Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Review of the Film "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and a Consideration of the Ideas of Liah Greenfeld

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) PosterThe Reluctant Fundamentalist, a film by Mira Nair, attempts to accomplish a great deal. Fundamentalism, which trails behind it the threat of terror and violence, is a crucial issue in our age. Nair’s film attempts to deal with issues surrounding fundamentalism by following the life of a young Pakistani. In doing so, the film attempts to pack a great deal into a two-hour story. Essentially, a young, bright Pakistani comes to the US to attend Princeton University. He graduates with honors, and is hired by a McKinsey-like company in New York City. He meets and beds a young artist, and then when it, when it seems like he’s on top of the world, 9/11 happens.

After 9/11, of course, things change drastically for him. He becomes the subject of airport searches and an unjustified arrest and interrogation. (The facts of the arrest and interrogation scenes struck me as over the top—or am I naïve?—given the utter lack of probable cause  and the sophistication of the protagonist depicted in the film, but this is endemic to the film itself). Returning to Pakistan, the young man begins to teach at Lahore University and becomes identified with radical views in the eyes the local CIA contingent. In the end, (spoiler alert), our young man rejects two types of fundamentalism: both the religious fundamentalism that leads to terrorism and violence, and the fundamentalism that the CIA and others deploy in their own Manichean worldview.
The film as well acted, well directed, and as I mentioned, except for perhaps trying to pack too much into the script, it was a decent storyline that explored some of the difficulties and challenges that such a young man would face.

Liah GreenfeldImmediately before seeing this movie, I happened to read a blog entry by Liah Greenfeld. She’s a professor of Sociology, Political Science, and Anthropology at Boston University. (I found her piece on the website for Project Syndicate, which carries blogs by a wide variety of academics and intellectuals across a broad spectrum of issues.) In her entry, Prof. Greenfeld talks about the Boston bombers and their motivations in terms of her recently published book Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (Harvard University Press, 2013) that argues an interesting hypothesis about not only the roots of terrorism, but also how the entire Modern Age affects us all. After reading the blog entry, I discovered and reviewed her personal website, her blog, and the blog she writes for Psychology Today. Her Psychology Today blog sets out the premises of her book in a continuing series of entries.
Greenfeld’s initial hypothesis starts with the growth of nationalism beginning in Tudor England in the 1500s, when the death and disruption caused by the War of the Roses created opportunities for unprecedented social mobility. This social mobility, along with new understanding of sovereignty, led to the rise of nationalism. From England, the idea passed to France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and around the world. Her second book, The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth (2003) argues that capitalism arose not because of the Protestant Ethic (Weber) or some unique event or asset in the West, but because the idea of economic growth, as opposed to the mere accumulation of wealth, became a touchstone of nationalist thinking in the rivalry between the nation-states of Europe. 

Her most recently published book (Mind, Modernity, Madness) argues that the views of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, two of the pillars of sociology and political economy, give us insight into what has happened in our modern world. From Durkheim, she pulls the concept of anomie, the idea that modern society cuts us loose and leaves us adrift from many of the traditional ties that moor our identity and self-concept, leaving us adrift in the modern world. From Weber, although she dismisses, as do most scholars now, his thesis that the Protestant Ethic was the guiding idea of capitalism, she nevertheless takes the premise that an idea or ideas were in fact the motive force behind this world-changing events that led to capitalism and modernity. (In this regard, she seems very close to what Deirdre McCloskey is arguing in her books, including The Bourgeois Dignity, although McCloskey apparently differs to some extent based upon the brief references to Greenfeld's work in Bourgeois Dignity.) 

In Mind, Modernity, Madness, Greenfeld argues that the most difficult and intractable of modern mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, are primarily diseases of the mind and not of the brain, contrary to the current trend of contemporary thinking. She believes that individuals thrown into the modern condition often cannot cope with the challenges foisted upon them, and as a result, some suffer these illnesses. This thesis attracts me because I believe that for a long time now that we can’t account for all mental illnesses through biology alone. Some mental illness is without question solely of biological origin, but others have too much of a social-cultural component among antecedents and symptoms to allow us to look at biology alone. 

Let me share an example. Suppose someone is around the corner and you’re not aware that the other person is there. You turn the corner and confront the person. If you are not expecting that person, you are startled. If you thought you were alone in a house, for instance, you are likely quite frightened. The moment you see the person and react, we can record a number of biological changes that occur almost instantaneously. Your face reveals a startled expression, your shoulders hunch, your hands raise, while internally, your body is immediately flooded with adrenaline. Now, for our little thought experiment, let’s assume that we have a medical team present to draw a blood sample and do a quick check of your body. They report that you have extraordinarily high adrenaline in your blood, and your muscles are strongly flexed. So what to do? “Well, we can prescribe a medication to help you relax to counter-act the flood of adrenaline, and while we’re at it, a muscle relaxant”, says the good doctor standing by. So what was your diagnosis? Excess adrenaline in the blood and tight muscles, some would say. True. In addition, our medical team tells you that the excess adrenaline can be treated with prescription medication X. “Your problem,” they say, “is excess adrenaline”. You need to get that under control and you’ll be just fine”. Of course, there’s an alternative way to look at the diagnosis and an alternative way to look at the cause. I say, “Your mind has deceived you; the figure that you feared was your husband, who had been working quietly in the other room unbeknownst to you”. It’s a matter much like the story of the rope mistaken for a snake in a dark room. Our mind deludes us and causes us anxiety. Both of the explanations are true from their unique perspectives, but one, unless you’re into Big Pharma, presents a lower cost, more effective way to deal with the problem: let Mother Nature run her course and put a bell around your husband’s neck. 

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that I find Greenfeld’s perspective very persuasive with many practical applications. Whether schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and major depression are in fact essentially one disease, diseases of the mind unique to the Modern Age, I can’t posit with authority since this type of conclusion remains far above my pay grade. However, to take a side, I’d take hers. People who do and say things while hallucinating that we consider “weird” or “crazy” do so within their language and culture. Someone may believe himself to be Jesus or Napoleon if he lives in Europe, but probably not in India, where perhaps one would imagine oneself as Rama, or some other god. People may say or do “crazy” things, but they do so within a language and a culture. Per Greenfeld and me (for what the latter is worth), even the “crazy” behavior and its cause is at least in part because of culture and society. 

I’m eager to explore Greenfeld’s trilogy in more detail when I can get the books (too big to enjoy reading on the Kindle). I’m eager to continue exploring fundamentalism and the Modern Age. I think more than one scholar (Karen Armstrong pops to mind) has argued persuasively that fundamentalism is a disorder of modernity. I suspect that religion is a carrier of the real disorder and not the cause: like rats and fleas spreading the Black Death, the root cause is anomie and a feeling of social uncertainty and belittlement that latches on to religion (Judaism Christianity, Islam, Hindu, etc.) to serve as a carrier. A particular religion provides a ready-made story that can be bent to justify the feeling of a need to change the world and to right the injustices and wrongs experienced, even if the change requires wanton violence. (See this review of Reza Aslan’s How to Win a Cosmic War about how this virus ranges across the three great monotheistic religions.) 

I think that Greenfeld’s hypothesis as it applies to terrorism as we just witnessed it in Boston fits with the ideas of Scott Atran as well (see my review here). Before learning of Greenfeld’s work, I found Atran the most persuasive writer that I’d read on this topic, but I think that Greenfeld provides a more comprehensive perspective, which, by the way, also apples to acts of domestic terror (if we don’t limit terrorism to random violence that purports to have some political motive). Atran is good at identifying how small social groups reinforce norms that lead to acts of terror, but he doesn’t as effectively address what I think are the underlying issues of social or status dislocation that are behind these acts. I think Greenfields’s work gives us the more comprehensive viewpoint. Thus, the way I currently understand Greenfeld, she would not see a significant underlying difference between the Boston bombers, or the Newtown shooter; between jihadist acts of terror or those of the Oklahoma City bombers or the Branch Davidians.

The question I have for Greenfeld is that violent apocalyptic movements have been around for a very long time, certainly going back to biblical times; the Middle Ages are full of millennial movements. How do we distinguish such actions in the Modern Age from their pre-modern precursors?

Understanding how social and cultural factors influence and create acts of violence or dislocation is crucial for our ability to try to counteract these trends. Understanding the pressures as portrayed in a film like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, or as analyzed in Greenfeld’s book, are both sources that we must use to try to come to a deeper understanding. In my own opinion, in a society so concerned with economics and economic growth, we tend to focus far too much on material incentives as the primary driver of human action. While certainly significant, a deeper understanding of human motivations is called for. The passions are probably more important than the interests. People like René Girard are among those who try to take a deeper look at what is going on. Even going back to Thucydides, we see a more complex understanding of human motivation than what many of us have come to believe of late. Simple pain and pleasure are insufficient to understand the complexity of human motives. The human individual, by herself or himself, makes no sense unless we take into account the mirrors of society and culture. (This concluding metaphor comes from the serendipity of currently re-reading Robert Pirsig’s Lila.)

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