“Reality-concealing rhetoric and our response to terrorism”
THE TERRORIST ATTACKS on September 11 provoked, immediately afterward, an assertion of civilizational identity and solidarity. A small group of criminals and fanatics did not pose a mortal threat to the most powerful and wealthy societies in history. Still, the collective affirmations of certain Western freedoms and privileges—“we must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion,” Rushdie wrote—seemed a natural emotional reflex at the time. Susan Sontag seemed tactless to many in speaking of the “sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric” of “confidence-building and grief management” that resembled the “unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress.” She was attacked for insisting, “Let’s by all means grieve together, but let’s not be stupid together.”
Fourteen years after September 11, the reality-concealing rhetoric of Westernism participates in a race to extremes with its ideological twin, in an escalated dialectic of bombing from the air and slaughter on the ground. It grows more aggressive in proportion to the spread of the non-West’s chaos to the West, and also blends faster into a white supremacist hatred of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims (and, often, those who just “look” Muslim). Even more menacingly, it postpones the moment of self-reckoning and course-correction among Euro-American elites who seem to have led us, a century after the First World War, into another uncontrollable and extensive conflagration.
Among the more polished examples of their intellectual rearguardism last week was a piece in the Financial Times by the paper’s foreign-affairs columnist, Philip Stephens, titled “Paris attacks must shake Europe’s complacency. The idea that the west should shoulder blame rests on a corrosive moral relativism.”
It should be said that the Financial Times, the preferred newspaper of the Anglo-American intelligentsia as well as Davos Man and his epigones, keeps a fastidious distance, editorially, from the foam-at-the-mouth bellicosity of its direct competitor, the Wall Street Journal (whose op-ed pages often seem to be elaborating on its owner’s demented tweets). Stephens may not have the intellectual authority of Serge Halimi or Ian Buruma—columnists of wide learning and curiosity who push successfully against the constraints of routine punditry. His stock-in-trade is the technocratic wisdom dispensed at think tanks, foundations, and wonkfests. Back last month from attending a security shindig in Delhi—while Hindu mobs roused by Narendra Modi’s government went on a homicidal rampage—Stephens informed his readers that “Mr. Modi’s India is shaping up as a nation set on remaking Asia’s balance of power.” Experts in international relations, one of the fungible intellectual industries credentialed during the cold war, inhabit by professional necessity a cloud-cuckoo land of fantasy and speculation. Indeed, Stephens seems to float through the same exalted echo chambers in Washington, London, Brussels, Beijing, and Delhi as Thomas Friedman. But Stephens’s somberly elegant prose is wholly untouched by the buffoonery of his New York Timescounterpart, or the loutishness of Britain’s pushy mid-Atlanticists, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson. His response to the Paris killings disturbs because its self-exculpating Westernism increasingly passes, after a decade and more of universal carnage, for serious introspection among the best and the brightest.
posted by f. sheikh