Swat and Paul Berman and the Limits of the Intellectuals

Today, the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times published Anthony Julius’ review of Paul Berman’s new book, “The Flight of the Intellectuals.” I’ve been interested in Berman’s work, in what Julius rightly calls Berman’s theme: “the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their value and ideals.” This ties the new Berman book–on the Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan and his liberal supporters Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash–to his other books, “Terror and Liberalism,” and “Power and the Idealists.”  One might read them as entirely different from the Ramadan book, and indeed I’ve been guilty of seeing this book as a strange idyll for Berman, a surrogate public obsession for a deeper and unnamed personal one.

If you take a look at New Yorker writer George Packer’s 2005 book, “Assassin’s Gate: American in Iraq,” you’ll find four pages on Berman and the run-up to the Iraq war. Packer and Berman were friends, and both men were early supporters of the Iraq invasion. They supported it not only because they believed that weapons of mass destruction were in Saddam’s possession. They aligned themselves, as I did, with the persuasive account of Iraqi Kanan Makiya’s “Republic of Fear.” I believed that the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein was worth dismantling. And the opposing argument, made most strenuously and publicly by Mark Danner and others, that said America could not take on China, or Sudan, or Burma or other such regimes was not an argument in my mind to oppose the Iraq war. A Iraq war that had been justly and intelligently waged, in my view, would have been entirely different than the one the Bush administration under Donald Rumsfeld haphazardly pursued.

This is a rather dry disagreement. But Packer’s portrait of Berman is anything but dry. If you have Assassin’s Gate, take a look at pages 46 through 50. There, Packer describes, in ways Berman no doubt disliked, how Berman was “working out a theory about what was now being called the war on terrorism.”  Packer, who covered the war on the ground in Iraq, paints Berman as a “bold thinker,” but one who, in his early 50s, lived alone above a Palestinian grocery store a half block from the heart of Middle Eastern Brooklyn, in the same neighborhood where Packer also lived. When 9/11 happened, Packer writers, Berman explored the bookstores of the neighborhood and came upon the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Packed into his apartment with copies of The Anarcho-Syndicalist Review and French language literature and philosophy, Berman concluded that the men who flew into the towers weren’t motivated by “Muslim tradition, or Third World Poverty or the clash of civilizations or Western Imperialism.” They were motivated by a modern ideology called Totalitarianism. Qutb espoused a Muslim totalitarianism, and Iraq’s Baathism was another Muslim totalitarianism.

Packer paints Berman thus: “There must have been weeks on end when he never emerged from his apartment. He called it “war duty”—after all, New York had become a front line. Berman believed strenuously that it was the job of the intellectuals to explain and mend the rent that had just been made in the fabric of our world. For him the answer lay in literature and philosophy as much as politics, let alone policy.”

There is a subtext here, not all that difficult to detect. Packer is the brave man who stands at the Assassin’s Gate in Baghdad next to the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Berman is the lonely man under the lamp, reading.

Berman hasn’t spoken to Packer since the book was published. Or at least that’s what a friend of the two men told me a couple weekends ago when Berman appeared at a Guernica PEN World Voices panel titled “Black Sheep and Exploding Turbans” that tried to explore Europe coming to terms with its Muslim minority. Jamal Mahjoub, a Sudanese born novelist, moderated. Aline Bronsky, a Russian born novelist who writes about the Soviet ghettos of Germany, tried to talk about another Western European minority’s difficulties with assimilation. Danish novelist and essayist Janne Teller talked about how prior to the Muhammad newspaper cartoon in Denmark, “the presence of Islam was very underrepresented in the public space.”  Swiss novelist Peter Stamm spoke about the ban on minarets in his native Switzerland. “My Friend the Fanatic” author Sadanand Dhuma discussed his relationship with an Indonesian advocate of terrorism.

It was a hodgepodge that had almost nothing to do with Berman’s thinking. The real debate should have been between Ramadan and Berman, but Ramadan’s handlers have refused to let that happen. On April 8, Ramadan, when asked about Berman at Cooper Union, at what was his first appearance in the United States since being barred by the Bush administration in 2004, dismissed his book as a rehash of old disputes: “He’s translating things of the last 20 years that I said in French.” (You can read The Weekly Standard’s dressing down of the event here.) Berman’s book is more than that. Yet who was there carrying water for Berman, cornering Ramadan using ammunition from Berman’s work? George Packer.