Is Western Society and Thought Doomed?

A Look at Paul Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism.[1]

Note – June 24, 2010 – Some of my thoughtful readers pointed out some unclear wording on my part in this essay – to help clear this up I want to add that the movements I described as totalitarian and fundamentalist are not conservative movements, but rather can at times be viewed as reactions to liberalism, or the fear of liberalism.

June 21, 2010 

Paul Berman penned this important book not long after the 9/11 tragedies. Terror and Liberalism is an incredible look at the history of the 20th century, why all of the horror of totalitarianism occurred and more importantly for all of us residing in the 21st century, why extremism is still a factor in our modern society. 

In order to understand Berman’s book and premise, as well as my discussion of the material we must understand that Berman is using the term liberalism as the overriding principle that guides the western democracies in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. He is not using the term in the sense of the United States politicized context of President Obama is a liberal and President George W. Bush was a conservative. Liberalism is an over-reaching philosophy that dates to the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the United States Constitution – nations that respect individual’s rights. Conservatism in this set up is viewed as totalitarianism (i.e. Nazism, Stalinism, Communism, Franco’s Spain, Saudi Arabia, etc.) and not as a conservative view in American politics.

Berman sees a grave error in the thinking of many who consider the “bookends” of the 20th century to be the start of World War I and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in 1989. He writes of the further atrocities in the 1990s in the Balkans as the Serbs tried to “ethnically cleanse” their land, the wars of Saddam Hussein in Iraq against Kuwait and against ethnic minorities in his own country. The revolts against liberalism that framed many years of the 20th century were by no means dead and gone. There is still fundamentalist totalitarianism in many corners of the globe – particularly in Islamic states like Saudi Arabia.

A large portion of the text is reading I wish I were aware of sooner. Berman proffers a detailed yet concise history of the Islamic fundamentalist movement and one of its intellectual fathers, Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) who was a leading Muslim intellectual who spent some time in the United States and was a founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. His many texts include his epic In the Shadow of the Qur’an(Koran) – a polemic on the Muslim life and condition. Shadows is a 30-volume commentary of the Koran where Qutb outlines the issues he sees in modern societies and why Islam will prevail over all others. Berman quotes Qutb at the start of his book with a sentence that sums up a lot of the Islamic view on the clash of cultures: 

Death comes to all, but for him there is no martyrdom. He will proceed to the Garden, while his conquerors go to the fire.  

He views Islam as superior because of its requirement of total commitment – he believes the west will ultimately fail due to its lack of faith and commitment to God. Islam does not meld with liberal western democracies ideas of secularism and the separation of church/faith and state. Beliefs that the Nasser government in Egypt would be Islamic in nature did not pan out and Qutb spent many years in prison. He was eventually hanged for being involved in a plot to assassinate Nasser.

Berman also looks to Albert Camus as a great thinker on the subject of 20th century totalitarianism. A companion quote by Camus was included with the Qutb quote – this one sees the evil and danger from all sides: 

Here, suicide and murder are two sides of the same coin.

 Berman draws great connections from the two sides of the French left during World War II. The Paul-Fauristes wanted peace at any cost and the leftist government of Leon Blum who saw the inherent dangers of appeasing the fascists, and later the communists. Blum was part of a parliamentary minority who voted against giving Marshall Petain’s Vichy governmental powers in collusion with the Nazis. Paul Faure’s “Fauristes” saw the enemies as war and war profiteering – not fascism, totalitarianism and Hitler. Berman sees Blum as wise realist who would not sit back on liberalism and watch fascism destroy his country. 

Berman has a knack for seeing things clearly from outside of the normally accepted views. While many admired the European nations of Sweden and Switzerland and their neutrality in World War II and since, Berman sees a problem in that these nations choose not to engage in hostilities while others like Poland and France fight and die. Berman sees a bit of cowardice and hope that others will take care of their problems. The truth of course is that Sweden and Switzerland were lucky – Hitler’s war machine would not have stopped at their borders had they not been defeated by the Allies. Berman makes a strong case that there is too great a cost and far too much at stake to look the other way from totalitarian regimes. 

So where does all of this leave us in 2010? The popular view may be that the conservative elements of the liberal democracies (i.e. ex-President George W. Bush and centrist British Prime Minister Tony Blair) see the battles as an attempt to strong arm and manipulate governments and despots that differ from us, or who will not bend and cave to western demands. Berman[2] posits that these wars can also be seen as bastions of liberalism and that the west is trying to foster an era of democracies in predominantly Muslim countries and is genuinely concerned in areas like women’s rights.[3] While Bush may have had pragmatic reasons for attacking Iraq post 9/11 (revenge and payback come to mind) there is still an intellectually liberal rationale behind the cause. Controversial scholar and historian Bernard Lewis believes it was possible to make inroads toward liberalism in nations with predominantly Muslim populations – but not in Islamic strongholds such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but rather in places like the new Iraq and possibly in Iran with student movements. Berman mentions as Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban women were happy to lose the burqas and learn to read and men happily lost their mandated beards. 

It may not be a lot to go on, or a lot to pin the hopes of human civilization – but there is a chance for the world to be more accepting and tolerant place – but for this to have any chance at all, large groups will need to subscribe to this idea and want their populations to embrace it.  

If you enjoyed this piece you may want to read another article on atheism and the world:

[1] Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003.

[2] Journalist Christopher Hitchens is another prominent liberal who supports “the war on terror” as a great liberal cause. 

[3] Ironically, George W. Bush is viewed as a champion of women’s rights in places like Afghanistan, and as an opponent of the same in his own country.


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3 Responses to “Is Western Society and Thought Doomed?”

  1. Dan Holway Says:

    Does Berman really refer to Nazism and Stalinism and the other forms of totalitarian tyranny as “conservatism”? I sure hope not, as that would make very little sense. (His use of the term “liberalism” is fine, of course. It is the proper, but now sadly dated, use of the term. It shares its root with “liberty”.)

  2. sapblatt Says:

    More so as reactions to liberal thought that permeated the 19th century and 20th century ideas like the League of Nations… – Communism and Stalinism on paper are certainly not liberal ideas (at least Stalins idea of communism)- but the backlash of repression that was the rule of the day was a government fear of subversion and free thought that fits the bill – thanks for reading…

  3. Larry Says:

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Mike. I agree with Dan that it is a mistake to equate conservatism with totalitarianism. Is Berman setting up an argument that replaces fascism with Islamic fundamentalism? I hear this in the right-wing media, and it’s a real stretch, in my view. Islamic fundamentalists (in some cases are terrorists) reject the modernity of the West. The more we try to overtly shove it down their throats via military action the more trouble we get ourselves in (I disagree with Hitchens that these wars are great liberal crusades).

    A question I have is: what lessons does Blum and Faure offer us? Or Camus?

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