The cold, soulless reaction of our intellectuals toward the most horrific American tragedy in recent memory.
The leftist response to 9/11, expressed in articles, conferences and lectures in the very shadow of the event, beggars belief. It required only one day before a callow drumbeat of smug denunciations and a vociferous schadenfreude began to sound when Ward Churchill published an online essay, entitled “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” praising the “gallant sacrifices” of the terrorist “combat teams” and referring to the victims of the attack as cell phone-toting “little Eichmanns” conducting America’s business in the “sterile sanctuary of the Twin Towers.”
From that first day after 9/11 to this very moment of writing, there have been numberless talks, interviews, articles, essays and books following in the same footsteps of ignominy and shame. To list them all would fill what that great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges called “The Library of Babel.” Suffice it to say that this festival of supercilious disdain, ignorance and malice has by no means abated. Indeed, how is it possible that anyone with even a modest understanding of Islam, its history and literature, could defend the erection of a mosque within the perimeter of Ground Zero as something other than a desecration?
The range of responses to 9/11 runs between outright commiseration with the terrorists at the farther limit and a cloying complacency at the nearer, that is, between palpable madness and ineffable foolishness. But whatever the reaction, the larger consensus is that any terrorist atrocity visited upon America or its allies can be explained by Western corruption and consumerist exploitation and justified as legitimate payback.
One knows by now that the overwhelming majority of public intellectuals and tenured and untenured academics long ago sold out to the enemies of the democratic West—indeed, have themselves become the enemies of the democratic West, ideological termites tunneling away at the very structure and foundations of Western civilization. As far back as 1927, in his The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs) Julian Benda warned us about the subversive agenda of an intellectual consistory that could not be expected to think straight, to feel loyalty to their mentoring traditions or to hasten to the defense of the civilization which nurtured them. They came of age in a culture which gave them the freedom to think, speak and write as they wished and furnished them with the opportunity to chart their own freely chosen direction in life. Yet, instead of honoring these nearly unprecedented historical gifts, they sought the reduction and sometimes even the destruction of their alma mater.
We have observed this scandalous moral and intellectual betrayal in action since the publication of Benda’s book: the vigorous support of fascism, the prolonged and intimate love affair with Soviet communism, and today the sordid embrace of Islamic totalitarianism. As Richard Posner suggests in Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, intellectuals and academics who abuse their privileges “by writing or speaking irresponsibly in the public arena, should be hauled before the bar of academic and public opinion.” But the chances of this happening are approximately nil. The fact that these pundits are wrong or disingenuous on almost every count does not have the slightest inhibitory effect on left-wing marathon thinking.
All this was brought home to me with renewed force on September 11, 2010 as I reflected on the meaning of the day, the ruckus over Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn two copies of the Koran and the ongoing controversy over the proposed construction of the Cordoba mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero. I reread Billy Collin’s beautiful and moving poem, “The Names,” a tribute to the victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, originally delivered at a special session of Congress on September 6, 2002. But Collins is an exception to be applauded. The majority of poets, like their intellectual brethren, lean inexorably toward a state of moral and mental cretinism.
One thinks, for example, of Sam Hamill’s cabaret-light and melodrama-heavy Poets Against the War volume, perhaps the most embarrassingly weak and egomaniacal poetry anthology ever brought out by a reputable publisher—“war cries cries war war,” (stutters Phyllis Webb), “war cries CRIES WAR CRIES there are there/are still still still still” is a typical specimen of the mindless maunderings to be found in it. Like lambs being led to the slaughter, our liberal peacelings do everything in their power not to offend the butchers. Their epigones may one day find themselves living in a Press 2 for English world and writing Arabic qasidas, which would be only fitting.
After Collins, I turned to the work of Richard Tillinghast, another American poet whom I respected and who had also written a 9/11 anniversary poem, titled “Ars Poetica.” I was in for a rude and unexpected shock for Tillinghast had plainly joined the tribe of darkened souls, the coterie of the historically uninformed, the deeply ignorant and the self-indulgent politically correct. “Brush from my heart,” he begins, “the fine particulate matter of the World/Trade Center”—note the freshman-style enjambment straining for significance. For some inscrutable reason, he then proceeds to denounce the Israelis riding in “a tank that grinds down on Bethlehem,” a gratingly obvious allusion to William Butler Yeats’ “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” in “The Second Coming.” Next, he goes on to deplore “democracy bombs” falling on those who “shelter in tarpaper/shacks,” confesses that he’s “had it with ‘God Bless America’ ” and petitions some invisible interlocutor to “Speak to me/in the wavery melismas of the call to prayer/that a billion people hear/this morning from a minaret before dawn.” He then concludes his peroration with the solemn “reverberations/of a bell that memorializes all we have lost.” The poem might have been better titled “Farce Poetica.”
For Tillinghast, as for his innumerable Islamophiliac congeners, what is lost is not three thousand lives. What is lost is not the man and child whose dismembered relics were found in the rubble, a fist clenching a small hand. What is lost, apparently, is America’s sympathy for the Third World, its adherence to the Declaration of Independence and its creed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, its compassionate and civilizing impulse. But what is really lost, in Tillinghast’s case at any rate—and it truly pains me to say this of a poet whom I once read with profit and delight—is honor, integrity, and ordinary perceptiveness.
One does not expect much in the way of political sentience from poets. T.S. Eliot was an unabashed Royalist and an antisemite. Gottfried Benn was originally an admirer of the Nazis. William Butler Yeats sided with the landed aristocracy and, for a time, with the Irish Blue Shirts. Ezra Pound was a raging fascist who broadcast propaganda for Mussolini. Stephen Spender was a Bolshevik sympathizer before he experienced a belated awakening. Amiri Baraka, former poet laureate of the state of New Jersey, despises the United States, “the biggest terrorist,” and exonerates the 9/11 murderers. And so on, ad nauseam. There are exceptions, as I’ve pointed out—W.H Auden, perhaps, Philip Larkin, Billy Collins and a few others—but they are rare enough. No matter how talented they may be, poets are generally benighted and narcissistic beings, unwise in the ways of the world and sophomoric in their political thinking. But one would have thought better of intellectuals who cut their teeth on political ideas, social issues and historical developments.
The generic left/liberal/intellectual reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 demonstrates that there is really no excuse for the monumental shallowness of the highly educated. They may write impeccable prose, compose excellent poetry, paint striking works of art, elaborate involuted theories—but as thinking human beings honestly struggling to come to terms with a cruel and maddening world, they often fail to transcend the level of mediocrity and dubious partisanship. Thomas Sowell goes even further in his litigation against those who are presumed to know. In his recent Intellectuals and Society, he lays it down that the intellectual’s “unaccountability to the external world is not simply a happenstance but a principle.”
Specific talents, curricular knowledge and academic laurels are no guarantee of genuine intelligence, of the ability, in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase, “to see life steadily and see it whole.” The only lesson to be gleaned from the folly and exaggerated self-regard of these appeasers and quislings is that there is no substitute for common sense, character and clarity of feeling, which, unfortunately, cannot be taught.