paleo Ideofact

Thursday, May 01, 2003
False consciousness
This could be part of the Great War series; I'd originally intended to quote this as part of a wider post tracing the influence of European ideas -- especially ideas of totalitarianism and terror -- in portions of the Islamic world. But Armed Liberal (writing, by the way, at the always excellent Winds of Change blog -- I had the opportunity to compliment Joe Katzman privately for his efforts, let me extend that publicly to him and to the rest of his team; it's a great effort, always thought-provoking and intelligent), wrote today that he was disappointed in Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism:
I finished the Berman book, which is interesting but relatively shallow. He has some insight into Qutb, but little into the Western roots of modern terrorism, and he never paints a convincing contrast between Islamism, which the book spends most of its time describing in somewhat breathless tones, and liberalism.
I more or less agreed with A.L., although I still like Berman's book, which, it seems to me, was aimed at persuading progressives of the threat posed by the dangers of terrorism and tyranny (remember that the Terror, in revolutionary France, was launched by the tyrannical regime of Robespierre). Mickey Kaus famously wrote, the day after Sept. 11:
Media coverage of the 9/11 attack often emphasizes that it will be a "long time before America gets back to normal," etc. The opposite is likely to be closer to the truth -- we'll get back to normal all too quickly, in keeping with the tendency (often discussed in this space) for the population to process information much faster than in former, less wired times. (Don't you feel as if you've lived about a month in the past two days?) I suspect the story will be off the evening news by Thanksgiving -- a denial, in a warped way, of the attackers' disruptive goal.
I think Berman's book was aimed to counter such thinking -- to argue that liberals and the left, by downplaying the threat demonstrated on Sept. 11 (as Kaus did), or by opposing the response to that threat, were betraying liberal principles. I think that's why, after his discussion of Qutb (I loaned the book to a friend, so if I'm wrong on the order, my apologies), he shifted to a discussion of the anti-war French left of the 1930s, who began by opposing any effort to check the Nazis, and ended by being some of the most enthusiastic supporters and collaborators of the Vichy regime.

In any case, if we're talking about Western influence on Islamic lands, I can't think of a better example than Abu Khaldun Sati' al-Husri, who first popped up on Ideofact here, thanks to an article from the now recommended Kurdish Media:
Somewhere in the 1920s, the Arab national idea, which had hitherto been a reformist and even liberal notion allied to a moderate Islam, and well-integrated into the socio-cultural map of the Middle East, took a wrong turn. It began to develop definite racist overtones, hegemonistic values, and an exclusivist and intolerant perspective on politics and society.

The architect of this suicidal turn was that fastidious Ottoman intellectual dandy, with his broken Arabic and a borrowed philosophy from Bergson and German idealism, Sati’ al-Husri. He put his theories into practice by imposing them on an entire generation of Iraqis through his control of the educational system and his cultivation of ever more extreme ideologues and politicians who used his vulgarisation of Arab nationalism as a control tool over an ethnically and religiously diverse people.

In the 1950s this sorry experiment in Iraq became the norm elsewhere in the Middle East. One regime after another tottered and fell to Arab nationalists of the al-Husri variety. In power, they metamorphosed into the Arab Nationalist Movement, these exemplars of Arab "democracy" who gave us the unlamented regime of South Yemen, the Nasserist apologists and their apotheosis, the Ba’ath Party, in both its Iraqi and Syrian varieties. Kurds and Berbers became mountain Arabs, Islam was a folk identity, and there were no ethnic or religious minorities to clutter this pristine vision of an indivisible Arab nation with an (undefined) historic mission.
I've been collecting material on al-Husri -- regrettably, not much of his work seems to have been translated into English -- but I think this excerpt, quoted in Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair by Adeed Dawisha, gives a little bit of the flavor of Sati al-Husri's thought:
Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism. But under no circumstances, should we say: "As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab." His an Arab regardless of his own wishes. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscience.
Ah, yes, false consciousness. Not necessarily a concern of the Ottoman Sultans (although I'll come back to that later), but something near and dear to the hearts of Totalitarians everywhere. "If you don't agree with me, it's because you actually do, but you've been programmed by the ruling power structure to disagree with your authentic beliefs." I remember a janitor I knew well when I was a student; I remember one of my well-meaning friends asking him some provocative question about being downtrodden. "I used to be in the merchant marine," he said. "I've been all over the world, and let me tell you -- America is the only country on earth where a man can own a house, two cars, put a diamond ring on the finger of his wife, and still be a poor man." Ah, the poor fool -- he was suffering from false consciousness, and hadn't realized that he'd be far better off in one of the People's Republics, where he'd be authentically poor and committed to the struggle to remain so.

False consciousness is one of the ideas Robert Conquest refers to as "Mind Slaughter." Although in the book I linked, Conquest seems to raise the idea of "false consciousness" in the context of Lenin's "sincerometer" -- there was no way to judge whether the revolutionary zeal of his acolytes was heartfelt (which may be why Stalin decided to err on the side of caution).

My problem, of course, is that I'm an idiot -- unable to read Arabic or Persian or even Polish, for that matter. I don't know what term al-Husri used to express the concept of "false consciousness." In one of the great liberal books of all time, The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz wrote of an allied concept, known as "Ketman":
What is Ketman? I found its description in a book by Gobineau entitled Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. Gobineau spent many years in Persia (from 1855 to 1858 he was a secretary in the French legation, from 1861 to 1863 he was French minister), and we cannot deny his gift for keen observation, even though we need not necessarily agree with the conclusions of this rather dangerous writer. The similarities between Ketman and the customs cultivated in the countries of the New Faith [i.e. -- the people's republics in Eastern Europe after World War II] are so striking that I shall permit myself to quote at length.
I won't quote at length, because it's late and I'm tired, but Ketman was the attitude one assumed to score a 100 percent on Lenin's (or a Mullah's) sincerometer. For a dabbler in metaphysics whose readings of Avicenna or Averroes led him to hold views that contradicted the prevailing opinions of the mullahs, a resort to ketman was a resort to orthodoxy -- hiding what one truly believed, in order to avoid confrontations.

I don't think, though, that al-Sutri was referring to Ketman when he discussed false consciousness. And his commitment to the national idea was rather extreme:
Freedom is not an end in itself but a means toward a higher life...The national interests which could sometimes require a man to sacrifice his life, must by definition require him, to sacrifice his freedom...He who does not sacrifice his personal freedom for the sake of his nation's freedom, when the situation requires, may forfeit his own country...And he who refuses to sublimate (yufni) his individual self into that nation, may in some cases, be compelled to expire (yadhtar ila al-fina') in a foreign nation which may one day conquer his fatherland. Because of this, I say unhesitatingly and continuously: patriotism and nationalism above all and before all ... even above and before freedom.
I'll trace more of the Western influence on al-Sutri in another post, as well as his similarity to Qutb in terms of means, if not ends. Still, I found these two quotes of his striking, and worth sharing, if prematurely.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003
The unconscious
Cinderalla Bloggerfeller expands on my Camus post immediately below (it's his April 30 post, and my April 29 post -- yes, blogger's archives are still fried), showing amazing intestinal fortitude by writing about Jean-Paul Sartre. I don't know why, but Sartre depresses me in a way that other intellectuals with equally disturbing ideas don't. Maybe it's the black turtlenecks.

One of the few things I remember from the documentary Sartre by Himself, besides Sartre's disdain for Camus' interest in the camps, was a discussion about the unconscious. Sartre raised the subject, noting that in Being in Nothingness (no, I'm not going to fish it out of Amazon for you), or some other work, he said the unconcious did not exist. But he had come to recognize that the dialectical process of history would end when concsiousness was submerged in the unconcious mind -- when conscious thought would cease to exist.

His workers' paradise: an ant farm.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Common decency
Maybe it's all the talk of totalitarians and SARS, but I've been reading -- I think for the fifth or sixth time -- Camus' novel The Plague. In the second part, Bernard Rieux, the doctor, explains what motivates him to fight the infection, the wage war against the never ending defeat, to a lovesick French journalist eager to break the quarantine of the Algerian town of Oran:
"...there's one thing I must tell you: there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting the plague is -- common decency."

"What do you mean by 'common decency'?" Rambert's tone was grave.

"I don't know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job."
Some years ago, I went to see the documentary Sartre by Himself. Jean Paul Sartre's name is linked, of course, with Camus in a superficial way -- they were both "existentialists," after a fashion. In the film, some of the effete intellectuals ask Sartre about his "break" with Camus. I can't recall the exact quote, and I'm not about to shell out $80 for the VHS tapes, so you'll have to rely on my memory. At the end of a lengthy discussion of the incident, Sartre explains that Camus kept going on and on about the camps, by which he meant the gulags of Eastern Europe. "Everyone already knew about the camps," Sartre said, as if that ended the matter, as if the fate of those imprisoned in them were a matter of exteme indifference.

I'll take Rieux's common decency any day.