Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Great Essay by Paul Berman: Do Ideas Matter? (Spoiler Alert: Yes!)


One of the most intriguing insights in Berman's article is the notion that places like the London School of Economics and Columbia University may be more crucial to the diffusion of Islamist ideology than the madrassas in rural Pakistan. If so, the battle of ideas within Western media and institutions of higher learning would be much more important than we assume it to be.

It would seem that liberalism needs to find a voice that is as compelling and inspiring as the intoxicating deliriums of the totalitarian ideologies.


...It would seem that liberalism needs to find a voice that is as compelling and inspiring as the intoxicating deliriums of the totalitarian ideologies...

I can't see that happening. By its nature liberalism is balancing, critical and self critical minded and double minded view of reality. To quote Alexander Meiklejohn:

...liberalism...indicates a pattern of culture which criticizes itself... It has customs and standards of behaviour. But it also has...the attitude of...questioning its own dominant beliefs and standards... The liberal both believes and doubts...and... if an individual or a group will hold fast both to custom and intelligence, then its experience will inevitably be paradoxical and divided against itself. The being who seeks intelligence is a divided personality...

Not much basis for a compelling voice as inspiring as intoxicating deliriums to be found in this mess of divided mindfulness, I wouldn't think.


Basman, I couldn't agree more. But it doesn't make me feel any better. What I'm trying to address is the disparity between the compelling, inspiring, visionary leadership offered by totalitarian ideologues and the thoughtful, hesitant critiques of their pluralistic opponents.

One the primary reasons that the Islamists are so successful in seizing power is because their rhetoric stirs the soul and moves the masses to action and self-sacrifice. If we can't come up with a more vigorous response than divided mindfulness, we will wind up as so many Hamlets in the kingdom of Claudius.


Here's Berman's colloquy with himself about what he argues is the conflation of Islam and Islamism:

...According to the first criticism, analyses like mine vastly underestimated the danger posed by groups such as Al Qaeda. The enemy, according to the critics, was not a splinter group, nor a mass movement called Islamism. The problem was infinitely huger, and this was Islam itself, the ancient religion. According to this criticism, the Islamists, mainstream and ultras alike, were merely pious Muslims who had properly understood their own religion and were putting it into practice, and Islam was a dreadful thing, and ideas like mine amounted to a politically correct effort to deny reality.

This argument struck me as slightly medieval, or anyway as simple-minded. I could understand why someone who had grown up in an Islamist atmosphere might decide to condemn the whole religion. (I can understand, for that matter, why anybody at all might condemn his own religion, or might turn against religion altogether: atheism is not among the world’s mysteries.) Still, the history of Islam was not a tale of unrelenting dreadfulness. Islam over the centuries had gone through every possible phase and its opposite, the magnificent and the miserable, and it had generated thinkers and counter-thinkers of every sort, which meant that, like the members of any large confession, Muslims were forever doomed to disputation with one another over whose interpretation was properly authentic. Anyway, Islamism seemed to me more of a political movement than a religious upsurge—a “religionized politics,” in Bassam Tibi’s phrase...

As to Berman's argument in his essay, it is not, as suggested on some posts on this thread, that ideas matter solely and alone or even predominately, as I read him, it’s that they matter plenty when delivered by charismatic men (and women) of history in conditions primed for their receptivity, partly by unpredictable confluences of events--so, to some extent, by accident--and not as the result of mere material factors, given Berman's definition of materialism--and so, in a sense, autonomously: "...ideas sometimes have an autonomous force of their own..."

As others have said, Berman makes a persuasive case for his thesis.

Finally, WillJames7, regardless of my view that Hamlet isn't the template for "divided mindfulness" as that nice phrase might apply to liberalism's deliberativeness as opposed to his rationalizing so as not to act, save at times of crisis or of electrifying historical moments, or of the necessary mobilizations for great struggles and like extra ordinaries, it's hard me for to conceive of the compelling voice you wish for as part of the ongoing discourse of our ordinary, liberal democratic lives.

For Islamists, by contrast, jihad informs the very substance of what they do and say as their lives' mission. For them there is a kind of equation between everyday life and--as you put it well--" the intoxicating deliriums of the totalitarian ideologies."

If you have thoughts as to what form and context the voice you wish for might take, I'd be obliged to hear about it. For, it seems to me, that we living our normal, every day lives--unlike the driven few amongst us-- generally seek not so much more, I don't think, than stability, convenience and ordinariness, keeping our reverences and excitements cordoned off from political life and in our private spheres. For Islamists sharia is the essence of the collapse between public and private space

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