Materialists Versus Fanatics_Barnabas-Is This as Good as It's Going to Get?
The thought, as it happens, is that Western capitalism will erode the Muslim world by means of innovation, temptation,and corruption, and that the long-term victory of materialism over fanaticism is inevitable.
— Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2003.
The epigraph is at least four degrees of separation from actual news, coming to you as it does: 1) An excerpt from the review of a novel (Platform
, by Michel Houellebecq); 2) a summary of what a fictional character thinks; 3) his thinking is in response to fictitious events; 4) the fictitious events are loosely based on the contemporary scene but on no specific event.
It isn’t that nothing real has happened this week to give me a column. Plenty has, much of it both absurd and unethical, good fodder for curmudgeonry. Yet this sentence trumped them all because, in spite of its fictional setting, it has a ring of truth about it that I can’t get out of my head.
Its "ring of truth" does not imply that its prophecy will be fulfilled. That’s not likely, since it misreads fanaticism and confuses Islam with it — something akin to equating American Christianity with a few bemused armed heretics holed up in the north woods. What has the ring of truth for me is that recent events, both domestic and international, appear to demonstrate our belief in the prophecy. It isn’t fictitious, but factitious: inauthentic, a sham. Unfortunately, factitiousness is not uncommon in western history. Nazism, Leninism, racism are easy and recent examples.
In this case, as our our commerce and politics here at home demonstrate, we believe that anyone can be bought, bribed, or seduced. Forget moral and military superiority. Material superiority will win for us. Arguing is too much work, killing is too unpleasant and expensive. Instead, we will make our enemies eat themselves sick. Then (to borrow an unforgettable line from Ship of Fools
) we will “moralize over the upchuck” and trumpet our moral superiority without ever having to prove it.
If that is as good as it gets, what a triumph for Americanism!
But it isn’t even close to as good as it gets. Beating fanaticism with materialism is like replacing tuberculosis with syphilis. One is as nasty, and as fatal, as the other. Both lack ethical content. Both are centered on self.
Fanaticism replaces the other-directedness of ethics with a commitment to commitment; it neither has nor needs a further referent. The old adjective fey
applies to fanatics. They are under a spell, or enchantment, like a doomed knight charging a fortress. They are no longer reasoning people, or even feeling ones in the ordinary sense. They have ceased to think. They can fight, they can sacrifice themselves, and they can shout. They require conflict; they cannot govern rationally in a time of peace. They are not susceptible to our bribes and seductions because they are no longer driven by appetite. Since they are themselves committed to death, they do not care how many people around them are butchered or starved.
Materialism replaces altruism with appetite. (Their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, their minds set on earthly things, as St. Paul graphically described materialists.) True materialists don’t even bother to moralize over their upchuck. Their perspective is too limited to moralize over anything.
On the base of the statue of William Jennings Bryan that used to stand before the capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, these words were inscribed: "The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error." This may be claptrap, but it is noble claptrap. We would like for it to be true. I cannot imagine any rational person wanting the prophecy in the epigraph to come true.