February 28, 2006

Paul Berman's Obsessions

[I first published this essay only a few months ago, on November 23, 2005. I offer it again here because in rereading it this morning, I remembered how crucial some of the themes I talked about are to my ongoing series about Iran. As I indicate below, they would be featured in that series, as they now are: for example, one of America's central myths about itself, and the racism that the myth inevitably implies, are analyzed in Part IV. And the idea of Western and American "exceptionalism" -- or the "Idea of Progress," with Western civilization, and the United States more particularly, embodying the final culmination, a universal ideal to which everyone should aspire -- is discussed in Part III, and especially in Part VI. These ideas are all part of the intellectual and cultural foundation that drives our foreign policy; their cumulative effect, when coupled with a notably aggressive militarism, is calamitous.

I also republish this piece, simply because I must confess that I am inordinately fond of it. Aside from the ideas it discusses, which I view as of great significance and as containing many implications on a wide range of topics, I was especially pleased with this essay in purely literary terms. I hope you enjoy it, and find it of some value in my continuing treatment of these themes.]

Paul Berman has a great deal to make amends for, should the urge ever strike him. On the basis of this lengthy article in The New Republic, he will not be so moved in the foreseeable future. The article celebrates what Berman views as a long overdue, desperately needed and very welcome strain in French thought: "a new literature of anti-anti-Americanism."

Berman played a far from insignificant role in softening the ground on behalf of the Bush foreign policy, and providing justification for it. His book, Terror and Liberalism, presented what I view as a largely meretricious argument on behalf of a cause he ought to have understood much better than he appeared to. When I have time one of these days, I'll explain several of the more glaring problems in his presentation. (For me, although it may not hold similar interest for many others, one of the more intriguing ways in which Berman loses his footing is in his failure to grasp the roots and motivations of the romantic literary movement of the nineteenth century, including the concerns that drove French writers like Victor Hugo. To view Hugo as embracing in any notable way the kind of nihilism that is connected, however tangentially, to the destructiveness unleashed by modern terrorists and to 9/11 is quite a leap, but Berman makes it with considerable commitment.)

Without even attempting to prove a case against Berman here, I will only note that he provided a defensible cover for many other self-appointed members of our intellectual class, and offered a dressed-up version of the more prosaic arguments used to defend what was an utterly unjustified war of aggression against a nation that did not threaten us. Berman added a lot of intellectual curlicues and made it appear that, if we failed to heed his call to arms, civilization would disappear from the planet once and for all. His effort constitutes a powerful exhibit for the proposition that if you make any position sufficiently intimidating and construct a complex argument that dares anyone to deconstruct it and point out its numerous flaws, people will swallow anything. Until I get around to a lengthier consideration of Berman's foreign policy prescriptions, think of them as Peter Beinart with more book learning, if that helps.

In the post-9/11 atmosphere, when too many people were willing to succumb to such urgent pleas, Berman added intellectual footnotes to the desire for revenge. When you stripped away the camouflage, the cry was still: "Let's attack somebody! Anybody! That will make us safer!" What he and others meant was that it would make them feel better, which is not exactly the same thing.

Here, I want to note two excerpts from Berman's article about, in his view, the French finally coming to their senses. After discussing several other books and writers, Berman turns to Andre Glucksmann, whose "great purpose is to insist that such a thing as hatred does exist." Berman laments that "[w]e have ceased to believe in the reality of hatred." Berman goes on:
We are all social determinists now. We like to suppose that everything has a material explanation--which is precisely what Aeschylus, Seneca, Shakespeare, and Racine knew was not the case. Today, confronted with the signs and deeds of an uncontrolled and murderous hatred, our first impulse is to go looking for some proximate cause--to assume that, if Medea has gone out of her mind and has slaughtered her children and has burned down the city, there must be some large motivating explanation beyond the unfortunate fact that she is upset at being abandoned by her husband, Jason.

But why should we look for larger motivating explanations? The wildest of hatreds do not need a cause outside of ourselves. This is Glucksmann's point. Hatred's causes may merely be hatred's excuses. We hate because we choose to hate. We could equally choose not to do so. And why choose to hate? On this question, Glucksmann reveals himself as the disciple, as no one could have predicted, of Sartre. In Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre wrote that people who give in to the pleasures of hatred do so because they cannot abide their own frailties. Weakness and imperfection are the human condition. But weakness and imperfection leave us unsatisfied, maybe even disgusted with ourselves. Hatred, however, can make us feel strong. Hatred is thrilling. Hatred is reassuring. When we choose to hate, we discover that, by hating, we overcome our own disappointment at ourselves. We choose to hate because we want to feel the exhilarating vibrations of power instead of weakness, the perfect ideal instead of the imperfect reality. And so, in order to hate, we hold aloft a glorious vision that can never exist: the vision of a perfect mankind unstained by weakness and flaws, a vision of purity and power. And we give ourselves over to the satisfying pleasures of hating everyone who stands in the way of the perfect vision.
The three examples of this kind of self-sustaining hatred that Glucksmann offers are those of women, of Jews, and of America. Berman obviously finds this very attractive, because these are also "the three pillars on which modern radical Islamism stands" -- and it thus fits neatly into the structure of Berman's own argument.

There is far too much to untangle here in a single post, so I won't even attempt it. I don't deny the reality of any of these hatreds at all, although I would suggest that the roots of anti-Americanism are very different in nature and cause when compared to the other two (and especially different from the hatred for women, even radically so). Similarly, I don't deny that a strain of deeply irrational hatred of America exists, although I don't think it is nearly as widespread or dangerous as Berman does. (I also think it has different causes in very large part than those ascribed to it by Berman and the authors he cites.)

But what I find so interesting is the thought that never appears to occur to Berman: this identical dynamic could be applied to many aspects of America itself today. From the very ugly strain of the most extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric, to the particular hatreds unleashed by the evangelical religious movement (including a virulent hatred of gays and lesbians, and all of which has been significantly empowered by Bush), to what appears to still be a foundational racism in America's soul (revealed most recently in the aftermath of Katrina), this is hardly a phenomenon unknown to the United States. Indeed, America's treatment of Native Americans and blacks is mentioned in Berman's discussion as one of the roots of French "anti-Americanism." I'll side with the French on that point, thank you, and gratefully so.

And more than this: Bush and his most ardent supporters fervently believe in America itself as "a vision of purity and power" -- and their disdain for any nation or people that declines to embrace our particular version of the ideal society easily shades into hatred for "the other." In fact, this kind of "perfect vision" of America itself lies at the core of what drives our current foreign policy in significant part, both now and in the past. Think of the more familiar phrase, "American exceptionalism." And recall Wilson's crusade to "make the world safe for democracy." He wasn't talking about just any form of "democracy." Wilson meant democracy in the particularly American style. These are only a few examples out of many. But Berman appears to have been overtaken by devotion to his numerous defenses of America, so such thoughts never occur to him, or at least he doesn't write about them to my knowledge. (By the way, this element of America's view of itself will be a central element in my series involving Iran.)

I want to offer one other excerpt, because its obvious implication runs directly against one overall theme advanced by Berman, as well as by Bush and the foreign policy he has adopted (which is, not coincidentally, resonant with Wilsonian echoes): the idea that everyone wants what we want, that everyone yearns for "freedom" in the specifically American mode. Berman outlines European attitudes toward America in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among the figures he mentions is the naturalist Buffon, who believed that the Biblical flood took place later in America than it had in Europe. As a result, "the New World was still a bit soggy." As a further result, animal and human development were very backward compared to their counterparts in Europe. (As Berman notes, we laugh at such notions now, but Buffon was apparently viewed as "fair and reasonable" in his scientific methods, both during his own lifetime and afterward. Berman says that no less an eminence than Darwin spoke favorably of him. We progress even on this record, for which we must give thanks.)

After laying this background out in more detail, Berman says:
Franklin, at a dinner in Paris, asked all the American men to stand up, and likewise all the French men, in order to demonstrate that Americans were taller, not shorter, than the French--which was a devastating refutation of the naturalist theory of biological degeneration, and a genial display of American wit, to boot. But Franklin's dinner is likewise bound to disappoint us. We would prefer to learn what Franklin might have said to his dinner partners on just about any other topic at all. Electricity, for instance; or liberty. Only, what alternative did Jefferson and Franklin have, except to demonstrate at length that, whatever the possibilities for human freedom might be, New World moisture did not stand in the way?

The existence of these debates shows us, at the very least, just how radical and even bizarre was the democratic idea in the late eighteenth century--an idea that ran up against science itself, let alone five thousand years of political wisdom. And the debates suggest how deeply and even unconsciously the leading thinkers in Europe, the lights of the Enlightenment, the best and not the worst in European civilization, recoiled at the new society arising across the ocean.
Berman seems not to appreciate the significance of his own observations.

I have often made the point that many commentators and far too many politicians, including most regrettably our president, forget that the United States represented the culmination of several centuries of intellectual development. It relied on ideas that had developed over a long period of time, and it arose in a specific time and place. It is simply not possible to think that our system of government can be painlessly or easily transplanted around the world, and installed in the equivalent of ten easy steps in countries with cultures, societies, peoples and histories vastly different from ours. To put it more simply: the idea that "everyone wants what we want" is patently absurd. But this is another symptom of "American exceptionalism": the idea that we have the best system ever devised by man, and that everyone else will immediately want it once we have explained its wonders to them. Wonders they certainly were at the country's founding, and wonders they remain in certain respects -- but that does not translate into the desire for instant emulation around the globe.

And Berman himself offers evidence on this point with admirable clarity, yet he fails to see its meaning. The late eighteenth century was but a moment ago in historic terms. We barely became familiar with liberty ourselves, and now we are seeing its attempted destruction in significant part courtesy of the present administration. We demand that others make themselves "free" in the way we are free -- while we simultaneously do grievous injury to liberty here at home.

Yet writers like Berman, who are all too numerous, never seem to find time to discuss the great significance of the threats within our own borders. He is transfixed by "anti-Americanism," and he rejoices at the new French "literature of anti-anti-Americanism."

To understate the matter considerably: I think Mr. Berman might much better spend his time and considerable intellectual energies on more pressing concerns closer to home. He would do us all a great service. And if he helped to ensure and make more certain the continuation of liberty here, that liberty might finally be so attractive to other countries that they will very gratefully adapt it to their own needs, without the aid of invasions and occupations.

And how much happier we all might be.