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Self-Immolation

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With the second anniversary just a week away, I find myself reluctantly starting to think about the horror once again. Whether you agree with the wisdom of the war in Iraq or not, this is a fascinating reexamination of the Western left intelligensia’s response to 9/11 by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the U.K. Prospect, and how the morally bankrupt absurdity of that response made the war in Iraq (to which the writer objects) easier to obtain, since anti-war and anti-U.S. sentiment in general had been so badly represented in the aftermath of 9/11 by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Barbara Kingsolver, Susan Sontag, Jeanette Winterson, Martin Amis, Alice Walker, Dario Fo, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Berger, Mary Beard, Michael Moore, and on and on – a gallery of Literary Lights and Deep Thinkers proving themselves to be outrageously wrongheaded, vacuous fools swimming in their own little pools of intellectual putrescence. Goddamn! no one can be as stupid as some “smart people.”

    These unthinking “radicals” provoked more than just amusement mixed with irritation—they induced a sense of despair. They simply had nothing to say—as they showed when they were asked for more practical advice. If Alice Walker’s suggestion that Bin Laden should be reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done was one of the most remarkable entries in this whole sottisier, it wasn’t much different in kind from the fatuities on offer elsewhere. Paul Foot led the way by telling Bush, “first, cut off your aid to the state of Israel.” This was like saying, first, conquer the law of gravity, or, first, fly to Venus.

    ….A clue to this sorry performance may be found in the relationship between the literary-academic left in the west—or “what’s left of the left”—and militant Islam. On the face of it they should be opposite magnetic poles. So they once were. The Enlightenment knew what to say about religions, all of them: “Écrasez l’infame!” In the 19th century, the progressive party believed that one of the reasons for European superiority over the benighted regions of Asia and Africa was the conquest of superstition.

    Today, credulous doting on Islam is not just an expression of western self-hatred. On the face of it, Islam and the western left have nothing in common at all. But they do, in fact, something profoundly important. They share the common experience of defeat. Islamic terrorism is not a function of success but of failure. As a culture and society, Islam enjoyed a glorious golden age between the 8th and 12th centuries, but it has been in decline for many centuries past, some would say since the first fall of Baghdad.

    As the 20th century ended, it saw another great defeat. Marxism-Leninism long predeceased Soviet Russia; even democratic socialism has conceded victory to the competitive free market. There was, and is, a distinction between the practical and intellectual left. In the 1930s, the “practical” left on either side of the Atlantic weren’t much interested in communism, but got on with making the New Deal, or preparing the Labour party to win a decisive election. It was the intellectual left, or part of it, which lost its heart to Stalin. But if those Stalinoids were nasty enough when they explained away the Moscow trials, they weren’t silly, and they could plausibly believe that history was on their side. To re-read that catalogue of nonsense from two years ago is to realise that their descendants simply aren’t serious any longer. If the old Leninist left was buried politically in the rubble of the Berlin wall, the literary-academic intelligentsia disappeared morally in the ashes of ground zero.

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About Eric Olsen