BARBARISMS, BOMBS, AND PAGAN EMPIRES: The War of Barbarisms: Solipsism, Autism and the Death Throes

In an earlier article for The American Muslim (July 2002) entitled “The USA: A moral Model for the World?” I argued in response to Dr. Bob Crane’s vision for Crescent University that the policies of the present US administration had severely damaged any claim America might have had to exercise moral leadership in the world.

My motive in writing that article was not to hitch myself to the bandwagon of anti-Americanism which I fear is gathering global momentum, and I agree with Dr.Crane (this issue) that instead of appealing to “the anarchic and rejectionist energies of moral people in a campaign against America”, responsible Americans who are concerned about their country’s loss of moral credibility should be devising “positive strategies” to re-awaken and re-establish an enlightened American vision of justice and democracy. Furthermore, such a vision is essentially in harmony with the universal moral and spiritual principles espoused by those Muslims (and all people of faith), whether in the USA or elsewhere, who are in touch with the humane core of their faith. 

In this context, I can see why Dr. Crane wants to “oppose those radical managers of the peace marches” who are marshalling such negative, “rejectionist”, anti-American impulses.

But let me add a corollary to this valid rejection of mere anti-Americanism for its own sake. I walked for peace with over a million other people in London on 15 February, and what struck me, as it struck so many other first-time “marchers”, was the sense that the vast majority of protesters were ordinary people of goodwill of all ages and from every walk of life. They were good-natured people of composure and dignity in whom a deep inner unease had been awakened, who sensed that a limit had been transgressed. This was an expression of an innately balanced primordial disposition, a reflection of fitrah, no matter how dimly remembered, not a strident radicalism. That is why I say I “walked”, not “marched”, because there was nothing remotely aggressive or militaristic about what we did.

Whatever the motives of those organisers who could be labelled as radicals, whether or not they were actually bent on aggressively stirring up anarchic elements in a show of anti-Americanism, the fact is that the vast majority of the people bought together by the organisers of the march were well-balanced, concerned people whose voice needed to be heard and who also represented the majority of the people of Great Britain. Their opposition to the rush to war is being ignored by their leaders in the same way as the voice of the majority is being ignored in so many of those countries whose leaders have taken it upon themselves to mislead (in the sense of “lead badly” as well as deceive) their people.

Striking examples are Spain and Bulgaria. These are not “Old Europe” countries like France and Germany (to use the dismissive tag attached to them by Donald Rumsfeld) whose leaders have sought to keep in touch with public opinion. In Spain and Bulgaria, over three-quarters of the population is opposed to war even though their leaders persist in supporting it. In this case, the countries applauded by the US administration are those which are least in touch with the democratic ideal of honest representation of the wishes of the people. Indeed, they are the ones which actively disregard the voice of the majority.

Let us hope that the irony of the Turkish parliament’s recent rejection of a deal with the USA to host its troops will not be lost on those American policy-makers who were pushing for Turkey to be admitted to the European Union so that it could be brought within the ambit of democratic states. Democracy has spoken in Turkey, although there is always the chance that it can yet be subverted by bribes and threats.

Despite this corollary to Dr. Crane’s remarks about the negative motivation of the “radical managers” of peace marches, I support wholeheartedly the core of what he is saying about the need to avoid a knee-jerk anti-Americanism and to harnass positive energy in reviving those moral principles which have been dangerously compromised.

It would not be difficult to show how, in the few months since I wrote my article questioning the fitness of the USA to be a “moral model”, the US administration has disqualified itself still further from such a role.

I’ll refer to just one particularly telling document. This is the recent letter of resignation by John Brady Kiesling, Political Counselor in the US Embassy in Athens, a letter to which Dr. Crane also refers in his article.

“Is the Russia of the late Romanovs”, asks Kiesling,  “really our model, a selfish, superstitious empire thrashing toward self-destruction in the name of a doomed status quo?”  The telling word here is “selfish”, picked up also in Kiesling’s warning, echoed by Dr. Crane, about the “global threat of American solipsism”.

Dr. Crane explains that this word comes from Latin words meaning “alone” and “self” and describes a state of mind in which only the isolated self is seen as real. Most perceptively, he sees the connection between solipsism and the state of autism, in which there is a pathological isolation and remoteness, a complete inability to relate to anything outside oneself or even to form a concept of what another human being is thinking or feeling. He notes that milder forms of this malady are spreading rapidly among modern American children and this is indicative of a growing cultural or societal disease. 

To take the point about solipsism a little further, the word “sole”, derived from Latin solus (‘alone, single’) may itself be related to the pronoun se, ‘oneself’, in which case it could mean etymologically ‘by oneself.’ Since the second part of the word “solipsism” is derived from Latin ipse, ‘self’, we can see how the word really does convey a sense of being utterly focused on oneself, literally “by oneself for oneself” – the very state of unilateral isolationism and the blatant pursuit of self-interest which so many now see as the hallmark of American policy.

And of course, what goes with that self-absorption and lack of empathy and relatedness is the childish, paranoid delusion which fosters the nonsense that “either you are with us or against us”, which is to say: unless you reflect my own self like a mirror, you are my sworn enemy. And so the pathology of incipient autism is compounded by the tactics of the emotionally retarded bully, incapable of seeing the world through any lens but his own, and incapable of forming and sustaining any relationship not based on the imperative of power and control. 

As Kiesling laments, the “fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since
the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.”

What could be more indicative of solipsism (or, indeed, its pathological variant, autism) than the dismantling of relationships?

We could pursue the analogy with autism further, and I leave it to the reader to make whatever connection he or she cares to make between the characteristics of this malady and the orientation of the present administration. 

We could take note of the fact that it is a condition much more common in males than in females; that it is marked by solitary, repetitive activities rather than social interaction; an inability to understand novels, which are typically concerned with complex social and interpersonal relationships and sequences of events (the autistic mind needs fixed programs to remember such sequences); that it lacks social language, and exhibits impairment of play, imaginative activities and other expressive functions; that it is heavily focused on propositional, factual language and the accumulation of data, and unable to comprehend the non-literal or pragmatic dimensions of metaphor, irony, jokes and allusions; that it is marked by cliché-ridden, formulaic speech delivered in a loud, unmodulated voice; that it displays no aesthetic or emotional response to music even if it is capable of absolute pitch and a very precise musical memory. 

What is striking about these impairments is that they could be characterised as grotesque caricatures of a certain type of emotionally undeveloped masculinity – marked, one might say, by an absence of soulful (animating) qualities. There is a lack of expressiveness, modulation, empathy, relatedness, interaction and imagination, and an emphasis on the explicit, the literal, the factual, the blaringly direct, at the expense of the implicit and the softly subtle. 

I am not implying, of course, that the Bush administration is staffed by clinically autistic people, although it is not hard to find some pretty devastating psychological profiles of some of its key players, including Bush himself.  What I am saying is that the modus operandi of the administration stamps it as being infected with a serious imbalance which reflects the deeper malaise of incipient autism within the culture. The dismantling of international relationships, lamented by Kiesling, is a striking manifestation of this imbalance, carried out increasingly in the most blatantly arrogant, swaggering and dismissive way, often with a kind of jarring, testosterone-loaded, in-your-face machismo.

I will give you an example. On the “Today” program on BBC radio (an extended news and comment program every morning in the UK) a senior US state department official was interviewed recently over the crisis in the relationship between the USA and France. He declared that France was “inconsequential”, and that of far greater significance were emerging Eastern European nation like Bulgaria. The interviewer, James Naughtie, a highly respected and cultured journalist and presenter, asked him how he could say that a nation as important as France was “inconsequential”.

The reply was simple and derisory: “Well, they haven’t even got a functioning aircraft carrier.” 

James Naughtie was temporarily stunned into silence, eventually emerging to express his astonishment and incredulity that the standing of a nation could be rated only by its possession of functioning aircraft carriers, in other words, by its weapons of mass destruction. He asked the official how he could dismiss so completely the contribution of the French to world culture, but the man seemed incapable of any re-evaluation and simply persisted in his total dismissal of France. (His arrogance was here compounded by ignorance, because a functioning nuclear-powered French aircraft carrier was actually at that moment on its way to the Gulf with American ships).

Notice here too the worship of technological power as the sole criterion of what constitutes a worthwhile civilisation. This is itself typical of the autistic mentality, which is far more comfortable with machines than with other humans, and especially with machines that can deliver weapons from a distance, avoiding the need for those who fire them to have any direct contact with those they destroy.

I have commented in an earlier article (TAM July 2002) on the worship of technology and its association with Promethean Man’s self-aggrandizement. This self-aggrandizement, which Durand has called the “disfiguration of the image of man in the West” is evident as much in the current ecological crisis (the onslaughts of Promethean man on virgin nature) as it is in many of the uses to which Prometheus applied his theft of fire supposedly for the benefit of mankind, notably the manufacture of weapons (originally to subdue animals) and the coining of money.

The gift of civilization and the arts idealized by the Romantics in their hero-worship of the rebellious Prometheus is based on the technological uses of fire. The Promethean mentality compounds its misappropriation of divine power through the worship and misuse of technology, and, of course, the key role of technology in what President Bush has bombastically called the “titanic war against terrorism” which blasphemously attributes to itself even the Names of God. It does not escape those who have even a modicum of Classical education that Prometheus was a Titan, and we all know what happened to the “unsinkable” Titanic. 

These misappropriated Names have not only encompassed Al-‘Adl (Infinite Justice), Al-‘Aziz, Al-Jabbar, and Al-Qahhar (Full-Spectrum Dominance, combining “The Almighty”, “The Compeller” and “The Subduer” Who dominates all things and prevails upon them to do whatever He wills).

We could add to this list the hijacking of the Names Al-Basir and As-Sami’, the All-Seeing and All-Hearing, in the presumption of total surveillance carried out in the name of national security. As reported on the front page of The Observer on 2 March, this has now reached a new level of presumption in the aggressive surveillance operation against United Nations Security Council delegations in New York, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and emails of the delegates. These disclosures were made in a memorandum written by Frank Kosa, a top official at the National Security Agency (NSA). The memo advises that the operation is aimed at gleaning information which would “give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals…”

Such pretensions to absolute power have now reached a new level of inflation in the plan for War on Iraq developed at the National Defense University, which give it the name of “Shock and Awe”. This will entail an opening blitzkrieg on Iraq of more than 3000 bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours. 300 to 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles will rip through Iraq on the first day of a U.S. assault, which is more than the number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, another 300 to 400 cruise missiles will be sent. “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad,” said one Pentagon official who has been briefed on the plan.  “The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.”

One of the authors of the Shock and Awe plan stated the intent is, “So that you have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes.”

When you listen to this, with its gawping respect for cumulative superlatives and big numbers, combined with the chillingly distanced and matter—of-fact analysis of the devastating effect of these dreadful weapons, you have to pinch yourself that you are not listening to boys enthralled by a new computer game but by grown men with the power to destroy real people. Modern warfare, with the destructive power of its weapons amplified by technological prowess, is the warfare of Iblis.

I know from past experience as a teacher that adolescent boys love big numbers. The most popular book in the school library for thirteen-year old boys was “The Guinness Book of Records”, page after page of superlative achievements. How many miles of electric cables are there in the Sears Building in Chicago? Who climbed Mount Everest the fastest? Who ate the most sausages in one minute?  And now, who dropped the most bombs in one day? Wow, what an achievement! What a frisson!

So, in the hubris of a military strategy entitled “Shock and Awe”, we have the Promethean misappropriation of all the Names of Majesty in the deliberate misuse of the word “Awe”, with all its sacred connotations. 

The 99 Names of God in Islam are traditionally divided into Beautiful and Majestic Names, in which the Beautiful Names incline us to the contemplation of God’s mercy and the nearness of God’s Presence and Immanence and the Majestic Names incline us to awe of God’s limitless glory, transcendence and incomparability.

The Majestic Names which incline us to awe encompass the awesome names of Justice, Might and Retribution. Awe is not simply great fear. It adds to fear the connotation of reverence, which comes from the Latin vereri (‘hold in awe’ or ‘fear’). This word is a relative of the English words ‘aware’ and ‘beware’ which ultimately come from the Germanic base war-, meaning to ‘watch’, ‘be on one’s guard’ ‘take care’. From this base we also derive the words ‘warn’, ‘wary’ and ‘ward’ (as in ‘ward off’). In prehistoric Germanic, the verb wakojan combined the meanings of ‘to watch’ and ‘to wake’, in the same way as ‘vigil’ (‘staying awake all night’) and ‘vigilant’ (‘watchful’) come from the same word family.

The connection between this remarkable field of associated meanings derived from the Germanic root war- and the sense of the Arabic root WQY is particularly striking. This root, which gives us waqa, taqwa, muttaqi, ittaqa, and so on, has the multiple sense of fear of God; consciousness or awareness of God; mindfulness; vigilance, alert concern and conscientious attention to guarding, shielding, defending or preserving one’s tongue, hand and heart from what is evil or spiritually harmful; righteousness; piety; pious duty; godliness; right conduct. The Qur’an tells us that “God warns you to beware of Him” (3:28) and “The noblest and most honoured of you in the sight of God is the one who is the most advanced in taqwa.”(49:13) 

The central point about the meaning of taqwa in the context of this article is that it combines the sense of consciousness of God with that of awe. To be “God-fearing” perhaps has a negative connotation in English, which is why Muhammad Asad translates muttaqi in Qur’an 2:2 as “the God-conscious”, aiming to preserve the positive content of the word. We need to keep in mind both senses if we are to do justice to its full meaning.

The Qur’an tells us that “He is only One God; so have awe of Me” (16:51). Qur’an 7:154 tells us that on the tablets taken up by Moses there was “guidance and grace for all who stood in awe of their Sustainer”, and in the following verse, after Moses had taken up the tablets and chosen out of his people “seventy men to come [and pray for forgiveness]”, they were seized by “violent trembling”, which Muhammad Asad attributes to their “intense regret and fear of God’s punishment”. In Qur’an 8:2, “The faithful are those whose hearts tremble with awe whenever God is mentioned”. Significantly, the word ‘tremble’ in English is derived from an ancient root which also gives us the words ‘terror’ and ‘tremendous’.

As people of faith, it can only be the tremendous Names of God which cause us to tremble in awe. The Pentagon’s strategy of “Shock and Awe” designed to cause the psychological destruction of the enemy’s will to fight is nothing less than a campaign of terror. That is the difference. We hold God, and only God, in awe; we are terrorized by overwhelming and disproportionate military force. To appropriate the name of Awe for our military campaign is to cloak our strategy of terror with the appearance of a divinely sanctioned mission. In reality, it is to fight a war against terrorism with more fearsome terror, to engage not even in a clash of civilisations but a war of barbarisms.  It is to misuse language so as to give religious overtones to our acts in the same way as the terrorists of 9/11 tried to justify their appalling crimes in the name of Islam.

Reflecting further on the attitude of the official who dismissed French culture, it strikes me how his remark points to another typical impairment associated with the condition of autism: that is, a narrow selectivity and hyperfocus of attention. In its positive aspect this could be praised as concentration and single-mindedness which refuses to be deflected, and strong tenacity, but in its pathological aspect it appears as a total absence of pliability and agility, a fixity of focus and complete inability to modify a position.

I am reminded of something Barbara Tuchman wrote in “The March of Folly”, which I received recently in a Tikkun e-mail (PRESIDENT BUSH: ENDANGERING AMERICAN LIVES: The Bush Administration’s March of Folly In Iraq):

“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests ... Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

This confirmation bias is, to some extent, ingrained in the way humans think and has been shown to be difficult to dislodge even in minds which pride themselves on scientific objectivity.  But the best minds, whether scientific or otherwise, are always open to new learning; that is what learning is – the readiness to admit new information, new evidence and new insights which contradict established notions and fixed dogmas, and refine provisional hypotheses. 

Now, it’s certainly the case that a certain type of “autistic intelligence” is well-fitted to admit new evidence, as long as that evidence is strictly logical. Sherlock Holmes is sometimes alluded to as someone most typical of the kind of “autistic intelligence” which has exceptional powers of deduction unclouded by emotion, and that this type of intelligence is often capable of extremely unconventional and creative solutions to problems.

Mr. Spock in Star Trek could also be said to model a version of “autistic intelligence”, with his complete faith in logic, manifest lack of social language, and perplexed reactions to humour and other pragmatic dimensions of language which demonstrate an understanding of human motive and intention. There is some ambivalence, of course, in both of them, which points to other “non-autistic” qualities.  Holmes plays the violin, and Spock has intimations of his part-human nature and the contamination (or expansion) of his Vulcan nature through the instinctive and irrational human tendencies displayed with such intensity by Captain Kirk.

But let’s go back to Barbara Tuchman’s piece, where she says that “wooden-headedness…is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

In the same article from Tikkunmail, there is this piece by Bob Woodward (“Bush at War”) about the President’s faith in his instincts and gut reactions: 

“He had a number of thoughts that caused him to want to be provocative with his war cabinet. `I can only just go by my instincts ... I’m the commander — see, I don’t need to explain — I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation ... A president has got to be the calcium in the backbone. If I weaken, the whole team weakens.’

“During the interview, the President spoke a dozen times about his `instincts’ or his ‘instinctive’ reactions, including his statement, `I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player.’ It’s pretty clear that Bush’s role as politician, president and commander in chief is driven by a secular faith in his instincts — his natural and spontaneous conclusions and judgments. His instincts are almost his second religion.”

Reading this shed light for me on why Nelson Mandela has recently said of George Bush that “he has no foresight, and can’t think properly”. The calcium in bones is the element which gives hardness and inflexibility, as well as strength. Even if we need calcium in the bones, we don’t need a calcified brain incapable of pliability and agility, capable only of endlessly repeating a few immutably fixed and simple ideas based on “instincts” and “gut” reactions.

This is a brain incapable of learning, incapable of revising its ideas, bound to automatic routines and stereotypical scripts.  It is a fundamentalist brain, in which “instincts” have actually nothing to do with our innate disposition, the essence of our human nature, or fitrah, even though they may plausibly masquerade as a part of it. We shouldn’t be deceived by this masquerade, and imagine that the appeal to “instinct” and the self-approval implied by a preference for being a “gut-player” are signs of someone who is somehow in touch with a deeper source of insight than the critical and creative thinking processes which the rest of us might value.  It is merely an excuse for an inability, in Mandela’s words, to “think properly”.

The theme of calcification brings me to my final point.  I have already remarked that the malady of autism largely afflicts males and that its growing manifestation in our culture somehow reflects an acute imbalance, a disproportionate emphasis on certain faculties and preferences associated with an exaggeration of a typically “masculine” outlook and approach.  Scattered throughout this article are hints to that effect and the seeds of a thesis which I hope to explore in greater depth at a later time, God willing.

I can think of no better conclusion than that offered by Richard Tarnas in the Epilogue to his masterful book “The Passion of the Western Mind” in which he states that “The crisis of modern man is an essentially masculine crisis” (his italics) springing from “the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition” and the fact that “the evolution of the Western mind has been founded on the repression of the feminine…of the participation mystique with nature: a progressive denial of the anima mundi, of the soul of the world…of all that which the masculine has projectively identified as ‘other’”.

Tarnas believes that the “masculine heroic quest has been pushed to its utmost one-sided extreme in the consciousness of the late modern mind” and that its “absolute isolation” has brought man to the point where he faces the psychological and biological crisis of living in a world that has come to be shaped in such a way that it precisely matches his world view – i.e., in a man-made environment that is increasingly mechanistic, atomized, soulless and self-destructive.”

Tarnas believes that resolution of the crisis is already emerging in various movements which reflect an epochal shift in the contemporary psyche, a fulfilment of the longing for a reunion with the feminine, a reconciliation between the two great polarities, a union of opposites. This can be seen in the “tremendous emergence of the feminine in our culture…the widespread opening up to feminine values by both men and women…in the increasing sense of unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it, in the increasing awareness of the ecological and the growing reaction against political and corporate policies supporting the domination and exploitation of the environment, in the growing embrace of the human community, in the accelerating collapse of long-standing and ideological barriers separating the world’s peoples, in the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives.”

Tarnas concludes that “the driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its dialectical quest not only to realise itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life, and thus to recover its connection with the whole.”

My own conclusion is this: The growing autism which we see, both as pathology and as an outlook informing policy, is nothing less than a sign of acute imbalance. At best, we can hope that it represents the death throes of the old order, the order clinging to that “absolute isolation” which is the outcome of the masculine consciousness utterly cut off from its feminine soul.

This analysis should not, of course, be confined to the crisis facing modern Western man. It is a crisis facing all communities and cultures in which the feminine principle has been repressed, and in many ways it applies even more strongly to the imbalance which afflicts many Muslims, even though the religion that Muslims claim to represent is one which places the highest value on balance. We don’t have to look very far in the Muslim world to see evidence of other acute manifestations of the same imbalance, most clearly in all forms of reactionary religious intolerance, pervasive literalism, and draconian control and constriction of free expression and creative thought. In these deformities, we see the same alienation from the soulful principles of expansion, relatedness, empathy, and aesthetic sensibility, the same isolationism which governs the separatist autistic outlook, and which feeds the war of barbarisms which now faces us.

And just as I started this article agreeing with Dr. Crane that we should not subscribe to anti-Americanism for its own sake, I categorically deny that I subscribe to a blanket critique of The West or of Modernism per se, because I see, as Tarnas does, that what he calls the “stupendous achievement” of Western civilisation was necessarily based on the temporary separation of masculine consciousness. We must avoid at all costs the fiction of a war between Islam and The West. 

Now is the time for re-union. We must emerge from the prison of solipsism, and from the confinement of an autistic mentality which is nothing more than the death rattle of an outmoded form of consciousness incapable of recognising and converging with the “other”. I have faith that this is where humankind is heading, for, in the words of an Egyptian proverb, “the camel has his plans; the Camel Driver has his.”

© Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
March 2003