Reviews of Lee Harris's Books
Civilization and Its Enemies
With Lee Harris I have shared the view that the West entered a new historical epoch on the morning of Sept. 11th 2001 and that the ways of thinking that had served us (often not very well) through the wars of the 20th century would have to be abandoned. We would have to think again about the nature of our civilization and of its enemies -- for we were now faced with an existential threat different in kind.
This is the Mr. Harris whose essay on "Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology" two summers ago gave the most cogent account of what had actually happened on 9/11: of an enemy in the grip of a worldview too insane for us to reckon with and committing huge massacres from motives more aesthetic than strategic. We had to grasp that this enemy was not in any kind of dialogue with us -- even as war is a form of dialogue -- but instead in a conversation with himself in which we his victims are merely objects symbols.
Now my friend from Stone Mountain Georgia has written Civilization and Its Enemies (Free Press) an attempt to grapple with this new situation in its full breadth. I earnestly hope it will be read and reflected upon -- especially as a reply to Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama both of whom wrote big-thesis books about civilizational conflict pre-9/11 that are essentially wrong for reasons Mr. Harris takes the trouble to explain.
One of the delights of this new book is its rescue of several very useful historical insights in G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) who has been cheapened and mystified in the academy. Mr. Harris gets him right partly by his freedom from any kind of academic pretence. There is a great deal of learning in his book and several distinct layers of thought but he writes in plain English.
The most fundamental insight is borrowed jointly as it were from both Hegel and the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). It is that a civilization evolves by overcoming huge obstacles through brilliant creative leaps the memory of which is implanted in the people as moral and ethical norms which we come to "embody" through the universal social mechanisms of shame and pride. These norms must be wired into the visceral code of every generation of children long before they reach the age of intellectual consent.
We are what we are not as the result of some abstract reasoning nor by an accident of nature but from a long historical development. Yet we can only continue to be as civilized men and women so long as we are capable of remembering not only what we are but why. It is when at the highest level of society we begin to forget what it took to make us that our very existence is put in peril.
In particular we have almost forgotten the ancestral category of the "enemy" -- that no matter how civilized nice we think we have become there are people "out there" who would be pleased to kill us. Mr. Harris writes tough-mindedly of what has always been necessary for a civilization to see off such threats. We truly cannot afford to indulge our own fantasies -- abstract sophistries about "multiculturalism" and the like in a world where forgetting what we are is not sometimes but always lethal.
Mr. Harris revisits the curiously convoluted history of how Western man developed what he deliciously translates from Hegel as the "team spirit" which overcame the stifling oppression of the tribe and made possible the individual freedom which today we take so dangerously for granted. And to the predictable outrage of the sophists in the academy he shows how America has become the highest embodiment of this "spirit" at play and the effective guardian and protector of our freedom.
Yet he is not arguing for a unicultural world. Mr. Harris's "Americanism" is the acquisition of that "team spirit" which changes every culture but does not make all cultures the same. As I once wrote myself Every country finds its own way to pretend to Americanize. They think Americanism is an outward form an empty shell a garment to put on specifically jeans and tee-shirt where in fact Americanism is all inward and goes perfectly well with jacket-and-tie. They give up what they ought to hold on to and then don't take what they need.
America must teach them better and America's own leaders might well start by reading Lee Harris attentively.
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