In the National Interest, David Rieff has a nice takedown of Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. And yet… it is a takedown that continues the ‘conversation’, so to speak. But there are certain conversations that are still born from the beginning. Paul Berman, who has somehow established himself as a “historian” of Islamicist ideology, is so completely off base that he provides a nice study in how to do intellectual history wrongly.
How do you do it wrongly? Well, you take the intellectual history of a movement that has grown over the last sixty years and you snip out – all the pertinent history over the last sixty years. What you are left with is a comic book, in which the main thing is who agrees with the Nazis, and who didn’t.
Well, what a pretty issue! In Berman’s history, the line moves directly from the Mufti of Jerusalem in the 40s to Osama bin Laden – and so direct is this line that it doesn’t wait for, say, the massive support for fundamentalist Islam and its premiere state, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, given by another state, the United States, followed by Western Europe, and involving a colorful cast of characters who make up the entirety of contemporary Middle Eastern history, beginning with Nassar. In this history, U.S. policy – and the desire for cheap gasoline – drops off the screen entirely. So if, for instance, it was U.S. policy to put in power the son of a very notorious Nazi sympathizer – I’m looking at you, Pahlavi family – this goes into the wastebasket of history – as opposed to, of course, Tariq Ramadan, whose father was (gasp!) a Nazi sympathizer. Roll over Eisenhower and tell Kermit Roosevelt the news!
(I can’t resist a blast from the past. In 1976, John Campbell, in Foreign Policy, told the fairy tale of Iran in a delightful way, echoing the blank Berman so assiduously preserves in his own fairy tale:
Its [Iran’s] rulers yielded when they had no choice, remaining ever sensitive to the
forms of sovereignty and always seeking to assert national rights and interests. Such an instance was the Anglo-Russian occupation of the country in World War II, which forced tbe abdication of Reza Shah, the founder of the modern Iranian state, in favor of his son, Mobammed Reza, but also brought pledges to respect Iran's sovereignty and to end the occupation after the war, pledges with which the United States was later associated.
Postwar Iran had reason to be grateful to the United States. American diplomatic support made it possible to get rid of the Soviet occupation forces after they had outstayed their welcome and fostered a separatist revolution in Iran's northern province of Azerbaijan [Editorial note: a policy that is now being followed by, surprise, the Americans]. And America's differences with Britain over the handling of the crisis that followed nationalization of tbe Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by the government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in the early 1950s enabled Iran to come out of the crisis with a new deal on oil, altbough Mosaddeq himself disappeared from the political scene.” This was written in 1976, when it was standard Cold War practice to mock the Soviets for re-writing their history. The nicest touch here – among so many - is Mosaddeq “disappearing.” In the American historical vernacular, disappearance always marks Manifest Destiny – the Indians, in this version of history, are always conveniently disappearing as the settlers “appear.’ Disappearance hearts Uncle Sam!)
Intellectual history has its place, but there is a reason that, among historians, it is regarded as fingerpainting for the senile. There is the large question of cause – a question that poor historians, those who are, let us say, averse to research, sluff off by referring vaguely to ‘influence’. However, Berman is not even a poor intellectual historian. There’s no indication that he has ever done any investigation whatsoever into the last sixty years of Middle Eastern history on any level more difficult that reading some columns in the Figaro. He proceeds, laughably enough, as though he were equipped with the razor sharp analysis of the trained Marxist, and yet he seemingly has no idea about such simple issues as money – where it comes from, who it goes to, and like that. Even a sixties simpleton with Berman’s connections could, if he wanted to, send some student flunky to study the popular periodicals of the 80s – you know, the decade in which Berman agonized over supporting the contras. It was a truly dialectical decision! In that decade, in fact, the U.S. and the House of Saud were as one in forging a truly wonderful anticommunist coalition that – as it happened – was based, from the latter’s point of view, on spreading a certain Islamic sect that rejoiced in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and was looked upon with approval by European powers (always willing to do anything for gas) as the money ‘appeared’ for mosque building. For instance, the Moslem World League, a Saudi organization, headquartered in Paris (the home, now, of so many “new philosophers” fighting against the scourge of fundamentalism – soldiers enrolling for a war thirty years late) dispersed, according to its own record, 4.5 million francs, between 1979-1983, for the building and repair of mosques. [Nielson, 18] Ah, a small but tidy sum, that. How much was really dispensed – by who, through what routes – is probably difficult to trace, although surely the records are there not only in Riyadh, but in the archives of the CIA and the French DGSE. A very important thing, mosque building – many a neo-con, back then, was ready to lay down, in a figurative fashion of course, his life for the freedom of Moslems in the Soviet Union and in Afghanistan to worship their God – it was heartbreaking what the communists were doing, and how about Stalin? - and found the mosques a most reassuring way of taking back a young generation into the anti-atheist, anti-materialist fold.
There is nothing more rotten and hypocritical than an empire covering its ass. It employs, for this purpose, a certain kind of intellectual – whose credentials are enhanced by an early 20s bout of radicalism. All the better – as they bloat and grope through their subsequent careers, they get extra points for the signs they once painted at that protest in was it 1967? But they are, in general, creeps. Nothing but creeps. Berman, purveyor of a creep version of intellectual history that pleases the crewe at TNR and the NYT magazine, is just the kind of walking absurdity who one expects to see in a corrupt era of imperial overreach and decline.
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