Words perfect the illusion of communication. Language defines a metaphorical alternative to the reality we experience through our senses. The seminal advantage of the linguistic alternative is its apparent communicability; that others seem to understand as we do. The more specific the subject the more precise language can be in representing it, but it is always a representation. A representation twice removed: all sensory experience is first mediated through the inherited prism of our ancient nervous system and its’ accumulated accidents, it is only beyond these filters that auditory or visual stimuli can enter into the form of language to be cast back into the world as representations. The filters are not neutral, they are driven both by mind and instinct and color our perceptions with motives, with emotions, even down to the words we hear and the words we choose to speak, or just find ourselves speaking.
Language changes everything. First, nominative words for actions or things; then phrases with action content; then simple syntax and within 18 months of the first word, complex, complete, though not yet perfect, grammar. Possibly our most powerful and productive aptitude, our shot at language is almost entirely lost by age seven where if lack of culture has robbed us of exposure we will never fully recover. For our purposes, how language evolved is interesting but not essential: how it now works on and in our minds is.
Wresting our kids from the feral pit of pre-linguistic solipsism that is infancy into the flowering of humanity we call childhood, as my father succinctly put it, “you’ll take bullshit from baby you’ll never take from anyone else.” From a certain distance and perspective, those formative years can be looked at as each succeeding generations introductory clinic on the ascent of man. So much that for the rest of our lives looks like determinism is in fact framed in those years. But an equal amount is not. The form and reach of each individuals final mastery of language determines their point of entry, trajectory and speed into the majority of the proliferating subcultures of civilization, but in no way predicts the actual journey.
At our first introduction to the use of words, we are entering into what will likely be the most coercive contract of our lives: the agreement of linguistic meaning. In ignorance we submit to its’ immense and obvious utility. We fail to understand its’ treachery until
first we recognize having been lied to. The utility remains, but like all tools, language is revealed as morally neutral despite our total submission to it. It is the necessarily total submission to an intrinsically amoral tool that makes language both powerful and dangerous. Words and grammar form an infinite combinatorial system, this system can be made to say anything and human history can be read as the story of the struggle to control what it does finally say.
In light of the contingency of all meaning, that words can mean something is peculiar. That they mean and what they mean are highly constrained; like the letters of the alphabet relative to words, words are very abstract vessels of the contents they bear through language. Meaning is ultimately contingent on animate bodies need to reproduce, but the complexity of human reproduction with its’ 12 to 15 years from birth to reproductive viability requires a scope of individual experience prior to fertility vastly beyond any other species. It is in this world between linguistic consciousness and reproduction that cultures, and above them, that civilizations contend. Everyone enters the realm of childhood ignorant of the manipulations to which culture will subject us, it’s linguistic coerciveness, and most of childhoods’ tears are fares paid to pass the gates of culture and enter the vast sub-cultural matrix of civilization.
From the lessons of the playground to those of adolescence, a growing linguistic skill is developing to help us understand, in a certain way, our experiences. As the proliferation of experience explodes through youth, we either successfully engage with societies institutions, resist them, for which another set of institutions have come into being, or are simply passed over by them. This last possibility is the one we have the least control over, and the one with the greatest long-term variability. For each individual, each institution that fails to engage them represents possible futures foreclosed. For the community, each such foreclosure costs it the future returns of its’ missing investment in that individual. And the language of foreclosure is alienation as individuals grow with inadequate institutional means to effectively engage with their own community.
This kind if institutional underinvestment is a structural condition of illiterate polities where population grows. The depth and quality of penetration of literacy into a society defines the possible futures open to it. Depth equals its’ commitment of cultural resources to literacy in childhood, quality is the openness of that commitment to outside knowledge. Language itself is an aptitude that culture has equipped us with institutions to sustain. This was enough at the normal community scale of our ancient evolutionary proving grounds. Demographic modernity has inflated those communities far beyond recognition. Where civilization has reinvested its’ cultural dividends in childhood, in education of the young, subcultures have proliferated along with the population to re-create the familiar social habitat of antiquity through a scaling multitude of institutions and sub-institutions, sub-cultures, devoted to ever more specific interests and objectives. These provide the essential expanding scope for prestige to absorb the additional citizens of a growing society, to engage the young in communities of meaning, sub-cultures at an accessible scale.
Sub-cultural specialization is the social analogue and necessary prerequisite of Adam Smiths economic “division of labor”. Specialization is the consequence of the successful transfer and growth of knowledge across generations. To absorb demographic growth, growth of knowledge is absolutely as important as the intergenerational transfer that is the regenerative role of culture; the transfer conserves the past, growth the future. With the detailed sub-specialization of modern civilizations, written language is the primary conservator of inherited technical knowledge between generations.
When populations are stable, effective cultures can endure with minimal modification for generations because they mostly account for the breadth of the individual potentials of their constituents. Where subcultural differentiation stagnates through a period of demographic expansion, the young, the cultural future, are left dependant on a stagnant narrative offering up no new social space for their future, no expanded scope for prestige, no new institutional space in which the added individuals can compete for their place and be valued for their contributions. The infinite specificity of language makes it the primary vehicle of sub-culture differentiation; as kinds of knowledge expand and specialize, the organizing function of language and the pedagogical culture it supports ceaselessly create new cultural space. When this cultural multiplication ceases in a society experiencing demographic expansion, civilizations healthy inherent conservativism becomes an illness as it stifles cultures ability to create a real, viable future that accounts for the individual potentials of all of its’ constituent population. This is the habitat of alienation and conflict.
When, in the face expanding population pressure, a community tries to preserve a fixed narrative of identity, it will inevitably exclude a growing number of individuals. They will take with them, at their moment of exclusion, their level of linguistic development and seek with this constrained means new narrative space for prestige in the stories they tell themselves. Where this exclusion occurs in pre-literate populations, the result tends strongly towards violence. Individuals left adrift without access to written ideas will make do with whatever narrative richness or poverty their local tradition bequeathed them. Innate human sociability and the random relationship between charisma and character make the pre-literate society facing demographic modernity particularly susceptible to demagogy. Where these communities support images of broadly unattainable material affluence, as almost all now do, stifled ambition ignites into resentment, fertilizing the demagogic soil. Even in advanced western countries with high nominal literacy demagogy flourishes in the post literate broadcast media of talk radio.
The Internet, in broadly literate societies, supports the same viciousness of words that we see in acts on the streets of illiterate societies under demographic pressure. The difference is that in broadly literate societies the viciousness occurs in words and cannot achieve lasting traction; it rarely metastasizes into physical violence in the face of written counter attack, counter narrative. The fluid dynamics of written information on the Internet simultaneously provides a current for the simplistic telling of ignorant stories and corrective, informative cross currents in response. In the intellectual isolation of illiterate communities, demagogy combines with charisma to focus and animate the ignorant. For individuals excluded from creative institutional interlocutors, conserved traditions, narratives of Faith and Honor are easily perverted by charismatic narcissists into tales that glorify and often reward violence serving primarily the interests of the demagogue who cloaks his intent in the rhetoric of communal fear or vengeance.
These are linguistic phenomena as individuals represent their motives to themselves through their individual self defining narratives which they compare for prestige value to the overall group narrative, or to competing group narratives that surround them in their community or communities. The wealth or poverty of a communities’ narratives determines how many people it can productively absorb. Where a civilization tells itself a story about educational creativity, ideas are continually tested against real external effect and knowledge so gained is seen for what it is: new knowledge. Where education is seen as a conservative force, the nature of what is real is assumed based on a tradition of effectiveness, and questions about it are considered dangerous. For the vast majority of human history this educational conservatism was validated by the frequently deadly nature of new knowledge. New knowledge has lost none of its’ potential lethality, but subcultures of science and law have institutionalized careful means for its’ pursuit that mitigate and monitor the risks.
Again through language, science has institutionalized methods for creating, organizing, storing, communicating and preserving knowledge. Like language, the product of this sphere of human activity is in essence amoral; like language of which it is a subset, science is a tool. Western Civilization has benefited immensely from this tool; demographically the human species has as well. Western scientific accomplishments, inoculations and industrialized agriculture are the engine of the demographic explosion we are living through today, a demographic event at the root of most of the worlds’ current conflicts. Morally neutral, the digital media that crown the communicative superstructure of Western Civilization as a kind of open format cultural capital are simultaneously the primary capital of the Islamic resistance to the spread of that civilization: all tools are morally neutral.
The amorality of all tools requires that a society continually compare the results of their use to the moral standards of its proven narratives. The most beneficent affect of the narratives told by religion has been kind of evaluation. The danger of religion lies in the amorality of language as a tool. The confidence inherent in the orthodoxy of religious narratives frames our experience of competing religions: of others. Because all surviving religions have a deep history of survival in the face of both natural adversity and competing ideological systems, they all address the issue of the legitimate communal resort to violence. The language of faith can easily define away the competing rights of external groups, other faiths. With a dozen or so major competing religions and innumerable schismatic sub-divisions of individuals embedded in communities aware primarily of their local and specific experience, the scope for conflict around the language used for the expression of faith is enormous. Where important institutions do not conserve peace and interfaith cooperation, perpetual individual competition for prestige virtually guarantees inter-group conflict.
Hunger and reproduction are the bedrock motivational engines that focus all human emotion; they are what get us up in the morning. Civilization has called into being an awesome world wide artifact with innumerable supporting subcultures to address hunger, an achievement that works well enough to sustain over six billion souls. Reproduction has proven much more contentious culturally and is every bit as structured as food production but with the object of the structures being individual human behavior, not plants. The temporal gap between linguistic consciousness, when we individually gain access to the competing sub-cultures of civilization, and reproductive viability is the space in which civilizations establish their direction and speed in the competition for the future.
Equipped from birth with brains selected for computational efficiency against the backdrop of a comparatively static evolutionary environment, individuals entering this adolescent space look for patterns of positive feedback in their interaction with their communities. The competing sub-cultures of a civilization present these individuals with institutionalized communities that may or may not value their particular interests or motivations. Based on personal experience with these sub-groups, individuals select to participate in the groups that reward their individual contributions most highly. This is where a civilizations failure to provide cultural proliferation in parallel to demographic growth becomes perilous and potentially deadly.
Because reproduction is essential to the continued existence of all institutions, and because their stake in it inevitably entails the physical regulation of the activities of individuals, religious, nationalistic and even familial narratives all compete to define the value choices for individuals looking to satisfy the this biological need. Gender roles and regulation have as a consequence become battle grounds between contending institutions pitting orthodox certainties of various religious traditions against newer civil and secular institutions. If any one tradition holds rightful title to moral truth, as all traditions claim, then the balance of mankind is an abomination. On the other hand if moral truth is what all traditions can mostly claim, then there is an editing due for our morals that excludes the overly particular in pursuit of the truly universal, upon which there is demonstrable, near universal agreement.
Morality is based in part on an innate sense of justice that like other innate traits we share along the bell curve of normality. Except for extreme outliers, or brain damaged individuals, to some degree we all share a common sense of justice, of what is fair. We also feel viscerally that it is wrong to kill. We are genetically wired to be uninterested sexually in individuals we have seen in the close care of our own mothers and we feel empathy for the social and physical conditions of others. We are covetous of our mates and protective of our children. These are parts of the nature of the human beast, a beast that has only one heart, but a complicated multiplicity of competing minds that even within individuals hold these universal values in contention with the competing externally derived narratives we tell ourselves providing us the apparent choices upon which we choose to act in relationship to our individual moment by moment understanding of the community we inhabit.
In this context we can tell ourselves stories that justify killing. Depending on the story, they make us heroes or murderers. In the thrall of community we define away the rights of others, and with that the obligations of our individual sense of justice, we define others by their differences: their acts; their gender; their faith; their language; their culture; their family. The stories we tell ourselves can have lethal consequences and what we accept as fair, what satisfies our sense of justice, can be profoundly constrained by the coercive choices our communal narratives set for us.
The communities we have evolved to live in prejudice us heavily toward pursuit of social prestige. This bias is the simple result of social integration disburdening individuals of all but a narrow slice of the effort requisite to survival. Jackals and wolves hunt in packs for this reason: it is a natural efficiency. Like these animals, but in much more complicated fashion, we divide into groups and establish natural, and naturally contested, hierarchies. Like these fellow predators, selection has formed our brains to search for specific kinds of information and to ignore others. And again, like other species, once these hierarchies are established we compete to occupy the higher roles.
Unlike these beasts, language has given us a tool to organize understanding in a much more transmissible form broadening the realm of interesting information. Cultural success affords more time for individual members of a community to pursue more interests yielding up greater aggregate benefit from a broader information base than any individual could hope to master. This broadening of interests creates polyvalent hierarchies where individuals positions shift according to the particular focus of he community from function to function, moment to moment. At the same time cultural success creates institutional inertia, normalizing the perceptions of the social forms that have sustained the success, even when the success itself has out grown these forms and continued success requires their change.
In static cultures, hard won experience is preserved and propagated into the future through language as religious knowledge: information so important that the survival of the community depends on absolute adherence to this inherited wisdom. When the environment changes, whether because of migration, environmental degradation or new competition, this wisdom must change with it, but is structurally prejudiced against specifically this kind of change.
It seems reasonable to assume that resolution of this kind of internal conflict is the reason that simple cultures that have survived to be studied separate religious and political leadership into parallel, occasionally competing and occasionally overlapping power centers. If this is true it is the beginning of the institutional proliferation that successful cultures will need in order to grow, to successfully adapt and compete. When they succeed, growing to the point of institutionalizing a written language, we recognize them as civilizations. Once there, the weight of institutional knowledge, knowledge who’s basis is now remote from most who are subject to it’s institutionalized operations, becomes itself an enormous conservative force.
It was the disruption of this kind of healthy conservatism by an equally healthy population explosion that lead to the flowering of Western Civilization in the last five hundred years and that is currently fueling the expansion of material benefit in India, China and most of the Pacific world. It is because after generations of blood-shed these civilizations learned to see education as a creative force rather than a conservative one that they have been willing to use it to bend their healthy conservative cultural institutions into larger more robust forms, to incorporate change.
Contrasted with the narrowly religious and conservative role of education in civilizations left in the wake of the expended Ottoman Empire, the necessity of liberal education to civilizational survival is underlined. Faith and Honor, two of humanities most profound and positive values have been turned into institutions of hatred and self-destruction. The integration of a healthy and robust Muslim community into the United States has shown that the religion itself is no more constrained to violence than the huge range of Christianities, Judaisms, Buddhisms, etc. that have all made America their home. It is within failed or totalitarian states where cultural proliferation is stagnant that orthodoxy radicalizes, that murder and suicide come to embody the glamour of evil asserting its’ appeal. Christianity had a long reign of glorifying martyrdom, some Christian sects continue the active pursuit. Various Jews, Hindus and Buddhists continue to make the news for similar achievements. But at present the Islam of southern Eurasia is the worlds’ most dedicatedly suicidal, destructive and most of all self destructive religion. The vast majority of its’ victims are its’ own.
This is the consequence of the stories these communities tell themselves, or in some cases have foisted on them. People compete for social prestige in whatever world they find for themselves when they awake to language. The words, the streets, the buildings, the social, political, religious and family bonds all simply are to the awaking consciousness: one engages along the paths that are perceptible for engagement. The education of populations through religious institutions strongly prejudices those so educated to the binary world view of religion: the faithful and the heathen, salvation and the damned. This is as true for the Branch Davidians in Texas as it is for ISIS in Syria/Iraq.
Jones Town, Aum Shinrikyo, the Branch Davidians and Heavens Gate have all become iconic suicidal religious news events that played out in advanced cultures. That the appeal of religious death or violent martyrdom should be stronger in impoverished societies is disproved by the societies of South American and Africa where huge impoverished populations live and grow without cultures of religious suicide or murder. It is when narratives of victimization correspond with stifled opportunity and dwindling hope that dishonest leaders burnish violent martyrdoms’ appeal. When suicide bombing is institutionalized as heroism with survivor benefits and social prestige for both the suicides and their families, it should surprise no one that bombings and other terrorist activities become normal. The culture of abortion clinic bombers is no less culpable than that of Palestinian suicide bombers, each with its’ self-perception of its’ own righteousness at stake. Where external pressures on a community combine with narratives of victim-hood, the middle class turns out to be the constituency for violent action (see Habermass, "radical losers") as it fears and resents loss, an experience unavailable to the truly impoverished. At the same time conservative education has made the middle class susceptible to the narrative appeals of various idealisms. But the external pressures are never relieved by the martyrdom; the apocalypse never separates the righteous from the damned in rapture, quite the opposite.
Proffered stories of divine violence in which we may choose to participate provide the visceral appeal of relevance to the terrified and hopeless. Where fear and hopelessness proliferate, leadership tends to one of two forms: it can understand the reality of the constraints that demoralize the community and organize to change the terms of the groups engagement, or it can insist ideologically on the terms of the failed engagement and demand that reality change. Reality is rarely obliging, but occasionally throws up opportunities that transform leaders from the second type to the first. Successful diplomacy is the art of creating and exploiting these opportunities and is entirely dependant on understanding the competing narratives and the options for action that opposing cultures values as positive.
Terrified hopelessness in oppressed backwaters most easily aspires to self-destruction, the cultured fear of the extremely powerful offers much more scope for disaster. To listen to American political leaders demagogue the horrors of terrorism as if it were an existential threat to us is insulting. The practical alternatives available to us for addressing it are exponentially greater than the actual threat we face and our power and material effectiveness make the consequences of our getting things wrong so much greater. While a nuclear Iran does pose an existential threat to Israel, Iran is right to make the same claim against Israel and Israel will not be free of the threat until it faces this fact and proposes in good faith to deal with it. Israel, if it faces this reality, can only follow through if Iran becomes willing as well. This is a very real existential crisis the world must get to grips with but a very different situation from that facing the United States.
If America poses an existential threat to anyone, we pose it to everyone and with that power comes unique responsibilities. To assert that our enemies do not value our great achievements and contributions to the world entirely misses the point that we pose this existential threat to everyone and have been behaving as if we were weak and aggrieved for the last six years and that the world owes us the richest and most powerful people on earth some thing. That the criminals who committed the spectacular act of murder in 2001 did give grievance to the United States in no way generalizes our grievance as to be against “Islamic Civilization” as if that were something that could be isolated in its’ particulars and confronted. More importantly this criminal act in no way stigmatizes the most creative and dynamic economic and political entity on the planet as “victim” except to the extent that we agree with our enemies and home grown demagogs when they define us so.
In accepting a false definition of ourselves as victims, we have chosen to fight where our force will do the least good and to ignore all of our strengths as if they were not the tools by which we re-made the world in the last fifty years. From the narrative our leaders tell to describe our place in the world, you would think that we have done nothing to bolster our position in it since we dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, and that those bombings were some moral achievement rather than a necessary evil. This narrative of martial strength has lead to wars on poverty, drugs and now terror. The force brought to bear on each of these has served only to militarize the problems, subjecting the individuals involved on each side to military rigor and its’ frequently violent results. At the same time this narrative has blinded us to a world of opportunity that does not fit this particular story. These “wars” we pay for out of cash flow. They are a frivolous expense that all of our successes of the last fifty years, successes completely ignored in this martial melodrama, allow us to afford, at least for the moment. If we tell ourselves a creative story about who we are and what we can achieve in place of the myth of the unappreciated policeman upon which our martial fantasies, our grievances, are based, we still have the power to re-make the world again. So long as we fight for Faith and Honor, the perverted principles of our enemies self destructive narrative, we are compelled to pursue the wicked who have shamed us and are letting our weak terrorist enemies define us and the options available to us. This is a ridiculous story in which to find oneself, along with America, implicated.
The stories that cultures tell themselves, or the more general ones told by civilizations, define the framework in which their governing institutions make their decisions. Rome collapsed in a bifurcated and slowly decaying shambles after the empire first split into east and west and then was overrun on both ends. Fernand Braudel traced the roots of Western Capitalism to these events. Venice sat astride the trade routs from a decaying and decentralizing Western Empire contending with Goths and Vandals and an ascendant Islam after the fall of Constantinople. Islam was the intellectual center of the world with a unique set of accommodations to a polyglot of religious communities within its’ sphere, including Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus among myriad others. This intellectual and cultural pluralism allowed ideas to flourish along with trade, Venice was a satellite trading partner that imported much of this intellectual vigor into Christendom. Trading on the credit of its’ own Jews in it’s ghetto, Venice benefited from the commercial advantages of interest bearing monetary tools without offending its’ religious ban on interest as usury. This arrangement was similar to but more sever than the Caliphates arrangement and allowed Venice to prosper within its’ Christian context. Ukrainian monasteries that were the granary of Venice, the Balkan and Peloponnesian peninsulas learned these methods for dealing with finance as a tool for collective improvement and dispensed with the ghettos and need for Jews to manage their trade and extended a Christian commerce into central and northern Europe.
Meanwhile, Italian city-states growing in the loma-pretta of decayed empire learned similar lessons and developed competing financial tools and attitudes. After several centuries, as the fruit of this innovation, the financial center of Christendom migrated from Venice to Genoa. A similar thing happened along the rivers of Central Europe bringing commerce North where it spawned the Hanseatic League that drew the center of commerce from Genoa up to Antwerp. Competition drove the center thence back to Genoa in contention with Florence, then to Amsterdam, London and finally New York. Along this entire journey a culture of tolerance followed the internal workings of markets where-ever they moved and along the entire journey these accommodations were despised as the devils work even as they raised living standards and population densities. The Jews involvement in trade, a role that had been foisted on them but that they did not necessarily resist, has left them carrying the stigma of all of the negative side effects of material progress, of the creative destruction of incipient Capitalism. Honor and faith supported the blood liable through generations with Europe’s ruling families dependant on Jewish finance, but disgusted by commerce in the thrall of a narrative of aristocratic purity and the baseness of labor, a hypocritical prejudice that survives today in the political lefts’ contempt for the vulgarity of markets and the rights contempt for workers themselves.
Before all of this, in the Islamic Caliphate, trade and commerce flourished without the stigma that would latter attach. The interpretations of the foundation stories of world religions have fostered economic growth wherever government has been just. Individuals reading the same sacred texts have over the last 1,500 years, in one place or another, looked upon creation in wonder and gained from the marvels it offers. Beyond simply harvesting natures bounty, cultures of commerce within various civilizations at various times have organized and abstracted the works of man and nature to compound gains beyond the limits of individual effort. Capitalism is an emergent phenomenon that combines the effects of money, trust, faith and time to change aggregate behavior and circumstance for the better. In the last millennium it has thrived at one time or another in all three of the civilizations that share the Old Testaments’ prohibition on usury and raised each to what pinnacles they have achieved in their time. Hindus and Buddhists are experimenting now with the same ideas.
The point of this with regard to language is that the context of narrative defines it. Islam, Judaism and Christianity all share the prohibition on debt and usury but have all achieved their greatest achievements through it. Were the Priests, Rabbis and Imams of these earlier eras damned by their failure to observe this covenant, or were they simply interpreting the religious narratives to suit a contemporary communal good? This contextualization of reading introduces an inevitable temporal specificity to interpretation of religious texts that mature religious institutions recognize and try to address institutionally. The various moral narratives of the Bible offer innumerable interpretations, interpretations always made by people, the text does not clarify itself. Catholicism tells itself a story of inclusion where it interprets the religions that precede it in populations newly exposed to Christianity as truths that precede revelation and pays close attention to non-religious learning as part of its goal to advance toward an ultimate interpretation of Gods’ Word. Catholicism has made a syncretic history of including pre-Christian rituals in its’ liturgy as part of its method of inclusion, of conversion and of addressing as they come up the important new ideas that the living history of knowledge continues to present. Judaism is amongst its Rabbis’ a continuously re-written, re-argued narrative of group identity. The kabalah is the specific linguistic vehicle for the continuous historical re-negotiation of Faith for the orthodox. Jewish successes in the world, successes beyond its’ numbers is largely contingent upon that communities openness, in-fact eagerness for new knowledge. In its’ expansionist and prosperous epoch, Islam was syncretic and liberal as well. The Caliphate that finally collapsed in Delhi in 1849 was a syncretic Islam superimposed by that time on a Hindu nation that was one of the wealthiest trading societies in the world.
When in ignorance individuals superimpose their inherent vanity on experience and insist on their knowledge of texts as the singularly true understanding, their interpretation tells us more about them than the text. The proliferation of this kind of religious understanding is probably an inevitable consequence of rapid demographic expansion outpacing institutional adaptation. Inevitability makes it no easier to manage nor less of a problem. The larger societies in which this proliferation of contending interpretations of faith occurs will have to address the contentious results in any case. The challenge for the communicative infrastructure of language is to find stories that subsume the solipsism of revelations into a useful larger framework of civilization. It is precisely this failure in the radicalized Islam of Arabia and post Soviet Eurasia, the civilizations inability to join revelatory religious leaders in a larger politics, that gives radical Islam its’ fissiparous destructive power. To repeat, in the West we occasionally experience a piece of burning shrapnel thrown from Islam’s fissiparous reactions, but the casualties are almost entirely Islamic: between the twin towers and our five years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American casualties are around 7,000: between those two countries, deaths above pre-war norms suggest that between one half and one million people have died, not to mention the displaced, almost exclusively Muslim.
Closer to home, our own Preachers of the Revealed Truth have used and continue to use similar rhetoric of hatred and contempt for non-believers or errant faiths. The American political tradition has digested these demagogs, not with out considerable pain and waist, but without disintegrating into civil violence despite the repeated provocations of bombings at abortion clinics, government offices, the Atlanta Olympics, and the sustained vitriolic rhetoric of the militant right.
America has been able to digest these toxins because markets, arts and sciences, our muses, provide a civilizational safety net of open-end construction that hears whatever narrative presents itself, then argues, convinces, but most of all educates and through dialogue across the spectrum of sub-cultures brings the vast majority who naturally fall within the main body of the bell curve of normality back into positive or at least neutral engagement. The American narrative of Liberty is one that includes rights and responsibilities and recognizes that Liberty is as constrained as the meaning of the word itself by the context in which it is deployed. The Liberty we brought to Iraq is the positive liberty of the Orthodox. We have made the true believers free to murder the infidel. It is thus far but a hope to deliver the constrained freedom, Isaiah Berlins negative liberty of individual sovereignty within State institutions, to Iraq.
People are in essential ways the same, innumerable traits distributed along innumerable bell curves that, once aggregated, average out to normal when the proper sample size is reached. Words can tell any story. Cultures compete in the stories they tell their constituent populations. Narrative poverty within a culture produces impoverished choices for individuals subject to the story. The choice between embracing a lifetime of declining material prospects, receding from peaks a generation back, and heroic martyrdom will produce more heroic martyrs than practical materialists, the latter’s options having been reduced to the choice between competing toothpastes, none of which are available. The idealists’ contempt for “the bourgeoisie”, or for the market, or for secular organizations is a simple and direct result of the choices these things represent, choices that de-value the preferred selections of any idealists who will contrast their impoverished virtue with stylized and incomplete images of material and libidinal opulence elsewhere. Christianities genius and virture was to take this ascetic idealism and define poverty as the underlying virtue of community, which it continues to be.
The hold that language takes of our thoughts is powerful. Safir and Worf hypothesized sixty years ago that the particular language we speak has a deterministic effect on the kinds of thoughts we are likely to think. The contingency of meaning, word for word, building a kind of cumulative error in translation where at a certain point conceptions of the world become irreconcilable between competing linguistic cultures. By examining the reciprocity between language and culture, their mutually reinforcing interconnections, in fact the mutability of large portions of each into the other, and understanding how the dynamics of this relationship influences the communal narrative that become the spine of national or cultural identity we can begin to understand how constraints on the stories a community defines itself with will constrain its’ response to external challenges. A proliferation of independent subcultures within the language community is the surest way to offer that community the broadest range of responses to the challenges it faces and the only way to make the inevitability of change look like opportunity rather than crisis. Language does not determine our thinking, but it constrains it to a greater degree than any other single influence. When a communities leaders, thinking from sets of fairly expansive common assumptions, choose to use language in a certain way the narrative they create brings into focus a certain set of choices for those within and without the group, the culture. The dissonance the narrative presents to those outside its autochthonous culture frames the external response as much as the intended meaning frames the internal one.