Skip to comments.Age of terror, age of illusions
Posted on 09/11/2006 11:44:36 PM PDT by TheMole
Part One: I remember the anger I felt watching the endlessly repeated images of the towers collapsing. But there's another kind of anger -- a more cerebral one toward the intellectuals of our time who contributed to all that destruction through their hostility toward the mores and traditions of western civilization.
Robert Sibley, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, September 09, 2006
NEW YORK - I still see bodies falling. Standing at my hotel window, overlooking Ground Zero, it's not hard to visualize the flaming towers and the bird-like figures of human bodies plummeting through the air. I especially remember a couple leaping hand in hand into emptiness. In their flapping clothes they looked like big clumsy birds, desperate to fly.
There were others, of course. Dozens. According to one estimate, some 200 people jumped from the North and South Towers in the hour-and-a-half the buildings remained standing after the planes hit the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Clerks and executives, cooks and waiters, patrons and clients; they leaped in a continuous stream from the four sides of the buildings, from the office windows of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading firm, from the Windows on the World restaurant that occupied the 106th and 107th floors, from the offices of the insurance company Marsh & McLennan. Writer Tom Junod, in a recent article in Esquire magazine, described the jumpers in heartbreaking imagery: "They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when ceilings fell and the floors collapse; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died."
Some clearly hoped they wouldn't die. They used drapes and tablecloths as parachutes. It did no good. The force of falling tore the makeshift parachutes from their hands. And so they fell, bodies arcing and wheeling and tumbling through space, dropping at an ever-increasing a rate of 9.8 metres per second. In the 10 seconds or so it took to reach the ground they were moving at more than 200 km/h. At that speed their clothes were shredded and stripped from their bodies.
For a while the television networks showed the jumpers, as they became known. You heard witnesses on the ground shouting in horror. "God. Save their souls. They're jumping. Oh, please God. Save their souls." And then the broadcasts stopped. Maybe it was too much horror on top of all the other horror. Maybe it was the realization that, no, this wasn't "almost like a movie." Indeed, in the days that followed it was as if a decision had been made at some level of collective unconscious not to show the full horror of these deaths. Most North American newspapers ran only a few pictures of the jumpers and then never ran them again. By then, of course, the images were indelibly etched in the collective consciousness. No one who witnessed the events of that day will ever forget them. The most famous picture, the one that probably ran on every news broadcast and in every paper, is that of the unknown "Falling Man," who, as Junod says, appears to have embraced this death in his last moments of life, dropping through the air like an arrow.
I remember him, certainly. There have been numerous articles about who he might have been, and even a BBC television program documenting the efforts to identify him. But the picture I have never been able to get out of my head is that of the leaping couple. I imagine them as a man and woman, but it could have been two women or two men for all I know. Even now, on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, I still wonder who they were -- lovers, friends, colleagues, or strangers who met in their final moments and chose to die together rather than alone. What were their last thoughts as they leaped, hand in hand, into the void? How long were they able to hold on to each other before the laws of physics pulled them apart?
Naturally, I have tried imaging myself in such circumstances. My mind doesn't want to go there, veering away instinctively in the same way your body pulls back from a cliff edge. Still, you wonder. When American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the North Tower at 8:45 a.m. it sliced through floors 93 to 99 like a scythe, tearing up offices, hallways, conference rooms, rows of desks, ripping out elevators and stairwells, cutting off escape from the higher floors. Hundreds died instantly. Hundreds more were left stranded on floors 100 to 107. Eighteen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., the second plane slammed into the top of the South Tower, trapping about 600 people. Inside the buildings, temperatures would have approached 1,000 degrees Celsius as the flames consumed furniture, wiring, carpets and computers, creating a tornado of poisonous smoke that funnelled upward to the top storeys. Even the steel beams melted. What would you choose: Death by immolation and choking smoke, or death by a final act of will, a final assertion of a terrible freedom?
I step back from the window, rolling my shoulders to ease the sudden tension in my neck. It's as though my body remembers the anger I felt watching those endlessly repeated images of the towers' collapse; the roiling storm of smoke and the ashen humanity emerging from the clouds of pulverized concrete and flesh; the shell-shocked relatives stalking the streets with photographs of missing loved ones; the firefighters and police officers crawling over the smoldering mountain of rubble, the mobs dancing on the streets of Damascus and Tehran and Gaza, celebrating mass murder.
But there's another kind of anger, too; a colder, more cerebral anger toward the intellectuals of our time, the cosmopolitans and sophists who, unwittingly or not, contributed to all that destruction through their sophisticated hostility towards the mores and traditions of western civilization.
I return to my chair and the book I had been reading -- Samuel Dill's Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire. At the time, Christianity was displacing the old pagan religion and the empire was under frequent attack from barbarians. The great weakness, though, as Dill recounts, was the empire's effete elites. He describes the period as a time when the ruling class -- politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, artists -- were cocooned in lifestyle luxury, unwilling to respond to the barbarian threat on the borders. "This self-centred contentment with the material pleasures of life, this rather vacant existence, gliding away in ease and luxury, and a round of trivial social engagements ... is the real reproach against the character of the upper class of that age ... Faith in the stability of the Empire and Roman culture is perfectly untroubled. There is not a hint of those dim hordes, already mustering for their advance ..." It was, Dill concludes, an "age of illusions."
I put the book down and go back to the window to look out over the canyons of Manhattan and watch the lights come on in the buildings as night falls. I imagine those lights blinking out permanently. All it would take would be a nuclear bomb on a freighter or a truck, or even a vial of anthrax. And for the umpteenth time, I wonder whether we, like the fifth-century Romans, have become too decadent, too soft morally and intellectually. Decadence is not only a matter of artistic fashion or literary style; it is also a question of self-defence. A society that is unwilling to defend itself, and justifies that refusal with clever rationalizations, can only be described as decadent. This is especially true when the decadents include those elites that provide the ideas and concepts that guide society in its attitudes and conduct. When a society's opinion-makers, its teachers, writers, scholars, artists and thinkers, no longer uphold the values and traditions necessary for that society's survival, well, you're on the downward slope. The question thus needs to be asked: Is our time also an age of self-destructive illusions?
The question is, why are so many unwilling to acknowledge the threat Islamism poses to western civilization? More to the point, perhaps, why are so many so quick to blame the West itself, particularly the United States, for the attacks, as though the 3,000 who perished in the collapse of those 110-storey towers, including many Canadians, deserved their fate?
Sept. 11 was what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel would undoubtedly call a "world-historical moment"; which is to say, the terrorist attacks forced a fundamental shift in the way we think (or should think) about the world. Simply stated: On Sept. 11, 2001, a half-hidden war against western civilization and all that it represents was finally made explicit for all to see. Only the most naive or ideologically purblind deny this. "Is there a war on?" asks Italian philosopher Marcello Pera. "My answer is: from Afghanistan to Kashmir, to Chechnya, to the Philippines, to Saudia Arabia, Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, and elsewhere, in a great part of the Islamic and Arabic world, groups consisting of fundamentalists, radicals, and extremists -- the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, the Armed Islamic Group, and many others -- have declared war, jihad, against the West. They have said it, written it, diffused it in plain speech. Why should we not take action?"
The last five years witnessed gruesome terrorist strikes -- or threats of strikes -- around the world in the name of Islam -- suicide bombings in Bali and mass murder in Madrid and London, to name only the three most deadly. But there was also the beheading of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street. In May, a 24-year-old Pakistani immigrant was convicted in the United States of plotting to blow up a New York subway station. More recently, 17 young Muslim men in the Toronto area were arrested for plotting terrorist strikes in this country. In Britain, two dozen young Muslims are accused of planning to blow airliners out of the sky over the Atlantic. In Germany, two men were nabbed in late July after leaving suitcases loaded with bottles of gasoline, propane and detonators -- the makings of a firebomb -- on trains. In late August, Italian anti-terrorist police arrested 40 people in raids on mosques, Internet outlets and money transfer offices in cities around Italy. With all these terror plots in the works, how can anyone not believe there is a war between radical Islam and the West?
But many, it seems, still do. Former Liberal party leadership candidate Sheila Copps, for example, was recently quoted as suggesting the terrorist roundup in Britain is a conspiracy. "Could it be that this whole thing was an orchestrated overreaction to steer public attention away from the difficulties facing the Bush-Tony Blair fight on terrorism?" she asked.
Lenin had a label for people who think in such an unreal fashion. He called them "useful idiots." We heard a lot from such people during the Cold War. High-minded, well-intentioned they may have been, but in their naivete and ignorance they served as apologists for Soviet totalitarianism with their ill-thought criticism of all things western. A great many were academics and journalists. We're hearing similar appeasement psychology regarding Islamism. I can think of no better example than the reaction to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's remark that western civilization is superior to Islamic culture.
"We should be confident of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion," Mr. Berlusconi said in late September of 2001. "This respect certainly does not exist in Islamic countries. ... We must be conscious of the strength and force of our civilization."
Not surprisingly, Muslims denounced him. "I consider his remarks racist, and by such remarks he has crossed the limits of reason and decency," said Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League. In Turkey, the Islamist newspaper Akit described Berlusconi as "a new Mussolini." But the denunciations of western politicians and commentators were equally vitriolic. Amos Luzzatto, spokesman for the Italian Jewish Organizations, told La Repubblica newspaper: "In my opinion, one can not speak of the superiority of one culture over another." (You have to wonder what he would say about Nazi culture in Germany 70 years earlier.) The Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, thought Mr. Berlusconi's remarks could have dangerous consequences. "I can hardly believe that the Italian prime minister made such statements."
It was, indeed, a surprising thing to say, considering the climate of opinion that prevails in western societies, particularly among the intelligentsia. As historian Keith Windschuttle says, "The statement was extraordinary because, although western superiority in every major area of human endeavour, especially in political and individual liberty, is patently obvious to everyone, it has become a truth that must not be spoken."
To say one civilization or culture is better than another is one of the Great Taboos nowadays, at least if you subscribe to the postmodern shibboleths of multiculturalism, multi-racialism, egalitarianism, relativism, post-structuralism, etc. There is one exception, of course. If the civilization you love to hate has its roots in European Christian culture, well, that's all right, then. You can have a nice career as a professor or a newspaper columnist denouncing the traditions and values of western civilization, even as you enjoy the best that civilization has to offer.
Nevertheless, Berlusconi was right -- assuming you think societies that allow religious freedom, free speech, human rights, etc. are "superior" to those that forbid the open practise of all religions, denounce non-believers as less that human and impose death sentences of those who dare criticize the faith. If you don't assume the former is better than the latter -- if you disagree with Berlusconi -- then you really need to ask yourself why you live in the West. To partake of its material benefits while denouncing its fundamental values is the life of a parasite. This isn't to say you're obliged to worship all things western. To the contrary, one of the secrets of the West's vitality is its openness to rational self-criticism (at least until recent decades). But to be "anti-western" while partaking of the benefits of western society is, to say the least, to live with a false and hypocritical consciousness. But that perhaps describes the zeitgeist for many contemporary intellectuals in these early years of the Age of Terror.
How this zeitgeist has come about, why it dominates the psyche of western elites, and whether it continues to hold sway -- the answers to such questions may well decide whether the West prevails in this war, or whether we are already seeing its decline and fall. The idea of the West in decline is a hoary trope, but societies don't always recognize when their moment in the sun has been eclipsed. The Muslims of the Ottoman empire did not think their hegemony was on the wane when the Turkish navy lost the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 to a fleet of Holy League ships. In fact, the Ottomans, who had not lost a battle since the 15th century, bounced back to reassert naval supremacy and control the coasts of the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar to Croatia and Slovenia for another century or so. Nevertheless, after the Battle of Lepanto, Islam never again threatened the heartland of Christianity, arguably allowing the West to devote its burgeoning energy to its own expansion. The Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, slowly fell apart, unbeknownst to most of its subjects.
So, too, today westerners might not notice -- or notice too late -- when one too many bricks have been pulled out of the western edifice. In any case, it can take a long time for a civilization to fall. The final collapse of the Roman Empire took at least a century -- from, say, the end of Emperor Valentian I's reign in AD 375 to the sad and short rule of Romulus Augustus in AD 476. After that, well, it got very Dark Age very fast. The point, though, is nobody noticed the coming darkness, least of all the Roman elites. Even at the end of the fourth century, with the barbarians soon to sack Rome, "faith in the stability of the Empire and Roman culture is perfectly untroubled," says Samuel Dill. "There is not a hint (in the writings of Rome's elites) of those dim hordes, already mustering for their advance, who within twenty years will be established on the banks of the Garonne."
The situation is equally disturbing today, if not more so. The Roman elites -- poets, rhetoricians, scholars, soldiers and senators -- may have been blind to the barbarian threat, lost to decadent pursuits, but they weren't actively promoting their civilization's destruction. The same cannot be said of contemporary western elites.
In the words of philosopher Marcello Pera, the western elites, particularly in Europe, are delusional in their views of the Islamist threat, and for much the same reason as the ancient Roman elites. In their denunciations of the United States and the war on terror they have chosen wrongly, says Pera, having "made a flawed analysis of Islamic terror -- based on an anti-American bias -- in the mistaken belief that it is a limited and easily contained phenomenon." He attributes this choice to the mistaken, if comforting, belief that "the terrorist war is an act of reaction rather than aggression." Westerners, Pera writes in an essay entitled "Relativism, Christianity and the West," have enjoyed peace for 60 years and are thus "inclined to believe that peace is a natural state and a natural right, and that perpetual peace can indeed exist." As a result they think no price is too high to achieve peace, "not appeasement, not massacres on its own soil, not even surrender to terrorists." Such an attitude betrays intellectual and moral impotence, says Pera. Tragically, it is this impotence that shapes the response of many western elites to the Islamist threat. Why this is so, why this zeitgeist dominates so much of the western mind, needs to be understood if the West is to recover from its decadent ennui.
In a 2004 speech, "The Spiritual Roots of Europe," Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- said: "There is a self-hatred in the West that can be considered only as something pathological. The West attempts in a praiseworthy manner to open itself completely to the comprehension of external values, but it no longer loves itself; it now only sees what is despicable and destructive in its own history, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure there."
Pope Benedict also finds a parallel between the West's situation today and that of ancient Rome. "There is a clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted." In particular, the Pope points to Europe's low birth rate, its seeming unwillingness to reproduce itself, as evidence of decline. "Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as if they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen as a liability rather than as a source of hope."
Might Europe's reluctance to reproduce -- at least on the part of the non-Muslim population -- reflect a spiritual malaise, a psychic impotence, similar to that which afflicted ancient Rome? As commentator Douglas Davis asked in a recent National Post column, "Why would a civilization, at the height of its intellectual, cultural and technological power, seek to subvert its own values to appease a bunch of jihadist fanatics?"
The key reason is the ideology that currently prevails among the western intellectual class. As Keith Windschuttle explains in his essay, "The Cultural War on Western Civilization," recent decades have seen leading opinion-makers in the media, the universities, social and political institutions, and even the churches, promote the notion that the West's "superiority" is shameful and must be opposed because it is based on power and domination of others.
This is a radical change from past understandings of western civilization. Up until the 1960s, most intellectuals believed the West's achievements in political freedom, scientific advance and cultural development were largely explainable in terms of its own internal evolution: the inheritance of ancient Greece and Rome, the rise of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the industrial and scientific revolutions. This self-understanding is now rejected by the radical intelligentsia. As Windschuttle says: "Western political and economic dominance is more commonly explained not by its internal dynamics but by its external behaviour, especially its rivalry and aggression towards other cultures." Western achievement, in other words, has come at the expense of other civilizations. Ergo, the West is guilty of victimizing the world for its own enrichment. Therefore, westerners should be ashamed of their civilization. Its supposedly universal values -- reason, individual freedom, human rights, democracy, etc. -- are merely ethnocentric projections used to justify the West's imperialist exploitation of others. Even science is merely the "western way of knowing."
Admittedly, westerners have not always done well by other societies, and a rational critique of western abuse and exploitation is be welcomed. But this new radicalism goes far beyond self-criticism to constitute hatred of the West. Even if the West is guilty of many of the charges against it, says Windschuttle, that does not justify "an overwhelmingly negative critique of Western civilization itself."
The biggest factor contributing to this negative critique is, arguably, the West's history of empire-building. The critique might be warranted if it was only the West that engaged in imperial adventures. The fact is that every rising civilization has been imperialistic, including Islam, which from the seventh century through to the 16th century established its hegemony in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa through bloody conquest. Should Muslims now feel guilty about conquering what were once Christian lands in the Middle East and North Africa? Should they be expected to vacate those lands and return them to the Christian fold? The questions are purely rhetorical, but there's no gainsaying the hypocrisy in denouncing the West for its imperial past while letting other cultures off the hook. In any case, denunciations of western imperialism are, in many cases, unjustified.
Political theorist Lewis Feuer points out in his book Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind that western imperialism by and large brought improvements in social, economic and political conditions to those they ruled -- everything from better education and health to an end to slavery and tribal genocide. "Anti-imperialist literature has perhaps beclouded the great fact that the world's advances have been associated with the eras of progressive imperialism," says Feuer. "A progressive imperialism is one in which energies are liberated for the advancement of civilization and creative activity ... A rising, progressive people will be a correspondingly commercial, scientific, and imperialist people; such imperialism is not atavistic but creative. Decay comes when those energies have become effete."
Feuer distinguishes between regressive and progressive imperialism. The former, he argues, were devoted to pillaging their colonies, while the latter sought, at least to some extent, to improve social and economic conditions. Feuer offers Mongolian, Spanish and Soviet imperialism as examples of regressive imperialism. The Alexandrian, Roman, French, Dutch and British empires were more progressive forms of imperialism in that for all their errors and arrogance -- the British Opium War with China in the 1840s, for example -- their rule was generally beneficial. In modern times, imperialism brought improvements in social conditions and economic wealth to many regions of Asia and Africa. As well, Britain's outlawing of slavery throughout the Empire largely put an end to the slave trade, except in the Arab world. "Between the years 1860 to 1876 at least four hundred thousand natives, it has been estimated, were enslaved for use in the Middle East and North Africa," Feuer writes. Arab slave traders castrated thousands of African boys to turn them into eunuch slaves.
So why, Feuer asks, do "the writings of Arab and black ideologists alike evince no trace of an Arab-Muslim guilt" comparable to the guilt westerners are supposed to feel about their imperial past? Somehow, he says, the "white man's burden" has been transmuted into a burden not of power but of guilt that has been enthusiastically taken up by leftist intellectuals.
How do you account for this anti-western guilt on the part of so many intellectuals? More importantly, does this guilt go beyond responsible criticism to constitute aiding and abetting the enemy in time of war? Or, put differently, does the hatred so many intellectuals feel toward western civilization serve the Islamists' goal of destroying that civilization? The terrorist attacks didn't happen because Americans "deserved" to die. For all the supposed faults of American foreign policies, no U.S. government has ever hijacked civilian airlines and slammed them into buildings filled with more civilians. That is the act of sociopaths, the acts of men in the grip of spiritual sickness. When members of the intelligentsia misunderstand this, when they claim the "root cause" of terrorism is the West's treatment of others, they expose what political theorist James Burnham calls the pathology of liberalism.
This pathology, Burnham argues in his book, Suicide of the West, is, by and large, a byproduct of western prosperity, a pathology to which the relatively privileged strata of western society is particularly prone. It is a modern phenomenon born out of frustration at the imperfections of the world. The modern liberal technological project is, ultimately, all about solving the problems of the world: end poverty, feed the starving, eradicate AIDS, end war, make everybody happy. "The guilt of the liberal causes him to feel obliged to do something about any and every social problem, to cure every social ill," writes Burnham, even if he has no knowledge or certain solution to the problems he confronts.
The result, though, is that the problem is often made worse. Indeed, as economist William Easterly observes in his recently published study, The White Man's Burden, after 50 years and $2.3 trillion transferred from the West to the Third World, many of the countries that received western aid are "in fact no better off or are even worse off than they were before." This reality, Burnham argues, generates a guilt-ridden sense of failure on the part of the intelligentsia. Instead of asking whether there is some inadequacy on the part of aid recipients, the "privileged strata" turns the failure of its fantasy for a perfect world inward. The result is a kind of self-loathing that becomes hatred of all things western. As Burnham says, "When the Western liberal's feeling of guilt and his associated feeling of moral vulnerability before the sorrows and demands of the wretched become obsessive, he often develops a generalized hatred of Western civilization and of his own country as part of the West."
This cult of western guilt was amply illustrated in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Celebrity intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky and Harold Pinter were little better than the Muslims in the streets of Damascus who celebrated the destruction visited upon New York and Washington. The intellectuals' ululations may have been less hysterical, but their point was the same: the United States deserved what it got. "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world'," asked Sontag, "but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"
Sontag wasn't alone in her root-cause sophistry. While firefighters were still pulling bodies out of Ground Zero, one of Canada's best-known radical feminists, Sunera Thobani, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, said the deaths were an act of retribution for American foreign policy. "Today in the world, the United States is the most dangerous and most powerful global force, unleashing horrific levels of violence. The path of U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood."
Other academics joined the chorus of vitriol. Robert Jensen, of the University of Texas, said the attacks were "no more despicable than the massive attacks of terrorism that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime." George Lakoff , at the University of California in Berkeley, perceived the attacks in sexual terms: The planes as "penetrating the towers with a plume of heat [and] the Pentagon [as] a vaginal image from the air, penetrated by the plane as a missile."
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in a report issued shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, found about 100 similarly vitriolic remarks by scholars. "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote," said a professor from the University of New Mexico. A professor at the University of Massachusetts denounced the American flag as "a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression." Interestingly, after the report was released, the council was denounced for threatening the free speech of the professors it had cited. It seems some intellectuals think the concept of free speech applies only to them.
But why, you might ask, are so many contemporary intellectuals so discontented? Why do so many intelligent people, especially those of the liberal-left persuasion, feel such vociferous hostility to their own society? Such questions are important because in the past 200 years, intellectuals have replaced clerics as the guides and counselors of humanity, at least in the West. As historian Paul Johnson wrote in his book Intellectuals, "the rise of the secular intellectuals has been a key factor in shaping the modern world."
The problem is, too many philosophers, poets, novelists, scientists and journalists have used their talents to convince others that tyrants and dictators would lead them to a better world. Intellectuals seek to change the world by means of abstract ideas. But the concrete world isn't easy to reshape to suit some thinker's will or utopian dreams. Frustrated at the world's recalcitrance, they begin to hate what they see as impediments to their ideas -- patriarchy, colonialism, the rich, whites, the West. That's when intellectuals often turn to promoting tyranny. Martin Heidegger, while he may have possessed the 20th century's greatest philosophic mind, was also a Nazi. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, the darlings of the postmodern set, saw little difference between liberal democracy and Stalinism. Jean-Paul Sartre, the patron saint of existential philosophy, remarked during the Vietnam War that a nuclear strike against the United States would help end its imperial aspirations. Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor, started the Shining Path, one of the most vicious terrorist groups in Latin America, and recruited many followers from among his students.
How do we account for this intellectual decadence, this willingness to promote ideas that undermine the foundations of a society that permits them such freedom and comfort?
Kenneth Westhues, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo, provides a few clues. In a speech to the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, he describes many intellectuals as having an "aversion to facts in favour of right-minded dreaming," the kind of utopianism reflected in John Lennon's Imagine, where "the world will live as one."
Today's intellectual elites suffer from sleeping-princess syndrome, says Westhues. Like the fairy-tale princess who woke bruised from a night in a bed of 20 mattresses piled on top of a single dried pea, the contemporary intelligentsia exist in a cushioned world of abstractions. They are, Westhues suggests, a bunch of princesses, soft, spoiled and self-absorbed in their bubble of emancipation from earthly realities, wailing resentfully when events like the terrorist attacks disturb their dogmatic slumbers. As Westhues says, "The Sept. 11 attacks were a dramatic intrusion of the real world on postmodern goofiness."
Obviously, imagining a better world can be a noble enterprise. The entire western scientific project has been the most successful effort in history to improve the material conditions of human existence. But imagination must be disciplined by reality. Theory has to remain grounded. Otherwise, as the French and communist revolutions demonstrated, idealism produces horror. The secret of western liberalism's success, at least until recent decades, has been its ability to moderate dreams with reason, to accept slow progress rather than revolutionary upheaval.
The problem for liberalism, though, is that it has been too successful in some ways, as far as the intellectuals are concerned. General prosperity, abundant food, low death rates, relative peace and the comforts of urban life; all these have created conditions whereby the wretchedness most intellectuals lament is only an idea in their heads, not a lived experience. The result, says Westhues, is an unrealistic grasp of the world. "Science and industry enabled the creation of a bubble of comfort in North America during the last third of the 20th century, wherein intellectual and cultural elites (the so-called 'new class') have been unusually protected from objective realities." This soft life has "permitted many scholarly groups to lose touch, to sneer at scientific and technological advance, to treat risk as inimical to life, to account equal value to societies where the infant mortality rate exceeds the literacy rate, to condemn dissenters from androgynous fantasies, and otherwise to undermine the society that accords them privilege."
Obviously, such a situation provides a seedbed for alienation and discontent. But Western civilization is endangered when those who provide so many of its motivating ideas - teachers, scholars, artists, etc. - surrender to "sanctimonious dreaming," to borrow Westhues' phrase.
Forty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, James Burnham argued "the primary issue before Western civilization, and before its member nations, is survival." Update the historical references for the Age of Terror and his analysis remains timely: Liberal society becomes suicidal when those who provide its guiding concepts, who formulate the ideas that inform action, "hate their own civilization, readily excuse or even praise blows struck against it, and themselves lend a willing hand, frequently enough to pull it down." Does that not accurately description of the Sontags and Thobanis of this world? They prefer to denounce the West for its sins rather than challenge its enemies.
Nowhere is the wrongheadedness of intellectuals so much in evidence as in various "isms" of contemporary society, the most immediate example of which is the idea of multiculturalism.
When the idea of multiculturalism emerged in the late 1960s in response to increasing global migration, it was intended to foster respect among differing cultures. However, the sentiment was kidnapped by the radical left and inflated to produce a coven of post-prefixes: postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, all of which feed off and reinforce each other, and none of which, as Keith Windschuttle says, can be regarded as anything other that anti-Western ideologies. "They are a negation of Western culture and values: whatever the West supports, this anti-Westernism rejects."
The result, though, is incoherence and a hypocritical inconsistency. According to the postmodernists, Westerners cannot judge other cultures but must condemn their own. But this means, says Windschuttle, the original multicultural promotion of tolerance and open-mindedness "does not extend to the West itself, whose history is regarded as little more than a crime against the rest of humanity."
No wonder Silvio Berlusconi's defence of the superiority of "our civilization" was condemned. In the wake of Sept. 11, his remarks could not help but cast into high relief the reality of this new world war. He pulled aside the ideological shroud and exposed the ideas of the contemporary intelligentsia for what they are: the self-righteous fantasies of a cosseted elite.
But then, as sociologist Paul Hollander says in his book Discontents, being an intellectual "does not provide a protection against fundamentally wrongheaded political judgments, against the urge to submit to unworthy political impulses, against confusing what is with what one would like to be."
Indeed, the postmodern hostility toward Western traditions and values reveals, in the words of British theorist Johann Hari, "a terrible wrong turn" at a time when Western society needs engaged intellectuals to help it respond to the Islamist threat. To uncritically cast the Western project as a veil for violence and conquest, to reject the Enlightenment ideals of reason as mere power games, as postmodernists do, undermines the foundations of a civilization that provides the freedom and protection to express such critiques.
In other words, too many Western intellectuals reveal themselves as Lenin's "useful idiots," aiding and abetting those who force people to leap to their deaths.
From my 30th-floor room you don't see much evidence of Islamism's most devastating strike in its war against the West - World War IV, as it's been called. The mountain of rubble is long gone now. From my window I can see the newly completed Seven World Trade Center on West Broadway. The 52-storey glass skyscraper glows with the last remnants of daylight. I watch as darkness falls and lights come on in the half-empty building. It is the first of the new buildings that will prove America's triumph over terrorism. Indeed, the Americans are building a new World Trade Center, one that will be even taller than the Twin Towers, reaching to the symbolic height of 1776 feet. They're going to call it Freedom Center. That's as it should be. The best response to the Islamists is a new building dedicated to what they hate: freedom.
Right now, though, Ground Zero looks like any construction site surrounded by hoardings. From my window I watch toy-sized trucks crawl across the site. The tiny figures of office workers, shoppers and tourists walk along Vesey Street. On Liberty Street, the Deutsche Bank building, which was heavily damaged in the attacks, remains wrapped in scaffolding and tarps as it is slowly dismantled floor by floor.
But even at street level the only remnant of the towers' collapse is a rusted cast-iron girder pulled from the ruins and set on a pedestal as a memorial. It looks like a twisted Cross. There's also a viewing platform that runs the length of the construction site along Church Street between Vesey and Liberty streets.
Attached to the side of the steel fence that surrounds the construction is a series of pictures from the Sept. 11 attacks - ash-covered firefighters, haunting images of skeletal steel beams, the tear-streaked faces of witnesses. A long board running along the top of the fence lists the names of those killed that day. The site attracts hundreds each day. You hear a babel of languages: French, German, Spanish, Chinese, and, occasionally, Arabic. They stand at the fence, staring at the construction underway. Some cry.
Watching them, I wonder if they, too, see the flaming towers and see the bodies falling.
Robert Sibley is a senior writer for the Citizen. In tomorrow's paper, he looks at the consequences of postmodernism for the Age of Terror.
WOW! Good read. Will keep to read again!
Fantastic post. Thanks.
Excellent post. Read as much as I can. Will read more later.
This starts with very strong writing. I saved the web page to finish reading later. Thanks for posting this.
Great post! Thanks!
Very good read, thanks!
One of the best commentaries I've read about the modern struggle to preserve western civilization--or, as President Bush pointed out in his speech last night, civilization itself. Thanks for posting.
I've often wondered at the motivation of those people so intent on destroying the very culture that allows them such benefits.
Do the feminists believe they would be better off in any culture save Western Culture?
Do our historians ever actually study history?
The best summation yet of the evil and insanity that is enveloping the world.
You will like this.
Bump for later reading.
I didn't think that there were still writers who write (and think) with such incisive clarity...
This is definitely a keeper. Please ping me when Part Two is posted!
Please ping me when part 2 arrives. Great read, and from a Canadian, no less! I guess all of them arent nuts.
Check out Victor David Hanson's article of Sept. 8th and the Barbara Lerner article on NRO of August 4th.
As well as this from Neal's Nooze:
THE 'UNIFIED AFTER 9/11' MYTH
Going all the way back to the 2004 presidential campaign between The Poodle and the president, we have often heard repeated the line that America was unified after 9/11 and Bush squandered all that goodwill. Bill Clinton repeated the line yesterday, saying "We had an astonishing moment of unity" after 9/11. It's a nice idea, but it never happened.
Oh sure...members of Congress from both parties stood on the Capitol steps and sang "God Bless America" and it made for a nice photo op. But just because politicians came out as a single force on that one day, it doesn't mean differences magically disappeared. In fact, those differences only became stronger.
Myth #1: Americans and politicians from both political parties were 100% behind President Bush in everything he did immediately after 9/11. The fact is this isn't true. While many did come together, there were differences about what we should do in response to 9/11 and whether or not the Bush Administration was to blame. There were still those who wanted to follow the Clinton approach of treating Islamic fascism as a law enforcement problem.
Myth #2: There was universal support for the invasion of Afghanistan. The facts say otherwise. There were plenty that were opposed. There were protests even as the invasion was being planned. [Recall S29 in Dee Cee?]
Myth #3: George Bush squandered all of the public and the world's goodwill by invading Iraq. This is also untrue. The invasion of Iraq was popular at the time it took place, with the public and most Democrats strongly behind the president. The idea that somehow Operation Iraqi Freedom was responsible for busting up the mythical 9/11 unification is just a fantasy.
Democratic and Republican differences didn't disappear just because of 9/11. Once the dust settled, just as many Democrats wanted to treat Islamic terrorism as a law enforcement problem as before. Many blamed Bush for the attacks and did not favor going to war. We just went back to business as usual, just like we were always going to. If there was any supposed unification, it lasted just a few days.
Because at the end of the day, Democrats believe what they believe and Republicans have their beliefs.
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