Posted: October 18, 2010
aul Berman, a writer-in-residence at New York University's Carter Journalism Institute, is not only an intellectual, he is a certified genius. (His credential was issued in the form of a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.) An often insightful liberal, he is justifiably alarmed at the uncritical acceptance extended by other intellectuals to Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim leader who has tried very hard to disguise his jihadist sympathies behind his own curtain of intellectuality. Ramadan is currently His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford.
The target of Berman's immediate frustration, however, is yet another lofty journalist, Ian Buruma, whose intellectual ticket was punched by the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. In 2008, they gave him €150,000 and an "adornment"—a little scarf-type garment on which is printed a platitude by the great Dutch polymath, Erasmus, after whom Buruma's prize is named. The Erasmus, like the Nobel and the Pulitzer—not to mention the MacArthur—has been tarnished by selection committees of serious-minded (which in this case means like-minded) cultural brokers bent on chic relevancy. Previous Erasmus recipients, for example, include a puppeteer and the "people of Austria."
Berman versus Ramadan and Buruma—three liberal cats in a sack, the product of which is The Flight of the Intellectuals, a very lively book built on something with which media critics will identify: outrage at the failure to report skeptically and skillfully on a figure or subject with which many on the Left feel an instinctive, if uninformed, sympathy.
Berman's vehicle is a very stylish fisking of a profile of Ramadan written in 2007 by Buruma for the New York Times Magazine. The book considers similar shortcomings in other journalists, notably the ubiquitous Timothy Garton Ash, but Buruma's bland acceptance of Ramadan's self-serving assertions (along with his embarrassingly disingenuous attacks on Ayaan Hirsi Ali) seems to irritate Berman most. Berman is scrupulous and fair; his fact-checking subjects Buruma to the kind of editorial scrutiny that journalists should anticipate, under normal circumstances.
But the Times's Sunday magazine is an anomalous creature. Put simply, its mission is to demonstrate its own influence. The sops to readers and advertisers are ephemeral, whimsical, or trite—clothes, crosswords, and columns of flimsy pretension. Its primary role is to be important—if possible, even more important than its parent newspaper. It attempts this by validating the instincts of its readers, who also aspire to importance, while mirroring a set of shared Leftish assumptions. Buruma is used often by the magazine to write stories that do just that.
Berman is an orthodox liberal, what Times editors used to like to call a "serious person." He has carved out a small but honorable niche as a whistleblower on his own side. His recent books, Terror and Liberalism (2003) and Power and the Idealists (2005), questioned the Left's apparent abandonment of classical liberal values in favor of effervescent pop slogans intended to provoke more publicity than thought. Liberal intellectuals love self-critical introspection, so Berman has enjoyed great success. It's likely Ian Buruma read Berman's previous books, nodding in sorrowful agreement.
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If so, the flight of the intellectuals must have seemed to Buruma a kind of ambush. After all, as Berman acknowledges, Buruma had written exactly the kind of "quizzical" piece the Times seems to love when profiling somebody the editors feel is comfortably controversial. The piece was respectful, moderate, and delicately probing, without crossing the line of confrontation.
Buruma seemed bemused by his difficulties in pinning his subject down.... The article rehearsed some of the political accusations that have been leveled at Ramadan in France: dark rumors, feminist shudders, complaints of bigotry, instinctive suspicions. But Buruma explained that, once he had looked into the accusations, they turned out to be groundless, or exaggerated and unjust, or distorted because the context had been omitted. On certain matters of controversy, Buruma expressed no opinion of his own and, out of courtesy, permitted Ramadan to rebut his critics. The rebuttals seemed firm, or at least plausible, even if Buruma now and then raised a skeptical eyebrow.
The piece ended on a pitch-perfect fluff note for the Times:
Ramadan offers a different way, which insists that a reasoned but traditionalist approach to Islam offers values that are as universal as those of the European Enlightenment.... His politics offer an alternative to violence, which, in the end, is reason enough to engage with him, critically, but without fear.
That was the important takeaway the Times intended. It made the magazine's piece more or less consistent with that liberal intellectual consensus about Tariq Ramadan, which is that he's the right sort of Muslim for Europe's 15 million believers, a well-dressed, reasonable man who lives in Switzerland, teaches at Oxford, and seems to condemn violence. For years, he has been a darling of the anti-American neo-Left-which includes quite a few Americans, of course. Salon calls Ramadan "the Muslim Martin Luther." Time calls him a "spiritual innovator" and a "thinker." Giorgio Armani calls him a customer.
But Berman calls him a dissembler and climbs through Ramadan's family tree, discussing his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, a sort of Islamic version of the IRA, and its expedient—and innovative—resonance with Naziism; Ramadan's grandfather, Berman points out, claimed Hitler as one of his inspirations. The Brotherhood's typical methods of persuasion have been the familiar ones: terrorizing, threatening, or blackmailing moderate Arab governments into abandoning Western-style liberal policies and replacing them with fundamentalist Islamic policies. Sometimes banned, sometimes welcomed, the Brotherhood is politically smooth, hugely influential, extremely treacherous, and well connected to terrorism. "The Muslim Brotherhood...has always stood united in awe and admiration for their brothers in Hamas," Berman writes. "Hamas venerates, in turn, the founding Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood."
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Ramadan has never disowned these things, and Buruma glides over these issues, as so many others have done. Berman rightly condemns him for letting Ramadan off the hook. Berman had, after all, already warned his fellow intellectuals about Ramadan in Terror and Liberalism. (In fact, that widely praised book contains long passages that are echoed and developed in The Flight of the Intellectuals.) One gets the feeling that maybe Buruma is taking a hit for all those who had been inattentive to Berman's previous counsels. "The conventional wisdom," Berman admits, "looked on Tariq Ramadan as a long-awaited Islamic hero—the religious thinker who was going, at last, to adapt Islam to the modern world. This was the reigning opinion in the New York intellectual press, back in 2006 and 2007."
New York's "intellectual press"—and now we see where that bar is set—had apparently gotten its impression from the French, no doubt loosely translated. For many years, Ramadan had been the favorite of the French altermondialistes, and, until his departure for Britain, one of the big draws at the colorful, noisy, anarchistic, and therefore largely nonsensical European Social Forum (ESF) gatherings. In advance of a November 2003 ESF session, he famously circulated his "Critique of (New) Communitarian Intellectuals," attacking Jewish activists for being too, well—Jewish, and not sufficiently dedicated to the cause of communitarianism, especially the pro-Palestinian aspects of it. Understandably, the document was widely considered to be anti-Semitic, even by the French elite, to whom anti-Semitism is often invisible. Ramadan called in favors to try to get the document published in the French press before the session began. But Libération, where a left-wing sympathy for the Palestinian cause knows few bounds, turned it down, while Le Monde, normally a reliable Ramadan supporter, refused five times to publish it. (It was finally published on an Islamic website, Oumma.com.) Ramadan's apologists quickly claimed that the document was addressing the problem of Zionism, not Judaism. But Ramadan's essay didn't accuse the Jewish communitarians of being too Israeli, or even too Zionist, only too Jewish. It was a humiliating defeat for Ramadan, and one that ought to have made his agenda quite clear. Fortunately for him, it went almost without notice in the American press.
So it took less than a year for sympathetic intellectuals to scrub Ramadan clean of the charge of anti-Semitism, and by 2004, Notre Dame, of all places, offered Ramadan the Henry R. Luce Professorship of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute. The Bush Administration, aware of Ramadan's potential for mischief, pointed out that he had given money to organizations supporting Hamas and barred his entry into the U.S., a policy a lower-level intellectual, the New Yorker's George Packer, condemned as "stupid." To Packer, after reading the Buruma piece, Ramadan, the "Swiss Islamic scholar," was a "serious and widely influential intellectual." Hillary Clinton lifted the ban—something Berman supports, arguing, reasonably, that "the freer the debate, the better for everyone." But that generous argument presupposes that an intellectual class clearly disposed to intellectual cowardice and pack-thinking would support anything approaching a "free debate." In practical terms, it simply means Ramadan's intellectual patina gets a little shine and the cause of Muslim fanaticism obtains another platform.
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In reviewing Berman's book, critics have pointed out that the self-delusion of liberal intellectuals has been the subject of other books. The New York Times's review cites Nick Cohen's What's Left? How the Left Lost Its Way (2007) and Julian Benda's celebrated Treason of the Intellectuals (1927). But the most apt comparison, I think, is with Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970). Unlike Berman, Wolfe saw clearly that fear of fact-checking—repeating the "gotcha" mantra—would never be enough to inspire real intellectual rigor, the kind that can swim upstream and destroy the insipidity of "conventional wisdom."
The reason for this is simple. The victory of Tariq Ramadan has been due to his ability to manipulate the ignorance of friendly intellectuals—men and women whose intellectuality has been consecrated by a kind of laying-on of the hands of other intellectuals. These are people who cannot both confess ignorance and maintain their intellectual claims. Ramadan demonstrated this brilliantly in 2006, when Pope Benedict, making a scholarly reference at a theological conference, quoted 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus's comment that there is little rationalistic tradition in Islamic theology—a problem, when it comes to dialogue. The editorialists at the New York Times may not have known whether there was any truth to that, but the paper nonetheless lamented "Muslims' shock at the Pope's remarks," and invited Ramadan to contribute an op-ed piece to express said shock. Ramadan dutifully denied the pope's assertion, and cited one of his grandfather's favorite teachers, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, an early 12th-century Persian mystic, as the source for his claim that Islamic theology has a strong rationalist tradition.
Except it doesn't; rationalism has always been viewed with suspicion in Islam. (Berman looks at that claim carefully, although not in connection with Benedict's comment.) If he is a student of al-Ghazali, Ramadan's "rationalism" isn't the "rationalism" Benedict obviously intended as a basis for discussion. Although some claim Al-Ghazali may have ultimately paved the way for some sort of Islamic adaptation of Aristotlelianism, in The Incoherence of the Philosophers he specifically rejects rationalism as a means to faith. This was a turning point in Islamic theological and philosophical development and has led to an Islamic antagonism toward reason.(As another Ramadan critic, Caroline Fourest, argues, Ramadan routinely employs a "double discourse"; that's a polite way of saying he talks out of both sides of his mouth.) But in making his claim, Ramadan knew that few people—even intellectuals—reading the Times would have a clue about al-Ghazali, and that they would believe what they needed to believe in any case.
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The idea of manipulating intellectuals by exploiting the gaping holes that no self-respecting modern intellectual can acknowledge, yet which exist in every person's education, is easier than ever. This also works with memory, as Henry Rousso pointed out in his 1987 classic, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944. In creating a cogent, intellectual point-of-view, some facts are worth remembering more than others, and some are worth nothing at all and should be forgotten. In the end, most people—but especially contemporary intellectuals—believe what they believe because it's too uncomfortable (or just too much work) to disrupt the seamless narrative of a carefully shaped worldview by trying to accommodate contrary evidence. The result is the kind of ignorance of obvious factors that has so irritated Berman. In fact, simply tracking the needed refutations to these intellectual narratives can make one tipsy with anger.
Just ask Theodore Dalrymple, contributing editor to City Journal and a columnist for the London Spectator. Dalrymple is the pitchman for the apocalypse and the poet laureate of complaint, a master with a sharp eye for the telling detail, who writes the blues the way Robert Johnson sings them. When it comes to delivering the news from Judah, nobody knows the trouble Ted Dalrymple has seen. Next time some dewy-eyed waitress tells you to have a nice day, lay some Dalrymple on her and show her the dark side of "nice."
For connoisseurs of the jeremiad, Dalrymple's The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism will be a necessary purchase; with Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (2005) and Not with a Bang but a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline (2008), The New Vichy Syndrome completes a three-part threnody on the victims of intellectual failure. Those victims, Dalrymple says, are all of us. We have been betrayed not just by the intellectuals' failure to cleanse themselves of the polluting, mind-twisting taint of politics, but by the failure of the culture (or, as he might add, what's left of it) to synthesize and make useful the episodic insanity of our times.
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Berman and Dalrymple may be at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they are united in their disgust for the infantile cowardice of our current crop of public intellectuals. For Berman, this cowardice is an explanation for their refusal to see what a careful observer should be able to see. For Dalrymple, it's a way of explaining all that afflicts the West in its lame, timid, and anxious confrontation with "barbarism."
And afflictions there are, aplenty. Dalrymple visits most of them, usually landing spot-on, but occasionally taking a tumble. Using Nigeria as a model for African statehood may have been a mistake, for example.
The vast majority of Nigerians has known nothing but independent Nigeria; and while they remain divided into some three hundred or so ethnicities (depending on what counts as an ethnicity), the fact is they do now have something, their Nigerianness if you like, in common.
Of course, Nigeria is also divided into an Islamic north and a Christian south and the Islamic Nigerians are violently opposed to the Christian ones; the country is often shaken by raids, atrocities, killings, and warfare based on anything but a sense of Nigerianness.
But Dalrymple is one of our best polemicists, elegant, insightful, and specific. On the subject of Europe, he is deeply and justifiably melancholy: the common currency is a huge problem; regionalization is bound to fail and cause misery as it does so; and while there is not much of a European future, there's a fairly rich and compensating past in the face of which "miserablism" is a foolish creed. "I don't see how anyone can walk around Paris, say, or Venice, or Rome, or indeed anywhere," he writes with uncharacteristically sweet sentimentality, "and see only crime and folly, and no achievement, almost all of it that of European civilization."
So he ends in sorrow and with a warning, first paraphrasing Dean Acheson's comment that Britain had lost her empire and not found a role with which to replace it. "You might say of Europe that it has lost its purpose, and not found any to replace it." America, he suggests, is not yet in that predicament:
a defense of all that is best, and of all the achievement, in American history is necessary. That is why the outcome of the culture wars in America is so important to its future. A healthy modern society must know how to remain the same as well as change, to conserve as well as reform. Europe has changed without knowing how to conserve; that is its tragedy.
It's an exhilarating book, one meant to be read in a single sitting. It moves quickly from one argument to another—although some of the connecting dots are a bit odd owing to the peculiar construction of the text and the highly engaging chorus provided by extensive marginal comments. Sometimes, footnotes swamp the text: for example, one chapter—the fourth, which is a kind of recap of the first three—has a very long note surveying the Salman Rushdie affair in some detail. The footnote is easily twice as long as the text to which it is appended. The text is fragmented; Dalrymple allows no loitering: if he's feeling expansive, he'll give you a thousand words, maybe two, tops. Most of the book's dour message is delivered with the brevity of a subversive flash card.
Through all of this, Dalrymple is a hugely entertaining writer, and a therapeutic one. You know after reading only a few pages of the latest Dalrymple that you can holster your outrage because he's got you covered. And this latest book—a perfect summer read—proceeds at such a breakneck pace that it resembles a thrill ride wrapped in a dust jacket. You finish saying, "Well! That was fun. Let's go again."