Monday, February 15, 2010

The Poverty of Rationalism

Stephen Walt is a guy who probably shouldn't begin a blog post by admitting:
My copy of Mein Kampf sits on a shelf in my study...

But as I've taken pains to point out, Walt is an Israel-critical foreign policy realist; calling him an antisemite, as many do, is not only wrong but harmful. Walt ledes with this admission because he wishes to communicate his support for freedom of speech. He unfurls the truisms that bad ideas sink themselves in the marketplace of ideas, but censorship can plug holes in their hulls by conferring a mystique on them.

What I find interesting is this passage:
Books like Mein Kampf remind us that bizarre, incoherent, and hateful ideas can sometimes win over enough people to sway a nation and ultimately help lead to the deaths of millions. When you actually look at the the book, and read about the history of Nazism, it may be hard to believe that serious people in an advanced society could be persuaded by arguments of this sort. But they were.

Innumerable volumes have tried to crack the koan of what made ordinary Germans support the millenarian ideology of Nazism and genocide. There are a few rationalist theses based on the Versailles Effect and Marxist critiques of capitalism, but most analyses acknowledge a factor of irrationality -- an "unrealism" in German politics.

Walt concurs. He departs from his realist orthodoxy and admits that "hateful ideas" can become an engine of history, citing John Hagee as a possibly pending example. That's interesting, because in today's foreign policy debate, Walt bills himself as "a realist in an ideological age" -- i.e. the rational antipode to the idealistic neocons, who interpret the War on Terror as an epic battle between democratic good and totalitarian evil. In another, typical post, Walt writes:

... the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place... pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things... But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy."

Remarkably Walt is talking about Al Qaeda and other terrorists; he's not making the more standard appeal on behalf of the common people who may support them owing to Israeli violence. Maybe, as the unoriginality of Walt's piece on Mein Kampf suggests, the mandate to maintain a pulse of posts led him to publish without reflecting. But it's not a little weird that a commentator who acknowledges the irrationality of Nazi Germany has made a cottage industry out of depicting Islamists as rational actors -- that we might find an accommodation with them by lessening or breaking our alliance with Israel. Not to put too fine a point on it: Islamists often base their worldview on the insane belief that the Holocaust didn't happen.

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