Wow, my post on Henry “I’m Going To Get The Darn Name Right This Time” Farrell’s post at Crooked Timber sure triggered a long and wandering thread.
A couple of things.
First, let’s not get back into race in this discussion, as that not what I’m trying to dig into. I’ll post something on it again soon, but for now, let’s stipulate that there’s enough shame and pride to go completely around both parties and all races regarding the history of race in the United States. Don’t comment on racein the thread below unless it’s germane to this issue, please.
Next, to the issue at hand. I do owe one serious apology for a lazy phrase – which was called out by commenter Thomas Nephew; I used “academic leftist” where I would have been better suited to have used “academic opponent of the West.” Now it happens that that Romantic philosophy has slipped into both the somewhat unhinged Left and Right, and in fact I’ll suggest that the more virulent strains are actually more anti-Western than they are left or right (which would suggest why a classical leftist like Norm Geras – or even myself – has so much trouble with them, and why the ideological gap between the sides – in that specific anti-Western arena – gets slippery as hell). My phrasing was lazy and inexact, and in my only defense, I’ll point out that the academics who fit into that part of the Venn diagram (academic, anti-Western) are today primarily of the left – although it takes no great feat of imagination on my part to imagine them switching sides.
Having said that, I’ll stand pretty solidly by my guns.The immediate issue is historian Robert Conquest’s assertion, which was quoted in a review, to which quote and review, Farrell reacted – to put it mildly – with sputtering outrage. Let’s go to the quote again:
“And we are told that a number of members of the Middle Eastern terror groups had originally been in the local communist movements – The members of [the Real IRA and the Shining Path], as with those in Italy or, for example, the Naxalites in India, were almost entirely recruited from student elements who had accepted the abstractions of fashionable academics. And the September 11 bombers were almost all comfortably off young men, some having been to Western universities and there adopted the extremely anti-Western mind-set.”
Correlation is not causation, and it’s not possible to simply assert that because Mohammed Atta (or any number of other Islamist and other radicals) became radicals at university or afterwards, while they were still members of the university community that the university made them radicals.
But it’s equally interesting to note that many (if not most) of the foremost figures in leftist and Islamist radicalism (including the Real IRA and the Red Brigades and the 9/11 cell) came to their radicalism at university, and to wonder if there is something about the university experience that facilitates the change from an activist to a terrorist.
Now I’ve argued for almost as long as I’ve been blogging that terrorism is not an exclusively Islamic tool (McVeigh), and that to defeat it, we must both find and forcibly control those who would use it and reduce the number of people attracted to it by creating and winning a battle of ideas – a philosophical war.
Given that the people actually attracted to and leading terrorist movements are not typically poor, and that they consciously choose this path, it’s certainly a worthwhile effort to discuss and explore why they made the choice that they did. I’m formulating a theory, based in my own limited reading, that the nihilistic, Romantic, anti-Western theme that runs through much modern thinking – and which is conspicuously more present in academe then in, say, the banking industry – may have something to do with it. And that these notions – when planted in the soil of the right personality – may help grow terrorists.
I’m not sure this is true, although the more I read and discuss it, the more convinced I am. I’m happy to see a debate about it spring up in the comments below (and here, I assume).
If what I say is true, does that mean I support re-education camps for progressive professors? Nope. Does it mean that we need to hold up this kind of thought to the light of discussion and see if it survives? Yeah, all day long. And interestingly, Mr. Farrell doesn’t. His response to Conquest’s quote – a single, edited quote presented out of any possible context by a hostile reviewer – was apoplectic, and designed not to demonstrate the error of Conquest’s idea, but to simply shut of discussion of it through the force of Farrell’s rage and contempt.
Bummer, because if that’s what academic thought has come to in this era, we may have bigger problems than the creation of a small population of violent terrorists.