*Warning: throughout this piece, I will refer to Trump’s temporary ban on migrants from the 7 predominantly Muslim countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya as his ‘Muslim ban’. This is solely for ease of expression, and not meant to misrepresent the policy.
Today was going to be a good day. I was a little drowsy, but otherwise things were pretty peachy – I’d extracted a free breakfast from a generous relative, the birds were chirping pleasantly in the tree outside my window, and the cool change which my weather app had been predicting all week had finally blown on through.
Then along came Simon Cottee and took a big steaming dump on everything.
In case you haven’t read it already, here is Simon’s latest Atlantic article, the title of which is “Trump’s Travel Ban Will Not ‘Help’ ISIS Recruitment”.
Now the attentive reader is probably already wondering why Simon has placed inverted commas around the word ‘help’ in the title. Is he referring to some unusual or especially technical application of the word (i.e. are the inverted commas standing in for a phrase such as ‘per se’ or ‘strictly speaking’)? Is he being sarcastic? Or is this perhaps some clever in-joke that only he and his Wellesley College pals are privy to, and which we – if we read on – might have the privilege of being included in?
These are good guesses, dear reader, and a credit to your speculative faculties, but you are – regrettably – dead wrong. The inverted commas we encounter here, like so much else in the article, actually serve no purpose whatever beyond satisfying Simon’s raw, galloping whimsy. His real thesis is captured perfectly without them: that ‘Trump’s Travel Ban Will Not Help ISIS Recruit’.
It is clear that Simon feels strongly about this position, but – being as much a creature of logic as of passion – he is generous enough to supply us with the reasons why he feels the way he does. Unfortunately for Simon, his reasons are shit.
Let’s go through them.
His first qualm with what he terms “the conventional liberal wisdom” (i.e. that a Muslim travel ban will alienate Muslims at home and abroad, push more people into the arms of jihadists and, ultimately, make America less safe), is that this line of thinking dehumanizes Muslims. Such an argument, says Simon, implies that Muslims aren’t “thinking, reasoning individuals capable of agency” – it makes out that “your average Muslim doesn’t do anything … rather, things are done or happen to them; they are “pushed” or “driven” to extremes by forces beyond their control”.
Now this is a peculiar point for Simon to raise because – apart from anything else (and we’ll get to the else in a moment) – it has no bearing on whether or not his opponents are actually right. Even if he were correct (and he isn’t) that talk of U.S policy “driving” Muslims to action somehow dehumanized them, that still wouldn’t make such talk false – it would just make it offensive and possibly harmful. This is rather like defending yourself against a robbery charge on the grounds that it’s mean to call someone a thief, and that sending you to prison would break your mother’s heart.
Besides being irrelevant, though, Simon’s first point is also totally insane. Describing a person (or a group of people) as being “pushed” or “driven” into action is only dehumanizing if you hold a view of humans on which they (or at least their minds) are transcendental spirit-like entities totally isolated from the web of causal interactions that govern the rest of the universe. Only the most hard-core dualists – those who drunk too thirstily from the cup of Kant in their formative years – seriously subscribe to this view, and even they are happy to say things like “Seinfeld drives Sally into hysterics” with the understanding that Sally hasn’t thus been rendered a sub-human automaton. The reality, of course (sorry to any dualist readers), is that humans are actually highly predictable creatures whose actions are determined to a large extent, if not completely, by their brain states, their endocrine system, and their environment (which includes any U.S immigration policy they come into contact with, especially if it’s of an incendiary nature). Acknowledging this reality isn’t offensive; it’s just accurate.
This brings us to the second of Simon’s supposed slam dunks: that the aforementioned conventional wisdom links jihadist radicalization “exclusively to grievances over domestic and foreign policy”, when in fact radicalization is a much more complex and nuanced process.
Uh oh, wrong again Simon!
You don’t have to believe that radical jihadism is ‘exclusively’ the product of policy grievances in order to think that a Muslim ban would push more people towards such jihadism – you just have to think it’s one of the major contributing factors (which, as you note in almost all the articles you’ve written for The Atlantic over the past years, it is!).
It’s a lot like poorly thought through opinion pieces – they’re not the sole product of intellectual complacency (short deadlines and a desperate desire to seem like an edgy firebrand almost certainly play a role too), but it sure does help!
On to point three: that to believe a Muslim ban might radicalize more Muslims “displays a thundering insensitivity to the ironical and contradictory aspect of the whole ban”.
Simon seems dangerously close to repeating his earlier booboo here, since insensitivity to ‘ironical aspects’ (or ‘irony’ to us lay people) – much like insensitivity to dehumanizing language – doesn’t have anything to do with the truth or falsity of one’s claims. Happily for him, this isn’t actually the point he was trying to make at all (it’s just what his words meant in the order that he used them).
Simon’s real third point – as we discover when we read on – is that the liberal reaction to the Muslim ban (e.g. the critical commentary from leftist politicians, and the protest marches featuring Muslims and non-Muslims linking arms and chanting ‘kumbaya’) is such a powerful show of solidarity and tolerance that it outweighs the polarizing (and hence radicalizing) influence of the ban itself. To use Simon’s own words (I tried to use my own but I couldn’t make it sound even superficially plausible): “the ban has in fact been a poison chalice [to ISIS] … revealing not a satanic American face but a pacific and liberal one”.
If you squint with your mind’s eye, and are a few gins deep, you can almost see what Simon was thinking here. Just as the attack by a Muslim man on the Lindt Café in Sydney in 2014 (followed by a spate of Islamaphobic commentary online) caused people to band together against anti-Muslim feeling – spawning the viral #illridewithyou hashtag – Simon seems to think that Trump’s ban on Muslims might (or possibly already has) produced a similarly overwhelming counter-reaction against Islamaphobia in the U.S.
The difference, which should hardly need to be stated, is that the Islamaphobia which followed the Sydney café attack was the work of a few hundred – at most a few thousand – people in a country of millions. Trump’s Muslim ban, which he was painfully clear about all the way through his election campaign, effectively has the mandate of half the nation (yes I know it’s fractionally less than half, but the point still stands). This isn’t anonymous vitriol from a few twitter trolls; this has the imprimatur of the Oval Office. Even if only half of the people who actually voted for Trump supported the ban – and possibly there were many who opposed it, but who still thought he was the superior candidate all things considered – that’s still many millions more than participated in the Muslim solidarity marches.
This isn’t to say the liberal counter-movement in America must always or inevitably be fighting a losing fight – who knows, maybe it will gain traction and eventually undo the insidious effects of the ban – but rather to say that such an accomplishment would be immense indeed, and that the onus is on Simon (starry eyed Pollyanna that he is) to convince us that it will happen. Needless to say, he does not even attempt the task here.
Finally, we arrive at the “fourth and most serious blind-spot” which Simon’s keen intellect has detected in the conventional liberal wisdom: “the suggestion that [the ban] will make Americans less safe”, when what it really risks doing is “making American Muslims less safe”.
Now put aside the fact that the wording here seems to imply that American Muslims are somehow not Americans at all – this is just an artefact of Simon’s writing style, the poor thing; what he meant to say is that the ban’s main danger is the anti-Muslim sentiment it will stir up among members of the American far right (he points, for example, to the recent massacre at a mosque in Quebec).
You were doing so well – you almost made it all the way to the end of the article without making another totally irrelevant point.
Alas, not to be.
The fact that a Muslim ban will ALSO inflame anti-Muslim violence is, of course, no objection at all to the argument that it will help ISIS radicalize more jihadists. The two forms of extremism are not mutually exclusive; if anything they are symbiotic, with each feeding off the other. So perhaps we should deduct even more points from Simon, since he is now not just making arguments that are redundant, but is actually arguing against himself.
This is not even to mention the fact that his fourth point – that a Muslim ban threatens to “embolden the far right” into anti-Muslim acts of violence – dehumanizes the members of the political right in precisely the same way that he objected to with Muslims in his first point (perhaps he thinks reading Breitbart snuffs out the inner agent).
So there we have it: two arguments that are irrelevant, one that is simply wrong, and another which is as hopelessly optimistic as it is entirely unjustified. What does that add up to? Why, a place on the front page of one of the world’s most widely read news publications, of course.
Fuck you Simon.