9 September 2010

Seasonal Migration of the Intellectuals

  • Paul Berman. The Flight of the Intellectuals. Melville House. April 2010.

Paul Berman’s fourth book is very different from his first three. In the earlier books, Berman’s method was not to hurl himself into battle, but rather to survey the fray from some distance and then pull in on several of the combatants to try to figure out what had caused them to fight. A Tale of Two Utopias (1996) and its sequel, Power and the Idealists (2005), were journalistic accounts of the journey of the Baby Boomer Left from 1968 to the present. And while 2003’s Terror and Liberalism was grouped with several other books in which a prominent liberal revealed his hawkish plume and came out in favor of the Iraq invasion, it, too, was mainly a history. Berman is a polemicist and an intellectual, but he is primarily an intellectual historian; and, most valuably, he has been a historian of intellectuals, one step removed from their battles.

The story Berman has told again and again is the story of the generation of 1968: why they occupied university buildings in the late 1960s (Berman was then an active member of Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia); why, in Germany, they made common cause with Palestinian terrorists in the 1970s; why, in France, they then began to question the very notion of political engagement; why, eventually, like Berman, they supported military action in the Balkans and, finally and fatefully, the invasion of Iraq. Badly hungover by the beliefs they espoused in 1968 (Leninist, or Maoist, or some other -ist), the ‘68ers nonetheless remained attached to the structure of ideological commitment, which eventually attached itself to the politics of human rights and anti-fascism. 

Berman’s explanations for his generation’s behavior have been in a broad sense psychological. Here is Berman in Power and the Idealists on the French generation of 1968:  

The militants who had fought in Spain or in the Resistance were the Series A generation. The militants of their own generation, [Régis Debray’s] and [Bernard] Kouchner’s, had to recognize that, by contrast, they were strictly Series B. They were the generation of the second rate—the less-than-Malraux, less-than-Camus generation. The students were résistants who had nothing to resist. They pretended to resist, even so, and pretending merely aggravated their self-doubts. They dreamed, therefore. They went to the movies. 

Berman has understood his characters by understanding where they came from. (Sometimes literally: legendary soixante-huitard Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Berman tells us, liked to say that his parents conceived him while hiding from the Nazis in celebration of the news from Normandy. He was born to fight fascism.) Berman’s languid prose style has complemented his aims, which are more typically satisfied by works of fiction. He begins lots of sentences with conjunctions, like a good conversationalist; these spool out in clauses within clauses within clauses. His sentences would be fun to diagram. 

After his argument for the Iraq War in Terror and Liberalism, however, Berman’s third book, Power and the Idealists, ended with a surprising admission. “The team was gone, now,” he wrote. A younger generation—“maybe a lot younger”—would have to find a new way of discussing the same old issues. Berman did not exactly repudiate what he had argued about Iraq, but he did suggest that, in the deserts of Mesopotamia, the Boomer Left’s language of human rights and anti-fascism had met its end. The generation of 1968 was finished.


But not so fast: Berman and his generation are back. Yet one feels a difference—most immediately at the level of the prose: Berman’s writing in his new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, is tighter, more claustrophobic. Gone are those sensational sentences; present are rage-filled declarations. The intellectuals have been willingly duped by a smooth Muslim con man; more important, they have abdicated their responsibility to anti-fascism and human rights. Berman is angrier than ever before, and indeed maybe for the first time. He has departed the lonely hilltop from which he had observed the intellectuals and their conflicts. The Flight of the Intellectuals is not an account of the fighting. It is itself a salvo. 

The book describes in agonizing detail the thoughts and speeches—and the deep, deep background to the thoughts and speeches—of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford. Dapper and suave, Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he has made it his mission to be the bridge between contemporary mainstream European culture and the European Union’s thirteen million Muslims. In his books and lectures, he has attempted to reinterpret Islam’s foundational texts in order to bring them in line with modernity, and specifically with Muslims living in countries that lack Muslim-majority populations. His goal is a reconciled “Euro-Islam” in which European Muslims stay true to their faith while living peaceful and productive European lives. (The Bush Administration and, for a time, the present Administration banned Ramadan from the United States because he donated money to a charity that donated money to Hamas. He has since been allowed in, a decision Berman supported.) 

All of this sounds pretty good, which is why Western intellectuals seeking someone they can talk to are greatly interested in him. But, as Berman is not the first to point out, there’s a catch. Where did Tariq Ramadan come from? “Ramadan,” writes Berman, “is nothing if not a son, a brother, a grandson and even a great-grandson—family relations that appear to shape everything he writes and does.” For Berman, with his interest in the roots of intellectual positions, Ramadan, far from being a reformer, is in fact someone continuing the family project. He is a man “imprisoned in a cage made of his own doctrine about his grandfather and his grandfather’s ideology.” “What can Ramadan do about any of this?” Berman asks, his sorrow for once conquering his anger. “He is hardly going to turn against his family. He is the family’s prince.”  

If you view The Flight of the Intellectuals simply as a polemic against Ramadan, you will miss the sympathy Berman has for him. You will also miss whom Berman really has it in for: the liberal Western intellectuals who see Ramadan, whom Berman believes is a covert fundamentalist, as the “long-awaited Islamic hero—the religious thinker who was going, at last, to adapt Islam in the modern world.” Berman indicts Ramadan partly because doing so is prerequisite to indicting those who should know better, and to examining why they don’t. In truth, at least in terms of his subject, Berman is back on his old beat: the left-wing intellectuals of ’68, their motivations, and the perverse results that occasionally follow.  


The man who wrote the article that launched this book is Ian Buruma, the Dutch-born journalist and author (he now teaches at Bard College upstate). Buruma’s “Tariq Ramadan Has an Identity Issue,” which appeared in the February 3, 2007 New York Times Magazine, casts Ramadan, for all his slipperiness and problematic heritage, as a man we can deal with—and therefore, given the importance of making Western culture compatible with Islam, a man we should deal with. The profile is, in Berman’s characterization, “an endorsement.” 

Et tu, Buruma? Buruma’s 2003 book, Occidentalism, had traced and condemned non-Western versions of fascism; Berman has nothing but praise for it. Buruma’s subsequent book, Murder in Amsterdam, examined the aftermath of a disaffected Dutch Muslim’s assassination of Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker who had collaborated with the fierce Somali-born Dutch critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Submission, a film about the treatment of women in Islamic countries. In other words, Buruma’s pedigree suggested that he would have been among the first to see Ramadan for the terrorist-enabler that he is.  

But Buruma has gone from defending liberal values to supporting the illiberal Ramadan: the intellectual Dutchman has taken flight. So has Timothy Garton Ash, once a brave Eastern Bloc correspondent whom Berman used to admire: He has “applauded Ramadan precisely along Buruma’s lines.” So has, finally, “the reigning opinion in the New York intellectual press.” They all stand accused of “the racism of the anti-racists,” which condescends to non-Western “reformers” like Ramadan by letting slide certain positions, or failing to apply sufficient pressure to certain explanations (or extenuations), that, were a Westerner to hold or espouse them, would be grounds for excommunication from the church of the right-thinking.  

Additionally, Berman condemns the intellectuals-in-flight for ceasing to emphasize the role that ideas play in the cultural struggle between the West and Islam, and instead giving greater weight to social and economic matters. It is the old debate, over whether ideas or material factors are the prime governors of reality. Berman correctly casts himself as the idealist and his opponents as the materialists. Only, he does not then argue for his side; he merely asserts as a premise that his side is correct—that the 2,500-year-old debate is over, and Plato won. Says Berman: 

By the time he wrote Murder in Amsterdam, though, Buruma no longer seemed especially interested in the history of ideas and their influence. He glanced in passing at the murderer’s ideology and concepts, and then he lavished his true attention on the sociological landscape of immigrant life in modern Holland and the miseries of Amsterdam life.… [H]is interest in ideas and doctrines seemed to dissipate almost entirely. 

I’ve read Murder in Amsterdam, and this description is accurate. But Berman never explains why this is a bad thing. When Berman writes, “You can learn a lot about the Europe of our time from Murder in Amsterdam,” the compliment is actually backhanded: “Europe of our time,” according to Berman, is beside the point. The living conditions of Western Europe’s disproportionately Islamic underclass have as much to do with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Western Europe as does this year’s Vietnamese orange crop.  

In contrast to Berman, Buruma understands that while many European adherents of radical Islam full-heartedly believe its tenets, they have chosen to believe them for reasons that are originally non-ideological, like cultural disorientation, or lack of socioeconomic mobility. Therefore, Buruma would rather European Muslims cling to some of their non-Western customs if it means it lessens the likelihood of terrorism. That is all reasonable. But is Ramadan the man to bring about this compromise? Here Berman is more convincing. 


Ramadan describes himself as a “salafi reformist,” which sounds vague (salafi?) and pleasant (reformist!). But it turns out that Ramadan’s grandfather al-Banna called himself a salafi reformist, too. So did his admirer, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb, a major character in Terror and Liberalism, is the intellectual godfather of the jihadist philosophy espoused by Al Qaeda. Does this make Ramadan the equivalent of Osama bin Laden? Of course not, and Berman doesn’t say so. But watching Berman reconfigure the interpretive method by which Qutb reached his conclusions, and watching him wonder where a similar method would (and would not) lead Ramadan, you see that Ramadan falls on the wrong side of enough questions to make his reformation of European Islam not really worth anyone’s while. 

It is persuasive and, at times, joyful to watch Berman carefully construct Thomistic structures of evidence that, in the end, purport to prove that Ramadan has a woman problem, and a Jewish problem, and a Nazi problem, and so on. Berman reaches these conclusions via something like an intellectual transitive principle. Since Haj Amin al-Husseini, the notorious World War II-era Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was an eager Nazi co-conspirator; and since Ramadan’s grandfather al-Banna, through his successful solidarity campaigns, was crucial to the Mufti’s ability to operate effectively in the Arab world; and since Ramadan refuses to condemn al-Banna, and in fact frequently celebrates him; then Ramadan is, at the very least, soft on Nazism. Moreover, since Nazism has not been eradicated, but rather lives on in the fascist ethos of Islamic fundamentalism, then the fact that Europe’s most influential Islamic scholar is soft on Nazism is not a merely academic problem.  

This sort of thing takes up a lot of pages and it’s been the cause of a fair amount of needling, and worse, from Berman’s reviewers. Writing in the New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra pointed out that a world in which even Mahatma Gandhi’s most trusted comrades had dealings with the Nazis in order to weaken the British is a pretty complicated place. People have lunch with all sorts of other people, and who will cry bloody murder if the Times Magazine runs a cover feature on Gandhi? That said, it is generally Ramadan’s fault that Berman must rely on circumstantial evidence. Even Buruma was not so in the tank that he couldn’t write of his subject: “He proved a hard man to pin down.”

However, Ramadan has committed one overt slip-up, or something close to it, and it is the occasion for Berman the Detective’s tour de force. On a French TV show in 2003, France’s ambitious interior minister asked Ramadan if he agreed that women who commit adultery ought to be stoned to death. In response, Ramadan called for a moratorium on the practice, in order to buy time for the Muslim community to decide, internally and finally, on its justice. The incredulous interior minister—his name was Nicolas Sarkozy—gave Ramadan a second chance to simply condemn stoning, period. Ramadan wouldn’t. He wouldn’t then, on French television in 2003; he wouldn’t a few months ago, when I saw him at a panel at Cooper Union.  

For Berman, this is as close to a smoking gun as we will find. Over a dozen pages, touching on philosophers as diverse as al-Ghazali and William James, Berman makes the case that while Ramadan wants you to imagine a “properly constituted modern-day fatwa committee,” which would all but certainly outlaw the practice of stoning, in reality, if you understand the framework Ramadan is operating in, you see that he wants a committee that will heed the calls of the spirit rather than of science, and of medievalism rather than modernity. In conclusion, his moratorium would “leave the ultimate decisions to the worst sorts of violent and obscurantist preachers,” who would be all but certain to condone stoning, not condemn it.  

Berman’s performance here is virtuosic, and it leads one to imagine a counterfactual. What if Ramadan—who as a result of his lineage carries major currency with disaffected European Muslims—states unequivocally that his grandfather’s path was the wrong path, wrong morally and wrong practically, and has led his co-religionists (and the rest of the world) only into greater misery. Imagine that different Ramadan, and you will see that whether or not Berman is right or wrong about Ramadan is not, as one particularly (and gratuitously) vicious critic of Berman put it, “irrelevant to the point of being ludicrous.” It is actually really relevant, because people do things like fly planes into buildings and kill filmmakers because of ideas. Whatever else this is, it is, alas, certainly a war of ideas. 


“On this topic, the war of ideas,” Berman wrote in Terror and Liberalism, “I’m happy to be a laptop general.” However literally you can take the phrase “laptop general,” that’s how literally you should take it. For Berman, this is not only a war of ideas, it is a war properly fought with ideas. 

Terror and Liberalism is the exemplary “idealist” artifact from the Iraq debate. (In his influential 2003 article on the liberal hawks, George Packer’s epithet for Berman was “The Idealist.”) To Berman, the number-one operative fact about Iraq was not its geography, its ethnic makeup, its tribal past, its alliances, or any of that stuff. The most relevant fact was that its governing ideology, Baathism, was the descendant of Stalinism and Nazism. The war against Islamic fundamentalism, in Berman’s analysis, is “mental, above all”—exactly like “the earlier wars between liberalism and other forms of totalitarianism.” And how did we win the Cold War again? “It was a war of the newsstands and the bookstores,” Berman remembers. “It was a war of conferences, lectures, writers’ organizations, university debates, and scholarship.” It was, finally, “a war of persuasion.” And so too with Iraq: Berman reluctantly supported invasion, but his heart was most drawn to the project of convincing the world, and Iraqis, of Baathism’s evils. (As one reviewer snarked back in 2003, referring to the Cold War-era anti-communist intellectual organization, “[Berman’s] book reads like an updated manifesto for the Congress for Cultural Freedom.” The reviewer was Ian Buruma. ) 

But was Iraq won—to the extent that it has been won—at the newsstands? More to the point, at the newsstands in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra? In the Sunni hinterlands and the Shia slums and the Kurdish mountains? Actually, as it turns out, the United States succeeded in converting large swaths of the Iraqi population to its side not, pace Berman, by persuading them of the relative blandishments of democracy, but by giving them lots and lots and lots of cash. By paying them. Because money talks and bullshit walks, even when the bullshit isn’t actually bullshit.  

More broadly, even counterinsurgency theory (COIN), with its emphasis on “hearts and minds,” is not seeking to win “a war of persuasion,” at least in the way Berman means it. COIN posits that the vast majority of people fighting the West are driven to opposition out of fear, or vengeance, or other conditional motivations. From the perspective of the counterinsurgent, this lack of ideological commitment is a good thing: it means all but a tiny, hardcore fraction of the enemy can be swayed to our side if we convince them that we offer a better life. More coins, in other words. But Berman’s sort of persuasion barely enters this conversation.  

COIN is a military doctrine, and the Euro-Islam predicament is not military. Moreover, Europe’s Muslim societies are much more modern than Iraq’s. But still, with their living conditions and lack of mobility so profoundly alienating—with Buruma’s scrupulously sketched “Europe of our time” being what it is—are the newsstands really the best and most efficient way to dissuade millions of Muslims living in Europe, many of them second- and even third-generation French or Dutch or German or British, from subscribing to violent Islamic fundamentalism and launching the sorts of terrorist attacks that Madrid and London have suffered in recent years? 

Here is where Tariq Ramadan enters the picture: Here, Buruma’s thinking goes, is the person and the ideology that, by granting European Muslims their faiths and even their traditions while urging a real degree of conciliation with Western mores, will create a peaceful Euro-Islam. Berman would decline Ramadan specifically this role, and I would decline him for it, too. But Berman’s alternative choice for that role shows how superficial his understanding of this battle is. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a brave, Somali-born Dutch politician, who is outspoken—except that is an understatement—on the evils of radical Islam. She has called for an Islamic Voltaire to sweep away all dogma; many of her supporters would nominate her for the spot. “A more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist,” says Berman. Liberal intellectuals everywhere, he adds, ought to be amplifying her views and her existence itself, which is an inherent act of liberalism. 

Yet, Buruma, Garton Ash, and the unnamed co-defendants, according to Berman, “sneer” at Hirsi Ali, trivialize her by referring to her great beauty, and ultimately don’t give a damn about her beyond half-heartedly wishing for her basic safety. (The knife that killed the Dutch filmmaker van Gogh bore a note telling Hirsi Ali that she was next.) Berman fairly assesses Buruma’s views on Ramadan. But on the subject of Hirsi Ali, Berman gets Buruma all wrong: 

About Hirsi Ali’s secular and liberal goals, [Buruma] says, “It is hard to disagree in principle,” which indicates his disapproval. Then he adds, “Whether she was wise is another matter,” which indicates that disapproval has deepened into condemnation. Hirsi Ali has denounced Koranic intolerance against Jews and homosexuals. Buruma applauds. “But her strident tone put people off.” 

Buruma’s laconic prose style can leave room for some misinterpretation. But sometimes words say what they appear to say. Buruma agrees with Hirsi Ali’s secular and liberal goals. What he disagrees with is Hirsi Ali’s being those goals’ standard-bearer. Why? Well, because “her strident tone put people off.” 

Berman continues his decidedly unproductive misreading, and if you touched his words, his sarcastic contempt would smudge onto your fingers: “Buruma is pained to report that Hirsi Ali’s personal demeanor tends to be off-putting to anyone who, like himself, sympathizes with the downtrodden. It is because of her unattractively aristocratic air of haughty disdain.” Well… yes. Why shouldn’t Buruma be pained to report that this enlivening figure is, due to her strident tone and neurotic need to deny any validity to any Muslim doctrine (including its belief in God), not a particularly useful soldier in the war of ideas, because she would rather spit at the jury than persuade it? Buruma is not disparaging Hirsi Ali’s substance. He is disparaging her usefulness.  

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with Berman’s staunch support for her. No one is obliged to write a book that enters the conversation of usefulness. In fact, Berman’s prior books have brazenly, and thrillingly, ignored this definition of usefulness; in them, he has graded politicians like former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and powerful activists like Tom Hayden on curves far removed from day-to-day political utility, and has thereby revealed things no one else has. Berman could have done the same with Buruma and Hirsi Ali. But instead he has chosen to engage them, which has in turn made him vulnerable to attacks about the likely non-consequences of his favored war of the newsstands.


Berman’s title is an allusion to Julien Benda’s 1927 book La Trahison des clercs. For centuries, explains Benda, the clerc—essentially, the intellectual, although Benda carefully chose a word with religious connotations—stayed aloof from politics: the clercs were “all those whose activity essentially is not the pursuit of practical aims, all those who seek their joy … in the possession of non-material advantages, and hence in a certain manner say: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’” The clerc existed not to guide policy, but to enrich mankind, whispering in the ears of its wise men to keep them honest. “Thanks to the ‘clerks,’” Benda says, “humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honored good.” The treason of the intellectuals came about when, after nearly two millennia of standing astride history shouting nothing, they decided to engage with politics: first with the French Revolution, most notoriously during the Dreyfus Affair, and only more so in the decade after World War I, when Benda composed his jeremiad. 

Berman is making the exact critique of Buruma and Garton Ash that Benda made of his contemporaries: Rather than focusing on what is eternally right, they are looking to make the sorts of compromises that are the stock-in-trade of the politician, and to avoid the sorts of absolute stands that the politician spends his days fleeing from. Hence, their resorting to material rather than ideological explanations (and solutions) for pissed-off European Muslims. Hence, their support for dealing with Ramadan; hence, their reluctance to showcase Hirsi Ali. 

Yet Buruma, Garton Ash, and the “New York intellectual press” have never been anything other than the types of engaged thinkers that we commonly term “public intellectuals,” and that Benda would call traitors: people who attempt to shape policy and the world. Benda worried there were no more true clercs left—and that was over eighty years ago! Berman especially abhors the compromises Buruma and Garton Ash propose because they embody the specific compromise his generational cohort has made.

And yet: I can think of one American intellectual (as opposed to pure professor; the academy has its own wars) who has for the most part lived up to Benda’s prescriptions. It is, of course, Berman. At his best—which is to say, in the two-volume history that is A Tale of Two Utopias and Power and the Idealists, and in those sections of Terror and Liberalism where he earnestly and curiously and open-mindedly explores the intellectual roots of Islamic fundamentalism—he has been something very like a clerc

Power and the Idealists’s opening chapter, “The Passion of Joschka Fischer,” is the best examination you can find of the chaotic clash between absolute values and political exigencies that ensues when an idealist desires to shape the world. That clash, whether it is Hayden’s or Fischer’s or Ramadan’s, is Berman’s perennial subject. Except this time, the explorer has gone native; The Flight of the Intellectuals is a document of Berman’s own clash. Berman the clerc has abandoned his vocation, and his subsequent attempts to put his treasured transcendent principles to practical use have, predictably, failed. I hope it’s not permanent, but the hope is a faint one. Benda knew that the hardest thing about being a clerc was resisting the temptation not to be one.

Image: Tariq Ramadan.

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