The longest-term stakes in the war against terror are not just human lives, but whether Western civilization will surrender to fundamentalist Islam and shari’a law. More generally, the overt confrontation between Western civilization and Islamist barbarism that began on September 11th of 2001 has also made overt a fault line in Western civilization itself — a fault line that divides the intellectual defenders of our civilization from intellectuals whose desire is to surrender it to political or religious absolutism.
This fault line was clearly limned in Julien Benda’s 1927 essay Le trahison des clercs: English “The treason of the intellectuals”. I couldn’t find a copy of Benda’s essay on the Web. but there is an excellent commentary on it that repays reading. Ignore the reflexive endorsement of religious faith at the end; the source was a conservative Catholic magazine in which such gestures are obligatory. Benda’s message, untainted by Catholic or Christian partisanship, is even more resonant today than it was in 1927.
The first of the totalitarian genocides (the Soviet-engineered Ukrainian famine of 1922-1923, which killed around two million people) had already taken place. Hitler’s “Final Solution” was about fifteen years in the future. Neither atrocity became general knowledge until later, but Benda in 1927 would not have been surprised; he foresaw the horrors that would result when intellectuals abetted the rise of the vast tyrannizing ideologies of the 20th century,
Changes in the transport, communications, and weapons technologies of the 20th century made the death camps and the gulags possible. But it was currents in human thought that made them fact — ideas that both motivated and rationalized the thuggery of the Hitlers and Stalins of the world.
Benda indicted the intellectuals of his time for abandoning the program of the Enlightenment — abdicating the search for disinterested truth and universal human values. Benda charged that in
abandoning universalism in favor of racism, classism, and political particularism, intellectuals were committing treason against the humanity that looked to them for guidance — prostituting themselves to creeds that would do great ill.
And what are the sequelae of this treason? Most diagnostically, mass murder and genocide. Its lesser consequences are subject to debate, equivocation, interpretation — but when we contemplate the atrocities at the Katyn Forest or the Sari nightclub there can beno doubt that we confront radical evils. Nor can we disregard the report of the perpetrators that that those evils were motivated by ideologies, nor that the ideologies were shaped and enabled and apologized for by identifiable factions among intellectuals in the West.
An intellectual commits treason against humanity when he or she propagandizes for ideas which lend themselves to the use of tyrants and terrorists.
In Benda’s time, the principal problem was what I shall call “treason of the first kind” or revolutionary absolutism: intellectuals signing on to a transformative revolutionary ideology in the belief that if the right people just got enough political power, they could fix everything that was wrong with the world. The “right people”, of course, would be the intellectuals themselves — or, at any rate, politicians who would consent to be guided by the intellectuals. If a few kulaks or Jews had to die for the revolution, well, the greater good and all that…the important thing was that violence wielded by Smart People with the Correct Ideas would eventually make things right.
The Nazi version of this disease was essentially wiped out by WWII. But the most deadly and persistent form of treason of the first kind, which both gave birth to intellectual Naziism and long outlived it, was intellectual Marxism. (It bears remembering that ‘Nazi’ stood for “National Socialist”, and that before the 1934 purge of the Strasserites the Nazi party was explicitly socialist in ideology.)
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1992 broke the back of intellectual Marxism. It may be that the great slaughters of the 20th century have had at least one good effect, in teaching the West a lesson about the perils of revolutionary absolutism written in letters of human blood too large for even the most naive intellectual idealist to ignore. Treason of the first kind is no longer common.
But Benda also indicted what I shall call “treason of the second kind”, or revolutionary relativism — the position that there are no moral claims or universal values that can trump the particularisms of particular ethnicities, political movements, or religions. In particular, relativists maintain that that the ideas of reason and human rights that emerged from the Enlightenment have no stronger claim on us than tribal prejudices.
Today, the leading form of treason of the second kind is postmodernism — the ideology that all value systems are equivalent, merely the instrumental creations of people who seek power and other unworthy ends. Thus, according to the postmodernists, when fanatical Islamists murder 3,000 people and the West makes war against the murderers and their accomplices, there is nothing to choose between these actions. There is only struggle between contending agendas. The very idea that there might be a universal ethical standard by which one is `better’ than the other is pooh-poohed as retrogressive, as evidence that one is a paid-up member of the Party of Dead White Males (a hegemonic conspiracy more malign than any terrorist organization).
Treason of the first kind wants everyone to sign up for the violence of redemption (everyone, that is, other than the Jews and capitalists and individualists that have been declared un-persons in advance). Treason of the second kind is subtler; it denounces our will to fight terrorists and tyrants, telling us we are no better than they, and even that the atrocities they commit against us are no more than requital for our past sins.
Marxism may be dead, but revolutionary absolutism is not; it flourishes in the Third World. Since 9/11, the West has faced an Islamo-fascist axis formed by al-Qaeda, Palestinian groups including the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the rogue state of Iraq, and the theocratic government of Iran. These groups do not have unitary leadership, and their objectives are not identical; notably, the PA
and Iraq are secularist, while al-Qaeda and Hamas and the Iranians and the Taliban are theocrats. Iran is Shi’a Islamic; the other theocratic groups are Sunni. But all these groups exchange intelligence and weapons, and they sometimes loan each other personnel. They hate America and the West, and they have used terror against us in an undeclared war that goes back to the early 1970s. The objectives of these groups, whether they are secular Arab nationalism or Jihad, require killing a lot of people. Especially a lot of Westerners.
Today’s treason of the intellectuals consists of equating suicide bombings deliberately targeting Israeli women and children with Israeli military operations so restrained that Palestinian children throw rocks at Israeli soldiers without fearing their guns. Today’s treason of the intellectuals tells us that because the U.S. occasionally propped up allied but corrupt governments during the
Cold War, we have no right to object to airliners being flown into the World Trade Center. Today’s treason of the intellectuals consists of telling us we should do nothing but stand by, wringing our hands, while at least one of the groups in the Islamo-fascist axis acquires nuclear weapons with which terrorists could repeat their mass murders in New York City and Bali on an immensely larger scale.
Behind both kinds of treason there lurks an ugly fact: second-rate intellectuals, feeling themselves powerless, tend to worship power. The Marxist intellectuals who shilled for Stalin and the postmodernists who shill for Osama bin Laden are one of a kind — they identify with a tyrant’s or terrorist’s vision of transformingthe world through violence because they know they are incapable of making any difference themselves. This is why you find academic apologists disproportionately in the humanities departments and the soft sciences; physicists and engineers and the like have more constructive ways of engaging the world.
It may be that 9/11 will discredit revolutionary relativism as throughly as the history of the Nazis and Soviets discredited revolutionary absolutism. There are hopeful signs; the postmodernists and multiculturalists have a lot more trouble justifying their treason to non-intellectuals when its consequences include the agonizing deaths of thousands caught on videotape.
It’s not a game anymore. Ideas have consequences; postmodernism and multiculturalism are no longer just instruments in the West’s intramural games of one-upmanship. They have become an apologetic for barbarians who, quite literally, want to kill or enslave us all. Those ideas — and the people who promulgate them — should be judged accordingly.