enables oppression, on what grounds can the postmodern theorist embrace, or even articulate, any political cause? Where is his privileged space existing apart from the hegemonic discourses that allegedly have so much reach and power over us for obscuring its malignant machinations? If language is reduced to the play of signifiers that can never communicate a meaning, what happens to “human rights” or “liberation” or “national self-determination” or the “workers’ paradise”?
Such questioning, however, was dismissed as the “reductionist” complaints of those who didn’t understand the gnostic truths, or were terrified of their implications for their own “white privilege” and “fascist” inclinations.
The implications of these ideas for foreign policy were dangerous. Building on the fashionable self-loathing that Orwell and Churchill had noticed among the English intelligentsia of the Thirties, the anti-Westerners weaponized historical phenomena like colonialism and imperialism that had already had begun to be demonized before World War I. The transformation into question-begging epithets was helped by the anti-imperialism and anticolonialism made necessary by the Versailles Treaty’s privileging of “national self-determination,” which perforce required the dismantling of colonial empires––a project completed after World War II.
These terms became, as historian Robert Conquest put it, signifiers of a “malign force with no program but the subjugation and exploitation of innocent people.” This reductive redefinition made the terms verbal “mind-blockers,” Conquest wrote, “and thought-extinguishers” serving “mainly to confuse, and of course replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.” The historical complexity of those phenomena was reduced to incendiary caricatures. But they were useful for creating both doubt in the goodness of our country, and guilt over its alleged historical transgressions.
This tendency was especially relevant for the Muslim Middle East and our policies in that region. The prime source was Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism, still one of the most influential books in the humanities and social sciences, and now in the guise of Postcolonialism dominating Middle Eastern Studies programs, whence come many of the ideas and advisors influencing our foreign policy establishment.
Said’s duplicitous and historically challenged argument in Orientalism is that the work of Western scholars on the Middle East embodied “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” As such, it creates the intellectual infrastructure for justifying colonialism and imperialism. Every European scholar necessarily is “a racist, an imperialist, and totally ethnocentric.” For social science and humanities departments deeply committed to the multiculturalist melodrama of white racism and oppression of the dark-skinned “other,” Said’s work seemingly provides a scholarly bona fides for ideas that are in fact expressive of shallow illiberal grievance politics.
Said’s book is in fact “a work of malignant charlatanry, in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations,” historian Robert Irwin writes. Yet it suited the interests of the Middle East petrocracies that have poured billions into American Middle East Studies departments. As a result, Middle East historian Martin Kramer points out, these programs “came under a take-no-prisoners assault, which rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology”––the old Leninist narrative of Western colonial and imperial crimes a against the dark-skinned, innocent “other.”
More important, Postcolonialism provided intellectual reinforcement for a foreign policy establishment still in thrall to the Wilsonian anti-colonialist, national self-determination narrative that dismisses loyalty to traditional faith as a driver of events. That’s why we drastically misunderstood the Iranian Revolution of 1979 by ignoring or dismissing Khomeini’s jihadist goals, just as we ignored earlier theorists of jihadism like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who for decades had made the religious justification for war against the infidel West and its aggression against Islam: “It is the nature of Islam,” al-Banna wrote, “to dominate not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations and extend its power to the entire planet.”
Despite the humiliating lesson of Iran’s terrorist attacks and support for jihadist proxies who murdered with impunity 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut, we still did not take seriously the rise of al Qaeda and its numerous terrorist attacks on our military assets and personnel. Nor did we take seriously Osama bin Laden’s traditional Muslim imperatives for jihad. Instead, Bin Laden was trivialized as a “beard from the fringe,” an irrational extremist who had “hijacked” Islam, a Muslim David Koresh or Jim Jones who exploited the poverty, oppression, and lack of freedom and prosperity fomented by tyrannical Middle Eastern rulers, some of whom were the factotums of Western powers.
So attack after attack through Nineties––the first World Trade center bombing, the attack on a U.S. training center in Riyadh, the truck-bomb attack on an Air Force residential complex in Dharan, the East African embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar al Salaam, and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole––all failed to rouse the Clinton administration, which treated them as criminal activities, and occasionally responded with strategically useless cruise-missile attacks hampered by squeamish rules of engagement, all the while passing on opportunities to kill bin Laden.
But there were those who recognized the threat of jihadist terror, and the folly of treating it as a crime. Andy McCarthy successfully prosecuted the architect of the first World Trade Center attack. In doing so he uncovered the religious motives and doctrines that justified the bombing. But apparently no one in the foreign policy and national security agencies took notice. Another Cassandra who recognized the wider religious context of these attacks was Daniel Pipes, who was not just ignored by our foreign policy establishment when he wrote six months before 9/11, “The time has come for Westerners . . . to understand that Islamism presents a truly global threat, and to devote the mental energy and material resources required to fight it.” He also was attacked by the Muslim identity-politics CAIR lobby as a bigot––an object lesson for our foreign policy establishment to avoid the truth when it comes to Islam.
It took 9/11 to get our attention, but that year of recovered nerve soon dissipated in presidential primary politicking and a renewed self-loathing that inhibited our actions and sapped our morale. The mantras of “religion of peace” and “nothing to do with Islam,” were statements of historical ignorance that avoided the unpleasant experience of having the multicultural lobby excoriate your neocolonialist and Islamophobic prejudices.
Moreover, this anti-Western bias nurtured in the universities created a common explanation for the attacks. To paraphrase Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright, the attacks of 9/11 were just “chickens coming home to roost,” as many leftist academics proclaimed soon after the attack. These self-loathing analyses were similar to the broader, decades-long scorn of Western Civilization in our universities, and to the specious moral relativism preached by postmodern theory. It was the university that created a climate of opinion that enabled our willful blindness about the reality of traditional Islamic doctrine.
Finally, that blindness to the religious motives of Islamic terrorism is on shameful display in the myopic response of the Biden administration after its blunder in fleeing Afghanistan and leaving behind billions in military hardware, not to mention the ignominy of our abandoned fellow Americans. Worse, his foreign policy hands are now employing “diplomatic outreach” to the same fanatics, including terrorists wanted by the U.S., who sheltered bin Laden as he planned the 9/11 attack. Promising them aid and “international acceptance,” they still don’t get that, as the Economist said about Carter’s ineffectual sanctions during the hostage crisis, “The denial of material things is unlikely to have much effect on minds suffused with immaterial things.” Such cringing deference is yet another consequence of bad ideas incubated in universities.