The title is intriguing, tempting, and ostensibly relevant in today‘s culture: The Treason of the Clerks (La Trahison des clercs), by 20th century French novelist and critic, Julien Benda. By clerks, Benda meant Medieval scribes, a small class of men who could read and write and understand what others read and wrote. The vast majority of men in that period, including many in the various ruling aristocracies, were illiterate. Roger Kimball, in his New Criterion 1992 article on the relevance of modern intellectuals’ treason, noted:
Benda tells us that he uses the term “clerc” in “the medieval sense,” i.e., to mean “scribe,” someone we would now call a member of the intelligentsia. Academics and journalists, pundits, moralists, and pontificators of all varieties are in this sense clercs.
That is, anyone who occupies a place in what novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand called the “transmission belt” of ideas, philosophical, political, scientific, technological, and esthetic.
The subject of Benda’s critique was the general abandonment in his time by intellectuals of their ideals to take part in what he called the “passions” of the day, that is, to trade their pursuit of the ethereal for the “realism” of the masses. He dwells on class passions and national passions but neglects to define any of his terms. This neglect was portaged into translations of the work. Ages ago I read about half of the Richard Aldington translation of Treason cited by Kimball, and gave up because I could no longer struggle with the absence of definitions of Benda’s key terms. What ideals or ideas was he referring to? No substantive answer was given. One important term he does not define, either, but discusses for pages, is realism. I could only take it to mean a French sense of the “practical” or “pragmatic.” He did not approve of it.
As I construed Benda’s complaint, it was that modern intellectuals sanctioned the rise of especially emotional or populist politics and the demotion or discarding of reason and Enlightenment values in pursuit of those politics. But I got lost in the fog of his polemics, and could only conclude that, notwithstanding the absence of definitions, Benda was on to something important. I imagined him standing outside the forest of trees, warning that he heard menacing growls from deep inside, but could not identify its source.
Kimball wrote of Treason in 1992:
The Treason of the Intellectuals is an energetic hodgepodge of a book. The philosopher Jean-François Revel recently described it as “one of the fussiest pleas on behalf of the necessary independence of intellectuals.” Certainly it is rich, quirky, erudite, digressive, and polemical: more an exclamation than an analysis. Partisan in its claims for disinterestedness, it is ruthless in its defense of intellectual high-mindedness. Yet given the horrific events that unfolded in the decades following its publication, Benda’s unremitting attack on the politicization of the intellect and ethnic separatism cannot but strike us as prescient. And given the continuing echo in our own time of the problems he anatomized, the relevance of his observations to our situation can hardly be doubted. From the savage flowering of ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to the mendacious demands for political correctness and multiculturalism on college campuses across America and Europe, the treason of the intellectuals continues to play out its unedifying drama. Benda spoke of “a cataclysm in the moral notions of those who educate the world.” That cataclysm is erupting in every corner of cultural life today.
I’m happy that Kimball (not one of my favorite cultural observers; his choice of the term pontificators is indicative of his contempt for champions of reason) was able to wrest some meaning from Benda’s work. I found the task of reading it a laborious intellectual chore from which I derived little intellectual reward and only a smidgeon of insight into a larger issue. The harder I dug my mental knife into the work, the duller the blade became. Compared to Treason, tackling Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was a snap.
There are a few paragraphs in Benda’s work which at least have the sparkle of zircon. To wit, when he discusses the Enlightenment versus the Dark Ages:
I shall go further and say that even if an examination of the past could lead to any valid prediction concerning man’s future, that prediction would be the contrary of reassuring. People forget that Hellenic rationalism only really enlightened the world during seven hundred years, that is was then hidden (this a minima verdict will be granted me) for twelve centuries, and has begun to shine again for barely four centuries; so that the longest period of consecutive time in human history on which we can found inductions is, upon the whole, a period of intellectual and moral darkness. Looking at history, we may say in a more synthetic manner that, with the exception of two or three very short, luminous epochs whose light, like that of certain stars, lightens the world long after they are extinct, humanity lives generally in darkness; while literatures live generally in a state of decadence and the organism in disorder. And the disturbing thing is that humanity does not seem to mind these long periods of cave-dwelling.
Academia abounds with the kind of treasonous intellectuals described by Kimball and Benda. So does the field of journalism, or what is thought to be journalism, if The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the mainstream media are taken as measures of pristine journalism. Obama’s cabinet and departmental picks are totalitarians of one stripe or another, immune from close scrutiny and criticism by most pundits and columnists. To criticize Anita Dunn, or Elena Kagan, or Eric Holder, or Cass Sunstein, or Obama himself, or any of their political purposes, is to criticize oneself.
Phyllis Chesler, some years ago in a Front Page article, remarked on such columnists and treason, alluding to these “clerks“ and the treason they commit when they side with the jihadists and Islamists in the name of relativism and multiculturalism:
We have a serious fifth column in our midst, one that has made common cause with Islamists against us, one that has been well funded by Arab oil billionaires for more than forty years. Now, George Soros too, a fifth column General who, for a variety of reasons, has actually been leading the cultural war against the West. They are fools—but they are dangerous fools. Do they think they will be spared because they are so politically correct? Do they think that they would enjoy the same freedom of speech in Mecca or Tehran that they enjoy in the West?
“Humanity” is not the subject here, but rather the infinitesimal but headline-grabbing portion of it that not only does not seem to mind advocating dwelling in caves, but that emerges from them to make absurd statements and announce baffling alliances, through the borrowed mega-bullhorns of the MSM, and to persuade Americans to defer to the wishes of an all-wise führer or an angry Muslim cleric. Some are foolish pundits, others are illiterate troglodytes.
They make a curious company of clerks, ready for the guillotine or firing squad once the totalitarians decide they are no longer needed to sell the country into slavery. They are not the academics and intellectuals who write books that promote irrationalism; they are at the far end of the transmission belt. After all, who today remembers John Rawls and his A Theory of Justice? Or John Dewey and his Democracy and Education?
Thomas Friedman, in his now notorious September 2009 New York Times column, “Our One-Party Democracy,” complained about the “inefficiencies” of a Congress dominated by Democrats — or what he called a one-party autocracy — in getting Obama’s socialist agenda legislated.
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.
Yes, it certainly has its drawbacks, especially when it obliterates individual rights, which apparently Friedman is opposed to. Or perhaps he wouldn’t miss them because he doesn’t know what they are. It is the first time I have heard of a communist/fascist elite, with the power of life and death over millions, called a “reasonably enlightened group of people.” Friedman believes in socialized health care and cap-and-trade law. So do President Obama and most of Congress. Ergo, Obama should be able to just “impose” his agenda on the country and have it rubber-stamped by the one-party autocracy.
There is Molly Norris, whose dainty sally in freedom of speech, in response to Comedy Central’s capitulation to Islamic threats against the TV show for daring to suggest that it was Mohammed in a bear costume, consisted of innocuous, doodle-like drawings of everyday utilitarian objects she whimsically called Mohammed. However, it launched “a thousand ships and burned to topless towers of Ilium” (to quote Cyrano de Bergerac) by inspiring “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” in defiance of the bottomless, offended sensitivities of Muslims, especially on Facebook.
Hundreds of people drew Mohammed, and gave Muslims nearly limitless choices to concretize their conception of the prophet. But they prefer not to be able to visualize him; given the creed he is credited with creating, I don’t blame them. Instead, they demonstrated against the “blasphemy” and drew from their stockpile of burnable American, British and Danish flags to parade noisily in the streets. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia banned Facebook, and then YouTube. It was “To hell with freedom of speech” and “Kill those who insult Mohammed” all over again.
Norris now regrets having taken her First Amendment right seriously.
Ms Norris says that she had nothing to do with the page even though her name was posted on it. Some media reports implied that she had set up the Facebook campaign.
“I never started a Facebook page; I never set up any place for people to send drawings to and I never received any drawings,” she said on her blog.
She apologized for her role in the controversy and said that the content of the page was “offensive to Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place”.
Not exactly a profile in courage. Dhimmitude becomes no one, it neither flatters nor protects anyone from a fatwa. European cartoonists have shown more courage than most American cartoonists; they’re closer to the threat than Americans and must live in hiding lest they share the fate of Theo van Gogh. It has been, after all, European cartoons, and not American, that caused the riots, deaths and destruction.
There is President Obama himself, occasional professor of selective semantics (ObamaSpeak?) who ordered the excision of all references to Islam, Muslims, and jihad from future official security documents on terrorism, lest Muslims be offended by the fact that the overwhelming number of terrorist attacks are committed by…Muslims. Terrorists just drop out of the sky, or causelessly pop into existence like the Borg in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” causing regrettable death and destruction but with no insidious agenda to assimilate survivors of their mayhem. No need to implicate a religion or its core tenets, is there? It’s only coincidence, isn’t it?
Osman Mirghani, the deputy editor-in-chief of ‘Al-Sharq Al-Awsat,’ which is owned by a Saudi Arabian company and published in London, wrote an op-ed last week under the headline “Why Didn’t Obama Mention Islam?.” The Obama administration has broken from the Bush government’s policy of using the term “Islamic terrorism” in official documents and “no longer [is] responding to extremist voices” that call for targeting home countries of terrorists, he explained.
He said the president is carrying out his pledge in his “reaching out to Muslims speech” at Cairo University in June 2008. Regarding Obama’s statements on the botched Times Square bombing, the editor praised President Obama for not once referring to prime suspect Faisal Shahzad’s being Muslim and for not “mentioning Islam in discussing the terrorist operation.”
Obama has inaugurated a kind of Orwellian thought crime. But neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder nor Homeland Director Janet Napolitano is likely suffer the fate of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Smith is “re-educated” by his torturer, O’Brien, to believe that words can mean anything or even be excised from language to effect the non-existence of the entities they identify; having been converted, he is scheduled for eventual execution. They refuse to utter, or are unable without becoming tongue-twisted, to utter “Islamic terrorism” or “radical Islam”; so, for the moment, they are safe from the ungentle ministrations of their Islamic interrogators.
Director Woody Allen demonstrated his non-appreciation of the freedom he has enjoyed to make neurosis-themed movies in America. During an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, he endorsed Thomas Friedman’s conception of bully politics, that dissenters should just excuse themselves and allow Obama to do what he thinks best by decree.
In an interview published by Spanish language newspaper La Vanguardia (that we translated), Allen says “I am pleased with Obama. I think he’s brilliant. The Republican Party should get out of his way and stop trying to hurt him.”
The director said “it would be good…if he could be a dictator for a few years because he could do a lot of good things quickly.”
What fearlessness. What nebbish vacuity.
Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball” may yet inspire a new reality TV program, “Losing It.” If this country ever has a Minister of Propaganda with power over the press and the Internet, un-charismatic Cass Sunstein may be that man, but Matthews would be his riled-up, psychotic public mouthpiece. Like Friedman and Allen, he loves Obama, but is worried that he isn’t doing enough.
“The President scares me,” Matthews said of Obama’s response to the Gulf oil spill disaster. “He’s been acting a little like a Vatican Observer here. When is he actually going to do something? And I worry; I know he doesn’t want to take ownership of it. I know politics. He said the minute he says, ‘I’m in charge,’ he takes the blame, but somebody has to. It’s in our interest.” Matthews described the oil spill as “the scariest thing I’ve ever seen…”
It hasn’t occurred to Matthews that perhaps Obama isn’t interested in taking ownership of a mere oil spill. He has bigger ambitions of ownership, such as the whole economy. But, Matthews, too, agrees with Friedman and Allen that Obama should be allowed to just get things done, and to punish anyone who stands in his way or doesn’t live up to the state’s measure of social responsibility. On his program last week, he had a revealing exchange with his guests.
Apparently former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn isn’t the only Obama admirer with an affinity for Maoist methodology.
On Hardball Monday night, Chris Matthews began a week long rant about the BP oil spill that had him calling for the imprisonment of the whole BP board, possibly their execution, and for the President to nationalize the oil industry.
MATTHEWS: Yes. In China, it‘s a more brutal society—a more brutal society, Kate, but they execute people for this, major industrial leaders that commit crimes like this, failure like this… Why doesn‘t the president go in there and nationalize that industry and get the job done for the people?
Environmental activist writers Abrahm Lustgarten of Propublica and Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones were left gasping for air as Matthews vociferously displayed an appalling ignorance of anything having to do with reality.
Ignorance and reality have never stopped the advocates and practitioners of “enlightened” brutality from taking “necessary actions“ to do “good“ at the point of a gun. Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, bin Laden, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all had or have their useful idiots, too.
Finally, Sonny Bunch in The Washington Times reports that director Steven Soderbergh is also fearless of the reality he has muted, if not erased, in his “biopic,” Che, which glorifies the life of Cuban Communist revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who murdered countless Cubans and spread the revolution in Latin America. When asked in Toronto to comment on Guevara’s role in creating forced labor camps and punishing anyone perceived to be a threat to Fidel Castro’s regime, Soderbergh demurred.
“I don’t know that there’s any place for a person like me in the society that he was trying to make,” the director said. “I’m the poster child for a lot of the [stuff] that he was trying to eradicate.”
Come the “revolution,” he can count on eradication. He knows too much.
His star, Benicio del Toro, who plays Guevara, walked out on an interview when asked questions that threw doubt on Guevara’s sainthood. In another interview, he played the relativist-multiculturalist card:
Once the film was completed, distributed and shown to critics, Benicio had to deal with allegations of sugar-coating Che’s legacy:
“He believed in the death penalty, no doubt. But I remember Che being included in a TV show that showed pictures of terrorists. I was like, ‘Why isn’t Nixon there for the Vietnam War?’ You’d have to put a lot of pictures of other people before you’d put Che’s. […] We tell stories about Batman, and he was a type of Batman. No one can deny that he was trying to stop man exploiting man, whether he was successful or not.”
I‘ll deny it. I‘ll say that his policy was to exploit his victims until they were dead. “He believed in the death penalty.” What an understatement of ignorance! Or was it evasion? Del Toro claims he “researched” Guevara’s life and read his writings. His sight must have glazed over those sections in which the revolutionary promoted hatred and sanctioned killing.
Tyranny, to many, is a coquettish tease, alluring because those who flirt with it lack any sense of personal self-worth. The “good” to them, altruistic in nature, is any policy that would rob their betters of their pride and independence, and bring them down to the level of being dependents on “enlightened” authority. But there is a limit to such moral depravity. The individuals discussed above have reached that limit. The next stage beyond a confession of it is a further descent into lunacy. That is the ultimate price exacted for flirting with tyranny, and claiming that one could not live without it.