Tuesday, April 1

Tom Doctoroff and the last man standing

Sometime between reading Tom Doctoroff's assurance that he was "raised with an unshakable belief in the righteousness of Western values," his explanation that the Chinese are a morally relativistic lot, and his argument that a boycott of the 2008 Olympics would be not only "culturally tone deaf" but also a rejection of the "aspirations of 1.3 billion Chinese souls," Mrs Wang flashed into my mind.

Actually I don't know what she looks like, but I saw a 60ish Chinese woman stoutly asking an official who had overseen the destruction of her village if he had any humanity at all.

I think it misses the mark to observe that Doctoroff's analysis of the Chinese is racist to the point of dehumanizing. And it's facile to simply dismiss him as a Madison Avenue type gone berserk, as someone who lost his moral compass in China while pursuing a career in advertising.

A moral compass presupposes conscience and the sum of Doctoroff's arguments suggests he never had a moral compass to begin with. He was raised and educated to all the right words -- liberty, justice, human rights -- but the capacity to grasp their essence, the impulse that accords them a value worth defending, is missing or so small it cannot make its whisper heard above the din of earning a buck.

There is an old argument about whether conscience is inborn or whether it must be taught, or whether a person can naturally develop it during the course of living. I've taken different views of the argument at different times, which is to say I can't make a meaningful contribution to the discussion.

Yet I'm quite firm in the understanding that without a developed conscience, without the ability to ponder deeply on whether one's deeds do harm, it's easy to develop a interchangeable value system in which, say, respect for human life is shuffled to mean respect for cultural differences.

If you tell me I've let an advertising guy spook me, well, the last words in Doctoroff's essay were to warn that a boycott of the Olympics would "destabilize the 21st century."

I don't know of an intellectual defense of capitalism that views state control of all property rights as compatible with free markets. But Doctoroff wants us to accept that the 21st century is to be greatly defined by a communist dictatorship in control of capital markets.

So I'll tell you what has me spooked. It's that Doctoroff sees nothing strange in his argument. Yet one cannot love capitalism and love communism in the same breath. To see this, to understand this, is to realize why it's not blighting the aspirations of 1.3 billion people to draw the line at attending games in China that were born in the crade of democracy.

Thinking all these thoughts caused me to recall one of the earliest essays I wrote for this blog, although there is something about Tom Doctoroff's views that make the terrorists I mention in the essay seem almost childishly primitive in their evil.

The terrorists used chemical means to suppress the workings of conscience, but Doctoroff operates on a plane so detached from conscience that he would find the need to suppress it as the mark of an amateur.

Yet the roads traveled by men such as Tom Doctoroff and the terrorists always end at the very same place, the place of The Last Man Standing:

December 2004

I, in America, listening to John Batchelor in Jerusalem talk with Robert Alter in Wales. They are discussing Alter's work to translate The Five Books of Moses. With millions sitting by the radio and hanging on every word, Alter is discussing -- a word. "Seed" to be exact.

How to get at the essence of what Hebrew scholars were trying to convey thousands of years ago? How to intuit what Alter terms "a little puffy cloud of abstraction," the significance the scholars attached to the word "seed" in writing about The Flood?

I scribble notes and ponder. For those of us awake to the scale of this war and the nature of the enemy it has become a duty to think hard on what is worth fighting to defend.

I remember overhearing my father ask my mother, "How could a country that produced Bach and Beethoven produce Hitler?" Of course it was a rhetorical question but small children don't understand the meaning of rhetoric.

It took me a few decades to work it out, but the answer to my father's question is that civilization is not self-perpetuating. It takes a conscious decision on the part of many people, a constant effort to be guided by conscience, a determination to struggle against barbarity.

Adolf Hitler was explicitly aware of that point although I didn't know it until I read an essay by Aisha Siddiqa Qureshi titled, Liberal America, Europe Slowly Rebelling Against The Values Required For Civilized Existence. Qureshi observes:
In his writings, Hitler clearly said that he is a barbarian who wants to express his primal instincts and Judaism says he can't. For him ... the concept of conscience [is] "a Jewish invention; it is a blemish, like circumcision ... I am freeing man from ... the dirty and degrading self-mortifications of a false vision known as conscience and morality."
I don't know how much stock to put in Qureshi's thesis that "people are and have always been willing to hate the Jews [because] they gave the world the concept of objective right and wrong."

And I think most who are prejudiced against Jews are not well-informed enough about Jewish theology to think about them at the level Hitler did. But Hitler and his circle certainly understood that to take control of ideas of right and wrong, they had to suppress attention to conscience. Can that really be done on a widescale basis?

Patrick K. O'Donnell, who was embedded with the Marines during the Battle of Fallujah, reported to John Batchelor last week that the Marines found many used syringes in the rubble. They also found vials of adrenaline and caches of cocaine.

That explains how the enemy is able to wire his own wounded with explosives, wire himself with explosives, and remain in a fighting posture even when surrender is clearly not dishonor. The jihadi warrior in Iraq is a druggie. He arrives at the gates of his imagined paradise stoned out of his skull.

So yes, it's possible to condition or drug a person into not referencing the dictates of conscience. The catch is that it's not possible to forge a civilization with such people. That's because the bedrock of human society is the ability to put oneself in the place of another. That ability is conscience.

If not for conscience there could be no civilization -- not even primitive tribal societies. For society to exist people must be able to ask themselves, "How would I feel, if this were done to me?" when they contemplate murder.

So Hitler spoke nonsense in saying he could both create an Aryan civilization and destroy conscience. One can't have it both ways. But of course the Nazis knew this. That is why they had to keep conquering, in the way a junkie has to steal more and more to support his addiction. It was the only way to keep the illusion going that it's possible to do anything you damn well please to others and suffer no great consequence.

It is the same for the present enemy and his talk of an Islamic civilization. At their core the Nazis and Islamic terrorists are a murder-suicide cult. Last man standing shoots himself.

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