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Pax Americana

Illustration by Phong Bui.

Have you read Gulliver’s Travels lately?

In one of the most ferocious denunciations of colonialism, or, if you like, imperialism, Jonathan Swift wrote:

Ships are sent with the first opportunity, the native driven out or destroyed, their princes tortured to discover their gold, a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people…

Swift sarcastically describes his own tribe, the British, with their “liberal endowments” and their self-image as just and benevolent. But, he notes, those countries which I have described do not appear to have any desire of being conquered, and enslaved, murdered or driven out by colonies, nor abound either in gold, silver, sugar or tobacco, I did humbly conceive they were by no means proper objects of our zeal, our valor, our interest.

When Gulliver, at the end of his travels, returns home to his garden, and to:

...behold my figure often in a glass, and thus if possible to habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature…

We all know too well what he saw.

I don’t see many seers amongst intellectual travelers, who frequently appear as panderers for the lesser evils (Hillary or Obama?). But that is an old story. I think, for instance, of the late poet and essayist, Octavio Paz. He often said that the role of an intellectual is to stand back at all times and criticize. But toward the end of his life, Paz succumbed to the lure of political power and took up his abode in the shadow of Mexico’s later disgraced president, Carlos Salinas.

Another example of intellectual drift toward power might be the French writer Régis Debray. In his youth he sought out a different kind of power, traveling into the heart of darkness in Bolivia to find the outlaw hero, Che Guevara. There, in the jungle, he was captured and tried by a military tribunal that sentenced him to thirty years in jail. There was an international protest. A large group of prominent figures (not all of them intellectuals) including De Gaulle, Sartre and even the Pope, managed to alarm the Bolivian government sufficiently to win his release. After his return to Paris, Debray settled down as a best-selling writer, and even accommodated the French government by acting as a diplomatic emissary to the United States.

Eventually, Debray wrote a book, Le Scribe, which was, in effect, a history of all the writers and intellectuals in history who had, in one way or another, cozied up to power (from which they rarely gained anything except the ignominy of their condition as handmaidens). Debray had set out to illustrate what he called “the genealogy of power.” In his analysis, in which he never points his finger directly at the scribe as accessory, he nonetheless implies that there can be no political power without the collusion of the writers. In this, he bore in mind no doubt his predecessor, Julien Benda, who in the late 1920s wrote a book with the arresting title, The Treason of the Intellectuals. Benda’s angry denunciation of his own caste incited enormous public argument—by intellectuals, of course—and went through many editions and translations. Would such a book have much currency today?

Although we have some rather obvious candidates for obloquy, I rather doubt that anyone is about to charge them with treason. Our neocons, for example, began as critics and wound up as apologists for the very institutions they had criticized. No one seems particularly outraged by their treasonous behavior. In fact our most august literary reviews are willing to give precious space to reviewing their books, witness the cautious and even respectful reception of Norman Podhoretz’s most recent and specious opus. These neocons have lent their talents to what Swift called the “execrable crew of butchers,” calling their murderous behavior, especially in Iraq, a matter of bringing democracy to the unenlightened. And there are those who, like Michael Ignatieff, shamelessly announced that they had been mistaken about Iraq, but lost no sleep as they blithely hopped into the opposite camp. They, unlike Swift, do not seem to peer at themselves in the mirror.

But that is an old story. Devils, said Goya in a remark under one of his drawings, “are those who do evil, or prevent others from doing good, or those who do nothing at all.” Because of the dreadful situation under Ferdinand, Goya went into exile in France.

His contempt for those who do nothing at all—their resounding silence—would not permit him to live in Spain, where Ferdinand had successfully stifled all commentary. We can gauge how devastating his regime was to intellectual life when we read a declaration from the University of Cervara: “Far from us the dangerous novelty of thinking.” But King Ferdinand closed down the university anyway. Recently, one of France’s new ministers was quoted as having said, “enough of thinking,” and Sarkozy has more than once indicated his contempt for voluble intellectuals. It seems to me that the time has come to demand of our own intellectuals that they leave the ranks of those who do nothing at all. They must stand back and refuse. Now is the time to excoriate and not to praise. Now is the time to refuse half a loaf. Now is the time to become what they must always be: authentic critics. We no longer need occasional gadflies.


Dore Ashton


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2007

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