Modernity and the destruction of the imagined home of white male supremacy
Anders Breivik’s twisted time machine
With so much speculation surrounding the issue, what were the real motives behind Breivik’s attacks?
Mark LeVine, Al Jazeera
A virtue of Anders Breivik’s 1,500 page opus is that, by so thoroughly and heavily citing the leaders of the anti-Islam creed, his arguments are inseparable from theirs. Indeed, the more honest anti-Islam crusaders have declared that while his actions are condemnable, his ideas deserve a fair hearing.
What Americans should take note of is the fact that so many of the voices that inspired Breivik’s murderous action come from these shores, not Europe. Not merely cable personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck but former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, current and former military leaders and wealthy businessmen have all signed onto the Islamophobia bandwagon driven by the so-called experts like Daniel Pipes or Robert Spencer, whose primary target besides Muslims is, like Breivik, progressive intellectual, cultural and political voices.
“We think the price was worth it.”
These words were uttered by then Secretary of State Madeline Albright during a May 1996 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl. She was not talking about the cost of renovating the the Harry S. Truman building that serves as the headquarters for the State Department, or even the price of a new fleet of custom jets to shuttle senior officials between various Middle Eastern hotspots.
Instead, Secretary Albright was talking about the half million Iraqi children that had died in the half decade of sanctions imposed on Iraq after the US-led coalition expelled Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. “I think this is a very hard choice,” she explained, but if 500,000 Iraqi children had to die in order to “keep Saddam in his box” then the secretary of state was willing to accept the collateral damage.
What does this willingness to sanction hundreds of thousands of dead children say about Albright? Or President Clinton? Or the diplomatic, military and political apparatus of the United States that crafted the Iraq sanctions regime, and then another war that killed hundreds of thousands more Iraqis?
Are they insane? Fanatics? Terrorists? Or just plain evil?
It’s worth considering these questions as we try to wrap our heads around the kind of mind that would consider the killing of dozens of teenagers at a summer camp a “gruesome but necessary” beginning of a crusade to rid the European homeland of the rapidly expanding “Islamic menace”.
It is easy to consider individuals like Anders Breivik or terrorist groups, whether Nordic nationalists or Middle Eastern Islamists, as beyond the pale of rationality and morality. Their logic is as specious as Ptolemy’s astronomy – internally coherent to be sure, but utterly divorced from reality.
And yet, it turns out that Breivik bore a grudging admiration for the tactics and boldness of his dopplegangers in al-Qaeda. “Just like Jihadi warriors are the plum tree of the Ummah, we will be the plum tree for Europe and for Christianity,” he wrote in his now infamous magnum opus, which are not as far removed from the logic and mechanisms of state power as we might hope. Nor is state power all that far removed from the logic and methods of terrorism.
Modernity’s violence, and hope
The debate over terrorism is intimately tied to the larger debate over what it means to be modern.
Today the term is generally reserved for the violence of non-state actors against civilians or political leaders. But until recently, “terror” was the preserve of those wielding power – whether the inquisitors of the Catholic Church or the revolutionary tribunals of the first French republic, both of whom justified terror as crucial to the establishment of virtue and the preservation of society.
Yet modernity was supposed to mark a progressive movement away from irrational violence and tyrannical rule and towards greater freedom, dignity and self-governance. The problem was that the new and powerful technologies of rule, such as mass conscription and modern methods of taxation and policing that empowered modern states, also enabled the far more systematic and widespread use of violence against their own citizens and other peoples who fell under their control.
Modernity has always been a paradoxical project; the gap between its grand aspirations and the extreme means so often deployed to pursue them have produced innumerable and often violent contradictions: the Rights of Man and the Reign of Terror, liberalism and Empire, national liberation and authoritarian rule, and democracy promotion via an unending war on terror.
The contradictions inherent to modernity have similarly engendered non-state movements with diametrically opposed ideologies and agendas – the global peace and justice movements and the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda and Islamophobia are all, each in their own way, quintessentially modern, even when their goals and methods seem atavistic or post-modern.
Each of these disparate movements was born out of a frustration with state power; progressive movements out of frustration with its regular abuse, conservative and revanchist movements out of frustration with the unwillingness of the states to use power even more forcefully, particularly to expel foreign “invaders” – whether US troops in the Muslim heartland or Muslim immigrants in the heart of Europe – who are felt to constitute a mortal threat to the nation.
While deeply modern, these ostensibly antagonistic movements also share the kind of elastic sense of “community” that is at the heart of globalisation. The global peace, justice and now democracy movements are bound together through a meshwork of transnational ties and identities that have served to strengthen movements at the national level. Indeed, the pan-Arab democracy movements of the last eight months can be described as a new hybrid of transnational solidarity in the service of creating more humane nation-states.
Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups have similarly prospered thanks to transnational networks that defy the national, ethnic and linguistic identities that so shaped Muslim politics during the last century. Contemporary ultra-nationalist movements in Europe have also established strong international networks to support the work of defending the purity of their nations against the supposed contamination of non-European, Muslim immigrants.
But today’s European Right is a changed animal from even a decade ago, as neoconservatism and neoliberalism have largely replaced the more fascistic ideologies of old. In particular, as Breivik took pains to point out in his manifesto, the European New Right has gone out of its way to disassociate itself from the rank anti-Semitism that still characterised them only a few years ago.
Jews can now be part of the imagined European/Western collective, as long as they are appropriately conservative and anti-Muslim. And it’s not only Jews who are no longer considered inherently outside or beneath the “native” or “indigenous white European” community. Slavs and even Hindus can be thought of as “brothers”, to use Breivik’s term, in a new international war against what has always been the primary threat to European identity: Islam.
The spectre of Marx
In a sense, we have gone back to the Inquisition; faith-not necessarily in Jesus, but in “European” or “Western” civilisation – rather than blood determines one’s worthiness to be considered part of the community.
But this raises a crucial question: If Islam is the enemy, why did Breivik set out to murder his fellow Norwegians?
It seems that the biggest threat to Norway and Europe comes not from Islam and Muslims, but rather from what he terms “cultural Marxism” and the multiculturalist heresy it has inflicted across Europe. As he explains it, “You cannot defeat Islamisation or halt/reverse the Islamic colonisation of Western Europe without first removing the political doctrines manifested through multiculturalism/cultural Marxism.”
When I first read of Breivik’s obsession with “cultural Marxists”, bells rang in my head. Five years ago, David Horowitz, one of the doyens of the Islamophobia movement, wrote a book called The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, in which I was listed at number 42. An honour to be sure, yet I was quite surprised by the charges against me: not merely that I was a self-hating American, but a Marxist who believed that capitalism was the cause of global evil. And I was not the only professor so accused; dozens of my colleagues on the list were similarly labelled.
Aside from the fact that I wasn’t a Marxist, it seemed a bit funny to be labelled dangerous for being one in 2006, with the Evil Empire safely dead for well over a decade and Communist China the world’s fasting growing capitalist economy.
But a closer reading of the book reveals that Horowitz’s accusation, like Breivik’s now, was in fact a code word for being a traitor to one’s country, and to Western civilisation more broadly. What made us traitors was our desire to focus on the conditions that produced the subordination of modernity’s many victims – women, the working class, colonised peoples and various minorities in the West – rather than merely celebrating as self-evident the moral and intellectual superiority of Euro-American civilisation, history and values.
It seems Horowitz, himself a one-time Marxist rabble rouser, was at the vanguard of naming a new enemy, the “cultural Marxist”, against whom Anders Breivik would unleash his deadly fury.
Five years later, Breivik at least tries to define what he means by the “cultural Marxist” threat, using it as part of groups of terms such as “mulituclturalism/cultural Marxism/cultural relativism”, or “multiculturalists/cultural Marxists” for short, who “usually operate under the disguise of humanism. A majority are anti-nationalists and want to deconstruct European identity, traditions, culture and even nation states.”
Another synonym for cultural Marxism is also, according to Breivik, “political correctness”, which is the same thing as “cultural Marxism (cultural Communism) translated from economic into cultural terms”. Whereas true Western knowledge is based on reason and facts, “PC” is based on “ideology” – not any specific ideology, but ideology itself, which “over the last fifty years… has conquered Western Europe (and)… seeks to alter virtually all the rules, formal and informal, that govern relations among peoples and institutions. It wants to change behaviour, thought, even the words we use.”
So it’s not actually Islam that is poised to conquer Europe and destroy the foundations of Western civilisation. It’s political correctness, which “now looms over western European society like a colossus”.
Here I believe we are beginning to get close to what really is bothering Anders Breivik, and it’s not his nightmares of immanent colonisation and conquest of Europe by Islam. Instead, it’s something much more mundane. He doesn’t like that the world has changed in the last generation or two, so that today “native white European men” are no longer automatically at the top of the political, economic and cultural pecking order.
Indeed, early in the manifesto in a section titled “How it all Began” Breivik describes what would happen if a man and his family “from the 1950s were suddenly introduced into Western Europe in the 2000s”. For Breivik, as for so many American cultural conservatives, the 1950s were “a good time. Our homes were safe… Public schools were generally excellent… Most men treated women like ladies and most ladies devoted their time and effort to make good homes.” They even wore white gloves when they went shopping.
Not surprisingly, Breivik argues that after 24 hours in the present day the family “would head back to the 1950s as fast as they could, with a gripping horror story to tell… of a nation that decayed and degenerated at a fantastic pace.” Their kids would have been “given funny white powder by another kid and learning that homosexuality is normal and good” at school, while the husband would have been reprimanded if not fired, for smoking and making a positive reference about “the firm employing some coloured folks in important positions.”
A crucial link between Norway and the US
This vignette reveals the ideology behind Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage to be more complex than most commentators have assumed. Indeed, it highlights a crucial link – one yet to be considered by most commentators – between the Islamophobia of the last decade and the culture wars of a generation ago, when conservative Christians railed against liberals for destroying everything that was good about America during the 1950s, when everyone knew their place and the West, with America at the helm, reigned supreme.
This narrative brings together nostalgia for the “good old days” of white male privilege and self-evident superiority with a fear of Muslim immigration which, in his and so many other anxious Europeans’ and Americans’ minds, will render impossible any chance of returning to days of what in Islamist terminology might be referred to as the “pious ancestors”.
Sadly, with time travel not an option and the culture war all but lost, Breivik seems to have felt he had no choice but to launch a bloody civil war that would, hopefully, unite real Norwegians around a renewed sense of national identity and purpose.
The rationale behind these hopes of Breivik’s do not fall on deaf ears – in fact, his ideologies were partially culled from Islamophobic pedagogues from abroad. Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes, Fjordman, Pamela Geller et al can’t really attack his logic, because it is in fact more or less wholly theirs.
They weekly regale ballrooms’ worth of frightened people with tales of impossibly complex conspiracies by clandestine webs of Muslim Brotherhood cells who as they speak are planning to take over the country and impose Sharia law (in response, more than two dozen states have considered measures to prohibit Sharia from being considered as valid law).
Out of tragedy, a new purpose?
The fact that their messages like Breivik’s are utterly divorced from reality has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for them by millions of scared people who are watching their economic security slip away from them and a much darker future approach. The naming of a dangerous Other against whom the still virtuous members of the nation must unite to restore a mythical and glorious past might be an old trick, but it still works, allowing those in power to avoid addressing the actual conditions behind the economic, political and social decay so many citizens see around them while shifting ever more resources towards war and violence.
Indeed, if we return to the quote from Madeline Albright that began this column, it’s clear that one doesn’t even need the threat of immanent invasion by an alien bogeyman to engage in premeditated violence that kills not merely a hundred, but hundreds of thousands and even millions of people. That much, at least, hasn’t changed from one century to the next.
Americans have long ago “vacated control” over our government, but Norwegians are still blessed with a strong enough political system, national institutions and sense of tolerance to defeat the twisted logic of Breivik and his European and American comrades. Given how prominent Americans where in shaping his deadly ideology, it would be nice if we took some responsibility by engaging in even a modicum of self-reflection about our own toxic blends of bigotry, nostalgia and militarism.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California: Irvine, and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).