The Orwell Temptation

I have no real intention of reading a 28,000 word Paul Berman essay on why Tariq Ramadan is bad in The New Republic, so I'll refrain from commenting on the substance of things. I will note that Ian Buruma's Iong New York Times Magazine article on Ramadan reached very different conclusions and I'm more likely to take Buruma's word for it than Berman's.

That said, the very fact that Berman wrote such a thing reminded me of Josh Marshall's years-old essay on Berman and "the Orwell Temptation". Josh described the temptation primarily in terms of a tendency to overblow the world-historical significance of Islamist terrorism in order to make intellectuals feel more important, like they're living at really important times. In Berman's case, though, this impulse also exhibits itself in a pretty weird conception of the role of the intellectual in world-historical times. Way back in his March 2003 essay on Sayyid Qutb Berman was saying things like this:

It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas -- it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.

As Brian Weatherson argued at the time there was something very strange about this. 9/11 certainly made the philosophy of Sayyid Qutb a more interesting topic for the intellectually inclined, a more valid subject for New York Times Magazine articles. Nevertheless, it takes a curious frame of mind to believe -- as Berman appears to believe in complete earnestness -- that defeating al-Qaeda requires us to first engage in close reading of the works of a man who died forty years ago, and then for us to muster an army of intellectuals to refute his philosophy.

Here, again, implicit in the essay on Ramadan is the notion that, on some level, for al-Qaeda to be defeated it's necessary for hawkish western left-wing intellectuals to win an internecine argument with other western left-wing intellectuals about the merits of Tariq Ramadan's work. It's just a bizarre idea, a weird picture of how the world works; as if Soviet Communism collapsed because books about the superiority of free markets were really convincing rather than because books about the superiority of free markets were true and therefore societies featuring free markets outperformed the Soviet bloc.