Friday, March 26, 2010

The Flight of the Intellectuals

There is a good review of Paul Berman's coming book "The Flight of the Intellectuals" on, written by Ron Rosenbaum. Here's the link:
Berman's book is a tirade against intellectuals for their failure, basically, to stand up strongly against Islamic fundamentalism. Part of the controversy centers on Ayaan Hirsi Ali--a Somalian woman who escaped from the jaws of Islamic fundamentalism and genital mutilation, and her book, "Infidel", which received poor reviews from the likes of Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash--who referred to her as an "Enlightenment fundamentalist." There is contained in this debate, and around it, a whole web of issues surrounding current world politics and political thought in the twentieth century--a skein that I certainly cannot untangle here. I do want to make a few remarks, however, and perhaps articulate a few of my thoughts (also quite tangled on this issue).
It seems to me that the left wing of political thought in the twentieth century has divided into two prominent strains: firstly, the straight-forward liberals--here I will invoke the definition presented by Isaiah Berlin, in paraphrase, that at its core political liberalism means a neutrality on the part of government toward competing conceptions of "the good," coupled of course with a protective sphere of unalienable individual rights; and, secondly, what I will call, perilously perhaps, the post-moderns--those that take very seriously the political thought stemming from Martin Heidegger, especially in the figures of leading twentieth century French philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Baudrillard. At the center of this strain of political thought is the notion that all cultures--which emerge somewhere from the interstices of a complex of discourses, practices, and institutions--are fundamentally ungrounded: there is no transcendental authority to appeal to in order to vindicate one "culture" over another. Coupled with this cultural relativism is an intense, many think damning, critique of the Enlightenment tradition (and, hence, political liberalism): take, for example, the popularity of the Marquis de Sade amongst these thinkers as an exemplar of the Enlightenment thinker. Foucault, to pick my favorite of these thinkers, has, in particular, undertaken to expose the totalitarian impulses to be found within the very foundations, the archon, of key Western Enlightenment institutions: the clinic, the prison, the insane asylum, etc. Meanwhile, feminist thinkers and critical race theorists have exposed--often quite shockingly--the deep currents sexism and racism to be found in modern scientific practice and discourse.
Now, it seems to me that it is this post-modern impulse in modern political thought that could allow for such a term, and perhaps vindicate it (though not directed at Hirsi Ali, I think), as "Enlightenment fundamentalism."
Ron Rosenbaum finds Berman's book "devastating" to this stance of many modern intellectuals. Moreover, he holds that it is fear--rather than some sort of cultural relativism--that is really animating the flight of the intellectuals, citing the many western writers that have experienced threats and have either gone into hiding, have bodyguards, etc.

"The fact that we so rarely hear a peep about the cumulative terror experienced by these writers and artists from the likes of these intellectuals while they find time to sneer at Hirsi Ali is the real scandal to me. The fact that theological censorship backed by death threats has been installed on the continent of Europe with just about everyone deciding it would be wiser to keep silent about it is once again burying the lede. But to my mind, printing it at all is a service.

A certain kind of irreverent speech once valued in Europe since the time of Chaucer and Rabelais has been, it seems, powerfully threatened if not silenced, and the heirs to that intellectual tradition are too scared to speak out about that silence. Maybe Berman's book will start intellectuals talking, and not just about each other. Maybe some of the previously silent will begin to speak out against the death squads rather than snark about their victims and targets."

I think that, on this point at least, Rosenbaum and Berman are correct: the "theological censorship backed by death threats" that is being imposed by Islamic fundamentalists all over the world (that is to say, not just in Islamic states), simply cannot be tolerated. And we must not let our great tradition of "irreverent speech" fall to the wayside. But does this mean that we have to fully identify with the Enlightenment tradition and espouse, like Hitchens, a "New Enlightenment?" Are we perhaps being offered a false choice here between a soft multi-culturalism that cannot attack fundamentalist religion and a hawkish liberalism?

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