Roger Kimball reminds us of a thought from Wittgenstein, one that is well worth pondering. Kimball applies it to the American way of politics, but obviously it has many other applications.
A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and our language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.
If I may, Wittgenstein is suggesting that once we get captured by a fiction, by a narrative, by a picture of the world we lose touch with reality. The picture holds us captive because we hear about it all the time, we read about it all the time, we are fed facts that validate it and are shielded from facts that would contradict it.
Captivated by a picture we allow our language to refer to it, not to reality. Our language is given over to the task of affirming the truth of the picture, thus of validating our beliefs.
One might argue, as I have, that Freudian psychoanalysis counts as just such a picture, one that held many of us captive for far too long.
Kimball explains that many people have been enthralled by the picture of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. So much so that they have not been able to see the extent to which it failed. In their picture, it was a grand and glorious project, undertaken with the best of intentions. Ergo, it could not have failed. Anyone who dares contradict the picture will be attacked and demonized.
Criticism does not count as an opposing point of view, one that might succeed or fail in the marketplace of ideas. Criticism threatens one’s most deeply held beliefs. It threatens one’s reality. It cannot be allowed to stand.
In Kimball’s words:
According to the narrative, Great Society welfare programs are a good thing. They are framed (weren’t they?) to help poor people (and, not incidentally, to make they people framing them feel better about themselves) ergo they cannot be a failure, not really. Do they, as a matter of fact, institutionalize rather than abolish poverty? Do they make an entire class of people more and more dependent on government? Do they encourage a range of social pathology, from teen pregnancy and single-mother households? Do they nurture a Janus-faced culture of dependency that involves a huge government bureaucracy, captive politicians, as well as official “clients?” None of that matters to The Narrative, which persists through it all partly by demonizing its critics, partly by dispensing public largess to said politicians, managers of the bureaucracy, as well as (of course) to the officially designated objects of government benevolence.
Once he establishes the principle, Kimball easily applies it to a picture that has enthralled far too many Americans, that of Barack Obama:
… a half-black international man of mystery with no visible qualifications to be president but who is the very incarnation of every leftist aspiration from the gospel of environmental economic suicide and hatred of the United States to an “evolving” metrosexual affirmation of polymorphous eroticism (has any other President dilated an “transsexuals” in his State of the Union speech?) to his embrace of an ideology—I mean Islam—diametrically opposed to America’s traditional commitment to limited government and individual liberty?
Having bought the picture many Americans cannot release themselves from its hold.
But, the problem is not just limited to the American people and their attitude toward the president they elected twice.
Our president himself, Kimball continues has been captured and captivated by a narrative. In that narrative, terrorism is not a problem within Islam. In that narrative, America is the problem more than the solution. Thus, we need but sit back and watch ISIS will self-destruct.
[Cf. my and George Packer’s remarks about ISIS and its capacity for self-destruction in yesterday’s post.]
Kimball recounts the interview Obama gave to serial plagiarist Fareed Zakaria:
After saying that, of course, he [Obama] has oodles of sympathy for the families whose loved ones were slaughtered by those whom he elsewhere has called “violent extremists” (i.e. Muslims) he goes on to insist that we maintain a “proper perspective” by not “over-inflating” the importance of those terror networks. Above all, said Obama, we wouldn’t want to give them the satisfaction of thinking that we regard them—i.e. Islamic terrorism—as an “existential threat to the United States or the world order.” Sure, “they can do harm,” Obama acknowledged, but—pay attention now: semantic slippage ahead!—“but we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s the — you know, what’s essence of who we are.”
Next, he quotes Obama himself, who is echoing the George Packer article. In so doing, Obama is showing us that he or his staff got his talking points from the New Yorker. But, he is also showing that he has missed Packer’s most important point, namely that death cults like ISIS can only be defeated by a strong counterforce.
Ultimately these terrorist organizations will be defeated because they don’t have a vision that appeals to ordinary people. It is — it really is, as has been described in some cases, a death cult, or an entirely backward looking fantasy that can’t function in the world.
When you look at ISIL, it has no governing strategy. It can talk about sitting up the new caliphate but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work. And so we can’t give them the victory of over-inflating what they do, and we can’t make the mistake of being reactive to them. We have to have a precise strategy in terms of how to defeat them.
Kimball responds by asking: What is Obama’s “precise strategy” for defeating terror? In truth, as the evidence makes clear, Obama has no strategy. Or better, his strategy is to say he has a strategy, regardless of the fact that his actions belie his language. One suspects that Obama actually believes what he is saying.
What has Obama done to fight terror? Kimball lists some of the highlights:
By doing what? By releasing 5 terrorists in order to secure the lease of one army deserter (here’s looking at you Mr. Bergdahl)? By describing ISIS as a “jay-vee” operation right before it started (speaking of Whack-a-Mole) beheading people in earnest? By insisting that Major Nisan’s murderous “Allauhu Akbar” rampage at Ft Hood was an instance not of Islamic terrorism but of “workplace violence?”