Until recently, I was unaware of the existence of Rojava, the Kurdish quasi-state that’s made more successful overtures toward gender equality than any other modern nation. Their constitution is based on contemporary philosophy, whereas our own was written by people two centuries less informed about reality than we are.
For instance, the moral equality between men and women stated explicitly in Rojava’s constitution. Every role in their government is bifurcated such that a male and a female hold equivalent posts. Whereas the writers of our own constitution were primarily seeking to protect the rights of landed white men, considering blacks, women, and the poor to be more or less value-less.
I learned a lot about Rojava from the pair of articles that appeared almost simultaneously in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine (you can read all of the latter even without a subscription — and you should!). It’s clear that the place isn’t perfect. Not just because the entire region is shackled by seemingly ceaseless horrific violence, although that seems to be the root cause of the other problems. The apparent cultish devotion to an imprisoned man named Ocalan seems suspicious to me. And the standing army of Rojava may have committed some horrific wartime atrocities of its own, although it’s difficult for me to judge them too harshly for this. I (luckily!) have no experience with the psychological consequences of constant fear.
But the good parts of Rojava sound lovely. The equality. The commitment to religious freedom. The efforts to regain a strong sense of community in a modern urban environment. The opportunity for all people to work toward a university education.
That’s why it seems so sad that Rojava might not survive. The nation of Turkey has been subtly threatening to squelch it for a while, but it seems that collaboration between the U.S. and Rojava makes direct military action from Turkey unlikely.
More worrisome are the constant attacks on Rojava perpetrated by Daesh.
(Until I sat down to type this post, I planned to use the term “ISIS” for the terrorist organization beleaguering Rojava. I’m using the term “Daesh” instead per recommendations that I learned about from translator Alice Gurthrie’s lovely blog post. Although “ISIS” and “Daesh” are both acronyms that mean the same thing, acronyms are much less common in Arabic, which makes more explicit a speaker’s refusal to use the entire grandiose name purporting dominance and statehood. Also, the term “Isis” in English calls to mind the ancient Egyptian goddess: the acronym sounds vaguely portentious. Whereas the Arabic acronym “Daesh” apparently sounds like words used during the dark ages, the way nonsense words like Lord Dunsany’s “gnole” or Jack Vance’s “erb” sound vaguely like medieval creatures to English ears. The closest-sounding word in Arabic is “daes,” meaning a thing that tramples — conjuring up something like a burly troll throwing a temper tantrum?)
Members of Daesh are attempting to terrorize the inhabitants of Rojava … and France … and the U.S. Which is why it seems urgent to understand what motivates people to join Daesh. Indeed, many people far more informed than I am are working on this question. There have been several New York Times articles on the topic in the last few months — for instance this article from June about pathetic friendless individuals from the U.S. joining via internet chat rooms, hoping to finally fit in with a community.
A murderous misogynistic ill-educated community, sure. But a community nonetheless.
After reading several such profiles, and making a cursory attempt to survey the (very, very extensive) literature on Daesh membership in the Arab world, I’ve decided that one way to frame why people join the organization would be to read Kent Russell’s essay “American Juggalo” from his collection I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son.
I’m obviously not saying there’s any equivalence between listening to rap rock and filming beheadings, or going on shooting sprees, or setting off explosives that kill hundreds. Rap rock, when listened to alone, hurts no one.
My thought is only that there may be a parallel in the societal and psychological forces that compel people to fall in with the norms of those two communities. Consider these three snippets from a passage at the beginning of Russell’s essay:
“I did the whole Gathering last year,” Sandy said. “I’m not staying past sundown tomorrow. I hope you brought something green, or an orange.” Justin slalomed around shirtless juggalos. Seen from behind, most had broad, slumped shoulders and round, hanging arms. They were not stout. These people were grubbed with fat. They looked partially deflated. You think I’m being cruel, but these were the most physically unhealthful people I’d ever seen. “Because if not, you’re shit out of luck. Unless you especially love carnival burgers, or fried curds from out the back of someone’s RV.”
. . .
No more than twenty-four inches in front of us sat twin girls on the rear bumper of a white minivan. They couldn’t have been a day over fourteen or a biscuit under 225. They wore bikini tops, and the way they slouched — breasts resting on paunches, navels razed to line segments — turned their trunks into parodies of their sullen faces.
. . .
The twins screamed, “Show us your titties, bitch!” at Sandy. A tall guy with a massive water gun screamed, “Man, fuck your ride!” and sprayed us with a stream of orange drink the pressure and circumference of which made me think of racehorses. A “FUCK YOUR RIDE!” chant went up and around the crowd, and garbage was thrown. I would describe what kind of garbage, and how it felt to be the object of such ire — but I had so much garbage thrown at me at the Gathering of the Juggalos that showers of refuse became commonplace, a minor annoyance, and describing one would be like describing what it’s like to get a little wet on a winter’s day in Seattle.
Now, I don’t blame you if you find Russell’s mean-spirited tone to be a little off-putting. In the context of this piece, though, I think the tone works well. That mean-spirited tone helps reinforce a message about why the juggalos behave the way they do toward Russell.
Genetics obviously has a big impact on eventual behavior, but brains are sufficiently plastic that life experiences matter more. Nurture can have a larger influence than nature.
Very few children are born mean. Some have troubles with impulse control, sure. And just about anybody will lash out when in pain — maybe some children are more predisposed to suffer than others. Evolutionary forces had no inclination to select for people who would feel comfortable. A shame, really. If that sort of evolutionary pressure had existed, maybe teething wouldn’t be so horrible.
(I should point out that this is a very self-centered way to think about evolution. The words “evolutionary pressure” don’t sound so foreboding, but hidden behind those neutral-seeming words is a long history of night-stalking predators that would’ve mauled children who cried out in their sleep. For a negative trait to be removed from a population, there have to be specific forces that either kill bearers of that trait or otherwise prevent them from breeding. Our good genes are abundant only because tragedy upon tragedy befell those with other patterns in their DNA.)
So I’d posit that a long history of suffering underlies the behavior of people who threw garbage at Russell during the Gathering. That’s why I think Russell’s mocking tone works so well in the essay. When he mocks participants at the Gathering, it becomes easy to imagine that these people were also mocked by their classmates, their teachers, maybe their parents and neighbors, even.
(The latter two are slightly less likely, because a lot of Russell’s mockery is tied up with these people being poor. Poor people are often heavier because the U.S. government subsidizes awful food. The places where poor people live are typically less safe for pedestrians than wealthier neighborhoods. Poor children are more likely to be left in an apartment alone while both parents are out working, meaning they have even less opportunity to run around. They can’t afford the local soccer league or YMCA basketball or gymnastics or dance class or martial arts. And poverty is stressful. Stress itself causes a litany of crummy physiological effects, again predisposing people to weight gain. It’s hard to exercise when you feel ill-rested, when you sleep on uncomfortable mattresses or couches, when your gastrointestinal tract feels awful from the terrible food you have to eat.)
I’d argue that most people don’t feel much schadenfreude unless they themselves are suffering.
What I took away from Russell’s essay is that it probably took years of being treated like garbage for the juggalos to want to throw garbage at him.
Obviously throwing garbage is less horrible than the atrocities committed by Daesh. But the terrorists have absorbed very different cultural norms. Many have lived in perpetual war. Horrific violence, including violence sponsored by the U.S., is endemic to that part of the Middle East.
I don’t think many (any?) children are born with a desire to behead journalists, rape wantonly, detonate their own selves in order to murder strangers. I imagine it took many years of feeling worthless for those to seem like attractive choices. Then it probably took the alchemy of lifelong PTSD and constant immersion in state-sponsored violence combining with that sense of being devalued by the world for members of Daesh to want to load an AK-47 with bullets instead of a Supersoaker with orange Faygo.
Not that this is in any way intended to excuse or rationalize murder. Sure, pervasive unemployment and poverty and the sense that one’s way of life is under siege is crummy, but it’s clearly not okay to respond to that sense of aggrievement by terrorizing innocents.
But I think it does suggest that bombs will make a pretty terrible long-term strategy to combat Daesh. Shoveling money into the region to provide meaningful jobs would work far better. We’re too late for this to be easy — trying to set up work opportunities amidst such violence sounds like an awful task.
I can’t think of any other workable solutions, though.
Oh, and, in the face of that type of seemingly nihilistic philosophy, I think it’s imperative to be nice. Any attendees of the Gathering, after reading Russell’s essay, probably felt quite justified in having thrown garbage at him. He was a jerk after all, they could think. He deserved it.
In the case of Daesh, by refusing to take in Syrian refugees, we reinforce the suspicion that the U.S. is a nation full of callous jerks.