Saturday, March 27, 2010

Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals

Slate's Ron Rosenbaum reviews Paul Berman's new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals.

... Berman's portrait of the behavior of today's intellectuals when confronting the plight of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (for example) is devastating. I was going to say his portrait of certain intellectuals, because he singles out the well-respected writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for their aggressive sniping and snarking at Hirsi Ali when she was (and still is) under threat of death. But in fact the relative silence of the rest of the intelligentsia, when confronted with the threats against her, is almost more scandalous. (An exception is my colleague here at SlateChristopher Hitchens.)


Hirsi Ali's critics argue that she represents a simpleminded allegiance to the tolerant and libertarian values of the Enlightenment, that she's an "Enlightenment fundamentalist," pretty much the moral equivalent of an Islamic fundamentalist who supports suicide bombing. Presumably because she doesn't believe in tolerating an intolerance that kills, maims, and shackles women. It was Ian Buruma who coined the oxymoronic phrase "Enlightenment fundamentalism," which was then picked up by Timothy Garton Ash.* To his credit, Garton Ash eventually publically apologized for applying the phrase to Hirsi Ali at a London debate, although he didn't seem to withdraw from a belief that the phrase might have some residual legitimacy.

Apology or not, Berman believes that the phrase reflects a deeper misconception among a certain set of Western intellectuals. That although "the enlightenment is one of the great achievements of Western civilization," these intellectuals "have come to look at the enlightenment as merely a set of anthropological prejudices"—to view a belief in free expression, for example, as merely a parochial Western view.

Which leads him to the most damning moment in his attack: "Buruma and Garton Ash had lost the ability to make the most elementary of distinctions … they could no longer tell a fanatical murderer from a rational debater" like Hirsi Ali..MORE>>

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