The late night conversation we taped seven years ago but never published continues. I apologize for teasing you about his evolving views on the Iraq War earlier today. That comes later in the early morning after a few more Johnnie Walker Blacks. We’ll get there soon. This is still a conversation about religion and totalitarianism:
A: The last four years, or five years — the last ten years, I could say, more generally — to any believing Christian, observant Christian, like myself, have been a sort of reading period in the dangers of religion. I don’t think in my lifetime this has ever been clearer, to any observer, in world history, for a very long time, how dangerous this is. When was the last time we had this kind of religious terror?
H: We’re not now speaking just of Christianity’s fanatics.
A: No, we’re not, we’re talking about Islam.
H: Just when people had begun to think that the age of totalitarian ideology had gone, the idea of the one leader, the one supreme…
A: The one truth.
H: …the one truth, the one party—just when one thought one had left that all behind…
A: It comes back like Glenn Close out of the bathtub.
H: I once did a calculation:
I was in Romania in 1989 and in Hungary, at the end of communism. I saw the end of Ceausescu. I thought, “Alright, that’s it, in Europe anyway — but it seemed globally — the idea of the absolute leader, the absolute party, the undisputable truth is over. And maybe our future will be a little bit banal. I remember reading the Fukuyama stuff and thinking, probably true, but a little tedious.
A: I could live with it. I could absolutely live with it.
H: How bad is the idea of, you know, essentially a market economy and essentially a political pluralism? You know, as someone who had once had utopian opinions…I didn’t feel pumped up by it but I thought, “hmm, doable.” And people talked about at that stage, “the peace dividend” — remember that expression?
A: I do.
H: “Now think of all the money we’ve been spending on the Cold War, we don’t have to spend it anymore, on the weaponry. Think, furthermore, which we now can, on the better uses for it; the long neglected crisis in Africa, the problem of AIDS, the general problem of poverty and degradation and of failure of other societies to have caught up with whatever we want to call it. The market-pluralist model, at a minimum. We have all these chances now!”
That, I calculated once, I don’t remember how many days it went on, but I think it was 120 days of this illusion. Not very long before Slobodan Milosevic invaded Bosnia — we’d overlooked this little dictator in the Balkans — and Saddam Hussein abolished the existence of Kuwait; not invaded it, as some people say, but annexed it and said, “a member state of the United Nations, of the Arab League and the Islamic Conference no longer exists, it belongs to me personally, and my crime family.” Ah, how interesting!
A: Yes, but two mafia bosses, one in the Balkans and one in Iraq, do not make a new wave of ideology.
H: No, they don’t, but both of them were supported by their local religious authorities, in Milosevic’s case the Orthodox Church and in Saddam’s case by at least the Sunni ulema in Baghdad. And while all this was going on, and we were confronting it, coming up on another track slightly to the outside, something that had been noticeable before ’89, but had become actually noticeable on February 14th of that year — the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by the theocratic head of a foreign state offering money in his own name for the murder of a novelist in England — became an aspect of this, too.
H: And an extra totalitarian ideology suddenly became very menacing and, without us paying anything like enough attention, took over at least one state, namely Afghanistan and probably Sudan as well.
A: Does that make one, in some ways, more aware of the fact that maybe human beings want this? They can’t live without it? The possibility of the daily ordeal of consciousness, of figuring out what the hell one’s life means and what the world is, is not as attractive to many people as surrendering to some ideology or some dictatorship or some mass movement. In other words, since we have not had a period of global history since the French Revolution, really, in which something like this hasn’t been abroad in the world, is it not simply a permanent fact of the human condition?
H: Well, if one stops talking about that immediate period, I remember there was a very old anarcho-socialist slogan that says, “the problem is not the will of some people to command. It’s the will of so many people to obey.”
H: And that there is, in some sense, an innate capacity in human mammals, human primates, to be wished to be told what to do. To be asked to be given security in that form. And of course there are people in countries like Iraq or Serbia — and it would be true of anywhere else —
A: And here, for God’s sake.
H: —who, if they were asked, if offered the chance to help themselves to the treasure and property of a helpless neighbor will say, “well, how bad could that be?” That’s, yes, that will always be a problem. But the recrudescence of the totalitarian idea in that period made me realize that there was, apart from the general fact that we are a poorly evolved mammalian species — we prove that every day without being totalitarian or without being rapists or conquerors or fascists — a specific, locatable problem which has preoccupied me ever since. Namely that all of these regimes — Saddam Hussein’s regime is very sectarian, based on a minority of a Sunni minority; Milosevic’s regime was based on a Serbian Orthodox minority trying to kill Muslims in Bosnia; and al-Qaeda’s friends in the Taliban in Afghanistan hated, probably more than anything else, the Shi’a, and acted accordingly in butchering them as you can tell by seeing what happened to the Hazara population in Afghanistan. Or, to move it outside the world of Islam, to the Bamiyan statues, the Helleno-Buddhist sculptures of Afghanistan’s antiquity. But for all these discrepancies between and among themselves they have absolutely one thing in common: visceral loathing of the United States. For its pluralism, for its secularism…
A: For its constitution, primarily, right? They can’t dislike America for its religious principles.
H: No, it is done, people do say, “ah well, because George Bush believes in God he’s as much of a theocrat as Osama bin Laden,” let’s leave all that crap to one side. No, I think one would also have to say for its hedonism. Not only is [the US] a dominant power in the world, and a global force…
A: But it’s enjoying it too much.
H: Yeah, it’s having such a good time it barely notices how other people live. By the way, I think that’s a very powerful force of resentment. But it’s phrased by these people as, “well [the US] is
basically run by a load of Jews and dykes and faggots and entertainment moguls and heartless tycoons. A sort of Brechtian parody of an opulent, plutocratic state.