Adam Ash

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Monday, May 29, 2006

America's Camus

An American Camus is alive and well, and living in Brooklyn – by Mark Satin

If you’re like me and you easily tire of blogs, and pundits, and one-eyed news accounts of this or that, then you’ve probably caught yourself wishing we had someone like Albert Camus to give us depth perspective on our world.

Camus, you’ll recall, is the French philosopher who not only described “the absurd” for the post-World War II generation, but who wrote brilliantly about the moral and philosophical context of world events (see, e.g., "Neither Victims nor Executioners," 1947, freely available HERE ).

Fortrunately, there’s at least one 21st century Camus in our midst already.

His name is Paul Berman, and his modest apartment in Brooklyn -- just above a grocery store, and half a block off Atlantic Avenue (a mecca for Arab immigrants) -- has become infamous because of writers who’ve made pilgrimages there.

Stephen Malone, of the New York Press , couldn’t resist mentioning that Berman offered him the “last of his coffee” there, and George Packer, in The Assassins’ Gate (reviewed by us HERE ), noted only half-admiringly that Berman “lived alone in a walk-up apartment that was strewn with back issues of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review and volumes of French literature and philosophy in the original.”

But Berman isn’t our Camus only because of a certain lifestyle. It’s because his moral and philosophical seriousness about all things political has “Camus” written all over it.

It’s because his books are big intellectual adventure stories. It’s because they’re anti-totalitarian and anti-nihilist. And it’s because they take the whole world for their home.

I should also mention that they’re as beautifully sculpted as Camus’s books.

On top of which, they’re a lot more accessible. Camus, as you may recall from your student days, tended to assume a lot of prior knowledge of literary figures and great philosophers. Berman focuses almost entirely on contemporary political writers, activists, and movements.

Heroes and villains

Berman’s books read like novels, in part because he discusses the world through the ideas, aspirations, and feelings of a grand cast of heroes and villains. In his latest book, Power and the Idealists (2005), which Bill Clinton reportedly stayed up all night reading, the principal heroes are
Joschka Fischer , formerly a street activist with a penchant for violence, later a Green Party activist and parliamentarian, and eventually the German foreign minister
Daniel Cohn-Bendit , aka “Dany the Red,” once a leader of the student rebellion in France and Germany, now a much more subtle European gadfly
Bernard Kouchner , once a fellow traveler of the violent student movements of the 1970s, now a U.N. diplomat and founder of the courageous and militantly non-ideological Doctors Without Borders
Joan Baez , once an old peace movement reliable, later someone who challenged the Vietnamese communists to improve their human rights record (and earned the wrath of much of the peace movement in the process)
Kanan Makiya , formerly a Trotskyist, later one of the first Iraqis to try to tell the West that Saddam Hussein was an old-fashioned totalitarian dictator
Sergio Vieira de Mello , sidekick of Kouchner’s, once expelled from France for his radical activities, later a Brazilian diplomat and key U.N. operative who was killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad in 2003
Andre Glucksmann , once a French street activist, now one of France’s “New Philosophers,” best known for leading the charge away from Sartre and the French left's infatuation with authoritarianism
Azar Nafisi , former Iranian student radical, now well known as the author of an international best-seller that celebrates authenticity over ideology, Reading Lolita in Tehran
Adam Michnik , once one of Polish Solidarity’s principal activists and theoreticians, now a leading Polish journalist

(I identify with these people, I admit it, having helped start the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme in the 1960s and harbored deserters and Weathermen, then helped spread New Age alternatives to far-left politics, then helped popularize a much more mainstream, "radical middle" alternative to politics as usual.)

Some of Berman's “background” heroes are Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and (of course) Camus himself, and two of the principal villains are Che Guevara and Noam Chomsky.

More powerful than any of these heroes or villains, though, is a force Berman calls the “Spirit of ‘68.”

“Spirit of ‘68”

As you can probably tell from the bios above, that spirit -- as Berman sees it -- followed a certain course.

At its conception, Berman says, the Spirit of ‘68 was idealistic, even innocent. By 1968 it was becoming revolutionary and totalitarian, and by the mid-1970s it had mercifully petered out.

But that sad turn of events did not defeat -- for long -- the millions of young people who'd shared in the Spirit. According to Berman, much of the history of the last four decades can be seen as “1968’s invisible aftermath” -- a product of the never-ending “undertow of analysis and self-criticism among the rebels themselves” as we cast off our revolutionary garb and tried to become principled AND effective actors in the mainstream.

Key questions

Berman thinks the questions some ‘68ers have been wrestling with are the most important questions in the world right now. Among them:
Can liberalism (libertarianism + democracy) be turned into a fighting faith? Should it be?
Is there any real difference between revolutionary Islam and good old-fashioned totalitarianism?
How can people of science and people of the alternative culture be brought together?
Can the power of the U.S. be harnessed to good purposes?
Do states have a “right” (even a “duty”) to intervene in other states’ affairs? If so, for what purposes?
How “ideological” should a good person be?
What would a “positive globalization” look like?

Those are all questions from Power and the Idealists . Berman’s first book, A Tale of Two Utopias (1996), asks a slightly different set of questions, more oriented to the domestic scene (its heroes include Tom Hayden, Randy Shilts, and Frank Zappa!).

Some answers are better than others

One of the most useful (even delightful) aspects of Power and the Idealists is that Berman presents a variety of good answers to the questions we’re asking. His heroes differ among themselves -- sometimes dramatically -- and he strives mightily to be fair to each of them.

But for all his parsing and nuancing, Berman does appear to favor certain answers over others.

For example, like Iranian memoirist Azar Nafisi, he tends to trust “personal” rather than ideological responses to complicated moral and political questions, no matter how astute the ideologist.

And he is clearly dismayed that Germany’s Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who called for the Kosovo rescue, failed to called for a similar rescue in Iraq. Berman wanted Fischer to respond NOT for Bush’s reasons but because of the “grimness of the human landscape in Iraq [minimum 300,000 killed under Saddam’s rule], together with the plea for help that so many Iraqis had been making for so many years.” Kouchner virtually begged him to respond.

Berman detects a dimming not just of idealism but of energy in the Generation of ‘68. By the 2000s, we are told, many of the ‘68ers had lost their appetite for creating a new radicalism (aka radical middle). They had suffered too many defeats, of which George W. Bush’s seizure of the mantle of humanitarian intervention may have been the worst.

Berman’s own passion for large agendas may be dimming as well. Toward the end of his previous book, Terror and Liberalism (2003), he wrote hopefully of an emerging Third Force, both in the West (to be led by cause-driven foundations and human rights organizations) and in the Muslim nations. But by the end of Power and the Idealists , he is gravitating toward a more modest vision, Andre Glucksmann’s “humanism of Bad News” -- “a humanism that aspires to undo the worst, without trying to achieve the best. A humanism without a fanaticism.”

Rather than acting according to the dictates of some grandiose new radicalism, Bad News humanists would just go out into the world and mitigate human suffering. Thus, Kouchner’s Doctors Without Borders would heal the wretched of the Earth wherever they might be found (and damn the personal or diplomatic consequences), Lawyers Without Borders would serve likewise, and so on across all the professions and occupations in the fat Western nations.

That would at least buy time for the younger generation to discover its own principled, post-totalitarian, post-’68er ways of thinking and acting.

Beyond the “Spirit" of the New York intellectuals

With the August, 2003 suicide truck-bombing of Sergio Vieira de Mello and other Kouchner colleagues in Baghdad, Berman feels the Spirit of ‘68 is at an end. Although that’s a dramatic and appropriately Camus-like (“absurdist”) way for Power and the Idealists to end, it is too gloomy by far; and the reason for Berman’s gloom is not hard to see, from my own ramshackle apartment here in Oakland CA.

He is so caught up in the world of New York intellectuals that whole swaths cleared by the Spirit of ‘68 are alien to him.

First, he is oblivious to the role played by religion and spirituality in the politics of our maturity. There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene at the end of the penultimate chapter in Power and the Idealists : Kouchner, Cohn-Bendit, and Berman himself are all scratching their heads over the fact that so many of Kouchner’s colleagues in his dangerous missions all over the world just happen to be . . . religious.

Not surprisingly, then, in all three of his books Berman completely ignores the many innovative political efforts by religious or spiritually conscious ‘68ers over the years, from Movement for a New Society and New World Alliance in the 1970s to writer-activists like Jim Wallis and Ken Wilber and groups like Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and Evangelicals for Social Action in our own time.

More surprisingly, Berman is equally tone-deaf to the other prong of visionary politics today, the “actually existing” Third Force, all the pragmatic-AND-creative thinkers and groups I’ve been featuring on this Website for the last seven years -- mainstream-credible think tanks like the New America Foundation, sophisticated policy analysts like Matt Miller and Maya MacGuineas, and quietly effective healing-oriented NGOs like Search for Common Ground.

Berman’s apartment in Brooklyn must be a hoot, mirroring as it does the life of an intense New York political intellectual. But at this point, it is less of a beachhead than he thinks; it is exposing him to less of the social change world than he presumes. Although he writes about activists from many countries, he’s finally only interested in those who, like him, metaphorically live in apartments “strewn with back issues of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review and volumes of French literature and philosophy in the original.” And that leaves too much out. That’s why he’s feeling a little down right now.

Which is not to say Power and the Idealists isn’t a glorious read, arguably the very best book we have right now for thinking critically, searchingly, and depthfully about our world. Even Camus might have stayed up all night reading it, if he weren't in Heaven now and no longer pressed for time.

Two excellent recent interviews of Berman are Stephen Malone, “News & Columns: Paul Berman Interview ,” New York Press (January 11, 2006), and Wen Stephenson, “‘ On Liberal Grounds’: An Interview with Paul Berman ,” PBS Frontline (March 31, 2003).


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