An essential difference between civilization and barbarism is that civilized people conduct politics with words, a precondition of which is that words have objective meanings—they indicate this and not that—and that we are willing to articulate them. The most fundamental function of words is to make distinctions, among them this: We do not have a problem with Christian terrorism, nor with Jewish terrorism. We do have a problem with Islamist terrorism.
French President François Hollande knows this, and said so at the recent U.S.-hosted nuclear security summit, which statement was promptly scrubbed from the video of the event posted on the White House web page before being restored after the scrubbing was challenged. This is not Narcissistic Polity Disorder. It is Avoidant Polity Disorder.
If the former malady is a nation’s tendency to interpret global events as reactions to itself, Avoidant Polity Disorder’s symptoms (like the psychological disorder of similar etiology) include an unreasoning aversion to conflict, manifested politically as a reflexive evasion of clear language.
The administration’s evasion arises from a desire not to stigmatize Islam. Fair enough. Hollande took care to distinguish between “Islamic” and “Islamist,” one a religion and the other an ideology. That his phrase vanished, for an interval, from the White House video of the event indicates the lengths to which the administration will go to sidestep the application of an accurate word to an objective phenomenon. Yet what other word than “Islamist” would apply? Simply describing the phenomenon fuzzily as “terrorism” partakes of the same imprecision (“the war on terror”) that led to the adventures that President Obama is so determined, rightly, to avoid.
The incapacity to apply a clear word to an objective phenomenon is a characteristic symptom of Avoidant Polity Disorder. It also results in a kind of linguistic voluntarism according to which language is mutable and reality adaptable, a mode of communication through which republicanism is impossible.
To prosecute this conflict, or any other, a republic must share an understanding of basic distinctions. The administration has not ordered any drone strikes on people who espouse ideologies other than radical Islamism; we are engaged in a civilizational conflict with it and only it. That’s not to say an existential conflict. Nobody seriously foresees a future in which ISIS governs Manhattan. It is to say both ways of life cannot simultaneously be defensible and we had best get our heads wrapped around why ours is better.
This White House, of course, does think ours is better. And it does know that symbols matter, but its Avoidant Polity Disorder leads it to use them to obscure difference rather than to accentuate it. Consider the President’s decision to spend the afternoon of the ISIS attack on NATO’s host city of Brussels attending a baseball game in Havana. The symbol was the beat cop shuffling pedestrians past a crime scene—“move along, nothing to see here”—rather than the leader communicating urgency, distinction and command.
This was deliberate. President Obama did not want to disrupt his routine, he said, because the terrorists want us to disrupt our routines. This was a variation on a theme—“the terrorists have already won”—that nearly 15 years of overuse have worn thin. He approvingly invoked David Ortiz’s live-televised f-bomb of April 2013, which the Red Sox slugger dropped before a baseball game to affirm the continuance of normalcy after the Boston Marathon bombing. This is sort of comparable, except for the part about Ortiz not being President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces.
Obama has been right not to allow terrorists to dictate his policy toward ISIS, which may well be incapable of governing territory—in the mundane sense of powering the lights and hauling away trash—and may be trying to bait the West into a deeper conflict to justify itself and distract from its failings. And, to be sure, the traveling apparatus of the presidency keeps a mobile executive abreast of the latest developments, few of which Obama could immediately influence.
Yet the symbolic importance of the moment was precisely that it was not routine and that the conflict is urgent—not merely geostrategically but in terms of the battle of ideas. By persisting in the baseball game rather than, say, sending an emissary to the ballpark and having the President return to Washington to address the nation, the administration chose to send a message about normalcy instead.
It is a manifestation of Avoidant Polity Disorder to assume that disrupting routine would have conveyed panic. An address to the nation would have met the moment’s seriousness and urgency—not merely because radical Islamists present a danger but because we need to understand ourselves and our values better than we do, and distinctions are necessary to do so.
In fairness, the President defensibly opposes the adventurism of a strand of neoconservative foreign policy that is associated with rhetorical clarity. But just as he declines to allow ISIS to dictate military policy, he should not allow those with whom he disagrees to dictate his language. The danger is succumbing to a George Costanza foreign policy: “I will do the opposite”—the opposite of what the terrorists want; the opposite of what the neocons think.
The reality is that nothing about stating the threat of radical Islamism in plain terms would obligate the country to any specific strategy on the ground. Nor does speaking clearly about Islamism as an ideology, not a religion, incite terrorists, who are amply inflamed anyway. It does mean something for our own moral courage and moral clarity. What the civilized world needs is a call to embrace its own values. As a precondition, these need articulating.
The lack of clarity that is symptomatic of Avoidant Polity Disorder bespeaks a twofold fear. One is stigmatizing the mainstream of Muslims. Enough, already, of that: Either radical Islamists can be named as distinct from the mainstream, or Donald Trump can bulldoze his way into the semantic void and demagogue the issue to a following that is frustrated with obfuscation. Americans are entirely capable of hearing that we face a peril in radical Islamism without demonizing all Muslims; so, for that matter, are most Muslims without demonizing all Americans.
The other, more problematic fear, is that clear words would entangle the Commander-in-Chief in military action. Words can, to be sure, entangle if they are chosen imprecisely. Words should entangle when they are chosen precisely, which is also why—red lines in Syria come to mind—they should also be chosen prudently. In either case, the use of clear language should not be ceded to those with an overly active impulse toward military solutions. One can, with President Hollande, call ISIS radical Islamists, which they are and which is centrally relevant to understanding both them and ourselves, without staging a full-on invasion of their territory.
Such might be the beginning of self-understanding. It might also be the beginning of a useful therapy for Avoidant Polity Disorder, an affliction as serious as its narcissistic counterpart. A well-adjusted polity ought to be able to find a mean between locating itself at the permanent center and the permanent periphery of events.