Bonfire of the Intellectuals
Paul Berman's outraged attack on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's attackers.
Return with me now to the lusty days of yore, when engagé public intellectuals battled it out over Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism, and just who betrayed whom in the bloody streets of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War—and later in the savage pages of The Partisan Review, where those battles were refought. Sometimes the intense seriousness of the intellectual combat can sound overstrained in retrospect (cf. the Woody Allen joke about Commentary and Dissent merging to form Dysentery). But in fact these were foundational postwar arguments, waged by some of the sharpest thinkers in print as they clashed over urgent questions about the future of totalitarianism and democracy.
The Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman's new 300-page polemic (to be published this spring), recalls these heady days in a book that is likely to provoke an intense controversy among public intellectuals. The most contentious assertion in Berman's book is that some of the most prominent of these—people who rushed to the defense of Salman Rushdie when he was threatened with death for a novel deemed blasphemously irreverent to Islam—have failed to offer wholehearted support to Muslim dissidents today, people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and Muslim apostate, whose lives are similarly threatened. This failure, this "flight of the intellectuals," Berman argues, represents a deeply troubling abandonment of Enlightenment values in the face of recurrent threats to freedom of expression.
Berman's book will likely provoke bouts of rage, praise, and condemnation in print and online. In doing so, his book will remind us that those old Partisan Review smack-downs raised questions that have evolved and mutated but remain unresolved: Is there a paradox at the heart of Enlightenment values? Should a belief in "tolerance" extend to the intolerant? Must Enlightenment values stop short of challenging multicultural values? Or do multicultural values sometimes entail moral relativism? One key issue, for instance, is whether Ayaan Hirsi Ali's campaign against female genital mutilation makes her—as the intellectuals Berman attacks have called her—an "Enlightenment fundamentalist," the flashpoint buzz phrase of the controversy. (Although my favorite buzz phrase is the one the French intellectual Pascal Bruckner devised for those who have sneered at Ayaan Hirsi Ali: "The racism of the anti-racists.")
Berman's new book exhibits the same dedication to moral clarity on these questions demonstrated in his earlier Terror and Liberalism.He gives earnestness a good name! He has the knack for seeing and saying not just the subtle but often the obvious things that so many soi-disant intellectuals blind themselves to in the search for self-congratulatory comlplexification. I'm thinking of Berman's review of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which was long and digressive (but rewarding for both reasons) and had the radical effrontery to say what so many intellectual reviewers couldn't find the words for, because, perhaps, it would mark their response as too tribal, too "ethnic"—that Roth's book about an anti-Semitic presidential candidate (Charles Lindbergh) might have something to do with anti-Semitism! (It was really about Bush, they rushed to tell us. Despite Roth's own disclaimer, of course; they knew better.)
In any case, Berman's portrait of the behavior of today's intellectuals when confronting the plight of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is devastating. I was going to say his portrait of certain intellectuals, because he singles out the well-respected writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for their aggressive sniping and snarking at Hirsi Ali when she was (and still is) under threat of death. But in fact the relative silence of the rest of the intelligentsia, when confronted with the threats against her, is almost more scandalous. (An exception is my colleague here at Slate Christopher Hitchens.)
Hirsi Ali, who described her decision to leave Islam in 2007's Infidel, was subsequently driven from her refuge in Holland by death threats that followed her from Somalia. And by the murder of her friend and supporter, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose slashed and bleeding body was found with a note that called Hirsi Ali next to die.
In The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman contrasts the way intellectuals have treated Hirsi Ali—with ostensible support, in the abstract, but condescension, disdain, and nitpicking criticism in all the best intellectual venues—with the way they and others rallied unequivocally to the support of Salman Rushdie in 1989 over the Satanic Verses fatwa.
And so Buruma snipes at "her attitude, her style." Snarks at what he interprets as a snobbish wave of her hand in a TV clip. All but calls her "uppity." ("The racism of the anti-racists.") As Berman puts it, "[T]he Hirsi Ali who emerges from Buruma's portrait"—in his book Murder in Amsterdam—is "animated by crude ideas" that evidently lack Oxbridge sophistication, of course. Berman continues, "She's zealous, strident … arrogant, aristocratic." Doesn't know her place among Buruma and his peers. And Timothy Garton Ash chivalrically tells us that if Hirsi Ali "had been short, squat and squinting, her story and her views might not have been so closely attended to." (Note the tone of donnish disdain—the sexism of the anti-racists.)
It would almost be as if a Rushdie supporter back then had said, "Sure, I'm for his not having his life threatened and all, but I'm tired of all this magic realism stuff, and he seemed arrogant when I saw him interviewed on TV. Maybe he was too contemptuous of the culture of the people who want to murder him."
Hirsi Ali's critics argue that she represents a simpleminded allegiance to the tolerant and libertarian values of the Enlightenment, that she's an "Enlightenment fundamentalist," pretty much the moral equivalent of an Islamic fundamentalist who supports suicide bombing. Presumably because she doesn't believe in tolerating an intolerance that kills, maims, and shackles women. It was Ian Buruma who coined the oxymoronic phrase "Enlightenment fundamentalism," which was then picked up by Timothy Garton Ash. * To his credit, Garton Ash eventually publically apologized for applying the phrase to Hirsi Ali at a London debate, although he didn't seem to withdraw from a belief that the phrase might have some residual legitimacy.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Ayaan Hirsi Ali by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images.