Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Western Men Join ISIS

Michael Brendan Doughterty on why thousands of men from Europe have gone to fight for ISIS and other jihadist groups in the Middle East:
This shouldn't surprise us, and not because of the depredations of the French banlieues, vicious poverty in Western nations, or misspent youth in America. As long as Western liberalism has existed, it has been found charmless or contemptible by some men. Western liberalism asks men to be governed by laws made by mere men and their politicking. It demands of most men that they be mere citizens. It urges thrift, prudence, and industry. This is not for everyone.

Fascism and communism promise more to men dissatisfied with liberalism. First of all, power. To succeed in a revolution is to step over the grubby merit system in the old regime, on which you would have been last and least in line if you were counted at all. Revolutionary movements also offer visions of justice that are larger and deeper than some dirty court system. And the struggle in establishing them holds out prizes that are extremely rare for men of the West: glory, martyrdom, and heroism. Revolution beats a life of traffic tickets, creditors, bosses, and — if you're especially lucky — angst about real-estate.
I have a better idea for anyone who wonders about this: watch Fight Club. Violence, as it shows, can be a great antidote for purposeless boredom.

Whether a large subset of men drawn to conflict can really thrive in a peaceful bureaucratic society is, I submit, still an open question.


Unknown said...

I'm skeptical. This strikes me as the sort of explanation that tells you a lot about the preoccupations of the commentator, but not much about the actual subject matter. For one thing, it tells you nothing about why non-liberal societies also produce fanatical movement types, generally in greater numbers than liberal societies do. It doesn't tell you anything about the Taliban, or the Tamil Tigers, or the Khmer Rouge. And if it doesn't tell you anything about those movements, can we really trust that it tells you much about the motives of a young Muslim man from a high rise in Brussels who actually joins ISIS?

As for fighting for its own sake, I'm struck by the contrast between real fighting cultures, like Appalachia or working-class Britain, and the Fight Club fantasy that hordes of good boys really just want to beat something up. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, people have many impulses, but if their culture doesn't teach them to indulge a given impulse, it is just as likely that that impulse will atrophy, as that it will become the object of repressed longing. If you really wanted to start a Fight Club, I suspect you could more readily do it in a place where they already fight a lot, than in a comfortable suburb.

In sum, I'm skeptical that jihad tourists actually tell you much about western liberal society. Their numbers are tiny.

John said...

It is certainly true that violent, jingoistic societies produce more violent men than peaceful societies do. It was ever the hope of leftists that in a truly peaceful society there would be no violent men; what I am saying is that I doubt this. I suspect there will always be some men who simply can't be happy with peaceful routine, but who are on the other hand well-suited for violence.

An acquaintance of mine, a documentary film-maker, was hired by a local Florida tv station to make an 8-minute feature on the first man to win the Medal of Honor in the Gulf War. He turned out to be one of those son-of-a-bitch sergeants who fails miserably at peacetime life (twice divorced, estranged from his children), whose men hated him in camp, but who saved them all when they were ambushed by jihadis. Such men were called "coal biters" by the Vikings, because they did nothing during peacetime but sit around the hearth chewing on coals, which they could get away with because they were so necessary when the community was attacked.

Even if there are not many such men, they represent a danger and a challenge to the peaceful, orderly life most of us desire, and I wonder what we can or should do about them.