Sunday, 7 August 2011

(Liberal) Fundamentalism

Janet Malcolm, attacking a review of a new Naipaul book, which criticises his misanthropy and its all too common corollary, an overly sentimental attachment to animals, quotes Milan Kundera:

Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.  And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.  (Letters, TLS 29/10/2010)

Her view?  The reviewer has failed that test.  Before going any further it is worth quoting the context:

[following a long description of a lorry full of cattle, and the author’s anguish over their treatment] It’s worth thinking again of Naipaul’s chilling remark about the pigmies in the face of this overwrought lament; “It is hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals.  Perhaps they weren’t.”  (William Boyd, TLS 06/10/2010.  My italics)

It is easy to love what is far away: Stalin’s Russia, Obama’s America, and red squirrels on the European continent.  There are no ugly contradictions or irritating resistance for us to overcome.  We do not have to compromise or argue our points of view.  Thinking is superfluous: for us they are either saints or victims; who we can worship and sometimes assist; allowing two extremes of human behaviour, submission and domination, to sit comfortably side by side in our modern living rooms. 

How much harder to accept other people as their really are; as humans like you and me, with their strong personalities and different ideas; their resistance to our imperial benevolence. 

It is easy to hate what is in another continent.  Clerics in Iran, communists in Angola; G.W. Bush in the White House…  People turned into simple abstractions, with none of the complexity of those close to us.  Abstractions to which we give a simplistic moral value, they are evildoers in a public melodrama, to protect us the pain of real understanding; and the hard work that that entails.

And how much easier it is with the lower species…  Love the beast and hate the human; although we too are animals.  As Nietzsche might have said: how human this is, all too human!

Why should this be so?  Let us speculate…

We have strong and powerful minds, but we are also aware of their fragility: the dangers of exposure to unfamiliar ideas; to sharp criticism they cannot counter; to facts they do not know.  We like security, and are fearful of risk.  So we prefer to stay in the shallow waters of our habitual understanding; to keep within those familiar headlands of what we already recognise, the horizon beyond too dangerous and out of reach; or so we come to believe.

Also built into the mind is a strong sense of our own ego (and is there any bigger than V.S. Naipaul’s?).  Naturally we tend to be rather proud of it; sensing here is where our individuality lies; although this is probably a mistake.  We have a pride in our uniqueness, which flows into our mental faculties; exacerbated by a culture founded on knowledge and education; or at least the myth of superior intelligence – the belief that success depends on our cognitive abilities.  Constantly told we are different from everyone else, we feel and grow to believe it.  There may even be times when we think we are one of the greats: high up in those low plains that surround us.  Of course there are mountains far away, but we keep them at a distance; our reverence freeing up our own fantasies; to imagine ourselves in a high tower overlooking the flatlands.  How invigorating!  To look down at all we see.

When we step out of these fantasies how deflated it all can seem.  We meet other humans, similar to us; with the same ideas, and who share our opinions.  How frustrating!  To belong to a group!  A type!  A species!  How annoying to be the same as everybody else.  Our proud tower is threatened; we sense it crashing down… 

No!  We will not accept it!  So we strengthen the defences, build moats and construct secondary walls to keep everyone far away.  Once again you can look down at all you see.  Once again the people are very small; hardly human, a tribe of beasts.  And how we rejoice!  Unique once more, in our high tower, safe in a world of our own imagining; the walls and gates, that wide water, makes us so.  With animals it is simple; we need no artificial aids: clearly they are no cognitive threat to us.  And thus we stroke and cuddle and sentimentalize them… Though imagine if they could talk back, argue their case, and defeat our arguments. Would we like them then?  It is the human that we hate; they scare us; both with their conformity and their superior skills.  So we attack and denigrate them; to preserve our uniqueness, our towering strength.

Let us return to Janet Malcolm.  Why do we quote?  Usually it is to confirm a thought, to add some detail, and to give it authority.  Sometimes it is to offer a different perspective.  Mostly we quote to show how right we are! 

A quotation is not a proof (although there are exceptions).  Nor is it absolute truth.  Malcolm seems unaware of this, quoting Kundera as if his words were scientific law or proven fact.  Yet all she has done is to cite another’s opinion, who shares her prejudice.  Although his statement has authority, Boyd seemed slightly abashed in his response, she has only invited a friend around to agree that she is right; and of course he affirms what she believes.  We wonder if it needed to be said.

Malcolm’s response highlights the priestly nature of many modern intellectuals, who believe the printed word incarnate truth, if written by the correct authorities.  The evangelical Christian quotes the Bible to tell us Noah lived. Janet Malcolm quotes Milan Kundera to prove Boyd immoral.  The Christian replaces facts and arguments, replaces knowledge, with revealed religion; Malcolm attacks opinion with opinion, and believes it truth.  We see this kind of thing all the time.  The writers and journalists who use isolated facts to prove their point; or quote a word’s definition to win their argument.  As if a fact proves anything by itself, or the world is understood through a dictionary!  This is the ignorance of the intellectual, and why they are so dangerous; with their fundamentalist belief in their metaphysical materials, which they reify; and would have us obey.  Too often they show little understanding as to the nature of facts; their need of context, which in large part conditions them.  They are blind to how facts (and the language used to describe them) are often makeshift unities, ideological creations that are dissolved and reconstituted in the time and culture where they exist.  They have absolute faith in words; which they believe have fundamental value; are eternally the same.  They worship simple formulas; call it theory; and attack all outsiders as stupid and obscene.  Criticising the simplicities of Paul Berman, Malise Ruthven puts it well:

[He] avoids exploring the complex religious forces affecting contemporary Islam.  He conveys little sense of the historical and political context behind the struggle between the reformist tendency in Sunni Islam going back to such nineteenth-century thinkers as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, who were strongly influenced by, though also resistant to, the West, and the myriad groups of modern Salafists (sometimes called “literalists”) funded by petrodollars from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Instead Berman prefers

…the fallacy of treating the Islamist movements with all their complicated ramifications as a “totalitarian” ideology in the same category as Nazism and communism…  Granted that Islamism contains fascistic elements… it is dangerously simplistic to assimilate the complexities of family power rooted in clan politics and kin patronage networks of a traditionally based society to a system comparable to that which operated in Russia from 1917 to 1991 or Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich.  (Righteous & Wrong)

The NYRB’s title for the piece is perfect: the simplicities of the priestly intellectual is the foundation slab of their moral righteousness.  They are the holders of truth (that small collection of facts - there are Islamists who are terrorists - and a phrase - Islamic Fascism), which allows them to condemn all dissenters from the party line as guilty of sin.

Intellectuals, on the whole, are not interested in understanding the world.  They serve a master or an ideology, a state or a movement; and they want the frisson of grace and religious condemnation (the corrupt simply prestige and lots of money).  To serve these psychological necessities they cast down all who criticise them into the hell of their evangelical rhetoric.  How they love it!

It has a long history.  Norman Cohn in his classic Warrant for Genocide investigates one case from modern European history, tracing the ideological origins of modern anti-Semitism, one example of a much wider genre, to the outcast intellectuals of the 19th century.  In another book he looks at its medieval roots; and tries to explain such perennial phenomena:

In each of these instances [of the Hussite revolt in 1419, of the League of the Elect in the German peasants’ war of 1525, and the Anabaptists of Munster] the mass insurrection itself was directed towards limited and realistic aims – yet in each instance the climate of mass insurrection fostered a special kind of millenarian group.  As social tensions mounted and the revolt became nation-wide, there would appear, somewhere on the radical fringe, a propheta with his following of paupers, intent on turning this one particular upheaval into the apocalyptic battle, the final purification of the world.

Like the millenarian movements themselves, the propheta evolved over the centuries…  Nevertheless certain generalizations can be made about the propheta as a social type.  Unlike the leaders of the great popular risings, who were usually peasants or artisans, prophetae were seldom manual workers or even former manual workers.  Sometimes they were petty nobles; sometimes they were simply impostors; but more usually they were intellectuals or half-intellectuals – the former priest turned freelance preacher was the commonest type of all.  And what all these men shared was a familiarity with the world of apocalyptic and millenarian prophecy.  (The Pursuit of the Millennium)

Compare Cohn’s words on Thomas Müntzer and Jan Matthys with Malise Ruthven’s on Paul Berman:

Despite his implied claim to be one of the few journalists or intellectuals from Western backgrounds “to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas,” phrases such as “carelessly adopted positions,” “flippant phrasing,” and “paucity of research” constantly spring to mind when reading his book.

Then there is the millenarianism:

[The War on Terror] was the clash of ideologies.  It was the war between liberalism and the apocalyptic and phantasmagorical movements that have risen up against liberal civilisation ever since the calamities of the First World War.  (A direct quote from Berman in the Malise article). 

Of course he attributes the millenarianism to “them”: in a world of changed values it is the religious monotheists that are the sinners now.  I think Ruthven’s article shows that Berman shares the intolerance and religious faith of his enemies; projecting his views and feelings onto all Muslims.  For like the Anabaptists of old what matters is us against them; the small to sect to which I belong against everyone else, who doesn’t.  In a global war of ideologies both sides believe in phantasmagoria, so we have Martin Amis’ belief that Muslims are conquering Europe through the birth rate.  Amis, a fellow member of this modern religious cult, prophesying the doom of the secular European race.[i]

So much is made out of so little.  The origin of faith.

But let’s go back to Janet Malcolm.  Kundera’s quote proves nothing at all.   OK, I qualify: it shows two modern liberals sharing a similar mental universe; when to comes to the animals.  But that is all.  The rest is simple tautology. 

But we are here now, and it would be a shame to let the opportunity pass.  So let us get the study lamp and microscope out.  Let us look at these words more closely.

Does Kundera mean all animals?  The flies in our kitchen; the ants on the patio tiles?  Should we show mercy to everyone single one?  Or should we discriminate between the cockroaches and beetles, and those animals for whom we have emotional sympathy: cats and dogs; the birds on our city streets?   And what about the human, that other animal?  The Germans in bombed out Hamburg; the Londoners in the Blitz…  Where these not animals at the mercy of merciless humans?  Already one senses a certain emptiness in the phrase; its impressiveness trompe-l’oeil. 

We walk back in time to the Warsaw Ghetto and the Paris Commune.  Should the domestic animals be given the same respect as the starving humans?  Should they all die of lack of food, or should they eat each other equally?

Portentous phrases rely on their efficacy by not being thought about too much.  We need to read them quickly, and pass on; swelled up with an easy and profound wisdom.  Is Kundera correct when he says everything stems from our attitude to the trout and rattlesnake? That it explains the millions killed in two world wars?  Can we explain the difference between Switzerland and the Soviet Union by their attitude to lice and rats…  Maybe we can explain it all away by saying the difference between states is not “fundamental”.

And how to explain the cannibalism of Hitler, to use Ze’ev Rabotinsky’s so apt a phrase,[ii] with his vegetarianism? If he had shown less mercy to the animals would more humans have been saved?

Kundera’s statement is a bold generalisation that has little content: perfect for a novel, where it forms part of the texture of thought and feeling; which gives the overall work its meaning.  Excise the words from their context, and that meaning vanishes.  Malcolm has forgotten a generalisation is a mere description; its truth value determined by facts that exist outside it.  The phrase has to be contextualised and broken down; and often, as in this case, it has little validity if treated as a statement of fact, and of reality.  To do so is to make it ludicrous.  Although it does contain elements of truth; as an aperçu it has a certain quality.

I once saw a young man kick a pigeon to death on the street; it was in his way and he was too lazy and stupid, too insensitive, to walk around it.  His actions suggested something of his character.  But how far do we go…  For the fundamentalist there is no such question – all animals are sacred.  Poor people ill-treating cattle because of lack of time and care, but not out of conscious cruelty, are grouped with the sadistic torturer.  All animals are equal!  Although this leads to confusion and paradox: humans the one animal that are not. 

The focus is wrong.  Malcolm avoids Boyd’s substantive point, the racism and inhumanity of Naipaul, to concentrate on the easier target; the helpless victim who will never fail us.  This dissolves all difficulties, and allows us to become indignant and superior.  How moral we are because we think about the animals!  How pure we have become because we are not poor and distressed; do not treat the world with a roughness we have been bred to despise.  This is to measure other people by a standard they cannot hope to reach; at least in their life times.  It is to construct a more up-to-date and sophisticated moat and castle wall.  It is to be civilised, but also narrow, arrogant and vain.  Three traits of the evangelical mind, no century has yet escaped.

The “fundamental test”, if there can be such a thing, is not our attitude to animals but to humans; a much harder examination to take.




[i] Michiko Kukutani’s review picks up something that I noticed long ago, but which the British critics tend to ignore – his empty pretentiousness.  The flexing of intellectual muscles over a mouse.  Thus he calls one of his books: The War Against Cliché.
[ii]Whatever we may think of Fascism’s other points, there is no doubt that the Italian brand of Fascist ideology is, at least, an ideology of racial equality.  Let us not be so humble as to pretend that this does not matter – that racial equality is too insignificant an idea to outbalance the absence of civic freedom.  For it is not true.  I am a journalist who would choke without freedom of the press, but I affirm it is simply blasphemous to say that, in the scale of civil rights, even the freedom of speech comes before the equality of men.  Equality comes first, super-first; and Jews should be the first to remember it, and to hold that a regime maintaining that principle in a world turning cannibal does partly but considerably atone for its other shortcomings.”  (In Colin Shindler’s The Land Beyond Promise). For more comment see footnote vii in my Prejudice.

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