U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Revenge of the Eustonians; or Benda It Like Berman

This Sunday, the New York Times Book Review featured a glowing assessment by Anthony Julius of Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which angrily accuses Western left-wing intellectuals of embracing the Oxford University Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan while failing to come to the defense of the Somali-Dutch refugee and American Enterprise Institute Resident Fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ramadan, according to Berman, is a slippery character whose opposition to Islamic radicalism is more ambivalent than is often said; while Hirsi Ali is a brave secularist who has devoted her career to truly opposing Islamic extremism in the name of Enlightenment values. But Berman and Julius seem more interested in their opponents on the Western intellectual left, who, they argue, have betrayed their vocation and their intellectual heritage through (in Julius’s words):

the false identification of liberal values with an oppressive West, and of political Islamism with an oppressed third world; an unreflective, unqualified opposition to every exercise of American power; a certain blindness regarding, or even tenderness toward, contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism.

For Julius, Berman’s book is an impressive entry in a genre that includes Richard Wolin’s Seduction of Unreason: the Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism and the many books devoted to Martin Heidegger’s Nazism, works which call intellectuals to account for monstrous political failings. As Julius notes, the urtext of this genre is Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clerc (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals) (1927), which attacked intellectuals who abandoned dispassionate reason in favor of nationalism, racism, and militarism.

“Berman,” writes Julius, “has a fair claim to being regarded as the Benda of our time. In The Flight of the Intellectuals he continues his work of redeeming the good name of intellectuals by exposing the corrupt among them.”

Berman’s book has also been lavishly praised by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate, who had personally encouraged Berman to expand an already extensive 2007 New Republic piece attacking Tariq Ramadan.

What links Berman, Julius, and Rosenbaum, is that each is strongly connected to the self-described Decent Left that emerged following 9/11. And the elephant in the room of their discussion of left intellectuals and Tariq Ramadan is the Decent Left’s signal project, the War on Iraq.

Paul Berman, in particular, has been an unusually committed and dogged proponent of that war, seeing it as the first necessary step in a long war against “Muslim totalitarianism.”* Along with Berman, Anthony Julius was an early signatory to the Euston Manifesto, a 2006 British document that excoriated the anti-war left and has been the chief institutional manifestation of the pro-war left in the UK.

Ron Rosenbaum, for his part, was ambivalent about the upcoming Iraq War in October 2002, but he knew what he didn’t like–the anti-war movement. How dare leftist academics attack George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, Rosenbaum wrote, when they had yet to atone for the crimes of Josef Stalin and Pol Pot:

Goodbye to the brilliant thinkers of the Left who believe it’s the very height of wit to make fun of George W. Bush’s intelligence—thereby establishing, of course, how very, very smart they are. Mr. Bush may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (I think he’s more ill-informed and lazy than dumb). But they are guilty of a historical stupidity on a far greater scale, in their blind spot about Marxist genocides. It’s a failure of self-knowledge and intellectual responsibility that far outweighs Bush’s, because they’re supposed to be so very smart.

“I guess today,” Rosenbaum concluded dramatically, “Left means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Say what you will about the Eustonian “leftists,” they certainly seem to have adopted Rosenbaum’s accusatory credo as their own when it comes to the Iraq War.

There have been many more appalling crimes in the last bloody century of the world’s history, but in this young millennium, the War on Iraq stands as one of the greatest wastes of human life and national treasure. It helped destabilize a region. It ushered in new threats to civil liberties in two of the world’s great democracies. It placed the United States in the company of the world’s open torturers. And unlike Stalin’s and Pol Pot’s genocides, this one is our responsibility as Americans and Brits. And special responsibility lies with the war’s unrepentant cheerleaders.

So while I don’t have a studied opinion about Tariq Ramadan, I do know that Paul Berman, Anthony Julius, and Ron Rosenbaum are pretty much the last people who ought to be lecturing us about the trahison des clercs.**
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* Berman’s view of the war is on fine display in the Slate forum entitled “Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War” (in Berman’s case, not very much).

** For an alternate view on Tariq Ramadan, see this recent Andrew March piece from The American Prospect.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Thanks! Witty title. And I hadn’t heard the phrase “Decent Left” before today. Interesting. It’s clear there’s a lot going on here, but I’ll confine my comments to the apparently revisionist post-9/11 history.

    To register another historical comparison, what bothers me about this so-called Decent Left who identify with the Euston Manifesto (and Julius, Berman, and Rosenbaum), is that they seemingly treat 9/11/01 as a kind of one-for-one event with 12/7/41. How so? Well, the current pro-war crowd expected all opposition (like the pre-WWII isolationists) to suddenly convert, forgetting about the emotional, strategic, and political gap between Sept. 11, 2001 and March 20, 2003. In that period, reasonable people could disagree about the next course of action (assuming that action for action’s sake was off the table—which it apparently wasn’t).

    Furthermore, it is as if—to this Decent Left—all the logic that applied to the Taliban instantly applied to every other oppressive, nominally Muslim regime (and instantaneously at that). By the Decent Left’s logic, we should’ve invaded every other Muslim country with an oppressive leadership—no matter the practical considerations, or home-front support. I mean, was geography their only criteria for action? If so, why did we skip Iran, or Pakistan?

    In addition, today’s analysis (evident in Berman’s book, apparently) by this Decent Left seemingly ignores the rational evidence to the contrary that emerged after March 2003 (Powell’s regrets, Richard Clarke’s *Against All Enemies*, etc.). How does Berman’s book handle those discordant notes?

    In sum, I guess books like Berman’s are what happens when, in liberal fashion (ironies intended), the pro-war crowd makes “freedom” the banner item for diplomacy—paying no attention to what kind of freedom may result from ill-conceived Western interventions. – TL

  2. Here, here, Ben. I had a similar reaction to reading this review of Berman. Sam Tanenhaus’s book review section gets worse and worse. Not only is it incredibly boring, but when it does review important works, it offers them up for review to hacks. Witness the hack job on Tony Judt’s new book ILL FARES THE LAND by Hoover Institute fellow Joseph Joffe. It’s one thing to find a critical reviewer. It’s another to find a reviewer of a book on the need for social democracy who has made a living trashing social democracy. Ugh.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/books/review/Joffe-t.html

  3. Thanks for pointing out that Julius is a Decent Leftist. This clarifies the picture, somehow. I don’t really begrudge people being center-left (even with heavy emphasis on the “center”), or being intensely partisan about Israel; but the Iraq war was such a terrible error on the part of the US and UK that I do intensely resent this effort to obfuscate the problem of how we got into it, and more importantly, how to not do such a thing again.

  4. The thing I find curious about all of these accounts is the lumping in of anti-semitism with all the others “sins” of the Left. As others have noted, you can be critical of Israeli policy without being an anti-semite. I think these authors are making an implicit link between the old school Hitler/Stalin fascism with the newer so-labeled Islamo-fascism, with that link being not simply the hatred of dissent but also hatred of the Jewish people.

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