TCS Daily

'Shouting Hoo, Hoo, Hoo at the Tops of Their Tongues'

By Robert McHenry - September 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Back in the 1960s and '70s the Harvard Lampoon occasionally put together a parody version of some mainstream (I almost wrote "legitimate") magazine, such as Cosmopolitan or Time or Playboy. If memory serves, there was always a letter to the editor from one Stephen Okpok of Jakarta, Indonesia. Mr. Okpok warned in his letter that soon the students would be running through the streets "shouting hoo, hoo, hoo at the tops of their tongues." This was amusing, and it was possible because it predated the era of indoctrination in cultural relativism that would soon render such humor utterly scandalous to the right-thinking.

One era's college humor is another's daily experience, apparently. With monotonous regularity crowds are to be seen running through the streets somewhere, shouting the usual things. I don't suppose "hoo, hoo, hoo" actually translates from Bahasa Indonesia or any other language used in the Muslim world as "kill the Pope" or "burn the churches," but it might as well. It might just as well also mean "death to Denmark" or "exterminate the Jews" or any of a hundred other exhortations whose religious content is, let us say, obscure to those of us limited by our Western ways.

These outbreaks of fervor and criminality - from riots in what are, let us be honest, for the most part out-of-the-way places, to the very real and devastating instances of terrorist violence that do affect us directly and tragically - these are only partly about religion. A particular kind of interpretation of Islam provides the content, not only the text but the pretext, for the movement that has been dubbed Islamism to distinguish it from the more benign expressions of that religion. But there are other sources, too, ones with which we are familiar if we can bring ourselves to say their names.

Adolescence. The students that Mr. Okpok warned us about away back when were probably more or less of the Muslim faith, but there was no suggestion that their actions were based in that fact. The key fact was that they were students: young, energetic, and, crucially, willing to pretend to be certain about their ideas no matter how uncertain they actually felt, and all the more motivated to act out because of that strain. Where in the world have we not seen such students, at one time or another? Cf. the Vietnam protests; the generation of '68 in France, and for that matter the generation of '06; the Seattle antiglobalists. I happened to be in college during the middle 1960s and at a fairly conservative school, so I was able to witness a remarkably smooth segue from panty raids to SDS marches. The injection of ideology killed much though not all of the fun, but it left the emotional exhilaration intact.

Cultural backwardness. It's hard to learn to be an adult in a complex, dynamic, and often contradictory culture such as the West has developed over the last three or four centuries. You pretty much have to begin at birth. It has been noted that a great many of the most notorious terrorists of late have been, not the despised of the earth, the desperately poor or downtrodden, but rather quite privileged products of the middle and upper classes of their societies. They have enjoyed, if that is the word, western educations, but they have not assimilated to the West. Quite the contrary. To become a trained engineer is simple compared to what is required to move easily and confidently in English or German or American society. And when one begins to feel a failure at that, one is apt not simply to go home but to nurture one's hurt into resentment and then hatred.

The global trade in goods that is supposed to leverage each country's competitive advantage to the benefit of all finds that some countries are so undeveloped as to have little or no advantage to offer. What they do have, what every backward society has in place of law, is entrenched interests. It may be the army in this country, the clergy in that, and a self-appointed cadre of revolutionists in a third; whoever it is, they aren't about to relinquish power, prestige, and goodies without a fight. If that fight requires the sacrifice of thousands, so be it.

Opinion will divide, of course, over whether this is an issue of advanced vs. backward cultures. Surely all cultures are equal in value? Well, no. The one that cannot provide adequate employment for its brightest (after having failed to provide suitable education), will not protect the rights of half or more of its citizens, does not contribute to the intellectual and moral progress of the species - such a one can only be described, and generously at that, as backward. It suffers a condition that needs curing, though how that is to be done we have no idea. It does not benefit from the indulgence of the descendants of Rousseau, our claque of homegrown, comfortable primitivists who will opine to the death (well, almost) in defense of genital mutilation or even slavery, provided only that these are practiced by sufficiently quaint-appearing persons, preferably of some color.

What separates us most dramatically and dangerously from the 1960s of golden memory is the availability of terrible weapons. Those, in combination with the cynicism of leaders and the disaffection of the young, pose an obvious and immense physical peril to all. Less obvious, but perhaps equally worrisome, is the other danger, that the struggle with the forces of unreason will not only divert us from the far from completed task of building a human civilization but actually drag us back a step or two or three.

Those Lampoon parodies featured another standard letter, in which the writer objected to some slur on his fellow Ohioan John Glenn. He never failed to mention, too, that his feelings were shared by his brother-in-law, who had a good mind to punch us in the nose.

The author is former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

TCS Daily Archives