Price Gouging
Kid Moses

ISIS and the Arts

By Jonathan B. Wight

How does art inspire our lives with meaning and inform our moral imaginations about the important issues of the day? These are essential questions about culture and civilization.

Adam Smith wrote at length about this and the importance of competition and freedom in the arts to stimulate thinking and feeling. My take on this can be found in “Adam Smith’s Ethics and the ‘Noble’ Arts,” Review of Social Economy (2006).

The relevance of Smith’s insights hit me all the time, such as contemplating the vibrant art scene in Havana as Cuba prepares for greater liberty, a presumably exuberant time except for knowing that uncertainty and inequality will introduce new problems (even as other problems are solved by the market).

But more importantly, a recent New York Times article struck me about “The Soft Power of Militant Jihad.” The enemies who seeks to destroy us do not mumble the night away hidden in caves, rather he and she participate in a vibrant culture of the arts, a rich and radical community of storytelling, hymns, poetry, movies, and blogs that is expanding by leaps.

The arts are a powerful device for creating emotional ties (ask anyone who grew up in the 60’s listening to Dylan, S&G, and PP&M). The arts validate and inspire values and choices that reflect those values. The author, Thomas Hegghammer, notes that:

“As the West comes to terms with a new and growing threat — horrifically evident in the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. — we are not only confronting organizations and doctrines, but also a highly seductive subculture. This is bad news.”

Hence, defeating this enemy requires a lot more than guns and bombs, it requires changing hearts. But America’s modern culture and institutions have done a poor job of socializing young people into lives of meaning and participation, particularly but not limited to those who come from marginalized communities. The evidence for lack of meaning and wholeness in our society is in the statistics on suicides, murders, mental illness, and even rates of childhood asthma. In a word, we may suffer from love deprivation, with all the attendant symptoms.

To the extent that ISIS creates cultural communities of wholeness and belonging (in part through the arts), they are an enormous threat to the nihilist obsession with individualism and growing inequality that often passes for culture and ideology in the United States.

“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.”

Mother Teresa


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