National Post

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October 6, 2001

From delusions to destruction

How Sept. 11 has called into question the attitudes by which our society lives

Robert Fulford
National Post


Suzanne Plunkett, The Associated Press
People run from the collapse of World Trade Center Tower in New York. Much about Sept. 11 was new; we had seen nothing like it in the way of terrorism.


Magnus Johansson, ReutersA Palestinian youth hurls a rock at Israeli border police during clashes in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.


(Photo of a man with a racism sign behind him.)

The frontal attack on Western civilization by Islamic radicals produced terrible death and destruction on Sept. 11 and has since re-ordered global politics. But its effect on our mentality may be even more enduring. It has called into question the attitudes by which our society has lived for years. It has challenged the gentle and self-deluded way we have thought about human relations, forcing us to reconsider many of our most cherished attitudes and practices. It is a radical challenge in the most literal sense: It goes to the root of our thinking.

We live in a world fatally addicted to euphemism. We try desperately to be agreeable and to deny that ugly differences among us exist. In this milieu, the atrocity of Sept. 11 was a foreign object, hard as anthracite, a foreign object that suddenly lodged in our souls. Perhaps we can identify it with an ancient word, evil. That term frightens us: liberalism decided long ago that "evil" should not, if one follows liberal thinking, exist. It is therefore distinctly uncomfortable to realize that, whatever we might wish, it nevertheless has always existed and will always exist. We also have to consider the dreadful possibility that Sept. 11 was not only the most deadly but also the most successful act of private terrorism in history -- in other words, that it altered us in ways its perpetrators wanted to alter us. It made some of us afraid, it made some of us blind with anger, it made some of us conciliatory.

Sept. 11 revealed the pieties by which we have been content to live. It has led me to the uncomfortable proposition that many of us, maybe most of us, have for years been denying reality. For many reasons, some of them quite benign, we have been playing elaborate games with the truth, as if we were joining unconsciously in a plot to help each other avoid seeing the reality of the world we live in. When I say "we," I mean all of us, including me.

A decade or so in the past, intellectual and social history took an odd turn. In the early 1990s, after the nuclear threat of the Cold War receded, something unexpected happened among us, something we neither anticipated nor knew how to deal with. There fell upon all of us, every single one of us, a plague of conformity -- and with it an epidemic of accusations. In this new and fearful atmosphere it became our habit to purchase social peace at any price -- including the price of truth.

We call the 1950s the era of McCarthyism, a period of intellectual oppression. So it was, in a way and for a time. But my observation is that when it comes to moral paralysis, pervasive self-deception, evasion of the truth, and general all-around pusillanimity, the 1990s made McCarthyism look harmless.

What happened to our spirit in the 1990s has no name. For a while we called it "political correctness," but it has since metastasized so spectacularly that the original term no longer even begins to cover it. It lives on the fear of giving offence. We can't agree where it flourishes most exuberantly. People who work in universities believe it principally affects universities. On the other hand, journalists consider it endemic in journalism. If you work in a law firm you may believe that the law has been suffocated by it. In organized religion you feel its unrelenting pressure, always expressed in terms of sweet reason.

It is a style of thought that puts limits on the way we can speak about even the subtlest issues. It imposes a party line on public life and on life within public institutions. It turns everyday human relations into an emotional minefield. One of my readers wrote to me last week: "In 1992 while I worked for the Toronto Board of Education, we were all taught the party line: Racism was a power thing and those who had power (white people) were always the perpetrators and simply could not be the victims."

Perhaps 1992 was the year everything changed. Whenever it happened, people all over the world were affected year after year by a plague of carefully organized insincerity. The recent Durban conference -- the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to give its pretentious and elephantine title -- was part of this movement, possibly the climax of it, conceivably the beginning of the end of it.

The Durban conference brought into sharp focus certain issues that have been blurred or ignored in the past 10 or so years. And there is a link between the rhetoric of anti-racism as expressed in Durban and the atrocities in New York and Washington. Uri Avnery, the Israeli journalist and peace activist, considers the connection obvious. He asked why the atrocity happened on Sept. 11 rather than three months earlier or three months later; it had after all been planned for years. The reason it occurred when it did, Avnery said, is that early September brought a unique cluster of events: the steadily intensifying Palestinian Intifada, the continuing sanctions on Iraq and the Durban conference. Avnery argued earlier this week that Durban helped create the moment when terrorist action against the United States was most likely to be popular in the Arab nations. No terrorist sets out to lose popularity: Terrorist crimes are calculated acts of symbolism, aimed at their target audience. The killers of Sept. 11 obviously thought that those three events together created an opportunity for popular success that might not soon come again.

So Durban, billed to the world as a well-intentioned and progressive UN conference, helped provide the setting against which the atrocity of Sept. 11 could be staged.

It would be silly to suggest that Durban was Canada's fault; we can't argue that it was born in Canada's 1990s culture. But Canada played a larger part in it than any other nation. We sent twice as large a delegation as any other country, their fares and expenses of course paid for by Canadian taxpayers. They were also among the more fractious delegations, the nongovernmental Canadians openly opposing the government officials who had signed their travel expenses a few weeks earlier.

As Jeffrey Simpson put it in The Globe and Mail: "The government gives millions of dollars for NGOs to organize conferences, attend meetings, prepare papers and engage in demonstrations ... the government underwrites a counterculture foreign policy that runs parallel, and frequently in opposition, to the government's own policy." This is the Canadian way.

Durban, with all this Canadian support, became a huge success for those who make hatred of Israel the centre of their lives and hatred of the United States a reflexive emotion. Durban gave fresh legitimacy to people everywhere holding those views. And these people, if sufficiently inflamed, can eventually make it possible for Islamic terrorists to achieve their central goal: to establish in Arab countries strict theocratic regimes like the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.

Egypt, for example, is the perfect market for such a campaign. It's often described as a "moderate" country, "moderate," as applied to certain Middle East nations being a classic euphemism, a word that embodies hope rather than truth; we should never use it without quotation marks.

Still, we might imagine Egypt as a place where Muslim feelings are not necessarily poisoned against the West. Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and sided with the West in the Gulf War, for which the United States forgave a $7-billion debt. Apparently Egypt is helping the West in the current emergency. It is a place whose sensibilities we are advised to respect. On Sept. 15, Anthony Lewis warned in The New York Times that "hasty, ill-targeted military action could arouse anti-Western sentiments right across the Middle East. That could threaten such important U.S. friends as the governments of Egypt and Jordan -- and Saudi Arabia."

Of course, anti-Western sentiments in Egypt do not need arousing. The former Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, is the hard-line leader of the Arab League and did much to create the climate of Durban. Last week a CBC reporter in Egypt encountered little but anti-Western sentiment. He discovered that the most popular song in the country is called I Hate Israel and the second most popular is about hating Americans. For people holding those views, the predominant voices at Durban all delivered good news.

So far as I can tell by reading the Web sites, Durban was in essence an exchange of accusations, which makes it a typical product of our time. But why were we Canadians so profusely represented at Durban? The curious reason is that race, racism, and anti-racism are major political themes in Canada. In the past 15 years we have found new ways to worry about them, new structures in which to package our worries, new language to express our anxieties.

An objective observer might find it astonishing that this subject obsesses us. Racism is a factor in the life of all societies, but almost all countries are far more racist than Canada. That would include the African dictatorships, all Arab countries, and at least two major democracies, India and Japan. By comparison, the problems of race in Canada are minor. Five years ago Richard Gwyn wrote this in The Toronto Star: "Canadians, whether white or non-white, whether in Metro Toronto or any place else, are almost certainly the least racist people in the world." He invited readers who disagreed to name a less racist country, if they could. None did.

If in any other field we were world leaders, we wouldn't lavish government money on organizations designed to make the situation better. It would make no sense. But race is like no other field of human concern. Racism has become the sin of sins. More than any other form of immoral behaviour, it causes us endlessly to search our souls, blame our fellow citizens, and cry out for remedial legislation. It's as if we wanted it to be far worse than it is. If we can't have cross-burnings, then we can have a federal minister who will dream them up and insist they are happening until she's proven wrong. We invent new kinds of racism, apparently for the thrill of experiencing them. Not long ago, a sociologist in Montreal said that if you oppose the Quebec language laws you are guilty of "neo-racism." The Globe and Mail, rather than ignoring this nonsense or jeering at it, solemnly reported the sociologist's claim, as if it were serious new information.

That's because race has become the most potent word in our culture. It has unprecedented force. It paralyzes judgment and ends argument. Anti-racism as a movement depends on one principle: Anyone who can claim to be the member of an oppressed minority must be taken seriously. And a second principle: A charge of racism, no matter how irresponsible, sustains itself through the rhetorical force of the word.

When we discuss racism, we impose on ourselves a kind of moral disarmament: We are cowed into silence or acquiescence by the magic authority of a word. That tendency has created an extensive industry staffed by conciliators, consultants, compliance officers, and of course, full-time advocates for the oppressed, all of them professionally dedicated to finding racism.

Our situation differs sharply from the 1950s. Most of those who perpetrated McCarthyism also maintained busy working lives as politicians, broadcasting executives, university administrators, journalists, etc. But the new class that was spawned by 1990s thinking consists of people who do little else. They have careers to defend. This means that 1990s conformity, unlike McCarthyism, has been professionalized and institutionalized. The plague of the 1990s has become entrenched in institutions.

There were events in Canada in the 1990s that demonstrated the harm being done by this new ethos. The case of June Callwood, a leading citizen of Canada for 30 or so years, should have taught everyone a bitter lesson, but I'm not certain that it did. In 1992, fellow board members at a women's shelter she had helped create decided she was a racist, and began saying so in public. Eventually they hounded her out of that institution. She was not a racist, and it was in following her case that I realized a dreadful truth: The language of civility had been turned on its head to create a language of hate and shame.

June Callwood's problem was intellectual and historical. She was operating within an intellectual and historical framework that her accusers had declared obsolete. Callwood is a liberal pluralist in a post-modern multicultural world. She insisted on treating her colleagues as individuals, in the manner of a good small-l liberal. They demanded she instead treat them as representatives of ethnic groups, and respect them for that reason alone. They had invented a new logic of human relations, and they set out to convict as racist everyone who did not conform to it. The Callwood case became an essential event of the 1990s -- it expressed the essence of the period.

It also became emblematic and symbolic because of the response of the community. The Toronto Star shamefully colluded with Callwood's tormentors by publishing their charges anonymously. Others, including even the Writers' Union of Canada, watched in paralyzed horror. Some said privately something along the lines of: Where there's smoke there's fire. There was no fire, but there was smoke, generated by people using the new morality of anti-racism as a tool of power. As McCarthy's generation of demagogues used communism, a new generation of ambitious power-mongers used race. None of Callwood's accusers were known outside their own circle or (so far as I'm aware) were heard of again. They demonstrated that to make her life miserable they did not need reputations of their own. The strength inherent in the word racist was -- all by itself -- sufficient.

Another rule goes beyond race and encompasses religions: If a cluster of individuals claim that anything spoken is hurtful to their community, in their eyes and by their standards, then that complaint must be taken seriously.

This became clear in 1988, after the Iranian government issued an order to kill Salman Rushdie as punishment for his book, The Satanic Verses.

Muslim clerics appeared on the CBC and elsewhere in Canada to tell us that Muslims were hurt by his book, and that we should sympathize with them. They demanded our sympathy because, they said, The Satanic Verses was blasphemy -- and blasphemy, they implied, was universally offensive. They asked for our understanding. Our culture's response was to nod quietly. We grasped that this was a serious matter because they said it was.

For a brief, horrible moment, the government of Canada even froze distribution of Rushdie's book, on the grounds that it might be hate literature because it was blasphemous. Few Canadians had the courage to speak the truth: that what Islam calls blasphemy, the West calls Voltaire. Few cared to recall openly that the Enlightenment, from which our civilization flows, was grounded in blasphemy -- and that without that essentially blasphemous period in the 18th century, humanity could not have freed science and democracy from the chains of superstition.

That was a line we neglected to draw. We should have drawn it, not because doing so would have dissuaded Rushdie's enemies in Tehran, but because it would have helped us clarify our own principles, the principles we are now called on to protect, the principles on which freedom depends. The truth is that a secular society cannot afford to entertain the idea that blasphemy is socially unacceptable. It may be abhorrent to a believer, but a liberal society that condemns blasphemy is a liberal society committing suicide.

The Durban conference was a pre-atrocity event. After Sept. 11, would it be encouraged or even tolerated? Or have we learned that there are issues we should never again deal with in such a thoughtless and dangerous way? The Canadian Foreign Minister, John Manley, has asked why Durban was ever necessary. To him it appeared to be nothing but an exchange of platitudes and insults. At Durban, anti-racism turned into racism. Perhaps we will learn from it a truly terrifying truth: that anti-racism is worse than the disease it claims to cure.

Durban aside, much of the reaction to Sept. 11 has been painfully predictable. CBC Radio has run earnest little pieces, written by assistant professors, who urge the Americans to restrain themselves and express the pious hope that this crisis will somehow enlighten our impetuous neighbours to the south and make them more mature. The reigning ethic of these commentaries is moral equivalence: Yes, terrorists are bad but we should remember the flaws of the Americans, too.

We Canadians love to lecture Americans on their shortcomings in world affairs, not because the Americans listen but because it makes us feel we are part of great events and bring to them a superior wisdom. While we habitually denounce all generalities made about culture, we are able to identify with ease what we consider the sins of the United States.

In this sense the former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Sunera Thobani, was taking her place in a long Canadian tradition on Monday when she declared that U.S. foreign policy is "soaked in blood" and the United States is the "most dangerous and the most powerful global force." Usually our anti-Americanism is less direct, more subtle. Condescension is our preferred style. Ray Conlogue in The Globe and Mail says: "America, as many observers have noticed, is a country which does not recognize the tragic dimension of life." No doubt Conlogue is one of those who insist that we should never make generalizations about another culture, but as usual, in the case of America he's willing to make an exception. Possibly there is something to be said for the notion he expressed; certain Americans would support it, others deny it. But it takes a very particular kind of arrogance to deliver such a judgment from Toronto at a moment in history such as this one.

Wherever the plague of the 1990s strikes, honest language becomes a victim. At Reuters news agency on Sept. 23 an order was issued to the staff: Do not use the words "terrorist" or "terrorism" in reporting on Sept. 11. Apparently those words are inflammatory. They could offend someone, perhaps a terrorist or the admirer of a terrorist. The head of Reuters, Stephen Jukes, said: "We're trying to treat everyone on a level playing field, however tragic it's been and however awful and cataclysmic for the American people and people around the world."

The idea of dealing even-handedly with both sides holds a particular appeal for Canadians. It, too, provides a feeling of cool superiority. Unfortunately, it may also leave us incapable of the one act that has always been essential to survival, distinguishing friends from enemies.

And where did this simple-minded idea of even-handedness come from? It emerged in its current manifestation from the universities, in the form of postcolonial theory.

Western civilization grounds itself in certain principles, all of them imperfectly applied: democracy, free speech, an independent judiciary, secular government, private property, and equality before the law. We not only believe these ideals are crucial to us; we also imagine that in local adaptations they can be of use to all of humanity

But postcolonial theorists look on these ideas not as natural developments of ordinary human desires and needs but as "ideological constructs," systems we have organized for our own use because they please us, or make us richer.

Postcolonial theory holds that one culture cannot reliably condemn another because there is no objective standard by which a culture may be judged -- and if the culture doing the judging is the West, that judging will always be motivated by greed and the lust for power. This theory produces a logical outcome such as the following: a culture that enslaves women, and a culture that recruits women for law school, are moral equivalents since we have no objective method of determining they are otherwise.

In this light we can see that Western imperialism causes terrorism, just as it causes all other evils in the Third World. On Sept. 19, Haroon Siddiqui wrote in The Toronto Star that Islamic terrorists did not attack America because they hate freedom and liberty but because of "American complicity in injustice, lethal and measurable, on several fronts" of which he of course gives first place to "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which America stands by decades-long Israeli defiance of United Nations resolutions ... and the most basic standards of human rights ..."

This has become a favourite theme in the days since the atrocity. Everyone from the German chancellor to Rick Salutin in The Globe and Mail has told us that a solution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will be a necessary step on the road to ending terrorism. No one who makes this point seems to recall that the Barak government offered a settlement that contained just about everything the Palestinian leadership had asked for, and was turned down.

This kind of thinking has made it difficult to come to an honest understanding of what happened on Sept. 11. As Edward Rothstein remarked in The New York Times, that atrocity "seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective," not relativism -- in other words, it cries out for a philosophy that recognizes a difference between good and evil. But that recognition is beyond the powers of anyone who accepts postcolonial theory as universities now preach it. A transcendent ethical perspective, the postcolonial theorists will argue, is an attempt to impose our ideas of universal truth on everyone, which in the end is nothing more than a "strategy of imperial control."

Much about Sept. 11 was new; we had seen nothing like it in the way of terrorism -- nothing so clever, nothing so well planned, nothing so efficient. Never before in all of history has private terrorism been so confident, so accomplished.

Perhaps it was this very newness that made many among us reach for comfort to trite and sentimental explanations. Almost our first impulse was to depict the killers as victims. Many jumped quickly to the explanation that poverty explains terrorism. This idea always seems to me an insult to those many millions who struggle with poverty and manage nevertheless to live lives of dignity and honour. But apparently we cannot resist the alluring simplicity of this answer. In some part of ourselves we are all Marxists, committed to economic determinism. Harold Pinter summed it up in a phrase: "To prevent terrorism, we must make war against poverty." But in this case as in many others, that impulse was misplaced.

The biographies of the terrorists of Sept. 11 in fact appear to demonstrate precisely the opposite. Far from being miserably housed refugees, they were the children of the affluent, in several cases young people who were sent abroad for higher education. And of course the chief terrorist, bin Laden, has been fabulously rich all his life. This is no reason to abandon aid to the poor countries, but it suggests we should stop hoping that economic help will reduce terrorism.

Germany at the height of its economic success had one of the most flourishing terrorist movements in the world, the Baader-Meinhof gang. The Americans had given all possible economic aid to create a new German economy; and the German radicals decided that this very success, the flourishing of liberal capitalism, was an affront, so offensive to humanity that it justified bombing and killing.

Given the evidence of Sept. 11, it would be just as accurate to say that prosperity causes terrorism. But that, of course, would be ridiculous, and also demeaning, like most explanations that attempt to reduce subtle complexities of evil to the banalities of materialism.

These fundamental errors have crippled public discussion and made us less able to understand what has happened to us -- and that, in turn has limited our ability to defend ourselves. Public discourse in the last decade has tried desperately hard to teach us that there is nothing in the tradition of Western civilization that should arouse our pride. But in truth only a high degree of justified and thoughtful pride will give us the courage to defend and develop the traditions to which we are the fortunate heirs.

So far, in this country, the articulated response to tragedy has for the most part been pathetically inadequate. It need not be that way indefinitely. Perhaps in time Sept. 11 will teach us to reassess the habit of banality and euphemism that has poisoned the wells of argument. Perhaps Sept. 11 will lead us toward both a more profound understanding of evil and a revived faith in ourselves and our shared beliefs.

In recent weeks my favourite modern poet, W.H. Auden, has been showing up often on the Internet, his words passed along by people anxious to see through the gloom produced by the terrorists. In a much worse time, as the Second World War was beginning, Auden too was haunted by the false pieties and distorted moralism of the decade just ending. The poem that gets quoted often these days is the one he called September the First, 1939, the one that ends with the hope that the poet,

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

can somehow teach himself and others in this painful moment to (as he puts it)

Show an affirming flame.

Finding grounds for intelligent affirmation in the midst of mindless devastation and horror, rising above the despair induced by Sept. 11 -- that will be the central task of our civilization for a long time into the future.

robert.fulford@utoronto.ca

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