Thursday, March 8, 2012

Quotes of the Day - March 8, 2012

I finished Power and the Idealists last night, but I didn't have time to write about my favorite passages and  quotes. The second half of the book is fantastic (the book itself has become one of recent favorites). I found myself dog-earring nearly every page, so at one point I chose to highlight only the very most noteworthy or important passages, which, of course, turned out to be nearly half the book.

One of things I like so much about Paul Berman is his ability to see across ideological divides and recognize the similarities between ideologies that at first glance seem opposed to each other. In the chapter "The Muslim World and the American Left", Berman points out the similarities between religious social conservatism and tiers-mondiste Marxism.
"But Nafisi's description of classroom debate suggests eomthign else. The diatribe by this one student, holding up his copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald criminal text, is not at all a seventh century speech, nor a speech by a peasant from the hills, herding his goats...This speech enunciates some of the principles established by the extreme right in Europe long ago - the notion of an authentic culture under insidious attack by evil cultural forces from abroad" (pg. 162). 
"Then again, these ideas have sometimes made themselves perfectly at home on the Marxist left, in a different version. Mike Gold was F. Scott Fitzgerald's contemporary and rival, and in the early nineteen thirties Gold used to issue literary interdictions in precisely this condemnatory spirit on behalf of the American Communist Party - to maintain the proletarian purity of the slum-dwellers and factory workers, and to rescue revolutionary ideas from bourgeois contamination. Even the sexual imagery in the Iranian student's classroom speech - 'a rape of our culture' strikes a familiar note" (pgs. 162-3).
In the same vein, Berman points out the ideological parochialism in which the students of the New Left found themselves immersed during their infatuation with Maoism.
"American New Leftists cited Mao Zedong's 'taks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art', a much-thumbed essay in its time. (This is the essay where Mao asks, 'Literature and art for whom?' and ends up by calling for the destruction of 'feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalistic, individualistic, nihilistic, art-for-art's sake, aristocratic, decadent or pessimistic, and every other creative mood that is alien to the masses of the people and the proletariat.')" (pg. 163).
Maybe this puts me off because of my affinity for "bourgeois" art or because I want so desperately to see a revived version of Socialisme ou Barbarie. But, I really have a hard time getting behind Mao's statement. Without waxing philosophical about the inherent beauty of art, I think it's sufficient to say that a world in which all art is directed towards the singular task of "revolution" would be a very monochromatic world.

Berman again takes a shot at certain segments of the radical Left when he discusses the similarities between the Left's fetishism of insurrection and the Right's fetishism of the glory days of yore. That is, both the far Left and Right have the tendency to become violently infatuated with fantasy.
"Fantasy role-playing, it occurs to me, is the defining quality of all totalitarian movements and systems - role-playing by totalitarian militants who feel entirely justified in liquidating everyone who fails to have a proper role in the grand tableau of the reigning mythology" (pg. 164).
Burrowing deeper into territory covered by Hannah Arendt in the Origins of Totalitarianism, Berman even hints at the problems of vanguardism - it is predicated upon a kind of condescension that implies the ignorance or weakness of the general population. It's a violent kind of elitism, in short.
"That is why the totalitarians always end up slaughtering masses of people - out of frustration at the huma race's stubborn refusal to be anything but the human race, and out of the lust for thrills, and out of a realization that only in death can the mythic universe be fully achieved" (pg. 170).
 Through his discussion of the work and thought of Kanan Makiya, Berman nicely points out the value of the Enlightenment.
"Makiya went on, 'We in the Middle east had taken over certain themes from the West wholesale - Germanic nationalism, Marxism, the imperative toward industrialization - but we'd never experienced the Enlightenment, in which these themes needed to be grounded if they were going to make any real sense" (pg.178).
I always get a big frustrated when certain Leftists attempt to argue that the Enlightenment was just another page in the book of bourgeois, patriarchal domination. Whether or not the title of heirs to the Enlightenment has been taken by opponents of progress and an egalitarian society, it's still necessary to acknowledge the intellectual heritage of today's flavors of Leftism.

Slavoj Zizek often refers to (like in this video Soviet communism as the greatest moral catastrophe - greater than Nazism, because at least with the fascists you knew things were going to be horrific. With the Soviets you were told there would be utopia, but in reality there was exactly the opposite. Since I feel a kind of personal connection to left-wing history, it always upsets me when atrocities are committed in the name of ideals to which I am sympathetic. Berman, again while discussing Makiya's Republic of Fear, neatly describes this feeling" (pg. 182).
"So here again...was a book by somebody who had enlisted in the left-wing student movements of circa 1968 in order to fight against imperialism and capitalism - only to stumble on the existence of another kind of oppression, which was even worse, and which he knew from his own experience and not merely from his readings."

I typically describe myself as a libertarian leftist - opposed to both the tyranny of the market and the tyranny of the state - so I've always been sympathetic to the work of Socialism ou Barbarie. That Sartre thought it necessary to disparage them is certainly disappointing. There is a tendency on the Left, as there is in most ideological camps, to limit the diversity of thought and criticism. Sartre's behavior is a perfect example.
"Sartre attacked the libertarian left of the nineteen-fifties as 'dirty rats,' referring to the Socialism or Barbarism comrades, who were busily trying to reveal Stalinism for what it was; and Sartre's reading public, which was vast, turned away from the dirty rats" (pg. 183).

It's fairly common for Americans to consider Islamic fundamentalism to be an antiquated notion, one that conjures up images of Saladin and the defeats of the crusades. For those in more Jewish milieus, like the one in which I've been raised, Islamic fundamentalism carries with it a similar old-world connotation. So, I was totally surprised to see Berman, by way of Azar Nafisi (here's the article he quotes: ) describe Islamic fundamentalism as a modern conception.
"In that same February 2003, Nafisi published an essay in the New Republic making a simple observation: 'What we call Islamic fundamentalism, for lack of a better word, is a modern phenomenon, in the same way fascism and Communism, both products of the West, are modern'" (pg. 190). 
A significant portion of the anti-imperialist Left exploded when Christopher Hitchens used the phrase "fascism with an Islamic face" to describe Islamic fundamentalism, but I think it's a remarkably apt description; it puts Islamic fundamentalism into the proper context and "deorientalizes" it. Islamic fundamentalism, then, no longer appears as a caricature of traditional Islam taken to the extreme. Rather, it is seen as it it truly is - a synthesis of totalitarianism with the theocratic currents of Islam and as an unequivocally modern construction.

The other insight that, when revealed, nearly made me exclaim out loud, was the description of Daniel Cohn-Bendit's comparison between the U.S.'s Bush Doctrine and the grandiosity of the Bolsheviks.
"'You want to change the whole world!' he said. "Like them, you claim that history will show that truth is on your side. You want the world to follow the American dream, and you believe that you know what is best for ... all other countries.' Here was arrogance. 'Because you are Americans, you have the biggest army in the world - you can do anything you want. This is revolutionary hubris'" (pg. 195).
With all the mendacity and veiled imperial aspirations, Bush Doctrine era U.S. rhetoric and the rhetoric of the Bolsheviks do indeed seem remarkably familiar, not to mention the fact that many of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration owed their intellectual foundations to the work of ex-Trotskyites like Irving Kristol.

Perhaps it is just the exalting tone in which Berman discusses Kouchner, but I found myself genuinely admiring the former French foreign minister. I'm certainly not a fan of Kouchner's preference for hierarchy, but I somehow associate with his former self a kind of pragmatic leftism that is sorely needed right now.
"But Kouchner remained a little skeptical on some other outcomes of the uprisings and the countercultural spirit. Maybe his own leftism always retained a few habits and assumptions of a slightly earlier age, pre-'68 - a leftism that insisted on being practical, more concerned with measurable consequences, less interested in mere attitudes and styles" (pg. 226).
I also chose to highlight the above quotation because it seems to me to be a subtle criticism of the "lifestylism" that resulted as the revolutionary momentum from '68 waned. Though maybe not the what Berman means by describing Kouchner's leftism as practical, I see it as the reasonable but still radical counterweight to the old maxim of "turn on, tune in, drop out" - which brought nothing constructive to the campaigns for socioeconomic justice during that time.

Lenin famously slandered Left-communism as "an infantile disorder." I think the same can be said for left-wing tribalism and left-wing sympathies for Arab nationalism in particular; it completely defies the corner stone of the Left - internationalism.
"The ancient left-wing principle that used to go under the name of internationalism showed no concern at all for the integrity of duly constituted states. 'Workers of the world' meant workers without borders" (pg. 244).
Internationalism desperately needs to be reemphasized. Leftists marching alongside Islamic fundamentalists or locking arms with totalitarian nationalists is, if anything, a sign of a very "infantile disorder." In recounting the debate between Cohn-Bendit and Kouchner, Berman puts this pointedly.
"The mass marches against the war, the placards, the slogans, the chanting crowds - every last aspect of this movement reminded him of the grossest errors of the left-wing past. 'In our generation,' [Kouchner] told Cohn - Bendit, 'antiwar marches used to offer protection to the worst Stalinist regimes, the most frightening massacres, and because of this, I wouldn't let myself take part anymore - nor would you, Danny. God knows how often we heard people shout, "Down with Bush!" But I didn't hear even the tiniest cry, "Down with Saddam!" And let's not even mention - or rather, we had better mention - the anti-semitic incidents" (pg. 265).
From now on, every mention of ANSWER will remind of the above passage.

I shall close this post with the words of Joschka Fischer, who so eloquently explained the necessity for alter-globalization, rather than anti-globalization. Anti-globalization carries with it a sense of opposition to progress and a rejection of the need to expand civil liberties for all people. And, after all, we cannot halt globalization, we can only attempt to change it; anti-globalization promises us nothing, while alter-globalization promises the co-option of the very mechanisms that seek to co-opt expressions of liberty.
'"It depends,' he said at Princeton, 'even more on the globalization of fundamental values, such as human rights, respect for life, religious and cultural tolerance, the equality of all human beings, of men and women, the rule of law and democracy and a share of the blessings of education, progress and social security...positive globalization is the real strategic response to the deadly challenge of a new totalitarianism" (pg. 285).

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