I have discontinued my secondary weblog, Outside the Text. I started this blog as a way to vent some political views and opinions and thus avoid cluttering up The Reading Experience with posts unrelated to literature and literary criticism. But as I now find myself posting fairly often on such topics as film, music, and "art" more generally defined, I see no reason to confine political or politically-inclined entries to a separate blog. (Although I don't anticipate posting that often on politics. One of the reasons I am deleting Outside the Text is that I have found very few occasions to update it in the last several months. Most likely, future posts on political topics at TRE will concentrate on political books and perhaps political philosophy.)
In looking over the posts I did put up at Outside the Text, I concluded there was really only one that I would want to preserve in at least archival form. Thus I am here reposting the following discussion of Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, which was in fact the first post to appear at OTT.
Distinctions and Differences
Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism masquerades as a book by a liberal attempting to save liberalism from itself. It is not such a book; its ostensible argument is, at best, overwrought, at worst made in bad faith. Berman is no liberal, and his exhortations that we view the "war on terror" as essentially another fight against a totalitarian ideology seeking to do us in has virtually nothing to do with liberalism.
The bad faith is shamelessly evident in the book's very first chapter. Playing off of every good liberal's revulsion upon hearing the very name "Richard Nixon," Berman presents his own hawkish views on fighting terrorism and the wisdom of invading Iraq by contrasting them with Nixon's right-wing foreign-policy realism: After describing an op-ed piece he had written supporting the first Iraq war, Berman further notes his regret that "afterward, having had my say, I didn't bother spelling out the further implications of my argument--the larger differences between Nixon's 'realism' and my sort of liberalism or leftism, between Nixonian war and anti-totalitarian war." Terror and Liberalism is, of course the belated "spelling out" of those implications, but readers of the book should beware of Berman's invocation of Nixon-as-bogeyman. The disagreements between Berman and Nixon over the role the United States should play in dealing with the Middle East and the Islamic world more broadly are really just distinctions without a difference. As far as I can tell, had Paul Berman been President after the events of 9-11-01, the actions taken by his administration would have diverged very little from those actually taken by G.W. Bush. Berman's "anti-totalitarian war" would have gotten us into the very same calamity in the center of which we now find ourselves in Iraq.
We hear from Berman the same arguments and assertions we have heard from the neocons responsible for the calamity: the fulminations against the effete Europeans who refused to "lift a finger" against the rising terrorist threats; against the ineffectual United Nations, "incapable of doing anything forceful" in Bosnia or Kosovo; the same crowing over the supposed "liberation" of Afghanistan and all of those wonderful things we supposedly did for ordinary Afghans and for Afghan women; the same fixation on "jihadi warriors waving scimitars at the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy"; the same invocation of the likes of Bernard Lewis on the democratic fruits of "regime change" in Iraq and Iran. We even get this bouquet tossed at the feet of George W. Bush, whom Berman has lately professed to despise: "Some other president might have dithered, or might have contented himself with lobbing missles into Afghanistan for two or three days, praying for a bull's-eye. But Bush put together a fairly enormous force, convened allies and coalition partners, appeased or intimidated or seduced possible enemies, and launched an invasion which, as in any war, caused many terrible events--but few of the mass-scale calamites that so many people had dreaded."
Berman's central contention--that the war on Islamist terrorism is a new front in the larger war on totalitarianism that has been going on for all of the twentieth century--just won't stand up. Both fascism and communism may have induced a kind of religious feeling among their followers, but they were merely substitutes for religion, secular expressions of communal solidarity. Islamism is religion. I still think Richard Dawkins's immediate response to 9-11 and the motives of those reponsible is the simplest and thus most accurate diagnosis:
It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though. Feed them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the big lie sound plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them learn it by heart. Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would have it, we have just the thing to hand: a ready-made system of mind-control which has been honed over centuries, handed down through generations. Millions of people have been brought up in it. It is called religion and, for reasons which one day we may understand, most people fall for it (nowhere more so than America itself, though the irony passes unnoticed). Now all we need is to round up a few of these faith-heads and give them flying lessons.
Berman claims to be seeking an explanation that takes religion into account in his lengthy analysis of the writings (only partially available) of the Islamist scholar Sayyid Qutb. Many contemporaneous reviews of Terror and Liberalism marveled over Berman's "study" of Qutb, but I don't find it particularly impressive. Berman discovered in Qutb's writing what he set out to discover: confirmation that people like Qutb are really totalitarian agents of a familiar kind, inspired as much by Western thought (Marx, Christian theology, Western science), or at least by a visceral response to Western thought (anti-pragmatism), as by the Koran. The fact that Qutb's zealotry is of a kind shared by all religious zealots, the belief that religion provides the only true explanation of human reality, and that one's own religion in particular is the one true religion and road to salvation, is almost entirely elided.
What really comes across most unmistakably in Berman's discussion of Qutb is Berman's own not so grudging respect, even admiration, for Qutb's sincerity and clarity of thought. Berman obviously thinks that Qutb himself believed what he said and that ultimately he considered his work to be in the best interests of mankind. More than that, Berman also seems to believe that Qutb's analysis is at least partially correct (especially the anti-pragmatism), even if those in the Islamic world who accept this analysis are being led to take actions that are destructive to us freedom-loving people in the West. And in this Berman is being entirely consistent with a tradition of "radical" thinking that, as much as it claims to value freedom and democracy, really finds in the thought of ideologues of all kinds an echo of its own moralism and ideological certainty. Radicals of this kind finally can't settle for mere democratic freedom of the more mundane kind, the merely tolerant and watchful kind, but seemingly must have it transformed into a crusade to be carried out through their own kind of zealotry.
Moreover, these radicals finally have nothing but contempt for liberalism, however much they are mistakenly associated with it. Indeed, radicalism (of both the left and right) despises liberalism most of all. At its best, liberalism's prudence and modesty, its meliorism, always present an obstacle to the totalizing projects of authoritarians on both sides, and thus, in my view, twentieth century political history is really the history of radicals on the left and right struggling to remove this obstacle. The anti-liberal impulse can especially be seen in the stories of those radicals, from Dos Passos to Podhoretz to Horowitz to Hitchens and now to Paul Berman ,who move from the left to the right, bypassing liberalism almost altogether to become conservatives who rail against "the liberals" in the same way they once denounced them from the left. Berman does not yet offer himself as a conservative in this reformed tradition, but, judging from Terror and Liberalism, it would not surprise me if, a few years down the road, Berman fully emerges as a "liberal" apostate whose books and appearances on Fox News bring us yet more loud and insistent vilifications of "the left."
And indeed Berman has nothing but scorn for contemporary liberalism and its general worldview. Liberals engage in "wishful thinking." They are insufficiently resolute in fighting suicide terrorism (too accepting of the Palestinian cause in general). They foolishly believe that the bin Laden warriors are deprived, acting out of legitimate grievances. They even more foolishly believe that bin Ladenism itself might be rooted out through "policing." They laughably think that "a democratic and free society ought to be generous, open-minded, tolerant, fair--and peacable." They irresponsibly put too much faith in "blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers."
In a kind of summary statement about these incurable liberals, Berman tells us:
The language of international accords, of human rights and humanitarianism, of "Europe," of civilization and the United Nations--this language, the modest rhetoric of 1989. turned out to be hopelessly ambiguous: a language of action that was all too easily converted into a language of inaction; a language that people could wear like an armband to show they were morally committed, when, in reality, they were thinking of dinner all along: an idealistic language that was also a cynical language.
If this was "cynical" language, then more power to the cynics! What has Paul Berman's own idealist, non-cynical, neo-Wilsonian talk gotten us? 2,000 dead soldiers in Iraq, 50, 000 wounded, numerous civilians killed by terrorists and kidnappers whose presence in Iraq was made possible by our own actions and have made the country much more frightful as a terrorist haven than Afghanistan ever was, casualties among Iraqi civilians of 100,000 or more.
What's finally most frightening about Paul Berman's own brand of "radical" idealism is how easily it seems to accomodate all of this carnage. That so many people, not just the soldiers but their families, not just Americans, but also Iraquis, have to suffer for his idealism is really just repulsive beyond expression. When did the preference for liberal democracy become simply another violent revolutionary movement the success of which depends upon the death and immiseration of other people, even truly innocent people who unfortunately have to become collateral damage? (And that those whose idealism is being put into action themselves most often don't have to endanger even their talk-show hairdos makes their idealism, and this book, only a hundred times more repellent.) When did liberalism itself become hostage to this sickening notion that liberals must join in with such death-dealing or become labelled the enemies of freedom?
Unfortunately, Berman doesn't seem the type to learn from his mistakes. His certainties seem pretty certain, and I doubt that even the mayhem that has been perpetrated on Iraq for over two years now--and even the utter lack of anything to show for it--will do much to convince him he ought to rethink the way in which his book participates in this mayhem. Undoubtedly he'll blame the Bush administration for failing to execute the whole sordid exercise efficiently: even more troops should have been sent to be killed and maimed, we didn't cozy up to exactly the right corrupt "exiles" or Sadaam wannabes, etc. It's unlikely he'll conclude that maybe the liberals his book derides had it right after all. Thus, the best thing for such liberals to do with Berman's book is to suggest to him he find the appropriate home for it in the appropriate bodily orifice.