Contemporary academics and intellectuals (or anti-intellectuals), by and large, strike me as the Mr. Beans of the vaudeville clerisy, epitomes of conceptual ineptitude. But they seem no less retarded than their immediate precursors, re-cycling the ineffable Bertrand Russell who in a 1937 speech declared that “Britain should disarm, and if Hitler marched his troops into this country when we were undefended, they should be welcomed like tourists and greeted in a friendly way.” In The Flight from Truth, where the subject is discussed at length, Jean-François Revel comments on Russell’s incredible foray into the domain of public policy: “Bertrand Russell may have been an eminent philosopher in his speciality—symbolic logic—but he was nonetheless an imbecile on the subject dealt with in those sentences.” Revel deplores those intellectuals who “have employed their talents to justify falsehood…even foolishness.” It never fails to amaze how an educated mind can live in a debilitated soul. Plus ça change!
A recent article in Books in Canada, where I am an associate editor, shows just how pervasive and unreflected such an attitude has become. In a review of Elizabeth Young-Bruel’s Why Arendt Matters, Canadian writer George Fetherling takes for granted the popular cliché of American turpitude, wondering what Arendt “would make of the current United States with its torture policies, secret trials, and secret prisons” and of “a world in which Russia and China would often seem to be the voices of moderation.” This is standard fare in current intellectual converse—the imperceptive, thoughtless, rote-inspired and thoroughly misguided parroting of received ideas, the refusal to see there is a terrorist war going on, and the coronary inclination to collapse into the arms of those who succour the enemy as the “voices of moderation.” The Russian voice of moderation, we might recall, colluded with Saddam Hussein on the future construction of an oil pipeline, builds and supplies Iran’s nuclear installations, sells advanced weapons to Syria, boasts of its new FAE (Fuel Air Explosive) bomb which is said to be four times as powerful as the U.S. MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) bomb and, as we know, murders journalists who dig too deeply into affairs of state—over a dozen since 2000. The Chinese voice of moderation obstructs relief efforts in Darfur in order to preserve its oil contracts with the Sudanese regime, keeps North Korea’s ruling clique afloat, sends arms to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, preens itself on building the world’s largest navy, has become the world’s leading emitter of CO2 (as reported by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in 2007) and, of course, regularly imprisons and executes its own dissidents. In fact, China executes three times as many political prisoners as the rest of the world put together.
We see the same attitude expressed in a letter by the defunct Canadian poet Joe Rosenblatt, apparently ascribing all that ails the modern world—from “monopoly capitalism” to “global warming” to “nuclear terrorism”—to “its domination by neoconservatives.” As if the stygian dictatorships in Russia, China and Iran, the first two among the world’s greatest polluters, all exporters or importers of nuclear technology and state-of-the-art weaponry, police states in all but name, and backers of the most vicious terrorist organizations on the international stage were somehow absolved because they cannot be described as “neoconservative.” Predictably, there is scarcely a word of protest from the leftist intelligentsia, the peace marchers, the human shields, the anti-American consortium, let alone certain reviewers for and contributors to Books in Canada.
As of this writing, there have been few marchers in the streets of Western cities or anguished cries from our bien pensant intellectuals on the Left to protest the killing, according to reports, of between 70 and 100 people demonstrating against Chinese rule in the streets of Llhasa on March 14, 2008. And as the unrest spreads in Tibet and the neighbouring Chinese provinces, and China dispatches convoys of troops armed to the teeth to quell the popular protest of monks and civilians, only a few pious rebukes of no consequence from the Copperhead Left have been heard.
Were our obeisant intellectuals living in Russia, China, Iran or any of the Arab despotisms, and speaking then of their own countries, they would learn very quickly all about “torture policies, secret trials, and secret prisons,” not as epithets they can fling at the one nation that garrisons their right to the exercise of frivolous denunciation but as the kind of real-life experience from which they have been blessedly spared. Indeed, their righteousness derives from what we may call paper experience, that is, from internalizing neurotic productions like Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (obviously intended as a refutation of Dinesh D’Souza’s Letters to a Young Conservative), with its shrill and dire warning of a “fascist shift” (i.e., a neoconservative turn) in American life and politics, its dredging up of Nazi and Communist parallels, and its mania about the construction of “secret prisons.” A book just published by a retired Canadian civil servant, Robert Rapley, provides this thesis with an American-style pseudo-historical foundation. In Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo Bay, Rapley argues that the witch has today mutated into the terrorist, and that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are only the latest versions of the infamous witch trials carried out in Salem. Never mind that the activities of some American prison guards at Abu Ghraib were an anomaly and that they were severely punished—it was Saddam who murdered thousands of innocents there—or that Guantanamo Bay is a detention center for Islamic terrorists and Taliban fighters with blood on their hands. These facts are immaterial for the “liberal” mindset that has already submitted to the enemy. Rapley’s Believe It or Not should alert us to the valence of the “not,” as in the current American joke formula.
It seems we simply do not want to make the connection between Islam and the religiously ordained violence of the jihadists. Recognizing that such a copula exists would bring our doting sensibilities and vacuity of judgment before the bar of honesty and reason. Acting from a queer amalgam of self-hatred and self-love, we resist acceding to the obvious in order to avoid facing down the consequences, namely, that we have a real war on our doorstep and that our reflex sympathies for the Islamic Other—which means as well contempt for the Jew and suspicion of American power—are in large measure responsible for our dilemma. These hometruths are incompatible with our falsely humble yet egocentric vision of ourselves as advanced social thinkers at variance with our own past and begging pardon for assumed historical guilt, in short, as Children of Light come to redeem both ourselves and a fallen world. But we are not Children of Light; we are merely children.