A Phantom Tradition
An idea that I’ve seen floating around the ivory tower is that America is more of a symbol than a nation, meaning different things to different people. Thus, citizens with opposite ideologies can be equally patriotic — even nationalistic — because they cast their own goals and preferences as the True America. There’s clearly something to the idea, applicable in some respects not only to America, but to the West more broadly, although in recent history it might be more obvious in its negative aspects — in the opposite ways in which America and the West are held in contempt by their own people, with some despising their hedonism and others despising their puritanism.
The ways in which this quality of the Western personality manifests in debate are intriguing, and I noticed an example (not surprisingly) in the Corner’s running discussion of Dinesh D’Souza’s book (which links Western libertinism to the attacks of jihadists). Here’s Andrew Stuttaford:
Mark, as your last paragraph implicitly recognizes, for you to say that Dinesh D’Souza’s argument that “America’s worthless porno-sodomite-lapdance culture is the root cause of jihad has one very big hole in it” is to be very, very kind indeed. Only “one very big hole”? Good grief. While I have little doubt that our (splendidly) hedonistic ways have contributed *something* to jihadist rage, any suggestion that they are the “root cause” of our current problems with extremist Islam is simply absurd. To take just one example, Mr. D’Souza should take a look at God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and The Hidden Root of Modern Jihad by Charles Allen, a first-rate historian of British India. It’s an excellent account of the widespread Wahhabist trouble-making in the 19th Century Raj, a time, I believe, somewhat before the lapdance era that he so bemoans.
And a bit later, here’s Iain Murray:
I suspect there’s a case to be made that modern Anglo-American society embodies traditional values of freedom seen in Chaucerian and Elizabethan bawdiness and that the sort of Puritanism Dinesh and supposedly the Wahhabis would approve of is actually distinctly untraditional.
With this post, I’m not engaging the actual debate, but rather making a meta-rhetorical observation. And it’s true that Murray goes on to point to the 18th century as more hedonistic than the 19th (the century that Stuttaford singles out for jihadist example). It’s interesting, though, that, in the service of the same argument, Western hedonism is presented as both relatively new and essentially traditional.