Comments on Gordon Haber’s Review of Heaven on Earth

I posted Gordon Haber’s review of my book and some readers asked for my response to his criticisms. So here they are.

Let me begin by saying that this is by far the most substantive review so far, and much of what Haber says in the first part of the review I have no complaints about. (Sorry about the complexity of the opening chapters; I hope a second reading, after reading the ten case studies, will be more rewarding.) I especially liked his treatment of my “secular millennialism” thesis. I begin my interlinear comments with his discussion of my treatment of contemporary apocalyptic manifestations.

Heaven on Earth is less illuminating of more recent movements. For Landes, UFO cults and movies about UFOs are interchangeable expressions of millennialism. I suggested earlier that we need to pay attention to the influence of apocalyptic fantasies on popular culture, but there’s a difference between belief and the suspension of disbelief, between the Raelians and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters, which sought only to capture our imaginations and some cash.

I never claimed that they’re interchangeable, just that UFOlogy is a rich terrain for millennial thinking. As for dismissing Spielberg’s close encounters as just for entertainment and cash demeans the effort. I quote in full Richard Dreyfus’ comment that not being afraid of the alien “other” was a “big idea” that everyone on the set shared:

We all felt that this particular project had a noble agenda.  This was a big idea that Steven was talking about. It wasn’t just a sci-fi movie, it wasn’t about monsters from the id.  It was that we are not only not alone, but that we have relatively little to fear. People don’t realize, or it’s hard for people to remember, that Close Encounters was truly the first cultural iconic moment that said, “Calm down we’re okay. They can be our friends.” That really was a huge statement that I and lots of other people wanted to participate in. (Special Features of 2001 DVD edition.)

Gordon continues to the key topic, global Jihad as the most dangerous form of apocalyptic millennialism – active cataclysmic.

Landes’ discussion of “enraged millennialism” or global jihad is problematic as well, focusing on Muslim shame, which, he contends, began when the unbelievers of Mohammed’s day mocked the prophet. The Modern Era, in Landes’ telling, brought the “four humiliations of modernity—Western superiority, Israel’s existence, women’s liberation, and globalization,” resulting in the bloody, triumphalist fantasies of apocalyptic jihad.
While apocalyptic jihad does indeed pose a serious threat, Landes’ narrative reads like warmed-over Bernard Lewis. While we can’t completely dismiss this narrative (Christian apocalyptic texts, from Revelations to Left Behind, can be read as revenge fantasies), it’s just a little too neat, and it reeks of Western triumphalism.

Huh? This is material that Bernard Lewis does not cite (and I suspect is not very familiar with). If anything it’s evidence in favor of his argument rather than warmed over repetition.

Thus Landes is not explaining, he’s explaining away. He seems to be saying that Muslims have been touchy since the very creation of their religion; of course they hate us.

I’m saying that since the beginning of their religion (ie Muhammad), the sensitivity to criticism has been exceptional and the violence (again starting with Muhammad), has been a standard response. Muslims dislike criticism, and an inherently iconoclastic culture like modernity, will inevitably offend them. I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to be “explaining away.” I think this is an explanation for the clash or cultures. Or does Gordon not think there’s a clash here.

So I remain dubious when he argues that after the 2000 Intifada, “almost every apocalyptic trend went mainstream in the Muslim world.” The trends that he identifies are inarguably on the rise—hysterical anti-Semitism, suicide terrorism, the dark rhetoric of martyrdom and jihad. But his conception of the “Muslim mainstream” is garnered mostly from Youtube clips, speeches by radical clerics, and translations from the Muslim media by MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch—organizations with a decidedly Zionist bent.
I don’t use “Zionist” as a dirty word;

That’s sure how I read it in. Memri and Palwatch are organizations that translate what Arabs and other Muslims say in their native tongues, not what we read of them on the op-ed pages of our liberal newspapers. The fact that they are Israeli sites (some of the best intelligence comes from the Israelis) does not make their work less significant. Let readers visit and make up their own minds.

nor would I downplay the disturbing examples of genocidal or paranoid rhetoric that Landes cites, like the charter of Hamas, for example. It is, however, important to emphasize that when it comes to Islam the author favors the us against them “clash of civilizations” model favored by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.

Actually, I don’t prefer that model, they do. I just recognize it and refuse to project my “us and them” model onto them. What we do about it, is something else. My final chapter, which Gordon unfortunately does not mention tackles these issues head on in noting the somewhat paradoxical split between those who are roosters (apocalyptic) about AGW (Anthropogenic Global Climate Warming) and those who are roosters on GJW (Global Jihad Warming – understood anthropogenic): despite the fact that both problems are directly linked to our addiction to oil, each is an owl (anti-apocalyptic) when it comes to the other.

This remarkable (and one might argue counter-empirical) split between the AGW and the GJW apocalyptic camps may have something to do with a fundamental clash between a modern, civic mentality/ethical system and a pre-modern one. In pre-modern modes (right wing authoritarian on a democratic political spectrum), the “other” is the enemy; one can – indeed must – fight against “them,” even at the cost of commitment to higher ethics. Us vs. them; our side, right or wrong; we only win if they lose. No wonder that for such belligerent cultures, wars are a default mode, indeed, the “sport of kings.” Such pre-moderns in apocalyptic mode favor active cataclysmic scenarios: the Battle of Armageddon.

Modern, and even more so, post-modern modes of interpretation emphasize both self-criticism and empathy with the “other.” Us and them; win-win; war is not the answer. Some Westerners favor an essentially active transformational apocalyptic mode; and the more radically committed they become, the more dramatic the self-abnegation, even unto preferring the “other”’s narrative, or what in post-modern terminology is known as alterity or “the epistemological priority of the other.” This may explain the following paradox: in the history of Christianity, no nation (or empire) that called itself Christian, followed a foreign policy based on the “Sermon on the Mount” – forgive, turn the other cheek, love your enemy; and yet, in a post-Christian age, we find a range of intellectuals, many of whom have contempt for Christianity, who nevertheless urge precisely such a foreign policy on their own nations.

Post-modern Westerners generally find the “AGW” apocalyptic scenario more appealing, not only because of the powerful empirical evidence, but also because it “suits” post-modern psychological orientations. AGW is a noble progressive cause: Earth is the victim of our own assaults, the last and most disastrous “conquests” that Western, Promethean hubris has achieved over its various rivals. Because we are at fault, because the “other” is a beneficent victim, because repenting means ceasing to rape [our mother nature!], AGW registers positively on all our progressive priorities: paying attention to the “other,” self-criticism, self-restraint.

These self-critical attitudes and the lively conversations they enable, play a central role in many of the most creative aspects of our culture, especially global, internet-driven interactions, the driving progressive force of the new millennium.[i] To judge from the printing press’ impact on 16th century Europe, the internet constitutes a communication revolution that will transform global culture.[ii] AGW is the perfect apocalyptic narrative for a guilt-integrity culture: our hubris has brought upon us our suffering. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”[iii] At the very least, we need to go on an energy diet.

The owls on AGW, on the other hand, tend to congregate on the “right.” Taking a 19th and 20th century definition of industrial modernity as the Promethean hero, they establish the “tradition” that, as “conservatives,” they protect: productivity, competition, wealth. No global diets at a time like this; on the contrary, full speed ahead on the Titanic and damn the (melting) icebergs.


[i] See Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto (New York: Basic Books, 2000, 2009).

[ii] Richard Landes, “Printing and the 16th Century, Cyberspace and the 21st – Lessons from the Past, Thoughts on the Future,” Online: http://worldcat.org:80/arcviewer/1/OCC/2007/09/28/0000073852/viewer/file683.html; accessed September 13, 2010.

[iii] Walt Kelly, on a poster for Earth Day in 1970; see above, chap. 15, n.5

Gordon notes:

I suppose Landes would call me an ostrich.

Yes. Indeed I couldn’t find a better illustration of the inability to process the material on Islam than this otherwise astute reader. It’s as if his critical faculties suddenly abandoned him, and all he could produce were negative clichés.

Despite the lack of subtlety in his treatment of Islam, Landes’ arguments are convincing: that by diminishing the milennialist influence, viewing it through a narrow Enlightenment-centric lens, or ignoring it altogether, the “bats” overlook a dangerous historical force; and second, that we need to better understand how such ideas shift from the fringes to the center. Above all, Heaven on Earth convinces the reader that secular movements are often far more religious than we tend to acknowledge.

And accordingly, things we think of in the Muslim world as secular (I kid you not, the Muslim Brotherhood), are far more religious than we want to acknowledge.

2 Responses to Comments on Gordon Haber’s Review of Heaven on Earth

  1. Avigail says:

    Haber’s politically-correct review just made you a sale. He tried so hard to be “subtler-than-thou,” without contributing any meaningful criticism, that I must simply read the book to see for myself! You’re very sneaky.

  2. David Clark says:

    I’ve known Gordon for years. He can, at times, be a very, very mean man. I’m sure your book is actually very funny and entertaining. Ignore him.

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