Michael Totten has a long, fascinating interview with Paul Berman entitled “The flight of the intellectuals”. (The title is a nod to the book La trahison des clercs/”The treason of the intellectuals” by Julien Benda.)
Much of the interview focuses on the mental contortions of the modern intellectual left that dismiss Arab liberals while they regard a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” like Tariq Ramadan as an authentic moderate.
The interview should be read in its entirety, but let me quote a few passages that stand out:
In regard to the Soviet dissidents of the past, at least nowadays there is a consensus of opinion that, yes, the dissidents were correct and we should have listened to them. So why didn’t we? When I say “we,” I mean the intellectual community as a whole in the Western countries. And it’s for a whole set of reasons.An outright sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union itself was only one of those reasons. This only accounted for one set of people.
There were other people who dismissed the dissidents for what you might call conservative reasons. They wanted to assume the Slavic world was hopelessly steeped in traditions of autocracy and ignorance and habits of obedience and deference — the traditions of tsarism. They could see very well that communism in the Soviet Union had replicated the whole tsarist system, in a new version. There was a leader at the top whose rule was uncontestable. There were the masses at the bottom who had to proclaim the wisdom of the leader at the top. And a lot of people looked at this and said, yes, this is what the Slavic world is supposed to be. This is the authentic thing. Slavs are inherently inferior to Westerners. They aren’t capable of being free people. They aren’t capable of thinking for themselves.
So when the dissidents rushed out and told us that the Soviet Union is crushing individual liberty or doing other oppressive things, our response to them was to pat them on the head and say, well, it’s nice that you got out, and you are welcome to stay, but you’re not talking about the real world. The real world is one where Slavs are destined to remain forever victims of oppressive tyrants, and this is because Slavs enjoy being victims, so we’re not going to take people like you, the dissidents, all that seriously.
The logic behind that kind of thinking is very appealing, to some people. It pictures a world that is dominated by cultures that we like to regard as authentic — cultures with unchanging deep qualities that go back thousands of years, and may be rich with cultural jewels, but will never produce anything more progressive and will certainly never embrace the kinds of freedoms and advantages and dynamism that we celebrate in our own culture. So that’s one idea.
Then there’s another idea that appeals to many people, which is based not on our own feeling of superiority, but on our own inferiority. We look at ourselves in the Western countries and we say that, if we are rich, relatively speaking, as a society, it is because we have plundered our wealth from other people. Our wealth is a sign of our guilt. If we are powerful, compared with the rest of the world, it is because we treat people in other parts of the world in oppressive and morally objectionable ways. Our privileged position in the world is actually a sign of how racist we are and how imperialistic and exploitative we are. All the wonderful successes of our society are actually the signs of how morally inferior we are, and we have much to regret and feel guilty about. So when we look at the world, we should look at it in a spirit of humility and remorse, and we should recognize that other people have been unfairly treated.
We should recognize the superiority of those other people over ourselves. Money-wise, we may be richer. But, morally, the other people are richer. And so, we should despise ourselves, and we should love the other people — the people who possess qualities so superior to our own as barely to be human. And then, filled with those very peculiar ideas, we set about looking for messianic figures who might express the superior culture of the other people, and might lead the human race to a higher stage of development. And if someone objects to this analysis, we say, oh, we inferior Westerners are incapable of understanding the mysterious thought-patterns of those other people, so who are you to judge?
MJT: I think you have it pretty well worked out.
Paul Berman: I assure you, I don’t.
MJT: This all sounds right to me. You just described two very different, even opposite tendencies, one which you’ve described as conservative, the other which could only be described as leftist. Lately, though, it seems what you describe as the conservative view of the Slavic world is now, in some ways, a left-wing view of the Arab world.
Patronizing and condescendence, thy name is leftism.