A History of Deceitful Hopes

My good friend Eyal Press has been on me for some time to read Pankaj Mishra's essay on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Tariq Ramadan and Paul Berman. I finally waded in yesterday and it's an extraordinary piece, the dimensions of which I'll expand on later. Skepticism of self is the theme, that and how intellectuals tend to avoid such skepticism.

That said, I think Mishra's invocation of Hannah Arendt stands out in relation to our most recent conversations:

During the Vietnam War, Hannah Arendt noted that members of the Democratic Administration had frequent recourse to phrases like "monolithic communism," and "second Munich," and deduced from this an inability "to confront reality on its own terms because they had always some parallels in mind that 'helped' them to understand those terms." Similarly, Berman, who wasn't known previously for his expertise on modern political movements east of Europe, identified Islamism as a derivative version of the totalitarian enemies--Fascism and Communism--that liberalism had already fought throughout the twentieth century. 

After "trolling the Islamic bookstores of Brooklyn," he offered a genealogy of "Islamism" that rested almost entirely on his reading of Sayyid Qutb, an ideologue of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. According to Berman, liberal intellectuals were obliged to do battle with the new nihilistic Fascism, which included secular dictatorships like Iraq's as well as pan-Islamist movements. "I'm happy to be a laptop general," he wrote, and his work quickly united a variety of public figures, from Richard Holbrooke to Martin Amis, in the cause.

Mishra's target is Berman, but I think this sense of an inability "to confront reality on its own terms" and instead reveling in "some parallels in mind that 'helped' them to understand those terms" is chastening and important. It's not that analogies should not be employed, but the emphasis should always be on making the argument on its own terms. I get skeptical when I read writers use "fascism" as a synonym for "people I find amoral." I get skeptical when I see slavery employed as a synonym for "practices I find amoral."

Argument is hard because it requires a mastery of specifics, of details, and then an imagination to employ those specifics, those details, in a way that is loyal to the uniqueness of a particular experience. If you haven't read much about slavery, you probably shouldn't be in the business of drawing parallels.

When I was college, it was common for student activists to call slavery "the Black Holocaust" or "The Real Holocaust." There's an argument to be made about America, and the stories we tell ourselves when we see ourselves as heroic, and when we don't.  But most of these activists--some of them anti-Semites--knew very little about Jews, Europe, Nazism nor, frankly, slavery. And they didn't much care. They were not interested in specifics. They were interested in leveraging the moral power of other people's experience, in order to bolster the moral power of their own. It was narcissism, laziness, and basic lack of respect--not simply for the Jewish experience--but for the specifics of the African-American experience.

More on this piece later. It's terribly important. And I still haven't read any Hannah Arendt. I keep finding that much of what I'm grasping to say, she's already clearly said. I don't know if that's good or bad. All things in time, I guess.