Politics: The Way Toward Understanding
“The heart of the problem is the refusal to recognize the participants in these conflicts as political actors,” Li said. “We just suck all the politics out, latch on a word like ‘jihadism,’ and then place it into a category of evil existing outside of space and time.”
“Consider for a moment three different things: the Irish Republican Army, the Republican Party in the United States, and Plato’s Republic,” Li told me, by way of analogy. “All of these employ the term ‘republic,’ and all of them somehow have a connection with violence. If you lumped them together and claimed they represent an ideology called ‘republicanism,’ that obviously wouldn’t make any sense. Yet that’s what the category of ‘jihadism’ essentially does.”
I came across these two quotes in an article entitled “A New Book Takes on the Problematic Academic Discipline of ‘Jihadism,’” by Darryl Li of the University of Cchicago. And I think they can be applied more generally that Li applies them to “jihadists.” It seems to me that it is commonplace for people to refuse to recognize their declared enemies as “political actors.” Take for example the concept of “communism” as used in the United States, especially during the Cold War. The US had to wage war in Vietnam, e.g., because the “communists” were trying to take over Vietnam. As people eventually noticed, such a characterization “sucked all the politics out of” what was actually going on in Vietnam and placed our enemies “into a category of evil [that] existed outside of space of time,” that is, outside of reality. This led the US into an ever expanding dehumanizing and destructive war, where war crimes became part and parcel of US strategy and tactics. So, in opposing what our elites understood as an “evil existing outside of space and time,” those elites were led into evil, which they embraced as proof of their “virtue.” This is best described as a kind of madness, a madness that might be called “innocence.”
More generally, it makes me wonder whether we can understand the world we live in without recourse to politics. That is, once that world is drained of political actors and political actions, the real world, the actual world disappears and is replaced by a world of abstractions like “communism,” “capitalism,” “socialism,” and so on. Then these abstractions are taken to be real and to be dangerous, leading even otherwise decent people into brutal, dehumanizing, and destructive wars. By sucking the politics out of our enemies, by turning them into “evil existing outside of space and time,” all bets are off in terms of limits on making war. And this is not a healthy situation at any time, and especially not in a world armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.
Americans are not especially fond of politics, seeing it as a dirty business that if only we could rise above the world would be vastly improved, if not actually saved. But it could be that without politics, without understanding our enemies as political actors, the world is doomed, if not to annihilation than to endless wars. As the author of The Republic put it: Only the dead have seen the end of war. My guess is that Plato did not have much hope that human beings would come to see that understanding the world politically is the only alternative to the madness that characterized and characterizes the human condition. There might be moments, ephemeral situations where peace reigns but that is all that should be expected. And that we are not in such a moment now should be obvious to all as we go on waging war on “jihadists,” “socialists,” “communists,” the “deplorable,” or on “immigrants.”