Clash of Visualizations

Clash of Visualizations

Consider this hypothetical situation.


Consider this hypothetical situation. Country A has suffered much at the hands of its larger, more powerful neighbor, Country B: an illegal trade embargo, which has gravely harmed the health and welfare of A’s population; large-scale poisoning of livestock and other acts of economic sabotage; bombing of industrial and resort facilities, with considerable loss of life; several assassination attempts against the head of state; and sponsorship of an (unsuccessful) invasion. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Country A acquires decisive military superiority and declares its intention to invade and disarm Country B in order to prevent further terrorism. Country B objects, on the grounds that it is, internally, a freer and more open society than Country A. Which is true enough–B is a liberal society, A a dictatorship. Is Country A (Cuba) nevertheless justified in invading Country B (the United States)?

Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism is concerned with what he seems to believe is an entirely different problem: How should liberal societies defend themselves against totalitarian ones? In fact, however, it is the same problem, with the same solution: adherence to prevailing international law and whatever collective security regime exists to enforce it. Such adherence is of course anathema to the present American government and its apologists, whose viewpoint was summed up by spokesmen for the first liberal superpower, Athens, as it prepared to invade a smaller neighbor for reasons of “national security”: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

For Berman, the international behavior of states corresponds not to their strength but to their internal character. Liberal societies are sane, tolerant, stable, pluralistic and therefore well behaved. Totalitarian societies are paranoid, intolerant, coerced into artificial unity and therefore aggressive. “At a deep level, totalitarianism and terrorism are one and the same,” Berman writes. “If only we could discover the roots of totalitarianism, we would have discovered the roots of terror as well, and vice versa.” The first half of Terror and Liberalism excavates those roots.

The nature of totalitarianism is patent in the word: It is a claim to total authority, authority in every sphere. This is the opposite of liberalism, which is “the recognition that all of life is not governed by a single, all-knowing and all-powerful authority…the tolerant idea that every sphere of human activity–science, technology, politics, religion, and private life–should operate independently of the others, without trying to yoke everything together under a single guiding hand.”

This attractive and self-confident “relative freedom” does not satisfy everyone. Two persistent strains of nineteenth-century European culture expressed a “violent loathing of progress and liberalism.” There was an aesthetic strain: “the old Romantic literary fashion for murder and suicide, the dandy’s fondness for the irrational and the irresponsible, the little nihilist groups of left-wing desperadoes with their dreams of poetic death.” And there was a philosophical strain: German idealism and antirationalism in its extremer versions, anti-Semitism, racial theory. At the end of the nineteenth century these two strains fused to create movements “of a new type,” in Lenin’s words, devoted (according to Berman) “to a single, all-consuming obsession, which was a hatred of liberal civilization.”

Terror and Liberalism lays bare the dynamics of these movements. Though left-wing (Bolshevik) and right-wing (fascist), they shared “a single ur-myth,” which goes back at least as far as the Book of Revelation (also known as Apocalypse) in the New Testament. In this myth, the people of God, dwelling in peace and simplicity, are attacked from within by the wealthy and corrupt denizens of Babylon, aided by evil foreign allies. In a great battle at Armageddon, the people, under a quasi-divine Leader, destroy the satanic forces and inaugurate a thousand-year reign of purity and virtue.

Every one of the “new movements”–Bolshevism, Nazism, Italian and Spanish Fascism–fits this pattern closely, Berman claims. And so does Muslim totalitarianism, in both its religious (radical Islamist) and secular (Baath socialist) versions. In an extended analysis of In the Shade of the Qur’an, the multivolume masterpiece of the most influential modern Islamist, Sayyid Qutb, Berman finds the familiar mythical narrative. Allah’s faithful, the people of the first Islamic societies, are corrupted by cosmopolitanism: first in the form of Christian theology, with its admixture of Greek and Roman philosophy, and then in the form of Western liberalism, particularly the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The original simplicity and unity of God’s people are destroyed by the enemy within (“false Muslims” and Jews), aided from without by waves of Christian Crusaders, missionaries, imperialists and businessmen. But a vanguard of God’s martyrs, resolutely employing murder and suicide, will wage a holy war against this satanic barbarism and restore pristine Islam, this time over the whole world.

Although Terror and Liberalism is not a scholarly work and makes no reference to the large academic literature on totalitarianism, Berman’s comparative anatomy of totalitarian regimes, schematic but imaginative and set forth in a highly wrought, relentlessly epigrammatic style–which will exasperate some readers (as it did me) and delight others–is an achievement. Still, even a nonhistorian will find a lot to quibble with. Berman works his schema very hard. He has to, if it is to support all the lessons he draws from it in the second half of the book. But I’m not sure it can bear so much weight.

The fit with Bolshevism is far from perfect. For one thing, the proletariat was not exactly the people of God. It never dwelt in peace and simplicity; it was born with the modern world, from the chaos and upheaval of industrialization. For another thing, Lenin was not exactly the Leader Berman says he was: “a superman,” “a god,” “a nihilist,” “a genius beyond all geniuses…the man on horseback who, in his statements and demeanor, was visibly mad, and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of all the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality.” Lenin was certainly an arrogant, cold-hearted son of a bitch, and it would have been much better for the world if he had fallen off (or under) that train before it reached the Finland Station. But he was not “mad” or a “nihilist,” he did not regard himself as a god, and he was annoyed when other people did (or pretended to). Most important, Bolshevism was not exactly a “pathological mass movement,” which, according to Berman, is the fundamental characteristic of all totalitarianisms and precisely what liberal intellectuals consistently fail to understand about them. Bolshevism was pathological all right, but it was not a mass movement. It was an elite, skillfully and ruthlessly controlling demoralized and apathetic masses. It was, as Nicolas Werth wrote in The Black Book of Communism, “a state against its people.”

Nazism fits Berman’s schema better. But even here there are problems. Berman repeatedly castigates the antiwar French Socialists of the late 1930s, exemplars (for him) of all naïve liberal antiwar optimists confronted by an implacable, incomprehensible totalitarian threat. The fuzzy-minded (and perhaps also anti-Semitic) French left stubbornly refused to believe “that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions, and the lure of murder.” Actually, it’s not clear they had. They had voted for the Nazi Party, which was not exactly the same thing. A historian calls the NSDAP “a sect of believers and a party of the people.” Meaning, evidently, that not all voters were believers. So what did they vote for?

For revenge and for sticking it to the Jews in many cases, though hardly all. What allowed these shameful motives into play and swept away civilized inhibitions against them? A sheerly mysterious upwelling of hatred for liberal values, as Berman insists? Were there no predisposing material influences? There could have been, after all. In 1918-19 the British government extended its naval blockade for eight months after the German surrender, at a cost of perhaps half a million lives–a vivid and bitterly resented memory fifteen years later. The Versailles settlement was harsh and vindictive. Throughout the 1920s the German economy was weak; the Weimar inflation wiped out the life savings of the middle class (where most of Hitler’s support came from). And then the bottom fell out altogether. Between 1929 and 1932 German industrial production dropped by half, stock prices by two-thirds, unemployment tripled and government welfare expenditures increased thirteenfold. It was, in one historian’s words, “an unprecedented catastrophe.” Another historian reminds us that “the potential maximum of Nazi [voter] support mark…hover[ed] around the forty percent mark,” a figure “it is useful to bear in mind in view of what some authors have said about ‘the Germans” enthusiasm for Hitler.” Still another historian quotes a Nazi official to the effect that “the party program weighed less heavily with voters than the feeling that only National Socialism still had the strength to drag the cart out of the mire.”

These historical commonplaces ought to have slowed Berman’s rhetorical momentum a little. “Despair was their desire,” he writes of totalitarians, not any hope of security or relief. But it wasn’t the desire of most Nazi voters in 1933. And after that, their desires no longer mattered; Nazi Germany too became “a state against its people.” Does this absolve that 40 percent of complicity with barbarism? No, it only suggests, as common sense would also suggest, that something other than, or in addition to, “hatred of liberal civilization” may have weakened their resistance to it.

But the arbitrariness, the unintelligibility, the absolute mysteriousness of totalitarianism are essential to Berman’s larger argument. For Terror and Liberalism has a practical as well as an analytical purpose: to stiffen America’s backbone for the War on Terror. It aims to banish liberal self-doubt, to reassure us that hatred or mistrust of America is not America’s fault, that America’s and Israel’s enemies cannot be understood, cannot be reasoned with, cannot be conciliated. They are prisoners of the same species of “mass pathology,” of apocalyptic fantasy, that produced earlier totalitarianisms; and if they are not dealt with more firmly and forcefully than those others were, there will not be peace in our time. To look for grievances, for substantive wrongs, in the background of suicide terrorism is a misunderstanding, a mere reflex of naïve rationalism. Instead, “we have to steel ourselves” while “the suicide warriors make their ecstatic march toward death.”

“We” means the United States. The Europeans, frightened of their own past, have lost the nerve to defend liberal civilization. Europe has “always needed to be rescued from its own manias” and now ignobly hopes that “by lying low [it] would avoid attacks on itself.” They can at least stay out of mischief, Berman advises. Let the French, obsessed by capital punishment, wax eloquent about it. Let the Germans explain to credulous Muslim intellectuals, “overwhelmed by German philosophies from long ago,” that Marx, Fichte and Nietzsche have been refuted. Meanwhile the United States, unhindered by shameful memories or a bad conscience, and always ready to offer “a steadying arm” to faint-hearted Europe, will do what needs to be done–beginning with an “anti-fascist war” in Iraq.

How did the United States come by this good conscience? According to Berman, it results from an existential choice we made in our defining national moment, the Civil War. The North might have chosen the path of virtuous isolationism, letting the South secede and becoming an egalitarian social democracy. Instead the North chose, at a great cost in blood and treasure, to repair the Founders’ mistake and render “the whole concept [of liberal society] a little sturdier.” In so doing, it took on a “universal mission”: “the defense of democratic self-rule…for the entire planet.”

This is a dubious interpretation of the Civil War, which was fought as much to make the Western territories safe for capitalism as for any “concept of liberal society.” If the South had been defeated quickly, the slaves might not have been freed for a very long time. Putting that aside, did the United States really take on the “universal mission” of “defending democratic self-rule” wherever possible? Did it (as Berman recently wrote in a special March 3 issue of the New Republic) become “more revolutionary, not less; by offering, in some form or another, liberty and solidarity to the entire world”?

Though this notion virtually defines the conventional wisdom in contemporary American political culture, I find it preposterous. In the nineteenth century, as Henry Cabot Lodge acknowledged, the United States compiled “a record of conquest, colonization, and expansion unequalled by any people.” Its record in the twentieth century was no less execrable. The idealistic Woodrow Wilson made war on both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing thousands, in order to block constitutional rule and fortify the position of international investors and domestic elites. In the 1920s and ’30s the US military occupied Nicaragua and Honduras for the same purpose. In 1954 the United States organized the ouster of a moderate democratic regime in Guatemala, and in 1965 invaded the Dominican Republic to prevent the return of one, resulting, both times, in horrendous violence and retarded development. In Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976 the United States instigated or welcomed the overthrow of democratic governments by murderously repressive (but investor-friendly) military juntas. In the 1980s the United States orchestrated fanatically bloody insurgencies and counterinsurgencies throughout Central America, invariably against movements or governments with more popular support than the US client. And the United States casually disregarded international law in order to invade Panama and Grenada, again with (in the former case) thousands of civilian deaths resulting. I have already alluded to US terrorism against Cuba.

This is a very partial list, restricted to US sins and crimes in the Western Hemisphere. A global reckoning would obviously be much more extensive. Not one of these episodes is mentioned in Terror and Liberalism. I cannot imagine why Berman judged all of them irrelevant to the question of whether the United States is truly dedicated to the “universal mission” of “defending democratic self-rule…for the entire planet.”

Perhaps because Berman dislikes being reminded forcefully of the enormous factual record that demonstrates the absurdity of this claim, Terror and Liberalism includes a lengthy attack on Noam Chomsky. Ten pages of this slender book are devoted to painting Chomsky as a prime specimen of the left-wing “simple-minded rationalist,” whose inability to comprehend the “mystery, self-contradiction, murk, or madness” of totalitarian movements leads him to attribute all the evil in the world to the “greed” of “giant corporations and their intellectual and governmental servants.”

After the Indochina war, Berman writes, Chomsky had no way to explain the atrocities in Cambodia. He therefore set out, basing himself on his “customary blizzard of… obscure sources” (an ungracious remark, this, coming from the author of so lightly documented and empirically thin a book as Terror and Liberalism), to demonstrate that “in Indochina, despite everything published in the newspapers…that genocide never occurred,” or if it did, was all America’s fault.

What Chomsky and Edward Herman actually set out to do in The Political Economy of Human Rights was to show how differently the crimes of official enemies are treated in mainstream American media and scholarship than are those of official allies or of America itself. Accepting without argument the existence of “substantial and often gruesome atrocities” in postwar Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman reviewed the sources uncritically relied on in the mainstream, showed how inferior they were to sources that told a less convenient story and pointed out that equally credible sources that told of roughly equivalent atrocities within the American sphere of influence (for example, Indonesia’s in East Timor) were generally ignored. Not the one-dimensional soundbite Berman alleges. But he is hardly alone in misrepresenting The Political Economy of Human Rights. Dealing fairly with the book’s argument requires a modicum of discrimination, attention to detail and polemical scruple, courtesies rarely accorded Chomsky by his critics.

After 9/11, Berman continues, Chomsky was similarly doctrinaire and deluded. He found the “entirely predictable” attacks by Al Qaeda “the reply of oppressed people from the Third World to centuries of American depredations.” Chomsky, Berman scoffs, “had no basis at all,” in his ridiculous bestseller 9/11, “to attribute these centuries of Third World motivation to bin Laden.”

No; but then, he didn’t. The “terrorist atrocities,” Chomsky noted in 9/11, were “a gift to the harshest and most repressive elements on all sides.” The likely perpetrators were “extreme Islamic fundamentalists,” “murderous…religious elements” who “for 20 years have caused great harm to the poor and oppressed people of [the Middle East]”; not surprisingly, since the latter are “not [their] concern.” Al Qaeda has “little concern for globalization and cultural hegemony,” and bin Laden himself “knows virtually nothing of the world and doesn’t care to.” There is not a word in 9/11 ascribing Third Worldist political motivations to bin Laden or Al Qaeda. Berman had no basis at all to attribute this absurd misreading of their motives to Chomsky.

In ten pages, Berman manages to make more, and more serious, errors of fact and logic than Chomsky has made in 10,000. An impressive performance.

Berman’s scorn extends to the rest of the antiwar left. Those who questioned the Bush Administration’s immediate resort to massive force in Afghanistan, for example, are “useful idiots…explaining why black is white.” By this last phrase I suppose he means: explaining why a war that threatened to increase by 50 percent the number of Afghan civilians at risk of starvation, according to UN officials, might not be a just war. In their inability to comprehend the radical Islamist infatuation with murder and suicide, contemporary American leftists remind Berman of those pre-World War II French Socialists, as well as of all those who could not believe in Stalin’s crimes.

It is true, of course, that the fellow-traveling left did not acknowledge Soviet crimes soon enough or straightforwardly enough. Others should learn candor from that sorry episode, along with skepticism about revolutionary rhetoric. But the question of whether it was Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes that led to their designation as official enemies, or whether American, British and other liberal ruling groups could have coexisted, then as now, quite happily with the perpetrators of crimes of any magnitude as long as the latter posed no threat, by conquest or example, to existing patterns of ownership, investment, trade or resource availability–this question does not arise for Berman. Too simple-minded for him, presumably.

Well, what about the prospect of Islamic totalitarianism? Is Armageddon inevitable? Berman may turn out to be right: It may be that Islamic radicals cannot be understood, reasoned with, conciliated or ignored. If so, then their enemies–including all of us, since they say so–will of course have to fight them. The first battles, in that case, will be for the allegiance of Islamic populations. Unlike Berman, I don’t believe it’s possible for a billion people, or any sizable fraction thereof, to go mad unless persistently abused or neglected. They may, however, eventually come to feel that only Islamic radicalism still has “the strength to drag the cart out of the mire.”

Whether they do conclude this will depend in some measure on American policy, since American power and wealth are more nearly equal than anything else in the world to dragging their cart out of the mire. Until now–as American leftists are willing to say, and Berman apparently is not–American policy has given them no reason to expect any such help. Nor will it, unless American institutions are significantly democratized and reoriented. Though it may only betoken my lack of imagination, this simple-minded rationalism seems to me very much more to the point, now and probably hereafter, than darkly eloquent warnings about “mystery, self-contradiction, murk, or madness.”

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