Sunday, June 18, 2006

Naive Or Nuanced?

Here's the interview that led me to order Paul Berman's book. (See post just below this one.)

An excerpt:

A Political naivety?

Alan Johnson: The first criticism indicts you as politically naïve. Danny Postel in The Washington Post, and Ellen Willis in Salon, thought Terror and Liberalism was vitiated by a faith in the Bush administration as a force for freedom that was just naïve. Edward S. Herman in Z Magazine (July-August 2003) called you a 'very model of a Cruise Missile Leftist' because you ignored the fact that 'U.S. liberalism is attached to an advanced, globalised, militarised, capitalist political economy whose material interests might be a more important force shaping its external policies than liberal principles'. 'Berman deals with this', he said, 'by complete evasion'. Similarly, Kurt Jacobsen, in Logos, suggested that 'the dark but distinct possibility that overtly noble wars …would be conducted according to realpolitik tenets and exploitative aims seems lost on Berman'. 'Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, Berman admonishes, watch the impressive fireworks and shut up…'. Writing in The Nation, George Scialabba listed some US imperialist interventions and commented that 'Not one of these episodes is mentioned in Terror and Liberalism'. How do you respond?

Paul Berman: First, on the topic of naiveté and the imperialist nature of the west or the USA. One of the arguments I make in the book is that the totalitarian movements represent something that was originally tried out by western imperialists in the colonised world and which then swept back over Europe: the Belgian atrocities in the Congo, the German colonisers who set out to exterminate the Herrero tribe, and so on. These were first steps in what became the totalitarianism of Europe. The USA was not exempt from this sort of thing itself, in the Philippines and elsewhere. But US imperialism—if we are to use the word in any kind of reasonably defined sense—has mostly been a story of East Asia and Latin America, not of the Arab world.

In regard to the US I think the naiveté is the other way. It takes two forms. There is an idea which comes out of Lenin's book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, which argues that the western countries are in effect operating as a bloc in oppressing the rest of the world. It's possible to draw an analysis out of that book according to which western imperialists as a whole are enriching themselves by impoverishing the countries in the rest of the world. In this analysis one views the US as very nearly a single unit (this is Lenin's argument) and everything that the US does must have very nearly a single quality – imperialist and oppressive. And this is hard to accept. The United States, like any society, consists of thousands of different currents which go this way and that way, and the actions of the US—both of private individuals and the state—can likewise go this way or that, with many different effects. The same United States which acted so catastrophically and irresponsibly in Guatemala in the 1950s managed to liberate France and give it back to the French a few years earlier, and defeated the Nazis in order to give Germany back to the Germans. The US is a country which can act this way or that way according to decisions that are made – decisions which can be influenced by the citizens. It's naïve to assume that what the US does is always, simply, by definition, imperialist.

And there is an American version of this idea which is not Leninist at all. Rather it's a kind of Protestant idea. In this case what matters is our inner soul. If our inner soul is good our outer actions must, by definition, be good. This is a naïve idea in the extreme and the source of a certain kind of American nationalism. The person who expresses this idea with intuitive ease is George W. Bush. He said after the 7/7 bombings, while he was in Britain: 'If they could only see into our hearts they would know how good we are', and he honestly believes that. He looks into his own heart and believes he is a good man and therefore his policies must be good, and everything the US does must be good. But there is a flip side of that. Other people say, 'Well, my own heart is not so good. I see envy, rapacity, greed, lust, therefore I know I am not a good person, therefore nothing the United States does can be good. Everything must be bad.' It's George W. Bushism flipped on its head. There is a great deal of this. People say, 'what are we doing trying to fight bad guys in other parts of the world? We should look in our own hearts and see that we are bad'. Instead of trying to rescue oppressed people in other parts of the world, let us try vigorously to improve our own characters.

Will I read all of the referenced critiques? You bet (assuming that they're accessible on line). But first I want to read Berman's book itself.

Meanwhile, this interview is fascinating, touching as it does upon Big Ideas and Unpalatable Realities and being rather unsparing of thoughtful criticism of both Left and Right assumptions and tendencies. Most remarkable--because I find the quality so often lacking in much of what passes for criticism, analysis and debate these days--is a sense of the larger picture, of "today" as a bigger concept than this week, month, year or presidential term when it comes to tackling the challenges of our modern age.

I suspect--and I choose that word carefully, having already said that I need to read the book itself and then the critiques, firsthand--that Berman's book has come under fire, from different quarters along the political spectrum, due to the presentation of ideas that he's also expressed in this excerpt of the linked interview:

In our version of the Third Force we recognised that the Bush administration was not going about things correctly, and so we called for an alternative. Totalitarian movements are fundamentally ideological movements – they are driven by ideas. The ideas they are driven by are modern ideas, even if they are presented as exotic and are clothed in seventh century Muslim robes. If the ideas are modern we can argue against them, just as we could argue against fascists and communists. Winning the argument is actually the only victory that can be obtained. We are facing a mass movement with a huge number of adherents. There is no way we can defeat such a movement with Police or Military force. The only way to defeat such a movement is to convince its adherents and sympathisers, and potential sympathisers, that the ideas of that movement are wrong and ought to be abandoned in favour of better ideas. Now this sounds preposterous to some people who can't imagine that anything can be won by force of persuasion. But what finally caused Communism to collapse was that the Communists themselves recognised that they were wrong and that their own ideas were not worth defending.
In the present case it's more difficult still because these movements are not dependent on states, and the ideas can be held by people in civil society. The possibility of crushing these movements by force does not exist. We have to win by persuasion. That means the central thing that should be going on is a war of ideas - even if, at times, there is also a need for a war of weapons.

The left and the intellectuals in the Western countries ought to throw themselves into these debates and criticisms. But look what has happened. The left, in its great majority, has remained unengaged. It conducts itself as if the only struggle is between Bush and his enemies. You can see this in the last couple of months in the rise of tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme. The more Ahmadinejad threatened to obliterate Israel and build nuclear weapons the more people around the world wrote about…Bush! 'Oh, no! What is Bush going to do?' As if the problem here was Bush! Bush may well be a problem, but the first problem has surely got to be Ahmadinejad. A great campaign should arise to persuade the Iranians and their supporters not to think along these lines. And this is what should have been done with the Islamists and the Ba'athists. But it has not been done.

The crucial place for this war of ideas, by the way, is Europe. In so much of the Arab world, and Iran, it is very difficult to have a serious debate because the conditions don't exist. In Europe they do. And in Europe there is a vast Arab and Muslim population. In fact many of the deep underlying ideas of radical Islamism, Ba'athism, and radical Pan-Arabism were European ideas to begin with. Not all of the ideas, but some of the crucial ones. So the debate should be taking place in London and Paris and Berlin and Madrid. It should be a very forceful debate. We see a right-wing version of it in which there is prejudice and racism against Muslims and against an ancient and noble religion, Islam - which only bolsters the Ba'athist and Islamist arguments. But the left-wing antitotalitarian contribution to this debate we hardly see. It's like a unilateral disarmament on the part of the liberal left and the intellectuals has taken place.

Bush isn't going to do it. He does not want to do it and even if he did, he does not have the talent. It should be done on the left. It should be done by us engaging our fellow thinkers in the Arab and Muslim world (who are becoming ever more visible) and by arguing against the various champions of what I call the Muslim totalitarian idea in its different forms. A Third Force should put its greatest emphasis on that. Military actions and police actions may well be necessary. But they should be put in their place. They are ultimately less important than this battle if ideas.

Totalitarian movements have regularly been greeted by the blindness to which liberalism is prone, and even by apologetics. Hitler, and not just Stalin, had his apologists. Without these apologists neither one of those dictators would have been able to get as far as he did. And what we are seeing now is something exactly parallel. There are only a few screwballs defending Al Qaeda, or Zarqawi in Iraq, or applauding Saddam. But the people who really matter are those (many more numerous) who find some way to say either that these totalitarian movements are normal, natural, rational, or, in any case, that they should be ignored because we should focus our attention on defeating Bush. In these ways, the adherents of the totalitarian movements are not given much opposition and sometimes are even given a back-handed support. So, naturally, the movements prosper.

Read the whole thing. I'd be interested in what you think.

Hat tip, though I'd take a bit of issue with how the link to this interview was presented, since I'd say Berman is criticizing more than "liberalism," and not confining even that term to one definition.