Ed Driscoll

De-civilization and its Discontents

In “ISIS’ Theater of Evil and the Thirst for Blood,” Jean Kaufman, aka Neo-Neocon, resuscitates a great decade-old quote from author Lee Harris, which deserves much wider distribution:

For example, Foley’s alleged executioner, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, was raised in England in a West London home worth nearly two million dollars. In this respect he fits the profile of many if not most of the al Qaeda terrorist leaders, who were brought up in milieus that were hardly primitive. From what we know about ISIS (and al Qaeda and other terrorist groups), a significant portion of their jihadis are quite familiar with the modern world but have purposely cast off their background and its refinements in a process referred to by Lee Harris in his 2004 book Civilization and Its Enemies as “de-civilization” as distinguished from barbarism:

…I propose the word de-civilization, defined as…: “the effort, conscious or unconscious, to become less civilized than you are, either in general or in some special way, and, so far as in you lies, to promote a similar change in others.”

In terms of fantasy ideology, the function of de-civilization is not merely to promote ideas opposed to civilization, but to make men and women into human beings with a totally different set of visceral and emotional responses to atrociousness.

…[W]hile savagery and de-civilization can both produce atrocities, they do so in entirely different ways.

De-civilization is therefore a deliberate process undertaken to serve the purpose of ISIS’s Islamic supremacist ideology. Those who engage in it have systematically and purposefully cast off any reservations about mayhem. They do so in part as a bow to what they see as their glorious, sterner history and laws, and for the purpose of engaging in exactly that behavior which they believe will be most frightening to the west.

But de-civilization needn’t always end in the mass-bloodshed of jihad, of course. Sometimes its impact appears in much more “subtle” forms:

I remember the first time I heard Green’s 2010 song “F*** You” (on Electra Records, until recently another fine quality division of Time-Warner-CNN-HBO) and thought, musically, this is the best Motown song I’ve heard in three decades. But lyrically, it’s a reminder of everything that went wrong with pop culture in the last three decades. It reminded me of something I wrote about in 2007 about — stick with me here — the George Clooney / Steven Soderbergh film The Good German:

The funny thing is, I would bet serious money that the average Hollywood mogul probably has TCM tuned into his rear-projection HDTV screen pretty often. But when he does, he’ll focus on the tiny details, and lose sight of the big picture. He’ll get hooked on Orson Welles’ deep-focus photography, and not his character studies. Or Hitchcock’s rhythmic editing, and not how deftly he handles a story.

From its poster to its cinematography, what was Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German if not an attempt to mate the brilliant craftsmanship of old Hollywood with the dark cynicism of its current form? As The Good German’s trivia page on the IMDB states, “The film was shot as if it had been made in 1945…The only allowance was the inclusion of nudity, violence and cursing which would have been forbidden by the Production Code”. And yet it’s that Production Code that virtually created classic Hollywood, by giving it rules to operate under–and yes, push against. But pushing against isn’t quite the same as breaking; that would come much later, much to the box office’s chagrin.

Green’s recent admission — or as he attempted to backpedal from it yesterday, “the comments attributed to me on Twitter” — places “F*** You” into sharp perspective.

In his recent review of the James Brown biopic Get On Up, Steve Sailer wrote, “When rehearsing 1967’s repetitious ‘Cold Sweat,’ he tells his crack band to forget all they’ve learned about music: ‘Every instrument a drum.'” Sailer goes on to note, “In the long run, Brown’s narrowing the parameters of black American music has been a cultural disaster: every instrument is not really a drum…By 2014, ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams, which would have made a worthy Curtis Mayfield B-side, seems like a monumental accomplishment.”

Yes, it was quite a shock to hear a song on the radio in 2014 with an actual catchy, singable melody, and one whose chorus wasn’t built around the F-word.

In 1967, when Brown was at the apex of his experiments with harmonic minimalism and syncopated repetition, his output served as a dramatic contrast to the other pop music of the time. Duke Ellington was still alive. Miles Davis hadn’t yet started his drive down the dead-end cul-de-sac of jazz-rock fusion. Frank Sinatra was still a best-selling artist. Motown was still making complex and sophisticated pop music such as Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, with its groundbreaking production and arrangements. All of these examples — Brown’s band, Motown, and The Beatles — relied upon musicians being in a room together and able to play (QED), unlike the music stitched together in the 21st century on a computer, via drum machines, loops, samples, and auto-tuning applications.

Of course, how much do you need auto-tune, when you’ve jettisoned melody in the first place?

But it isn’t just pop music that’s been narrowed down to meaninglessness. In his 2008 article on film critic Pauline Kael, who celebrated violence and shlock over the earnest craftsmanship of the last days of Hollywood’s studio system, Robert Fulford of Canada’s National Post wrote:

It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”

Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”

Which is a question that applies to an increasingly freeze-dried popular culture far beyond the movie industry. Thirty-five years ago in the The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom described the postwar American absorption of Weimar culture as a “peculiarly American way digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.” But it is nihilism. No wonder many seek to find some way to make sense of it all.

Which brings us back to where we started; Michael Ledeen asks the question on everyone’s mind these days, “Why Do They Join the Jihad?” But unlike those in old media, Michael has an answer: “Because it gives meaning to life, that’s why:”

It’s a commonplace to anyone who’s studied the rise of fascism, of which Islamofascism is the most recent variety.  The main problem with democratic capitalism is that it’s so successful, and therefore very boring.  A generation or two of European intellectuals bemoaned the great triumph of science and industry, which they portrayed as relentlessly stifling the human soul, burying us under a hill of material things.

The Germans produced the most moving such literature — think Nietzsche, think Hesse, not accidentally the cult hero of the American revolt against materialism in the 1960s — and, seeking for paths to spiritual fulfillment they often wandered off into Eastern mysticism.  (Californians dd, too, and sometimes still do, but that’s not fascism.  It’s Hollywood spirituality).

No wonder, when Suge Night and other “gangsta” [sic] rappers want to live out the gun battles of The Godfather and other Hollywood gangster movies in real life, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary chose to join ISIS — if you’re going to exit civilization and play act at being a gangsta rapper in the first place — why not play for real stakes?

Related: “Was ISIS hostage video inspired by Homeland‘s opening credits? Expert reveals how themes from popular culture are used to attract Western recruits.”  And concurrently, Iowahawk tweets, “Dead American ISIS fighter’s previous job: cleaning jets at Minneapolis airport. Have a super day everybody!”

Gee, it’s all so “unexpectedly.”

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg ponders a president who invited comparisons to Lincoln early in 2007 and in 2008 blithely dismisses an ideology that embraces slavery as “a manageable problem,” and asks, “What Has Become of Liberalism?” But then, he of all people should know that word, co-opted by the left in the early 1920s, to distance themselves from the policies of Woodrow Wilson, has never been an accurate term for the modern American left.

Finally, in lieu of an Allahpundit-esque exit question, an exit tweet — actually a pair of them: