On the same day, August 15, 2015, on the New York Times Op-Ed page, Roger Cohen writes about the reasons that young Muslims from Western European countries might leave to join the Islamic State in Syria (“Why ISIS trumps freedom”), and Joe Nocera writes about how the “Bank of America stiffs shareholders”. What could be farther apart? A discussion about how disaffected, marginalized young people in the West find meaning for their lives in a structured, rigid, ideologically/religiously driven movement, and a discussion about how the board of directors of a huge bank (“too big to fail”) reverses a shareholder-led post-recession decision to separate the roles of the CEO and Board Chair? Well, there are similarities.
Cohen talks about “freedom from freedom”, from making hard choices, from taking responsibility for one’s own decisions. “Zealotry of any kind,” he writes, “subsumes the difficulty of individual choices into the exalted collective submission of dedication to a cause. Your mission is set. It is presented as a great one with great rewards. Goodbye, tough calls. Goodbye, loneliness.” You no longer have to decide what to do with your life. You no longer have to decide anything. You are told what to do and you do it uncompromisingly and uncomplainingly. Even though that includes sanctioned (nay, required!) murder (we’re not talking war here; we’re talking torture and beheading) and rape (see “ISIS enshrines a theology of rape” in the Times, August 13, 2015). Cohen discusses how this is built on not just a rejection of modern ideas like freedom – marry who we want, have sex with whom we want, pursue careers we want, believe what we want – but an overt hostility to them, a yearning for what people imagine things were like in the past (minus no Internet). He also notes that this rejection of modernism does not include rejection of the Internet, which ISIS uses freely and effectively. I add that it also effectively uses the ages-old technique of encouraging young soldiers to rape “the other” – turned into a religious duty! – thereby creating an outlet for young people (men) who have been forbidden to have sex or marry. Rape, slavery, and dehumanization of the other are timeless techniques used to create loyalty and commitment. Oh, yes, and they are horrific.
In his piece, Cohen refers to a book whose French hero, disaffected from modernism, converts to Islam and submits to the higher power (but does not, as far as we know, rape and murder). He also discusses, in less detail, how this has been a drumbeat by far-right (is the implication that ISIS murderers and rapists are of the left??) nativist and religious movements in Europe – rejection of “non-moral” modernism and freedom. It is, clearly, also seen in those movements in the US, and in the cults of submission to the guru/leader that are common, and occasionally burst into mass murders such as those led by Charles Manson in LA or mass suicide such as that led by Jim Jones in Jamestown. Cohen is usually an apologist for the Israeli government, and his criticisms of ISIS can certainly be seen in that light, but he is making very good points here.
OK, so there are similarities between ISIS and nativist movements and right-wing religious forces and cults. But what about the Bank of America? How does that relate to this? Nocera’s article discusses how, after 2009, a shareholder-led movement forced the (unwilling) BOA Board of Directors to separate the roles of CEO and Board Chair, based upon the principle that the Board has governance responsibilities, and is supposed to be the guardian watchdog over the actions of the management; this is impossible if the Board Chair and the chief manager are the same person. But, with less publicity, the BOA Board has recently amended its bylaws to allow current CEO Brian Moynihan to be Board Chair. “What the bank’s board did last October,” Nocera writes, “is not the biggest scandal ever; I know that. Instead, it’s the kind of small, corrosive scandal that too often marks the behavior of the modern company board.”
More to the point, he notes the criticism of a bank analyst who is the “most vocal critic of the board’s move” who was ”especially scornful of a Securities and Exchange Commission filing the bank made late last month in support of the board’s move. It touted Moynihan’s ‘unparalleled depth of understanding,’ and as proof, pointed to the $11.7 billion Bank of America earned ‘in the three quarters ending June 30, 2015.’ (There was no mention of the $4 billion accounting error.) ‘The gushing is like a teen magazine.’”
This is how we treat our heroes, our gurus; it is not irrational but it is dangerous. Idolizing a pop star is silly, but idolizing a CEO is virtually always wrong. It exempts them from criticism and leads to dictatorial power and guarantees disaster because no one person surrounded by “yes men” is going to always be right, or make the right decision. Why should it be surprising that there are similarities here to extreme religious movements, since making money is the true religion in our country, at least among its leaders. Right-wing politicians use issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and racism to appeal to the masses of voters in a way as cynical as ISIS, but their actual policies benefit banks and financiers and the management of huge corporations. We would, I suppose, like to think that the managers of these corporations are rational, market driven, and not corrupted by greed, but the evidence, from the market collapse of 2009 to bailout of too-big-to-fail shows this is not so. Paul Krugman writes in the Times of the arrogance and failure to manipulate the markets of the leaders of China (“Bungling Beijing’s stock markets”, August 14, 2015), but we see the same failings in Western corporate titans like Moynihan. We pay them incredible sums because “they” earned $11.7 billion in earnings (which may be in part from their management but certainly has other causes, not least the taxpayer bailout) while ignoring the $4 billion loss (hey, not their fault!).
Cohen’s article on ISIS and anti-freedom includes in its link to nativism a comparison to Russian premier Vladimir Putin, “another foe of the West,” who “attacks its culture from a similar standpoint: as irreligious, decadent and relativist, and intent on globalizing these ‘subversive’ values, often under the cover of democracy promotion, freedom and human rights.” Cohen is correct in noting that Putin, like ISIS, attacks “the West”, but as Nocera’s piece makes clear, the West is not free of these issues. The real problems are not those of too much freedom; they are the problems of too much corporate power and racism.
The cult of personality leading to blind obedience is always wrong, whether Hitler or Stalin or Putin or Mao or Moynihan or Charlie Manson or Jim Jones. But even when there is not a single dominating personality, as in ISIS or China’s leadership, blind obedience is still wrong. Freedom may be hard, and racism and prejudice and an economy that makes billionaires of a few and unemployed and hopeless of many in the West may make it seem harder, but it is also our hope, and is at the center of what we must pursue.