From Stalin to the Muslim Brotherhood, our politicians and public intellectuals get it wrong.
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.”
The imbecilities of our majoritarian intellectuals go hand in hand with the blindness and casuistry of our political leaders, who are like reverse Midases: whatever they touch turns to lead. They also resemble weathervanes, turning with the wind and formulating policy according to the vagaries of time and chance as they perceive them. Settled principle is beyond their means. Buckminster Fuller was differentially correct in Utopia or Oblivion when he relegated our politicians, by and large, to the lowest rung of human accomplishment, if not to the class of mental defectives. Really smart people, he suggested, usually go into science or one of the select professions; the remnant take up politics or the Law. There are exceptions, thank the Lord, but Fuller’s taxonomy, irrespective of his own delphic hankerings, seems to be borne out in most cases.
Stupidity and hypocrisy are the central characteristics of most of our political leaders. The subject would take an Encyclopedia Dementica to do justice to, but for the moment let us consider the political response to the turmoil in the Islamic sphere as an illustration of such ineptitude and, indeed, depravity of mind. The Middle East is aflame with revolutionary fever whose eventual results are completely unpredictable and might well be catastrophic. Although these upheavals are expressions of spontaneous combustion and appear uncontrollable, what is it that our presidents, prime ministers and chancellors propose? Why, it’s time for Israel to make another “gesture” for peace and behave in a conciliatory fashion toward its Arab “neighbors.” If a Jewish resident in the Sheikh Jarrah quarter of Jerusalem agrees not to extend his front steps, Egypt will quiet down, Gaddafi will abdicate and the mobs in Green Square will pack up and go home. Hamas will rewrite its bloody charter. The spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Yusuf al-Qaradawi will moderate his inflammatory rhetoric and forswear jihad. The fires of revolt will subside.
This is called “linkage,” a notion that has no anchor in reality but floats in the murk of the diplomatic fantasy world. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, whose country continues to flout international sanctions against Iran, clearly believes that “the revolution in Egypt made it necessary for Israel to create a peace initiative”—a fallacy she shares with many other political notables. Whether they are suffering from a self-induced mirage or are preoccupied with ensuring commercial transactions and oil contracts, or both, remains an open question. It cannot be denied, however, that they are either witless, naive or disingenuous.
We also learn that Western political leaders are in the process of freezing the bank accounts of Arab potentates like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi now that they are or are about to be deposed. Why did the authorities not proceed to move against their holdings when these dictators were still in power? After all, a tyrant is still a tyrant whether he remains in power or is fleeing for his life. He has been robbing his people, skimming foreign aid and embezzling the state treasury for the last thirty or forty years, depositing his loot in Swiss banks and the Caymans, investing in profitable companies and acquiring lavish properties in London, Los Angeles, Washington, New York, Englewood and who knows where else. He has been feted by world leaders, posed for photo-ops with the privileged and celebrated, and addressed the sessions of the United Nations. All this was perfectly in accord with international protocol. Scarcely a whisper of disapproval was heard. Suddenly, the tyrant is having his assets seized and his former friends and associates are in high moral dudgeon at his reprehensible conduct and fiscal malversations.
Stupidity and hypocrisy. They don’t make them like Churchill, Ben-Gurion, Adenauer, Thatcher and Reagan anymore. We are governed by an entrenched clan of panderers, charlatans, Pharisees and—though this is not a nice thing to say—plain idiots. “Men without chests,” to quote C.S. Lewis from The Abolition of Man. Only here and there, perhaps in Canada, perhaps in Poland, possibly in a few other places, do we see glimmerings of hope. Strong and principled individuals, “outliers” whose achievements fall outside normal (political) experience, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, have begun to make their voices heard on both sides of the Atlantic. Great—or at least competent—leaders may yet come to the fore.
Our mainstream intellectuals and main-chance politicians can still do enormous harm. Nonetheless, they are like dead men walking, whose “faith,” as Arnold wrote, “is now/But a dead time’s exploded dream.” They are moribund, only they don’t know it yet. Ordinary people everywhere are beginning to awaken to the weakness and bad faith of their political leaders and the muddle-headedness of the intelligentsia and the left-wing punditocracy. The Tea Party in the United States may be a sign of things to come, as are many of the recently-formed national parties in Europe. Perhaps a new dispensation will arise and a degree of common sense and nobility of purpose will prevail—until, of course, the human stain once again asserts itself. History, pace Fukuyama, doesn’t stop. But an interregnum in this epoch of corruption and enfeeblement has become essential if we are to avoid the various cataclysms that threaten: war, cultural decay and economic collapse.
Meanwhile, we live in the in-between, cantilevered betwixt past and future over a profoundly uncertain present. Obviously, the future may not fulfill the promise we have intermittently glimpsed, but the work of construction must nevertheless continue. Let us hope Matthew Arnold is right and that his concluding vision remains in force. “And through the wood, another way,/Faint bugle-notes from far are borne.”