The Liberal Institute

David Kelley, Modernist Culture, and the Islamist Threat

In many ways, David Kelley's May 2002 monograph The War on Modernity is a perceptive, incisive, brilliant, 4000-word essay. There doesn't seem to be anything else in the current proto-liberal universe -- the Objectivist, libertarian, and Austrian universe -- that can touch it. Professor Kelley offers a rich, wide-ranging, nearly complete, philosophical analysis of the West's "war on terror." The only analytical writing to compare to it is his de facto companion piece, The Party of Modernity, issued 18 months later.

Mr. Kelley properly mentions Francis Fukuyama and his "end of history" thesis, as well as Samuel Huntington and his "clash of civilizations" thesis. He refers to Islamic expert Bernard Lewis plus influential Islamist intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). And he considers such recent, popular, illiberal thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Oswald Spengler, and Michel Foucault. Kelley seems to have read and understood them all, and placed them in the proper historical and intellectual context. This is not a quick or easy feat! (Still, one could quibble, and ask Where are Ibn Warraq, Daniel Pipes, and Objectivist Muslim Irfan Khawaja?)

One problem, however, with this cultural survey of the post-9/11 world lies with Kelley's use of the word "modernity." This term, as least as he uses it, is idiosyncratic enough that it isn't found in any of today's popular encyclopedias, or even philosophical ones. Thus it stands in great contrast to "the Middle Ages," "the Renaissance," and "the Enlightenment," as an accepted historical/intellectual period. In popular parlance, the word "modernity" refers mainly to a type of post-1870 art and architecture, plus a bit of literature and literary theory.

The strongest case for the propriety of this term -- which Kelley's Objectivist Center uses a lot -- can probably be found in the popularity and intellectual acceptance of a kind of opposing term: "post-modernism." Kelley's use of this word can be defended based on an admittedly profound need for some term and concept to successfully oppose post-modernism. The word can also be defended based on the special way he seems to define it: the culture of Enlightenment liberalism with its consequent universal values and concomitant life-styles. It also has to be noted that many or even most modern intellectuals use "modernity," especially in the post-9/11 era, in almost exactly the way he does (albeit with much less understanding). So perhaps this term -- rather than "liberalism" as used by Von Mises, Hayek, and others -- is useful and proper.

Still, Kelley doesn't seem to understand that modernity, as he thinks of it, actually began in the classical period more than two millennia ago. He argues that modernity is:

"...the view that reason, not revelation, is the instrument of knowledge and arbiter of truth; that science, not religion, gives us the truth about nature; that the pursuit of happiness in this life, not suffering in preparation for the next, is the cardinal value; that reason can and should be used to increase human well-being through economic and technological progress; that the individual person is an end in himself with the capacity to direct his own life, not a slave or a child to be ruled by others; that individuals have equal rights to freedom of thought, speech, and action; that religious belief should be a private affair, tolerance a social virtue, and church and state kept separate; and that we should replace command economies with markets, warfare with trade, and rule by king or commissar with democracy."

But this rather narrow description is somewhat inaccurate, in part, because it refers to a specifically post-socialist (post-1848) world which didn't fully exist during the Enlightenment. And, as already stated, Kelley doesn't seem to take much into consideration just how much the supposed innovations of the Enlightenment were also found in the Greek and Roman periods. Almost certainly the best way to describe today's Islamists and their implicit supporters is as enemies of the common culture of Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment -- all four. And it certainly seems like the best term for these four historical and intellectual periods, and the culture thereof, is "Western liberalism." Thus today's "war on modernity" -- as Kelley's essay is entitled -- by the Muslim extremists and their Western intellectual allies is really a "war on liberalism."

In his monograph Mr. Kelley also doesn't state just how clearly and specifically the West is involved in a fight with Mohammed and Marx. Neither name shows up in the piece. Nor do the powerful ideologies of socialism/communism and plain old Islam. And yet these individuals and their derivative theories and ideals almost totally animate and guide the current menacing Muslim savages. It isn't abstract "anti-modernism" that they believe in, or explicitly clearly embrace. They love Islam, socialism, and the potent combination thereof; and so it seems like this should be mentioned and their respective philosophies attacked.

Kelley also doesn't mention how much today's immense West vs. Islam cultural antagonism and "war on terrorism" is a direct product of a practical, material, non-ideological phenomenon: the hundreds of billions of petro-dollars the West has simply given to Muslim dictators via "nationalization" these past 30-50 years. These stunning tyrants use these essentially stolen funds to horribly oppress and enslave their formerly semi-free Muslim citizens. Nor does Kelley mention how much the West continues to support and prop up these ghastly, miserable, slave states. These two reasons alone explain a great deal of his opening question: "Why do they hate us?" It isn't all a difference of philosophy.

Ironically enough, one big reason "the Muslim street" as well as intelligentsia hates the West is due to their high regard for of David Kelley's vaunted "modernity." The Muslims simply, and correctly, see the West as hypocritical and corrupt in its vast support for tyranny in the Islamic cultural world. And they are demanding that we change our ways. The status quo alternative to fulfilling this demand is that these slight freedom-lovers and minor civilization-lovers will sneak a nuclear device into Manhattan. So maybe we better change!

Muslims also greatly hate us and our poor version of modernity for a reason perhaps not readily apparent 3 1/2 years ago when Kelley's essay was a written: our general lawlessness and deep immorality with regard to Muslim POWs, including the open use of torture. This one fact alone probably causes the majority of the active, continued resistance by Muslim radicals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So David Kelley does misfire a few times in his exegesis of the Western "war on terror" and the Muslim-driven "war on modernity."

Still, and in general, this historical and intellectual monograph is reflective, balanced, insightful, and solidly reasoned. Kelley correctly points out how much this is a culture clash and conflict of philosophies. He unambiguously calls this thing a war on "civilization as such." Kelley accurately notes how much the Islamists oppose modernity's/liberalism's "universal values" and how "profoundly anti-human" they are. He also observes that the "anti-modernism" underlying Islam has many anti-modern intellectual roots and allies in the West -- some "pre-modern" some "post-modern." (All illiberal!) Philosopher David Kelley successfully identifies many important underlying intellectual ideas and ideals in this marvelously well-thought-out, eight-page monograph on today's external and internal post-9/11 culture wars.

KYREL ZANTONAVITCH is the director of
The Liberal Institute


I appreciate your generous praise for the article. Thanks for linking to it. Most of your critical points have to do with issues that I left out for reasons of space, so that I could focus on the essential philosophical roots of modernity and its opponents. For example, I agree that the conflict with Islamism is partly due to the amoral pragmatism of the US foreign policy in supporting tyrannies in the Middle East. But a) the US did not create those governments; they emerged from within the countries themselves, and are entirely consistent with the long tradition of authoritarian rulers in Islamic civilization -- indeed in virtually all civilizations since the first cities. b) Given the deep cultural roots of the Islamist movement, which extend back into the 19th century, I doubt that things would have been much different if we had had no presence in the Middle East. And c) the amoral pragmatism is itself a falling-off from liberal principles of statesmanship, influenced by 19th century anti-liberals as well as older thinkers like Machiavelli. In a longer article, it would be possible to incorporate these and similar points.