March 2, 2003

1. Aphorisms

A. My wife’s first name is Yafei. Born in China, her parents named her after the Bandung Conference, where Asian and African nations came together. The first syllable in her name, “ya”, is from the Chinese term for Asia, and the second syllable, “fei”, is from the Chinese term for Africa. The Bandung Conference gave Third World nations a sense of identity (“we’re the nations who were colonized and exploited by the capitalist nations”). Names like Yafei, names with a political significance, were common in Mao’s China. Such names demonstrate Communism’s preoccupation with politics, with the outer life, and Communism’s contempt for the inner life, for religion, for the soul. Chinese Communists not only scoffed at religion, they also scoffed at psychic phenomena (parapsychology).

B. One might describe the history of religion as a progression from animism to polytheism to monotheism to atheism. Now, however, we seem to be coming full circle, and developing a new religion that resembles animism. Our new religion sees energy and intelligence suffusing the universe. It doesn’t see God as distinct from the universe, or distinct from man. It draws no distinction between spirit and matter, mind and body.

C. Fundamental Law of Ethics Always leave a public bathroom a little cleaner than you found it. This might be called a fundamental law of politics, too, since society benefits from people acting responsibly and civilly in the public domain.

2. Elie Kedourie: The Conservative View of Colonialism

In recent issues of Phlit, I’ve discussed the late political scientist, Edward C. Banfield. One of Banfield’s last projects was editing a collection of essays called Civility and Citizenship in Liberal Democratic Societies, which was published in 1992. I recently read one of the essays in this volume, “The Prospects of Civility in the Third World”, by Banfield’s friend, Elie Kedourie. “It is about the time of the Bandung Conference [1955] that the idea of a Third World began to be current,” writes Kedourie. “Many of these states wished to practice what was then called positive neutralism, but later on non-alignment”; that is, they didn’t want to be aligned with the American bloc or the Soviet bloc. One of the stars at Bandung was Nehru, the leader of India.

Third World nations saw themselves as the victims of colonialism and imperialism. Marx had argued that imperialism was a stage in the rise and fall of capitalism; Kedourie points out that this argument was inspired, “like so much else in Marx”, by Hegel. “A disciple of Marx’s, J. A. Hobson, made the connection between the industrial economy and overseas markets heavy with all kinds of sinister consequences.... Lenin’s pamphlet of 1916, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, is essentially a jazzed-up version of Hobson’s work.” Thus, Kedourie gives us a genealogy of the idea of imperialism: Hegel ==> Marx ==> Hobson ==> Lenin.

Kedourie argues that there’s little evidence to support the idea of imperialism, little evidence to suggest that the foreign policy of England, for example, was shaped by the interests of English corporations. “The doctrine, however, does not seem to have been harmed by paucity of evidence, and recent decades have indeed seen new versions launched and propagated.” People distinguish between The Center (of the world economy) and The Periphery, or between North and South, and in both cases, people assume that The Periphery (the South) is poor because it has been exploited by The Center (the North). The idea of imperialism “opens the way to an amalgam between the two most powerful ideologies of the modern world: Marxism and nationalism. In this amalgam the nationalist struggle against the foreigner is at one and the same time the class struggle against the exploiter.”

When people discuss the American war in Vietnam, they sometimes ask, “were the North Vietnamese Marxists or nationalists?” They were both, Kedourie suggests.

The idea of imperialism, says Kedourie, assumes that economics is a zero-sum game in which one person’s profit is another person’s loss. Kedourie takes issue with this assumption, as with the other elements in the idea of imperialism: “Economic activity is not by definition a zero-sum game, governments do not embark on territorial conquest at the bidding of financiers, and there is no simple, clear-cut distinction between northern, exploitative nations and southern, exploited, ones.” The North-South distinction, and the idea of imperialism, are used to support demands for “large transfers of wealth from rich to poor countries.” These demands didn’t end when colonialism ended, because exploitation didn’t end when colonialism ended; it was argued that the nefarious capitalists continued to suck the blood of Third World nations even after they became independent.

Kedourie argues that colonialism was beneficial rather than harmful: “Colonial rulers... as much in response to their own political traditions as because they were accountable to home governments, established in these territories a Rechtstaat, in which judges and courts did not obey the whim of the ruler, and administration operated according to publicly-known rules which were designed to eliminate favoritism and corruption, and to a large extent succeeded in doing so.” When colonial rulers departed, disaster ensued. When Kedourie speaks of the importance of “tribal loyalties” in Africa, one thinks of Rwanda, where one tribe massacred millions of another tribe. Kedourie blames Western nations not for colonialism and imperialism, but rather for de-colonizing too rapidly.

In Kedourie’s view, the poverty of Third World nations didn’t result from First World exploitation, but rather from their own traditions and cultures. Kedourie says that in India and other countries, colonial rulers tried to establish democracy at the local and provincial level. But “the successful working of such government depends on there being a body of voters not accustomed to passive obedience and able on the other hand to appreciate that the general good can, if only sometimes, have the primacy over private interest. These characteristics being absent, public power remains what it has always been in this tradition, simply the private property of the official power-holders.” A centralized, autocratic government stifles free enterprise; Kedourie is pessimistic about “the prospects of civility” in the Third World.

3. Kedourie on Iraq

Kedourie wrote several essays for Commentary, a prominent American periodical that’s published by The American Jewish Committee, and that has a conservative bent. In 1991, Kedourie wrote an essay in Commentary about Iraq, an essay that reflects Kedourie’s dismay at America’s hasty exit from Iraq after expelling the Iraqi army from Kuwait. (Kedourie also deplored France’s hasty exit from Algeria, Britain’s hasty exit from India, etc.)

The U.S. has never fully grasped, Kedourie argues, how bad the Iraqi government is, what a poor excuse for a “nation” Iraq is. Kedourie himself grew up in Baghdad, a member of Baghdad’s flourishing Jewish community, so his understanding of Iraq is deepened by first-hand experience. Kedourie speaks of, “the handful of Ba’thist conspirators who had hijacked the Iraqi state in 1968, and who by thuggish methods continued to keep it under their absolute control.” If this was true in 1991, it is surely still true today.

Kedourie points out that, during the 1940s and 50s, American policy was to support Third World aspirations for independence, and oppose colonialism. The American goal was a stable community of independent nations. Kedourie asks, what made American officials believe that such a goal could be attained?1 Third World nations like Iraq weren’t ready for independence. The territory that is now known as Iraq had been governed by the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, then was abruptly granted independence by Britain in 1921. “The British government”, Kedourie writes, “[was] interested not so much in the good government of Mesopotamia as in speedily shedding all responsibility for it.”2

Iraq had no national consciousness, no tradition of self-government. Modern Iraq has always “faced two bare alternatives: either the country would be plunged into chaos or its population should become universally the clients and dependents of an omnipotent but capricious and unstable government.”3 Government in Iraq was highly personal; Kedourie quotes a British officer: “Such control as government exerts over one’s affairs is a terribly personal one. Government is not, as with us, a machine which grinds out laws; takes money out of one’s pocket or puts money into it... with dispassionate implacability.” The citizen must “speak fair words” to the official, the official must do likewise to his superior.

Kedourie says that private property is “the foundation of modern constitutional government and the indispensable safeguard against despotism”. In Iraq, there was little respect for private property; Kedourie speaks of, “the utter defencelessness of property in the face of official greed and willfulness.... ‘Large estates were distributed among government officials and their friends.’”4

Kedourie reminds us that, during the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a pro-Saddam policy, since it feared the Islamic fundamentalism emanating from Iran more than it feared the Arab nationalism emanating from Iraq. But Iranian fundamentalism wasn’t as powerful a force as we thought; “the arguments in favor of a pro-Saddam policy were, and remain, ill-founded and delusive.”5 It was a mistake, Kedourie argues, for the U.S. to help Iraq in its war with Iran. With characteristic wit, Kedourie says, “how much more prudent... to have stood on the sidelines in the Iran-Iraq war, or to have wished both sides the best of luck.”

America’s pro-Saddam policy probably encouraged Saddam to invade Kuwait in 1990. Saddam was surprised by the forceful American reaction that his invasion provoked. But after its quick victory, the U.S. hastily departed, and allowed Saddam to re-establish his authority. Kedourie blames the U.S. for allowing Saddam to suppress revolts by Kurds and Shiites. “These decisions,” Kedourie writes, “are said to have been motivated by the desire to preserve the integrity of the Iraqi state. Why the integrity of a state with such a continuous record of violence and malfeasance should have been thought worth preserving is quite mysterious.”

4. Joseph Epstein: The Conservative as Man of Letters

Like Elie Kedourie, Joseph Epstein is a conservative Jewish intellectual whose writings often appear in Commentary. But while Kedourie died in 1992, Epstein is still alive and still writing; one of his essays appears in the February ’03 issue of Commentary. While Kedourie wrote about international affairs, Epstein writes essays of a general nature. Epstein has published books of essays, as well as a book about snobbery, a book about ambition, and other books. For many years, Epstein edited a periodical, American Scholar. Epstein also taught for many years in the English department at Northwestern University; he taught a class called “Fundamentals of Prose for Writers” and he also taught fiction — Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather.6

“I was able to teach what I wanted,” Epstein explains, “because, with the rise of literary theory — deconstruction, the new historicism, feminism, queer theory, and the rest — nobody else seemed interested.... I started teaching just as the ancien régime was giving way to the regime of the politicizers. The battle between the older guard and the young theorists of race, gender, and class came to be known as the culture wars, but the war was lost almost from the outset. Today, in most English departments, the two-penny Saint-Justes, Dantons, Marats, and real-life Madame Defarges reign without much interference. My negative feelings for them were quite explicit, registered through occasional writings on the subject — a fact, however, that also failed to win me friends among those who were still holding on, for the most part fearfully and surreptitiously, to the values of the ancien régime.”7

Epstein says that teaching made him study more assiduously. “I found myself reading books — chiefly novels, though also bits of criticism and philosophy — with a new concentration. In preparing for class, all the puzzling passages had to be puzzled out, the Latin tags and foreign phrases to be translated, other people’s interpretations to be considered. I read not only intensively but defensively, to avoid being tripped up, embarrassed, made to look foolish.”8 Epstein says that he hadn’t been a good student himself: “In college... I fell just short of mediocre. The problem was that my mind never wanted to stay in the expected academic groove but sailed on ahead, or sideways. (Today, of course, I love to read about authentic geniuses who did not do well in school.)”9

Epstein discusses a book by Barbara Foley, a left-wing professor in the Northwestern English Department: “Its first 103 pages are given over to the new literary theory gradually becoming regnant in English graduate studies. Devotees of this theory will find many old friends cited in her pages: Foucault, Bakhtin, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan.... The highest new jargonese is everywhere employed. The prose is consequently very dense. Few actual works of literature are cited in this first part of the book. Instead something called ‘the text’ is continually mentioned; also such barbed-wire words as ‘intertextuality’ and ‘extra-textuality.’”10 Epstein gives a sample of the book’s obscure prose: “Though some writers manage to make use of modernist defamiliarization as a powerful tool in the critique of reification, most accede to the thoroughgoing fetishization of social relations that characterizes what Lukacs called the ‘problem of commodities’ in the early 20th century.”11

Epstein says that when he was a student, a professor with strong political views would not express those views in the classroom, he would suppress them “in the name of fairness or disinterestedness or a higher allegiance to the subject being taught”.12 Now, however, professors don’t hesitate to express their own political views, and administrators encourage them to do so: “university academic departments nowadays seek out feminists, Marxists, and others in whom the political impulse runs stronger than any other, to teach their bias — and to do so in the name of intellectual diversity.”13 American universities have become politicized.

Epstein once invited two of his students to lunch. When the students expressed a left-wing view of American foreign policy, Epstein asked where this view came from. “They had just completed a course in American diplomatic history whose bottom, middle, top, and every other line was that all American foreign policy was a cover for the imperialist ventures of American business interests abroad. These were bright fellows, each of them with a fine sense of humor; one was headed for a career in journalism, the other for the foreign service; and I was disheartened to think that, as they were leaving my university, they were lugging such crude notions along with them.”14 Such left-wing views are often found at American universities, such as Northwestern; Epstein notes that “the majority of the faculty at Northwestern’s College of Arts and Sciences [are] generally liberal in their political views, with a sprinkling of Marxists and conservatives popping up here and there in various departments.”15

In addition to writing for Commentary, Epstein also writes for The Hudson Review. One of Epstein’s recent articles in The Hudson Review is an attack on the literary critic, Harold Bloom: “He has staked out his claim for being a great critic through portentousness, pomposity, and extravagant pretension, and, from all appearances, seems to have achieved it.... His is a reputation much in need of puncturing, if only to release the bloat.”16 Epstein’s criticism of Bloom is based on literary grounds, not political grounds; Bloom is not one of the new breed of “politicizers”, he’s a member of what Epstein calls the “ancien régime”. “He claims to be of the school of aesthetic critics,” writes Epstein, “remarking that, in an ideological age, ‘I feel quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic.’”17

Epstein might be compared to Norman Podhoretz, a conservative essayist and man of letters who was the editor of Commentary for many years.

One of the most valuable sentences in Epstein’s essays is the following: “Where scholarship once stood for the kind of work done by people like E. H. Gombrich, Arnaldo Momigliano, and Frances A. Yates, it now merely means published work.”18 I enjoy listening to a good writer talk about good writers, and I often discover good writers this way. Gombrich is a major figure in the field of art history; Gombrich was already on my ever-growing list of Books To Read, he wasn’t a discovery. Momigliano (1908-87) I had never heard of. I now learn that Momigliano was a historian; Jewish himself, he wrote about Jewish subjects as well as Greco-Roman subjects. Yates (1899-1981) was a leading Renaissance scholar. She was interested in the occult (alchemy, cabala, etc.), and wrote a book called The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. My list of Books To Read increased by one.

5. Kedourie on the Treason of the Intellectuals

Let’s listen to another good writer talk about good writers. Here’s a passage from Kedourie’s essay, “Politics and the Academy”, which he wrote for Commentary. The thrust of the essay is that scholarly activity should not be political.

What the peculiar satisfactions of scholarly activity are we may begin to appreciate if we bring to mind such works as Edward Gibbon on the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Jakob Burckhardt on the Italian Renaissance, Fustel de Coulanges on the ancient city, Gustave von Grunebaum on medieval Islam, or S.D. Goitein on medieval Mediterranean society. These monuments are indeed, in Schiller’s words, “completely self-contained, and as if existing beyond space, neither yielding nor resisting.” By no conceivable stretch of the imagination can they be said to work in favor of a political cause or against it.

Kedourie begins his essay by discussing the famous phrase “treason of the intellectuals”. He traces this phrase to a 1927 essay “Le Trahison des Clercs”, by the French writer Julien Benda. Kedourie discusses the difficulty of translating the French word “clercs”: clerk isn’t quite right, clergy isn’t quite right, intellectual isn’t quite right. By a miracle, or by vast erudition, Kedourie discovers an English word that’s just right: “clerisy,” which was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his book, On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). To Coleridge, the clerisy were the members of the National Church, by which he did not mean the Church of England or any other Christian church. “The proper object and end of the National Church,” Coleridge wrote, “is civilization with freedom; and the duty of its ministers... would be fulfilled in the communication of that degree and kind of knowledge to all, the possession of which is necessary for all in order to their civility.” The function of this clerisy lies “in producing and re-producing, in preserving, continuing and perfecting, the necessary sources and conditions of national civilization.”

Benda’s 1927 essay criticizes the worship of politics, and the mixing of scholarly activity with political activity. Benda laments what he calls, “the divinization of the political”. One may suppose that this resulted from the decline of traditional forms of divine worship (God is dead, long live politics). Kedourie speaks of, “the outlook widely prevalent in the modern world that salvation — that is, earthly salvation — must come... through political action. The late Ghanaian dictator Kwame Nkrumah expounded it with succinct eloquence when he exhorted the masses of his countrymen who, in a moment of enthusiasm, put their future in his hands: ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom and all the rest shall be added unto you.’”

About five years ago, when I began doing Windows-based database programming, I bought a book called Access 97 Programming For Dummies. At the front of the book, the author put a quotation from Trotsky: “Life is beautiful. Let future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.” This quotation is an example of the “divinization of the political”, it assumes that salvation, paradise, the good life results from a political effort to rid the world of “evil, oppression, and violence”. Ironically, it is this very effort to ‘cleanse the world’ that has produced history’s greatest crimes. A mystic is one who finds life beautiful as it is — despite evil, oppression, and violence. The world can never be cleansed of evil because evil is part of human nature.

When Benda was writing in 1927, French intellectuals were divided into two camps: communists and nationalists. Kedourie says that, in today’s world, intellectuals have a different political agenda: they decry colonialism, they decry the influence of Western nations on Third World nations. Much of Kedourie’s essay is devoted to a discussion of Western intellectuals who championed Third World causes, and criticized the West. Kedourie makes the striking observation that, throughout history, civilizations have expanded and dominated their neighbors, but never until now has a civilization felt guilty about this domination. In my view, Kedourie’s essay is full of interesting insights, but it ignores the politics of race and sex, which loom large in today’s intellectual world; the form of “politicization” that Kedourie decries isn’t the primary form of politicization in the intellectual world of today.

At any rate, Kedourie laments all forms of politicization, he argues that scholarly activity shouldn’t be subservient to political aims: “The academic enterprise is self-committed, concerned with understanding for the sake of understanding.... It is adulterated and ruined by extrinsic commitment.”

Goethe said: “Let us leave politics to the diplomats and the soldiers.”19 Perhaps, however, Goethe would approve of the name “Yafei” on the grounds of euphony.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. This reasoning is found in the essay discussed above, “The Prospects of Civility in the Third World”. back
2. The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, ch. 9 back
3. ibid back
4. ibid back
5. “Iraq: The Mystery of U.S. Policy”, Commentary, June, 1991 back
6. Epstein’s essay on Solzhenitsyn (Commentary, November, 1996) includes comments on Conrad. back
7. Commentary, February, 2003, “Goodbye, Mr. Chipstein” back
8. ibid back
9. ibid back
10. ibid back
11. ibid back
12. ibid back
13. ibid back
14. Commentary, September, 1986, “A Case of Academic Freedom” back
15. ibid back
16. The Hudson Review, Summer ’02, “Bloomin’ Genius” back
17. ibid back
18. ibid back
19. quoted in Elie Kedourie, “Politics and the Academy”, Commentary, August, 1992. The other quotations in this section are also from this essay. back