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Avoidant Polity Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment

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.

Reader Discussion

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on April 11, 2016 at 11:33:29 am

Does Obama have his head in the sand ostrich-style, or does he parse his language out of sympathy for the other side?

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Mark Pulliam
on April 11, 2016 at 12:38:08 pm

What is equally notable, and, given the short incumbency remaining, perhaps more important, is the perception inferred of the **public** on the part of this transient "elite" by what they see "fit" to show or report; and how; to create what effects - to what ends.

Just how does this transient elite, gestating for 7 years, perceive the **public**? Elections have consequences - and the generation of these perceptions is among them.

We have here an example of the points of Martin Gurri's latest work, "The Revolt of the Public."

The immediacy of available information through digital and electronic technologies, rapidly exposes such efforts on the part of any elite disclosing how that elite regards the public. Now, the public reacts on the grounds of full information, which the elite might prefer to withhold. That preference to withhold sets the character of the elite for the public.

It has just become more and more difficult to get away with more and more stuff that can bring home to people what the elite really are and what their objectives are.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 11, 2016 at 13:31:46 pm

So what happens when we combine the "ostrich-in-the sand" with the new digital information phenomenon?

We end up exposing the upended *rump* of the polity (not just the elites).

Thus, The Trumpster, who I am told has an affinity for a rounded (or roasted) rump! quite the opportunist, ain't he?

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gabe
on April 11, 2016 at 15:29:35 pm

Mr. Schweitzer, just out of curiosity, are you the R. Richard Schweitzer referred to in Garner v Wolfinbarger, 430 F2d 1093 (5th Cir. 1970)?

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djf
on April 11, 2016 at 19:30:24 pm

djf,

Yes, I am that person.

However, whatever views you may have read of that case, many recite incorrect, incomplete or assumed "facts."

Basically, trained in ethical duties under the laws of Virginia, it was my duty NOT to disclose the communications made to me by the corporation through the agencies of its officers - and, more importantly, mine to them. Unfortunately, I could not give counsel to the corporation involved [it was represented by Robert Vance, later murdered in his role as a Federal Judge, whom I had selected, under the duties assigned to me when the corporation was in Judicial Administration.

That case of "corporate client privilege" turned upon the precedent of an English membership case to the effect that the members not the organization were the "client." In this case, the communications sought had occurred before there were any public stockholders, during which a public offering was being considered. However, I could not point that out, since it was the client's decision to make.

When I informed the Judge (Clarence Allgood) that I would not testify (the Court had taken custody of my files), his word were: "Oh, I wouldn't worry , son. They'll likely appeal anyway." Instead the Judicial Administrator waived the privilege.

Long answer?

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 12, 2016 at 13:45:37 pm

Thanks that's an illuminating perspective on the case not available from the Fifth Circuit's decision. As you may know, the fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege, for which Garner is one of the first authorities in the US, is not recognized in all states to this day.

Anyway, I extend to you, as my elder brother at the bar, my best wishes.

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djf
on April 13, 2016 at 17:49:11 pm

Nobody seriously foresees a future in which ISIS governs Manhattan.

Which is why I’ve shorted real estate there.

And I’ve already got my tickets to Hamilton. But I expect ISIS will let Book of Morman continue to run.

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.

Oh please.

1. Obama declined to lend his prestige to amplify the deeds of terrorists. Good for him.
Weiner claims that the best thing for Obama to do would be to let the terrorists dictate the president’s behavior because, as Weiner says, this situation “was not routine and that the conflict is urgent—not merely geostrategically but in terms of the battle of ideas.”

Precisely what ideas did the bombings place in dispute? I fail to see the intellectual content of that action.

Here’s the moral: No, this is routine. This is the new normal. Israelis long ago reconciled themselves to the fact that homicidal jerks will be homicidal jerks. Nevertheless, Israelis realize that they're more likely to die of cancer than of terrorism, and you can’t live your life in a bomb shelter.

People used to live in terror of their microwave ovens, too. Yup, they posed a new risk. Those risks remain, but now we’ve gotten used to them. We need to reconcile ourselves to the risks of terrorism, too. We don’t need to deny the risks; we just need to keep them in perspective with all the other risks of contemporary life.

2. Could Obama make a careful parsing of “Islamic” and “Islamist”? Sure. And the ISIS propaganda machine would then proceed to trash that parsing and crank out a million YouTube videos splicing clips of Obama’s edited words combined with Bush declaring that the West is on a crusade. And volunteers would come pouring in.

Because, as Weiner is so kind to remind us, symbols matter.

What Weiner is less keen to remind us is that we are not the sole audience who hears Obama’s words, and some parts of that audience are more prone to be influenced than others. So Obama declined to pander to Weiner’s wishes. And this will alter Weiner’s behavior – how? Not at all. So, given a choice between acting in a manner that displeases, but does not influence, Weiner, or in a manner that motivates young people to flock to ISIS’s banner, which choice should Obama take? Doesn’t seem like a difficult call to me.

3. And this:

We do not have a problem with Christian terrorism…. We do have a problem with Islamist terrorism.

Could you provide a list of abortion clinics attacked by Islamic terrorists? Because I’m not acquainted with any. I only wish I could say the same about Christian terrorists.

4. That said, I quite agree that the US government suffers from an inability to confront reality.

The Republican Party has long espoused crazy policies without any concern for their unworkability because the policies were not ever intended to be implemented. But now we have a generation of Tea Party/Trump supporters who feel betrayed by the failure to have these unworkable policies implemented. Ted Cruz’s major fault, from the view of the Republican establishment, is that he refuses to engage in many of the hypocrisies that have been the cornerstone of Republic politics. Like many Republicans, Cruz says he’ll do anything in his power to reverse Obamacare, including shutting down the government, and that all abortions should be outlawed. But unlike most Republicans, he means it.

Alas for Cruz, the public that rallies to his side when he makes his speeches then recoils in horror when the consequences of these policies come to play. In short, the public’s aversion to conflict is the source of much of our bad politics. The Republican establishment has spent decades learning to navigate these duplicitous waters – and knows full well that Cruz’s honesty will merely sink the Republican ship of state. It is less clear that Cruz knows this.

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nobody.really
on April 14, 2016 at 11:15:09 am

" Israelis long ago reconciled themselves to the fact that homicidal jerks will be homicidal jerks."

Yes, BUT:

The Israelis, and certainly Bibi, do NOT mince words. They are pretty clear about what they confront, what the nature of their enemy is. while they recognize that terrorism is, as you say, *routine*, they do make serious efforts to confront it. Perhaps, this may have something to do with their willingness to call an Islamist and Islamist! - even while recognizing that calling them so will make no difference in the disposition / thinking of the Islamist terrorists.

"in a manner that motivates young people to flock to ISIS’s banner,"

Same here!

It would appear that even if one were to "acknowledge" or, perhaps, accommodate, the *sensibilities of our young terrorist friends, one would be permitting them to dictate our responses. Your reasoning re: "flocking to", of course, assumes that the principal reason that one flocks to terrorism is the insensitive dialogue of Western leaders. Quite an assumption, I would say! Nobody really believes this - not even the terrorists themselves; but it does serve a convenient political purpose for the left. Ultimately we end up with the now infamous video that *caused* Benghazi.

So it would seem that nobody really wants us to accept a modification of our behavior based upon a flawed (if politically convenient) understanding of causation.

Fact is, dialogue and subsequent response may be spun either way!
Ultimately, one is left with a choice. Should one speak truth or should one accommodate the distorted perceptions of one's enemies.

It appears that nobody (in the current administration) really wants to confront this:

BTW: How many Christian terrorists are roaming around out there - blowing up trains, airplanes, buses and randomly beheading people. Let's cut with the moral equivalence. To continue to do so indicates an inability to confront reality.

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gabe
on April 14, 2016 at 11:38:14 am

Oops! Forgot:

BTW2: How many Christian *Mullahs* are issuing fatwas supporting violent action(s) against innocent targets?
When was the last time you heard of a fatwa in support of *jihad* issued from the Chancery on Park Avenue?
How many seek to justify such action based upon their *sacred* texts?
Would you take Aquinas' approach or Khomeini's?

So, indeed, let us "confront reality" - moral equivalence leads to, no, DEMANDS, willfully erroneous policy and outcomes!

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gabe
on April 14, 2016 at 12:36:38 pm

How many Christian *Mullahs* are issuing fatwas supporting violent action(s) against innocent targets?

Apparently you've missed Trump's exhortation for the use of torture and reprisals against the families of terrorists.

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nobody.really
on April 14, 2016 at 13:00:51 pm

How many Christian terrorists are roaming around out there – blowing up trains, airplanes, buses and randomly beheading people.

Depends on your timeframe. Looking at the past century, certainly the Klan was pretty bad. The Nazi's had issues with Jews that seemed problematic. The Troubles in Ireland provoked a lot of bad behavior. The behavior of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians lead to the death of 80 people. Less violently, members of various religious sects (Christian Scientists, etc.) espouse withholding medical assistance from their kids, leading to uncounted deaths of these innocent 3d parties. And then, there are the anti-abortion terrorists.

But, fair enough, I don't recall that any of them engaged in beheadings specifically.

That said, I don't know of anyone discussing "moral equivalence" but you. Weiner said, "We do not have a problem with Christian terrorism...." Anyone making such a statement is blind to many things. I surmise what he means is that HE doesn't have a problem with Christian terrorism, and that people who do have these problems are beneath his concern. You can list the harms posed by Islamic terrorist all day long, yet I don't see how that list in any way erases the problems posed by Christian terrorists. If you can show me how documenting a beheading by an Islamist somehow undoes an assault on an abortion clinic by a Christian terrorist, I'd be fascinated to see it.

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nobody.really
on April 14, 2016 at 13:01:37 pm

Heck, I didn't know that THE TRUMPSTER was an ordained minister. Then again, I am told that one can easily be certified as a minister on the internet. What the hay!!!, THE TRUMPSTER has somehow managed to get himself certified as a viable candidate for the Presidency - so anything is possible - maybe he is a "mullah"

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gabe
on April 14, 2016 at 20:47:59 pm

"I don’t know of anyone discussing “moral equivalence” but you"

Really?

Perhaps you answered the question yourself:

"If you can show me how documenting a beheading by an Islamist somehow undoes an assault on an abortion clinic by a Christian terrorist, I’d be fascinated to see it."

Do the math! How often does one encounter reports of Islamist perfidy? It is, as you say, * ROUTINE*

What makes the fringe Christian (and BTW not all such attacks have been by "christians") noteworthy is the relative rarity of the occurrence, is it not? Does this happen on a daily basis?
Does the Pope condone it / advance it as a proper course of Christian engagement with the world?
Do the local Cardinals and Bishops (Catholic, Anglican, etc) support this?
May it be said to be a part of current Christian dogma / teaching?

Do the various Christian sects "dance in the streets" and celebrate the death of innocents?
Does the Church offer monetary rewards to those who engage in such brutal and vicious slaughter?

Any *fair* reviewer of the circumstances must surely conclude that it is not!

Nobody. really is supporting moral equivalence, now are they?

Mirrors are funny things. I gaze into one each morning and after six plus decade I wonder whose face I am shaving. Mirrors offer surprises when one gazes into them.

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gabe

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