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In his signature poem, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold lamented his and his era’s homeless condition, “wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.” This phrase succinctly describes our current situation as we oscillate in the cultural space of the in-between, one pole of customary reference no longer viable and its replacement not yet in existence—or at least, not quite.
The intellectual and political realm of thought and discourse that we have long taken for granted, and which many of us still believe in, is effectively dead. With few exceptions, the vast tribe of public intellectuals issuing their volumes of confident analysis, scribbling in newspapers, orating on television and pontificating on the Net about the state of the world and what to do about it are little more, to quote Arnold again, than “eternal triflers” who do not realize their day is over.
I am referring primarily to the denizens of the left who rely on an obsolete and discredited Socialist praxis dolled up by such descriptors as “social justice,” “fairness,” “economic parity” and “progressive ideas.” They are not interested in how prosperity is generated or in the principle of individual responsibility or the need for constitutional safeguards or in the inescapable constraints of realpolitik. Their view of reality is shaped by an unsustainable belief in the advent of the best of all possible worlds, like Voltaire’s absurd Dr. Pangloss in Candide, who was convinced that the millennium lay just around the corner. Of course, various forms of agitation and intervention might be necessary to accelerate the birth of justice and liberty, but they are persuaded that history is on their side.
These intellectuals are still trapped in a mindwarp, as is evident from their almost unanimous reaction to the events taking place in the Middle East. They tend to regard the eruption in the Islamic world as a re-run of the Prague Spring with its aspirations toward freedom and democracy. In order to maintain their cognitive delirium, they will naturally suppress any countervailing data and simply airbrush out of their prefabricated picture of the region whatever challenges their congenial theories and assumptions.
Consequently, despite incontrovertible evidence that argues otherwise, the Muslim Brotherhood, we are informed, has shucked its violent past and morphed into a peaceful organization that only wants a seat at the democratic table. Its undeniable agenda to subvert the West, annihilate Israel and revive an Islamic Caliphate, as per its easily accessible documents and proclamations, as well as American State Department cable traffic, is dismissed as a minor irritant and not to be taken at face value.
As Andrew Bostom wrote in an email to William Kristol—one of these deluded intellectuals who believes that the attempt to restore the Caliphate and to bring about an Islamic imperium is a mere hallucination—“serious and responsible people engage in ideas, learning, digesting, and discovering, not taking an a priori position, as flimsily grounded, as it is tenaciously held, despite reams of objective, contrary evidence, and no apparent thought of re-consideration” (personal communication). What Bostom says of Kristol applies across the board.
The spectacle of our intellectual clerisy, with its ingrained tendency to misread the vectors of the time and its making common cause with one or another form of obscurantism, is as dispiriting as it comes. It is congenitally susceptible to what Eric Voegelin in The New Science of Politics has called “theoretical illiteracy,” which shows itself in “the form of various social idealisms” or an “axiological dream world.” It is a dream world because it meets the dangers that surround it, says Voegelin, not “by appropriate actions in the world of reality” but rather by magic incantations “such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind,” so that in the course of time an entire society comes to be pervaded “with the weird, ghostly light of a lunatic asylum.”
Thus, in the Thirties to well on in the last century, many prominent intellectuals supported the Soviet Union and regarded Joseph Stalin and his successors as humanists and benefactors. Mass killers like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were postered as heroes of emancipation. Today they take the Muslim Brotherhood to their bosom, hugging it tenderly. One recalls Victor Klemperer’s remark in I Will Bear Witness that he “would have all the intellectuals strung up [and] left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.”
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