Sunday, March 11, 2007
One day, historians will study the disorienting effect the world crisis after 9/11 had on British culture and document how wild the liberal arts became. The Tate itself scooped up the banners of Brian Haw, a peace protester who was so indifferent to Baathism he was objecting to sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime long before the 2003 war came, and dignified them with a place in its galleries.
From this train-wreck of a passage, little can be rescued. Who, aside from The Observer's editors, would fail to notice that to oppose the sanctions regime was not a mark of 'indifference' to Ba'athism? And what a titillating use of the word 'wild'. The gentrified, capital-intensive arts industry in the UK with its yawn-enforcing, funereal parade of provocations, contains some market-savvy people with purse-strings who know how to spot a trend. When the anticapitalist and antiwar movements filled up public spaces with floats, display pieces, cartoons, placards, witty slogans and witless ones, musical set pieces, vocal harmonies, masks and so on, I expect the arts patrons had a collective wank over the purloined memory of Mikhail Bakhtin and moved like thunder to sieze a piece of that action. The idea that theatre producers and the trustees and rich patrons of the Tate are in any sense 'wild' is a fantasy that could only be entertained in the fanciful brain of a reactionary Kulturkampfist.
It goes without saying that there is a charge of liberal hypocrisy: why so mean to Blair and yet so afraid of religion (Islam, obviously)? Specifically, a student magazine published some 'anti-Islamic' material, and the Crown Prosecution Service is looking at a possible race-hate charge. It has published one of the 'milder' Danish cartoons, and has "a series of gags at the expense of the protesters who marched through London with placards declaring 'Behead those who insult Islam' and 'Freedom go to hell'". Cohen, prehensile protector of free speech in all forms, is outraged. So what if it says some nasty things about 'radical Islam'? Oh, sure, someone might be offended, but everything beyond the bland offends someone. And yet - prepare, readers, to be scandalised - no one in the liberal arts has said a word on behalf of the students. Rory Bremner is too busy recycling his repertoire of impersonations to give a shit. Sarah Lucas cannot be pulled away from her fried eggs to issue a declaration of solidarity with a puerile student publication. Rhona Cameron, too, is inexplicably silent. And where are the Chapman brothers when they're not subverting the Enlightenment? Not standing up to radical Islam, I can assure you. It is a "trahison des clercs", a "racism of low expectations which holds that ethnic minorities can't handle the freedoms enjoyed by their betters". And Cohen does not omit to mention that the Enlightenment is involved, as per "the willingness of modern liberals to sneer at Enlightenment values." They will pay for their treason one day, Cohen assures us. Government and big business will demand to know why they can be mocked if artists are too 'cowardly' to mock Muslims, and the artists won't have a 'principled answer'.
I would have to have the neurotic guilt of a young Woody Allen to put myself through the business of separating fancy from fact, or sense from surrealism, in Cohen's article. It isn't that awful a Sunday. Yes, of course, the stuff about free speech is fraudulent: Cohen doesn't take it seriously for a second. Proof of which, when has he ever expressed a moment's concern for 'radical clerics' locked up for inciting racial hatred? Or for the repression of free speech for supporters of the PKK? What happened to those columns? Where is that petition? Of course there is no coherence to the argument, of course it relies on the didactic impressionism so familiar in the navel-gazing, hair-raising, forest-razing calamity of Roger Alton's Sunday paperweight.
It would be trite to read these polemics as anything other than symptomatic. And the symptoms are, shall we say, liberally evident. Those who most noisily declaim about their fealty to the Enlightenment tend to be those who are immovably hostile to it. From Dershowitz to Berman to Cohen, there has been, as David Keen puts it in his book Endless War, a resounding "plea for lack of understanding". Dershowitz insists that one should never try to understand, for instance, the "root cause" of suicice attacks, and he has been accompanied by the predictable array of liberals whose mental maps are populated by such nebulous categories as 'the root-cause brigade'. Dershowitz avers that "The real root cause of terrorism is that it is successful". The debatable assertion that terrorism is successful (it needs qualification at the very least) is surely secondary to the rather important question: successful at what? Presumably at forcing the attenuation of the root causes that animated the violence in the first place.
Similarly, Paul Berman derides Enlightenment rationalism when he insists that not everything is "rationally explicable", and "no single logic rules the world" - and therefore one can't expect to make sense of what these Islamic nihilists do to us. We must merely crush them, relentlessly, and without too much anxiety about the consequences. Not without relish either, as Hitchens reminds us. Norman Geras, debating the war on Iraq with Ken MacLeod, insisted that the examination of American motives and strategy in going to war was 'speculation', and therefore didn't merit a great deal of attention, as if outcomes could be so simply decoupled from intentions. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for people of this tendency to simply iterate the alleged reasons for going to war on no grounds other than the implicit one, that Blair and Bush stated these as their reasons and so it must the case. And if rationalism is eschewed, so is the business of empirical research: how many of these people have been content to describe the civil war in Darfur as one of Islamist 'genocide', without knowing the slightest thing about its dimensions, about the insurgency, about its origins and so forth? Actually, there is plentiful scholarly research on the development and strategy of suicide attacks, and no shortage of historical experience that has indicated the way out of these kinds of conflict. But that involves political analysis of a kind that is automatically ruled out as a capitulation, apologia or masochism. It would be pedantic and laborious to trawl through other examples of immunity to evidence, but you can find some instances here.
The magical thinking that characterises these claims is hardly indicative of a mature, Enlightened attitude to evidence and theory. By magical thinking, I mean the persistent and dogged cleaving to irrational beliefs that appear to offer a relatively expedient and cost-free way out of a problem. For instance, the belief among some in early modern Europe that the monarch or the emperor had a divine touch that would cure such diseases as scrofula (which Marc Bloch wrote about in The Royal Touch) was often impervious to the evidence of outcome. If he didn't clear it up the first time, a few more visits would presumably do the trick. If it did clear up, then this was evidence of the divinity of his touch. But we need nothing so obscure to compare it to: anyone who believes (however much they say its only a laugh) in the power of astrology always notices when something in a short block of text corresponds to their lives that day. Concepts like 'Islamofascism' or 'Islamist totalitarianism' fulfil a similar function. Incidental correspondences between an actual situation and the loose strings of association that comprise the concepts mentioned are unfailingly noticed and emphasised. By contrast, evidence that militates against such explanations has already been excluded in advance as irrelevant, fantastic and potentially treasonous to meditate on. It counts as 'energetic contextualisation', and as such mitigates, excuses or apologises for bombings or 'genocide'.
Whence the origins of such superstition? It comes directly from the political Right whose irrationalism is legendary. It comes directly from business propaganda, about which we should be able to say the same thing. It comes directly from Hollywood and television, too. The 'war on terror' demands and amplifies such illogicality, but one is accustomed to emotional persuasion and irrational attitudes of subservience to authority. The arguments are already formed in one's head, and it takes no special effort for an apostate windbag to rediscover them. The empire's enemies do things because they are evil, irrational, intolerant, fascistic, hateful of American or British 'values'. Not rational or susceptible to reason, they are instead possessed by psychic insecurities and wounds ingrained over centuries of resentment at Western success. At most, 'we' are unwittingly attractive, because of prosperity, and free enterprise and voting and female liberty, and therefore unintentionally aggravate groundless resentments. We have limitless, gluttonous freedom, after all: look at how 'wild' we allow our profligate artistic community to get. Look at how much excess we license: a 'tsunami' of dissent, no less, paid for by a generous government. A state of affairs threatened only by religious censors, the 'totalitarians' behind them, and the apologists and sell-outs and traitors who blame America, and doubt the divinity of the emperor's touch.