Q. Has Liberalism Learned Its Lesson?
A. Which Liberalism? Which Lesson?
Partial draft of review essay on Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003)
BarnesWAB@aol.com (please advise of any quotation or use)
“September 11th was one of those great earthquakes that clarify and sharpen. … I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947” (1)
Condoleezza Rice, March 2002
The centerpiece of the book, also presented in the cover article of the New York Times Magazine of March 23, 2003, is an in-depth exegesis of the thought of one of the seminal philosophers of Islamist fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb (an Egyptian who was hanged by Nasser in 1966). Berman uses this exegesis to ground his argument that both Islamism and the authoritarian Arab nationalism of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime are in fact forms of fascist totalitarianism with roots in the Europe of the 1920s and 30s and whose driving force is pathological hatred of Western Liberalism. Terror and Liberalism calls upon Western liberals and leftists to stop evading this reality, look it in the face, take this aspect of Islamic fundamentalism seriously, as a fascist attack on Liberalism per se, rather than an amorphous “clash of civilizations” or a perverted form of anti- imperialism, and gird themselves for anti-fascist war, as they did in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Berman says (in recent Dissent) that many on the left disagree with his overall argument and conclusions basically because “they cannot identify the main contours of reality right now,” and they suffer from willful blind-spots. I can’t resist responding: Physician heal thyself. I insist that fascism and anti-fascism, Liberalism and anti-Liberalism, are no where near as simple and straightforward, historically or contemporaneously, as Berman would have us believe. Berman homogenizes a highly variegated world history of proto/quasi/neo-fascism — assimilating that congeries of phenomena to the totalitarianism of 1930s Central Europe, to Naziism in particular, and most particularly, to the SS of the period 1941-44. Berman then projects that image onto today’s Islamic fundamentalism, so as to homogenize that complex reality as well. More importantly for present purposes, Berman homogenizes the world history, and the current reality, of Liberalism.(2)