The terrorist attacks on September 11 provoked, immediately afterward, an assertion of civilizational identity and solidarity. A small group of criminals and fanatics did not pose a mortal threat to the most powerful and wealthy societies in history. Still, the collective affirmations of certain Western freedoms and privileges—“we must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion,” Rushdie wrote—seemed a natural emotional reflex at the time. Susan Sontag seemed tactless to many in speaking of the “sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric” of “confidence-building and grief management” that resembled the “unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress.” She was attacked for insisting, “Let’s by all means grieve together, but let’s not be stupid together.”
Now, as the wars of the Middle East bleed across Europe, the maniacal cries of “Allahu Akbar” are met by a louder drumbeat of “Western values” and confidence-building invocations of the West’s apparent quintessence, such as the Enlightenment. Yet again, as Sontag warned, “the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality.” Many writers and journalists have chosen to man the barricades of cosmopolitan sensuousness against the barbarians. Rejecting the popular hashtag #prayforParis, a former Charlie Hebdo illustrator claimed on Instagram that “our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy!” His old magazine later crowned the numerous odes to Parisian joie de vivre on its front page: “They have weapons. Fuck them. We have champagne.”
Such proclamations, which make it seem as if bourgeois amenity is available to all in the West, oddly match the outbursts of adolescent jihadists about western “decadence.” Meant to console and fortify, they also obfuscate. The West, or even Paris, is obviously too complex and varied to be signified by the Enlightenment or the Holocaust, let alone Dom Pérignon. The most stalwart ally of vehemently secular France in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist theocracy: the true parent of ISIS. And the hapless civilians of Raqqa, fully exposed to a flailing president’s machismo, know too well that the French have weapons as well as champagne.
Fourteen years after September 11, the reality-concealing rhetoric of Westernism participates in a race to extremes with its ideological twin, in an escalated dialectic of bombing from the air and slaughter on the ground. It grows more aggressive in proportion to the spread of the non-West’s chaos to the West, and also blends faster into a white supremacist hatred of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims (and, often, those who just “look” Muslim). Even more menacingly, it postpones the moment of self-reckoning and course-correction among Euro-American elites who seem to have led us, a century after the First World War, into another uncontrollable and extensive conflagration.
Among the more polished examples of their intellectual rearguardism last week was a piece in the Financial Times by the paper’s foreign-affairs columnist, Philip Stephens, titled “Paris attacks must shake Europe’s complacency. The idea that the west should shoulder blame rests on a corrosive moral relativism.”
It should be said that the Financial Times, the preferred newspaper of the Anglo-American intelligentsia as well as Davos Man and his epigones, keeps a fastidious distance, editorially, from the foam-at-the-mouth bellicosity of its direct competitor, the Wall Street Journal (whose op-ed pages often seem to be elaborating on its owner’s demented tweets). Stephens may not have the intellectual authority of Serge Halimi or Ian Buruma—columnists of wide learning and curiosity who push successfully against the constraints of routine punditry. His stock-in-trade is the technocratic wisdom dispensed at think tanks, foundations, and wonkfests. Back last month from attending a security shindig in Delhi—while Hindu mobs roused by Narendra Modi’s government went on a homicidal rampage—Stephens informed his readers that “Mr. Modi’s India is shaping up as a nation set on remaking Asia’s balance of power.” Experts in international relations, one of the fungible intellectual industries credentialed during the cold war, inhabit by professional necessity a cloud-cuckoo land of fantasy and speculation. Indeed, Stephens seems to float through the same exalted echo chambers in Washington, London, Brussels, Beijing, and Delhi as Thomas Friedman. But Stephens’s somberly elegant prose is wholly untouched by the buffoonery of his New York Times counterpart, or the loutishness of Britain’s pushy mid-Atlanticists, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson. His response to the Paris killings disturbs because its self-exculpating Westernism increasingly passes, after a decade and more of universal carnage, for serious introspection among the best and the brightest.
Stephens begins by attacking those who assume that “nothing bad happens in the world without it being somehow the fault of the west in general and the US in particular.” He denounces these misguided folks “who have decided in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the principal threat to Europe’s freedoms comes from the electronic ‘snooping’ of domestic intelligence services rather than from jihadis.” Declaring that “what is required is a readiness to fight,” he deplores the “complacency that takes for granted the Enlightenment and has sapped the willingness to defend its essential underpinnings.”
These are severe and broad indictments. But who is Stephens’s sole exemplar of Europe’s lethal complacency? Who is the chief offender in an evidently widespread trahison des clercs that travesties the Enlightenment and saps the West’s fighting spirit? Step forward (yet again) Jeremy Corbyn, the much-battered new leader of the Labour party. Beating up Corbyn, an elderly pacifist and socialist, for such derelictions of patriotic duty as refusing to kneel before the queen, gratifies a sadistic urge in Britain’s post-imperial right-wing rabble. But members of the security-intellectual complex tend to attack this politically negligible figure in order to shore up their credentials as worldly, reasonable, and responsible members of the establishment, and to remain viable in an increasingly right-wing political and media culture. Corbyn, Stephens predictably charges, inhabits a “time warp,” with more retrograde views than Fidel Castro, since his “formative memories” are of the Vietnam War and the CIA’s misdeeds in Latin America.
This is of course disingenuous. I can guess at Corbyn’s views on the Vietnam War, but I have primarily known of him—like anyone reading the British press in the last decade—as a bold dissenter within Tony Blair’s war party who opposed the late-imperialist adventures in the Middle East and North Africa, warned accurately of blowback, and campaigned against the CIA’s misdeeds—extrajudicial execution, torture, rendition, and indefinite detention—in the present.
But then such reality-concealing rhetoric about Corbyn, and “leftism” in general, is indispensable to the professional advisers to power as their debacle comes into plain sight. It is not only that a supposedly deluded Sixties radical and anachronistic street “activist” has the temerity to amplify disagreeable truths—that the West’s post–September 11 policies of preemptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, and nation building have failed, catastrophically failed—at prominent political forums. A consistently deceived and distracted citizenry can also see their devastating effects in terrifying close-up: routine massacres at home that follow spiraling wars abroad, the normalizing of racial-religious prejudice, and irreversible subordination of the civil liberties enshrined by the Enlightenment to perpetual warfare against real and imagined enemies. As this fiasco unfolds boundlessly, the bewildered experts, strategists, spies, spooks, and opinion-makers can only search for scapegoats—and find them among the quasi-treasonous leftists and liberals who always force the West to fight with one hand tied behind its back.
We have been here before with the partisans of more bombs and higher body counts, but the lessons are lost on those who suppress the formative memories of both Vietnam and Iraq. In the early 1970s, David Halberstam wrote The Best and the Brightest out of genuine puzzlement at how highly educated academics, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and businessmen fell victim in Vietnam to their own myths of moral supremacy and military firepower. In our own time, the power of the technocratic elite has multiplied, helped by lavish funding from insecure politicians and self-seeking businessmen, the delegitimation of dissent in the mainstream media and universities, and broad-spectrum depoliticization.
Not surprisingly, the pampered and intellectually neutered industry of expertise and commentary today betrays cluelessness before the spectacle of worldwide mayhem. (It is what recently facilitated the resurrection—and canonization in some quarters—of Henry Kissinger as a sage.) Only God knows how much we need some real argument and fresh thinking—the tradition of self-criticism that did indeed once distinguish and enlighten the West. For as long as avid conformists and careerists reign over an impoverished public sphere, endless war will remain the default option. And the recourse to Westernism’s self-congratulatory bromides after every new calamity will ensure that we continue to grieve together and grow stupid together.