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Day August 6, 2004

Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism

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)

Bill Barnes
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)

Introducing a guest blogger: Dr. Bill Barnes

Here on Extended Phenotype, Dr. Bill Barnes will continue the discussion of Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism with a guest posting. His review essay is a much more detailed discussion of Berman’s thesis than my previous posting on the subject, and well worth reading. I’m hoping to follow his essay with additional thoughts of my own in the next few days.

By way of introduction, Dr. Bill Barnes has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan, and the J.D. from University of California Berkeley (Boalt Hall). After teaching political science and comparative politics at Ohio State (Lima), Montana State University, Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, he served as a member of the Commission on Nicaragua Pre-Election Polls in 1989 and 1990. Dr. Barnes is an acknowledged expert on elections and polling in Latin American countries, the author of many publications in the field, and is at work on a book comparing election campaigns and public opinion polling in Nicaragua and El Salvador, with special reference to the successes and failures of the left in learning to operate on this terrain. He currently practices law in Oakland, California.

Welcome, Dr. Barnes!

Eugenicist running for Congress in Tennessee

What the hell is happening in this country? What we believed was solid progress on civil rights, racism, and religious tolerance was really a thin veneer, covering a vast pool of racist, intolerant, illiberal thought.

Today’s case in point: the Republican candidate for the Tennessee 8th district is James Hart, an avowed eugenicist. He’s posted his publication, “Favored Races,” on the campaign website. It makes for interesting reading, resting as it does on a completely unwarranted reading of Darwin’s 19th century Victorian prose and an utter lack of knowledge about modern biology. His platform is a strange mix of eugenics to protect the genetic vigor of the white race, stopping usury and a vaguely spelled out class war, and complete trade protectionism.

Fortunately, Hart is such a wingnut that his own party has completely disavowed him. Barring a miracle, Hart is running in a “safe Democrat” district and he’s on the ballot because no mainstream GOP candidate wanted to run.

But doesn’t it still frighten you just a little that this country still hasn’t completely gotten beyond this kind of abhorrent, pseudo-scientific racist garbage?