A New Hero for PEN

Eliot Weinberger

Sarah Palin – or someone pretending to be Sarah Palin – has tweeted that Salman Rushdie should invite Pamela Geller to the PEN gala dinner. She’s right. Geller is no pussy. She has courageously expressed her views thatMuslims should be expelled from the US and Europe, that they pray five times a day for the deaths of Christians and Jews, that Obama is the love child of Malcolm X and frequents 'crack whores',that the State Department, the American media and Campbell’s Soup have been taken over by 'Islamic supremacists', and so on.

The conference a few days ago in Garland, Texas, sponsored by her organisation, American Freedom Defense Initiative (also known as Stop Islamization of America), featured a keynote address by GeertWilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom and, deliberately timed to coincide with PEN's tribute to Charlie Hebdo, an exhibition of cartoon depictions of Muhammad and a $10,000 prize for thebest one. Now, having come under attack by two jihadis who were killed by police, she has vowed, as PEN would say, to 'soldier on'.

So far, no one has made the claim that the Geller-inspired cartoons are in the great American satirical tradition from Mark Twain to Thomas Pynchon. Nor has there yet been a postmodern explanationthat what look like crude racist cartoons are really parodies of crude racist cartoons. While we’re waiting, we can ponder this cover of a recent issue of Charlie:


  • 5 May 2015 at 12:04pm
    Julia Atkins says:
    Also worth noting that a leading French intellectual Emmanuel Todd has just published a scathing account... 'Qui Est Charlie'...of the whole Charlie Hebdo affaire, the demo and the state of French culture. Unlike the TLS, the LRB rarely reviews books not published in English, but this should be a first...

    • 5 May 2015 at 2:18pm
      Vingtras says: @ Julia Atkins
      Here's an unintentionally hilarious interview with the same "leading French intellectual" where he attempts to explain different levels of attendance at pro-Charlie demonstrations on the basis of patterns of religious observance in the distant past. Oh's also got something to do with the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. Judge for yourselves (which should be easy given that, like Mr. Weinberger, all you Charlie critics are obviously fluent French speakers):

  • 5 May 2015 at 1:07pm
    Eric Auerbach says:
    I guess the Titanic cartoon is supposed to be some sort of QED that definitively proves Charlie Hebdo's blatant racism, but what I'm seeing is a fairly reasonable point: That people can get more emotionally invested in, say, the fictionalized depiction of a shipwreck 100 years ago than in the many people who are actually drowning right now in the Mediterranean. Or is the author taking umbrage at the way the migrants are drawn? I hope it's not too "post-modern" of me to say that their depiction as a mass of stereotyped impoverished Africans strikes me as sort of the point. Maybe I'm being too generous (or too naive) in my reading, and maybe there *are* lots of racist CH covers out there (I'm no Hebdo completist), but I don't find this particular example persuasive.

    • 5 May 2015 at 2:04pm
      Vingtras says: @ Eric Auerbach
      It's becoming clear that Mr. Weinberger lacks even the most basic appreciation of irony (as distinct from the leaden sarcasm that characterizes his blog posts here). He and Sarah Palin should get on just fine.

    • 5 May 2015 at 2:23pm
      Muhammad Idrees Ahmad says: @ Vingtras
      How many layers of irony does one have to peal before the progressive message reveals itself? Have you met many Africans who are amused by their depiction as bug-eyed, thick-lipped simians, earnest or ironic?

      But lets accept your "post-modern" view and see all this racial insensitivity as being licensed by a satirical tradition. Would you then grant a license to be outraged to French citizens of African ancestry who are also exposed to french tradition — i.e. the tradition of cultural supremacism, discrimination and colonial oppression?

      "Anti-racism" as a political practice is quite different from anti-racism as a social norm. Calls for "tolerance" imply that there is something unpleasant to be "tolerated". Calls for equality on the other hand explicitly reject such assumptions. This cartoon is an expression of the former.

    • 5 May 2015 at 3:03pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Eric Auerbach
      "I hope it’s not too “post-modern” of me to say that their depiction as a mass of stereotyped impoverished Africans strikes me as sort of the point."

      I think that probably is the point, yes, but it raises the question of who Charlie presumes is its audience. As a White Liberal From The Global North™, I'm discomfited by it - which is perhaps as it should be. But I couldn't presume to anticipate the response of, say, a French African. Suffice it to say that there doesn't seem to be a message in it for them. Charlie may take their side, morally, but still excludes them from mature political consideration.

      It's unfair to single out any individual cartoon as bearing the entire weight of what Charlie Hebdo is supposed to be about, but in the years when I read it regularly, it was this sense of political exclusion - rather than outright racism - that bothered me most.

    • 5 May 2015 at 3:47pm
      Vingtras says: @ Niall Anderson
      I don't see why one has to be a "White Liberal From The Global North™" to grasp the point being made here that our ongoing obsession with the Titanic stands in stark contrast to Europe's total indifference to the thousands of brown people drowning each year in the Mediterranean. Indeed, I dare say the families of the dead feel exactly the same way. And there's no guarantee that being a "White Liberal From The Global North™" will mean you get the joke either. After all it's sailed right over Mr. Weinberger's head (along with all the other authors in search of some character who have heroically boycotted the PEN event -- unlike the Congolese author Alain Mabanckou who will present the award and whom they will presumably start denouncing as a "native informant" before long).

    • 5 May 2015 at 4:59pm
      Eric Auerbach says: @ Niall Anderson
      I think you make an excellent point; the cartoon certainly does seem like a conversation *about* people of color, rather than one actually involving them. I was simply questioning whether the drawing is quite the incontrovertible proof of racism that the author seems to think it is. I happen to be black (and a citizen and resident of the global south), and to have gone to school in France. I still have pretty vivid memories of the (to me, quite unexpected) racism I experienced there, even in the middle of cosmopolitan, multicultural Paris, so I'm more than ready to believe stories of French people being racist. I just don't happen to think this particular peg can hold everything Mr. Weinberger's trying to hang on it.

    • 5 May 2015 at 5:20pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Vingtras
      I don’t see why one has to be a “White Liberal From The Global North™” to grasp the point being made here ....

      With respect, I was talking about my own discomfort at what Eric Auerbach described as the cartoon's "mass of stereotyped impoverished Africans".

      I can grasp the point of the cartoon (thanks all the same); I can equally grasp that the stereotype is supposed to pull me up short on my response to the actual tragedy in the Med. What bothers me about the cartoon - and what has always bothered me about Charlie Hebdo - is that while it may use racist caricatures to shame the political centre, it does nothing to empower or encourage peripheral voices. Flipping a stereotype does not abolish it.

    • 5 May 2015 at 6:06pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Eric Auerbach
      I completely agree. And, even at its most distasteful, I don't think Charlie is a racist publication.

      But it isn't a radical one either. In fact, I'm not sure it's even particularly reformist. Individual politicians and parties may get it in the neck, but Charlie speaks for - and to - a patriotic conception of the French polity whereby sound democratic ideals are sold out by unsound politicians. That the political foundation itself may be rotten (in parts) is a step beyond where Charlie wants to go. So instead we get caricatures where the voiceless speak as Charlie would want them to; rather than as they do.

    • 5 May 2015 at 6:21pm
      Vingtras says: @ Niall Anderson
      I think you want them to jam too much into a single cartoon, which has to pack a visceral punch to be successful. The point here about European indifference (and its readers are by and large Europeans) is clearly and well made.

      If you're interested in peripheral voices, I recommend you obtain a copy of the magazine from a few weeks ago. There was a four-page illustrated feature about life in a Roma encampment.

    • 5 May 2015 at 7:48pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Vingtras
      I think you want them to jam too much into a single cartoon

      I've addressed this point already ("It’s unfair to single out any individual cartoon as bearing the entire weight of what Charlie Hebdo is supposed to be about ..."). It should be clear that my opinion isn't based just on this cartoon, or on Charlie's Greatest Hits of the last decade or so. I read the magazine every week for years.

      My point - which you can take or leave - is that this sort of stuff is designed to give middle-class liberals like me a shock. Read Charlie for long enough and you don't even get the shock anymore. You get, instead, a complacent mannerism that congratulates you for being in on the joke.

      I've said elsewhere here that I don't consider Charlie racist. But I don't consider it useful either.

    • 5 May 2015 at 9:43pm
      Vingtras says: @ Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
      You lost me there amid all the scare quotes. The victims are depicted in the generic anonymous way such people are viewed in Europe. We don't know their names or much about any of them. The cartoon reflects that indifference. More generally, exaggerated physical features are a basic cartooning technique. There wouldn't be caricatures without them. Kate Winslet's features are similarly distorted here.

    • 5 May 2015 at 9:54pm
      Vingtras says: @ Niall Anderson
      So here's a subtle and interesting point about the value of the magazine which doesn't try to compare it to Der Sturmer. Yes perhaps it does congratulate you for being in on the joke but a lot of art and literature works like that. On the other hand, faced with an issue that has been so adamantly ignored, a bit of shock might be useful now and then (and this is not the first cover Charlie has devoted to drownings in the Med). And I don't see how that can make people any more complacent than if they were reading about celebrities in Paris Match or Voila. All that journalism can hope to do is inform and provoke. Charlie Hebdo does both and its readers tend, I imagine, to be more conscious of the iniquities of Fortress Europe than the average French person.

    • 5 May 2015 at 11:54pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Vingtras
      All that journalism can hope to do is inform and provoke.

      Journalism can also hope to be representative of the society it is alternately/simultaneously trying to inform and provoke.

      I feel a bit shit making this point; partly because I loved - love - Cabu, and he should not be dead. And of course you're right that there are more trivial and objectionable publications than Charlie. But what can I say? I soured on Charlie a decade ago. I felt then that its vow of "irresponsibility" disguised a kind of moral, political and aesthetic complacency that I wasn't prepared to reward with my money anymore. I still feel that way. But I also feel really shit about it.

    • 5 May 2015 at 11:55pm
      Muhammad Idrees Ahmad says: @ Vingtras
      So in your view an African in cartoon form is necessarily a golliwog? That explains why you fail to see racism.

      There are many ways to depict indifference without resorting to offensive racist tropes. (Yes, the white woman is also distorted, but not as a grotesque, like the Africans).

    • 5 May 2015 at 11:56pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Niall Anderson
      Excuse the italics. You don't seem to be able to edit your posts here. I would have closed html tags otherwise.

    • 6 May 2015 at 11:24am
      Vingtras says: @ Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
      They are not represented as golliwogs. A golliwog has jet black skin, a bright red grin, a large amount of frizzy hair and no other facial features. It is an instantly recognisable, doll-like image and that is simply not what we have here.

      Three features have been deliberately exaggerated: their eyes -- to convey their terror, their drooping mouths -- to convey their misery, and their ears -- to convey the fact that they can't bear to listen to Celine Dion.

      The cartoon is indeed grotesque because it depicts a grotesque reality. The victims are represented as a miserable and anonymous horde, which corresponds to the image most Europeans have of them. To that extent, a certain stereotype is being recycled and satirized. But it is not that of a golliwog.

    • 6 May 2015 at 12:50pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Vingtras
      Whether you consider it racist stereotyping or not (I do), you have to agree on one thing: it isn't actually funny.

      As for the 'satirising a certain stereotype' bollocks: why you bother to analyse and defend it escapes me. It is puerile.

      By the way, could you make your mind up: is it a caricature of Kate Winslet (Tuesday, 10:43) or Céline Dion (Today, 12:24)? It doesn't look like either of them. Oh, wait, I know: it's meant to be a satirical but non-racist caricature of a blond, white woman!

      Sorry, a bit of leaden sarcasm crept in there...

    • 6 May 2015 at 2:05pm
      Vingtras says: @ Alan Benfield
      Jeez. Talk about pedantry. They are listening to a song by Celine Dion as interpreted by a caricature of Kate Winslet (who, if memory serves, did not actually sing in the film -- maybe you should write to Charlie to complain about the inaccuracy).

      "Funny" is perhaps not the word but, like a lot of satire, it is a mordant commentary on a subject that is no laughing matter.

      And your sense of humour is probably better suited to the "avant-gardist literary essays" written by Mr. Weinberger:

      I hear they're a real hoot -- particularly the wittily-entitled collection "Karmic Traces". Of course I've never read them but apparently that doesn't disqualify anyone from holding an opinion on such matters.

  • 5 May 2015 at 4:27pm
    nightspore says:
    I'm pondering the cover and seeing a lot of people telling Celine Dion to shut up? To stop treating them as extras?

    Kind of like the cover in which the Bangladeshi sweat shop workers are celebrating all the great business coming to their bosses because French liberals are buying Je Suis Charlie T-shirts in droves.

    But as we know, the LRB is long on snark, but short on irony.

  • 5 May 2015 at 4:32pm
    rupert moloch says:
    Unfortunately most of the comments directed to these posts of Mr Weinberger's seem motivated by elementary chauvinism. Anyone who's spent any period of time in a French metropolitan centre should be familiar with the casual, quotidian racism directed towards black citizens & immigrants alike.

    CH did once practice a form of equal opportunity mockery, until the gendarmerie foiled the ultra-zionist bombing of their offices, several years back. In recent times their criticism of, hmm, certain supernatural beliefs has become rather more measured.

    Murder in any form is unforgivable. It does not follow however that the victims of violence are necessarily champions of robust free speech. They may simply be juvenile & artless bullies.

  • 5 May 2015 at 4:38pm
    eeffock says:
    Geller has declared that 'this is war' and hired mercenaries from the ranks of the US FBI and local police departments - the same federal police agency that was following the 'jihadist' who is now alleged to have 'attacked' the cartoon exhibit in Texas. So was he a convenient foil? or a complete invention? And when will this make the cover of Charlie Hebdo?

  • 5 May 2015 at 8:20pm
    suetonius says:
    I think what's missing in the illustration, assuming one wants to give the illustrator the benefit of the doubt, is any indication they mean the clearly racist caricatures to be ironic. At first glance, and second, it just looks racist to me. And from what I have seen, CH in recent years has been clearly lazy racist, taking the easy way out. The fact that this doesn't lessen in the least their right to draw what they want is meaningless, they are independent things. And the PEN award is just silly, awards for this sort of thing shouldn't be given in the first place.

    • 5 May 2015 at 9:30pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ suetonius
      Well, the politics of the American PEN Center do bear looking at - particularly since Suzanne Nossel took charge in 2009.

      Nossel has many honourable strings to her bow (Amnesty, Human Rights Watch), but she was also a member of Hillary Clinton's State Department and is credited with coining the term "smart power" - which, as far as I can see, amounts to giving accredited 'rebels' access to Skype while the White House decides whether it can bomb your country or not.

      PEN American Center (not to be confused with American PEN) has been notably quiet on freedom of speech issues under the Obama administration. It managed to have an entire conference on privacy in the internet age - including a seminar on NSA surveillance - without once mentioning the name of Edward Snowden. It has issued statements about the need to protect whistleblowers within government, but again without mentioning Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning.

      Is this "smart politics", perhaps? Or does it suggest that PEN American Center is happy to throw awards at people and institutions who don't actively threaten American interests? Perhaps, instead of writers boycotting the award ceremony, Charlie Hebdo should be refusing the award.

  • 5 May 2015 at 11:54pm
    Emmryss says:
    I've never read Charlie Hebdo & I don't read French very well but just looking at the cartoon as an image I see a mass of primitive blacks from darkest Africa who wouldn't have a clue how to function in a modern European society so what do they think they're doing coming to my country just as well they drown and how that is satire or speaking truth to power is beyond me.

  • 6 May 2015 at 12:51am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Weinberger certainly has a convoluted way of expressing his dismay about things that bother him, evidenced by: “leaden sarcasm”, as noted by one correspondent; the outrage of a man with an unmoored intellect; and the tarnishing of PEN by suggesting that P. Geller would be a welcome guest at one of their dos (I know, I know, sarcasm again). Then we get “Twain to Pynchon”, rather than the more apt comparison to political or plain old clever cartoonists (in the US, Nast, “Herblock”, Oliphant in the respectable rags, a host of 60’s hippy-dippy “counter-cultural” cartoonists, etc.; in the UK, Hogarth, Rowlandson, etc.). What a wrong-foot idea. Religious beliefs of all persuasions are fundamentally stupid and often reprehensible in their consequences, so they are obviously a fit target for satirical cartoonists. Yet, as we all know, many religious people are perfectly nice and more than acceptable fellow citizens. You can even dine with them without coming to blows. Hate the sin and not the sinner, as the man who walked on water said. Some religious institutions actually do good deeds (and often vile ones as well). If a poor Muslim in France (or elsewhere) is justifiably disturbed by his or her lack of social equality and economic opportunity, then he or she has every right to engage in dissent, demonstrations, etc. (and, one hopes, contributing to a political effort to overcome iniquity). They also have a right to demean their own former religion as iniqutious. However, if a poor Muslim languishing in the western world becomes obsessed with insults to the prophet and his Master, then it’s “hard cheese, old boy, it’s the way things are done – and should be done – over here.” The same goes for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Shintoists, Taoists, and the occasional colorful pagan worshiping Gaia or some such nonentity – suck it up boys and girls, you’ll just have to learn that there are many of us out there (a billion – who knows?) who actually have no respect for the content of your religious beliefs; doesn’t mean we don’t like you (though we have that right too, life not being charm school). Also the idea that a cheap cartoon magazine should be held responsible for political exclusion (or would actually be capable of instrumenting political inclusion) is fairly daft. Maybe in some "divine" scheme of justice that we do not understand, Houellebeq is France's punishment for tolerating those nasty "frat boys" at C. Hebdo. Plus ca change . . .

    • 6 May 2015 at 5:07am
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I'm happy to quibble with the author of this post,but reading your crap just makes me laugh. I have company. I'm not alone. The dead in Algeria and Indochina and Africa, and the Dreyfusards laugh with me.

  • 6 May 2015 at 3:21am
    mikerol says:
    Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are so OVER THE TOP that they are like the beaters in the bush at JEU DE REGLE, except what these cartoons chase into the open are those who lack the slightest sense of humor, those who are deadly serious, in other words RABBIRS THAT KILL. Here is a link that initially contains the links to the current US discussion

  • 6 May 2015 at 4:14am
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    "I do not in any way contest the magazine’s right to blaspheme, offend or denounce. I regard some restrictions on free speech under French law (e.g., lese majesty — a protester was arrested a few years ago for wearing a “Fuck Sarkozy” T-shirt — and prohibiting Holocaust denial and apology for terrorism) as undue limitations on political expression. In this respect, I am more of a free-speech absolutist than many in France today.

    The possession of a right does not, however, make it imperative to exercise that right. The confrontation between cartoonists and jihadists began when a Danish editor raised the question whether editorial cartoonists might be exercising self-censorship with respect to Islam. He regarded such self-censorship, if it existed, as a potential threat to free speech rights. I do not deny that such a potential threat might exist, but I question whether it was or is a clear and present danger to free speech rights in the West today. Calling self-restraint self-censorship seems to me to foreclose thoughtful response by applying a pejorative label. When communities with very different sensibilities regarding religion must live together, there is potential virtue to self-restraint, which may connote many things, including respect for the other, a desire to avoid conflict on matters where rational discourse will be difficult to achieve and a commitment to avoid inflaming tensions. Discretion is a social virtue, and frankly speaking one’s mind on all occasions can be a form of misanthropy or aggression, as Molière reminds us."

  • 6 May 2015 at 5:28am
    deadsparrow says:
    Eliot's book Muhammad - 'provides a sense of the awe surrounding this historical and sacred figure' - as one review puts it. A sacred figure who killed people to promote the worship of a god who presumably created them too. Thus setting a pattern that continues to this day. He's picking on the wrong idiot in his comments above.

  • 6 May 2015 at 11:36am
    madrazo1 says:
    I can understand objections to representations that seem to hark back to and participate in a history of racist caricature of Africans or Arabs. What does not make sense is Weinberger's assertion that it requires a ludicrously counterintuitive "post-modern explanation" to understand CH cartoons as anti-racist. In fact, any average French reader would *immediately* understand the cartoons' message as anti-racist in its political intent - and here I mean anti-racist as "an attack on explicit racist elements in French politics." In the case of the one included above, the ridicule is directed against racist indifference to immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean. In the case of the famous Christiane Taubira "monkey" cartoon, *the entire purpose* of the cartoon was to attack the Front National's racism: the cartoon had literally no meaning other than that. The Boko Haram sex slave-"welfare queens" cartoon was similar: the entire purpose of the cartoon was to ridicule the racism of the FN; the cartoon had no point beyond that. This is not some abstruse "postmodern" justification after the fact: the cartoons were clearly animated by anti-racism in that their entire contextually relevant significance was an attack on the racism of the far right in France.

    There is an argument to be made that the style of representation still makes CH racist, in spite of its unambiguous opposition to explicit political racism. But Weinberger (and many others in the English-speaking world) are not trying to make that case: they are simply assuming that they can immediately comprehend the significance of the cartoons without any political or cultural context, and claiming that any invocation of the importance of such context is a false ruse. A pretty weird position for an eminent translator to take.

  • 6 May 2015 at 3:30pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    My, my, how the rhetoric of self-exaltation takes over the mind like an intoxicating beverage. Seth Edenbaum wants us all to know what elevated company he keeps, so that we may also know his moral purity. It’s a capacious ego that can identify itself with millions of victims of vicious colonial wars and even poor old Captain Dreyfus (the victim of a criminal conspiracy, but probably, in his own French-military mind, an eager participant in a colonial war, given half the chance – nobody’s perfect, not even a victim). Talk about making one laugh.

    • 6 May 2015 at 5:57pm
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Faith is problematic, and so is claims of righteousness. There is no free speech in France. Show me a cartoon as vulgar about Israeli fascism as about Muslim extremism.
      I'm tired of moralizing hypocrisy.

      The Blair Hitchens debate was a debate between a war criminal and his factotum over the existence of God. God is what Hitchcock called a "Macguffin". Nothing more.

      France is a racist state and a racist culture. The only crimes they feel guilt over are the crimes againt the Jews, former niggers now resurrected in Israel as white.

    • 6 May 2015 at 6:01pm
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      I should add that France is now the number one arms dealer to Saudi. I blame the Enlightenment. Extreme idealism breeds extreme delusion.

    • 7 May 2015 at 7:31am
      stettiner says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      Wow, this is really an equal opportunity blog....

  • 6 May 2015 at 7:22pm
    fakedaniels says:
    This is all very odd because I've actually read Weinberger's Muhammad which is in the spirit of Pascal's Provincial Letters and Gibbon on the early Christians. And the only 'awe surrounding this historical and sacred figure' it evokes is like John Wayne's playing a Centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told who when asked to 'play it with more awe, Duke' graced the next take with 'Aw, Jesus, you truly are the son of God.'

  • 6 May 2015 at 8:40pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Given their sweeping generalizations, I have a hard time figuring out where these remarks are coming from or going.

    But first:

    France has some free speech, more than enough to deal with current problems. What you are complaining about is actually self-censorship with respect to particular pieties.

    Anti-Semitism exists within France regardless of what relationships exist between the governments of France and Israel. Cartoons verifying this are hardly the point.

    Israel is not a fascist state, but a state (more importantly, a society) in which anti-Arab racism exists on a large scale.

    Who sells arms to whom is rather irrelevant, given the widespread nature of these transactions. Whoever can manufacture modern weaponry (the US, the UK, Russia, China, Sweden, India, etc.) sells to whomever can afford to buy (Israel, numerous Arab states, Brazil, all the EU states, African dictatorships, etc.) because they wish to deploy them for either internal or external “security” reasons. If the Buddhists of Sri Lanka could do either (make weapons or buy them), they would do so in order to deal with the Hindus on their island paradise. And vice-versa. France selling to Saudi Arabia is a drop in this bucket.

    Perhaps extreme nationalism is to blame, but the old, rather discredited internationalist movements (socialism, communism as retailed by the old USSR and Mao’s China) were no more pacific in aims or behavior.

    Go ahead and “blame the Enlightenment” if it makes you feel better, but it’s another sweeping indictment that ignores the peculiarities of actual history. No doubt many grand projects allegedly inspired by Enlightenment ideals went off the rails and became as anti-humanistic as the systems they tried to replace (we all know them without naming them here). But the approach of making gradual improvements that do not try to radically alter (or ignore) human nature while they do try to better the lives of people with respect to specific economic and social iniquities also stems from the Enlightenment (Hume is a nice exemplar in this respect). Remaking man in the image of an imagined deity, the conventional practice of the world’s “great religions” has no more successes or admirable runs of governing society than the failed Enlightenment has. Everybody is working with same poor human material. So, which of the adages covers the case better? “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.” Or, “A workman is only as good as his tools.” But the workman is the same old human material himself.

    Blair is a war criminal, but, rather than his factotum, Hitchens was typical of those flaming youthful “holier than thou” radicals who wind up pursuing strange and even unintentionally comic paths in their old age, always rationalizing their choices as the ethically correct one of the moment, unwilling to admit errors of judgment. As I said, typical stuff.

    Hypocrisy being the tribute vice pays to virtue, as La Rochefoucauld put it, makes sense. L R was a far superior aphorist to, for instance, modernity’s beloved Nietzsche (or Vienna’s Karl Kraus), simply because he was a far more sensible and worldly man than either of those gifted writers who lacked almost all practical experience. This is not the same as turning hypocrisy into a moral standard, which is the usual practice of politicians (and of true believers in a holy cause).

    By the way, many of us have drifted too far away from the source of this particular blog, i.e., an evaluation of Weinberger’s short and fairly flimsy piece.

    Therefore I retire from the lists.

    • 6 May 2015 at 10:49pm
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Timothy Rogers
      "Go ahead and 'blame the Enlightenment' if it makes you feel better, but it’s another sweeping indictment that ignores the peculiarities of actual history."

      "History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind, but does not deepen it."

      You're the one being vague dear. I'm being nothing but specific. And I've had my arguments with Arthur Goldhammer, over his ignorance of history[!] but the piece I linked above ain't bad. Ciao

    • 7 May 2015 at 2:26pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      God-a-mighty! Rebuttal by aphorism, of which there is no vaguer method. Aphorisms, as clever and entertaining as they are, reach their rhetorical goal by sharpening their point, which means narrowing their focus while jettisoning context (i.e., everything else they avoid mentioning). Understanding history requires both deep and broad context. Here’s my aphorism of the moment: “History is like foreign travel – it deepens one’s prejudices under the pretext of broadening one’s experience.” Works just as well as the D-man’s for the simple reason that aphorisms are always partial truths (or, as K. Kraus, another scintillating aphorist but a pretty poor thinker - a language-Platonist -- put it, half-truths).

      Leaden sarcasm must be contagious. As I am not dear to you, you are not even near to dear to me. That’s for people in the flesh, not in the ether of the blogosphere.

      Only deficient rationality (so precious to Descartes, though perhaps misunderstood by him too) induces me to break my vow of silence.

  • 7 May 2015 at 3:23am
    spiggott says:
    Crude racism and Private Eye:

    Presumably Eliot Weinberger is too thick to understand this too.

  • 7 May 2015 at 4:01am
    bengalkid says:
    In Satanic Verses there is the talented poet Baal, who over time mutates into the dimwitted hack in the pay of the ruler, hired to do hack attacks on the ruler's foes.
    Sir Salman Rushdie must have foreseen his future.

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