May 15, 2010


The Pretender: a review of THE FLIGHT OF THE INTELLECTUALS by Paul Berman (ANTHONY JULIUS, NY Times Book Review)

Over the past 10 years, Paul Berman has been exploring a theme: the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their values and ideals. The theme has been elaborated in several books — “Terror and Liberalism,” “Power and the Idealists” and now “The Flight of the Intellectuals.” Berman himself is a man who identifies “with the liberal left.”

It is a good theme, and it has attracted the attention of other writers too — the British journalist Nick Cohen, for example, examined it in his estimable 2007 book “What’s Left? How the Left Lost Its Way.” Indeed, so fertile is this idea, so appealing is it as an object of inquiry, we may even speak of a distinct category of recent books devoted to elaborations of it. Richard Wolin’s “Seduction of Unreason,” on the intellectual romance with fascism, is a distinguished instance, written from the left. Paul Hollander’s “End of Commitment,” on intellectuals, revolutionaries and political morality, is another, this time from the right. The many books written in the last 20 years about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism represent further instances of the genre.

The masterwork, however, is still ­Julien Benda’s “Treason of the Intellectuals.” This book, written in 1927 by one of the leading French intellectuals of the early 20th century, may be regarded as the inaugural work of the line. Berman’s own books can usefully be read as restatements (in their own register, of course) of Benda’s polemic against his fellow intellectuals.

For Benda, the intellectual betrays his vocation when he compromises his commitment to universalist values. The temptation to make such compromises, he argues, lies principally in the appeal of national sentiment, to which intellectuals are quick to subordinate themselves. And the role they assume as nationalists is to conceptualize political hatreds. Benda, a supporter of Dreyfus, deplored the eagerness of some French writers to play this degraded, ignominious role.

For Berman, the contemporary intellectual’s temptation is somewhat differently constituted. It consists of the following elements: the false identification of liberal values with an oppressive West, and of political Islamism with an oppressed third world; an unreflective, unqualified opposition to every exercise of American power; a certain blindness regarding, or even tenderness toward, contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism.

It is against these betrayals of vocation — colored in certain cases by self-hatred and defeatism — that Berman sets himself.

Nationalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism...they're all just reactions against universal Judeo-Christian ideals.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 15, 2010 7:08 AM
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