Thursday, May 27, 2010

Paul Berman: Treason of Western Intellectuals?

Illustration by Kim Bost

Paul Berman has a new book out, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which I've not yet read but intend to. Meanwhile, I have read a review of it by Anthony Julius, "The Pretender," in the International Herald Tribune (May 16, 2010), so I can report on that. Mr. Julius reminds us that:
Over the past 10 years, Paul Berman has been exploring a theme: the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their values and ideals. The theme has been elaborated in several books -- "Terror and Liberalism," "Power and the Idealists" and now "The Flight of the Intellectuals." Berman himself is a man who identifies "with the liberal left."
I've read Terror and Liberalism. I recall reading it in 2003, the year that it was published -- reading it on long bus and subway trips as I commuted to Seoul and back while I was living in Osan and teaching at Hanshin University, which has campuses in both places.

A year before, I had given a talk on 9/11 that was well attended at the Osan campus but that had also raised some controversy. I was branded a right-wing ideologue because I went against the grain of the times and the spirit of Hanshin University in arguing that Al Qaeda had attacked the US on 9/11 not just because they didn't like American foreign policy but also because they were radically opposed to democratic principles. Much of my audience held only to the former reason and blamed the US for provoking Bin Laden. I showed that this was not true by quoting Bin Laden himself on his anti-democratic reasons for the attack, but the quotes had little effect. Al Qaeda was seen as the victim. I knew that I needed to learn more about this mindset, so I turned to Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, which had been recommended to me and was precisely what I needed to read, for as Mr. Julius notes:
For Berman, the contemporary intellectual's temptation . . . . consists of the following elements: the false identification of liberal values with an oppressive West, and of political Islamism with an oppressed third world; an unreflective, unqualified opposition to every exercise of American power; a certain blindness regarding, or even tenderness toward, contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism.
In the current book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, Mr. Julius informs us that:
Berman has two targets. First, he takes on the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, whom he contrasts with the admirable and courageous secularist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Ramadan, a professor at Oxford, was recently permitted to enter the United States after being barred for six years under the Patriot Act.) And second, Berman challenges the commentators Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for their qualified endorsements of Ramadan and their disparagements of Hirsi Ali, noting the "tone of contempt that so frequently creeps across discussions" about her, the "sneering masculine put-downs of the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa."
Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and while one can't ever choose one's pedigree, one could repudiate what a grandfather stood for. Mr. Ramadan doesn't clearly do so:
Berman identifies duplicity as part of the problem with Ramadan, that is, his tendency both to say different things to different audiences and to speak with such equivocality as to be understood in different ways by those audiences. There is "a dark smudge of ambiguity" that "runs across everything he writes on the topic of terror and violence." In consequence, Ramadan cannot be trusted to know his own mind, and therefore cannot be trusted when he claims to speak it. Further, his language of accommodation, his project of defining a minority Islam at peace within liberal democracy, emerges as somewhat phony, the more hard-line stance that he advocates from time to time more accurately reflecting his true views.
Ambiguity is not a particularly admirable virtue at a time when:
. . . intimidation and violence [is being] directed at that "subset of the European intelligentsia -- its Muslim free-thinking and liberal wing especially" -- who "survive only because of bodyguards." This, Berman concludes, has been unheard of in Western Europe since the fall of the Axis. "Fear -- mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology -- has become, for a significant number of intellectuals and artists, a simple fact of modern life."
Against such intimidation, one must speak out, so Mr. Berman does, and so should we.

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At 1:09 PM, Blogger John B said...

In what sense is "liberalism" being used, in this case? Depending on context, that can refer to different ideas or movements.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good question. In his Terror and Liberalism book, Berman generally meant that liberalism that emphasizes universal ethical values based broadly on Enlightenment rationality and that insists on the worth of the individual and of individual freedom of expression.

In the American context, Berman is probably a Democrat since he calls himself a "left liberal."

But I ought to check my copy of his book to clarify.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Christian said...

"... the admirable and courageous secularist Ayaan Hirsi Ali."

She acknowledged lying to obtain the Dutch citizenship. I don't think this is admirable.

Tariq Ramadan is a fascinating scholar, unfortunately, I also believe him to be a submarine in Western seas for a very conservative Islam.

Interesting post, thanks!

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christian, thanks for the comment.

I suppose lying is never precisely admirable, though perhaps at times understandable and occasionally even necessary -- e.g., lying to Nazis to protect Jews.

What was the substance of Hirsi Ali's deception? I've never quite found out what and why.

I suspect that Berman admires her for other reasons.

My worry about Tariq Ali is that he goes beyond conservative Islam and becomes a fellow traveler with the radical Islamists.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lying to obtain a benefit for yourself is never admirable although, as Jeffery noted, lying to protect innocent people from harm may be. Having lied, even on an official document, does not automatically unworthy of being called "admirable." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was judged by a Boston University committee to have plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but this act in his youth does not diminish his great civil rights leadership or disqualify him from the honor of a national holiday.

At 5:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

correction: automatically render one unworthy

At 5:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi, for the further thoughts on deception.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Christian said...

Sonagi and Jeffery,

I agree that lying can be and is very much justified, not even in essential issues like protecting the innocent: I also think that lying is a social lubricant. (How did you like __The Invention of Lying__?)

My problem with finding people admirable (Martin Luther King, George Washington, Lincoln etc.) is that it creates a blind spot, very much akin to a religious feeling: the worship of the Saints. I prefer history to hagiography. So, for instance, I agree that the achievements of Mr. King, as much as the Civil Rights movement is concerned, are indeed admirable, but he is not absolutely admirable (as most people interpret "admirable").

This is not cherry picking. On the contrary, I don't want others to pick for me and discard for me: I want the subjects under study to be wholesome, that is, human, too human. I want to relate to them.

Now, I have a problem to suggest. At which point the lies of someone become an obstacle to establishing a relationship? For instance, the lies of Hirsi Ali are not a problem for you, or the columnist of the New York Times (I read today the column in the Herald Tribune). Fine. But is it not because you strongly agree on something she says, some ideas you would not dare speak loudly?

(I hate to refer to Wikipedia, but I believe they have a fair account of her deception.)

For my part, I think she is given far too much credit, mainly because she dares to speak out against Islam, coming from a Muslim faith and background herself and being a woman, who are supposed in the West to be the most oppressed people in Islam.

I am sorry, these credentials mean nothing to me. She is not a philosopher, not a scholar. Also the facts that she works for a conservative think tank in the USA, that she lied to obtain Dutch citizenship, are not lost on me.

She is no match for Tariq Ramadan, unfortunately...

I have a simple theory about why she is given too much praise. In the USA, all religious opinions are respected, and being an atheist is frown upon. (See __The God Delusion__ for details.) People naturally mention God in all kinds of conversations and it would be rude to interrupt and say: "You mean you have an imaginary friend?" Because of this self-imposed censorship, criticising Islam is taboo. (Let's remember how the drawings of Muhammad were NOT shown in the free press of the USA.) The only way allowed is to agree with someone who will be considered above criticism, for instance, a foreign woman who denied her Muslim faith and had to flew to the USA to freely express herself. The facts that she is an atheist, that she pursues a Republican agenda, that she lied to obtain Dutch citizenship (not to save the innocent) become a blind spot.

Jeffery, you are a biblical scholar, so you know that Christianity, with its primordial whorship of a Lord (or two), is very much not democratic. Still, it proved not only compatible with modern democracy, but with the deist interpretation of the Englightenment, and it favoured the rise of democracy in America and Europe (and Korea). So, if it is claimed that the Koran (which I distinguish from Islam a priori) is the source of an anti-democratic ideology, I would like to understand what makes this interpretation the preferred one *by some Muslim groups at this precise time in history*. (I believe it is the US foreign policy.)

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christian, thanks for the post. It's a complex one to respond to. I'll try to respond to what I can.

I did check Wikipedia on Hirsi Ali, but couldn't find precisely why she lied, and that would make a difference for me.

On admiring her . . . well, I admire her courage and her coolness under pressure. She's quite articulate, which I wish that I were.

I can't say that I admire her wholeheartedly. I find her at times naive -- and I've stated as much in earlier blog postings.

I also think that she paints Islam with a rather broad brush.

I think that you're largely correct on why she's popular in the States.

As for Christianity, its saving grace -- so to speak -- was a fundamental distinction between two realms, the religious and the political (God and Caesar), which allowed the secular sphere to have its own legitimacy. The process was long, as you note, but the Enlightenment came and also the clear, legally defined separation of church and state.

The question before us is whether or not Islam allows legitimacy to that secular realm.

(Thanks, by the way, for referring to me as a Biblical scholar -- I wish that I were.)

Jeffery Hodges

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