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Wednesday, April 23, 2003

In an essay on Rudyard Kipling, the much quoted George Orwell made a common sensical point that bears repeating. The seed of his essay was an edition of Kipling's poem that bore a preface by T.S. Eliot. Eliot, apparently, went to some lengths to dispel the notion that Kipling was a fascist. Orwell thinks Eliot point doesn't deserve the energy he puts into it. Kipling, he writes, was a typical jingoist of the expansive imperialist period. He believed in the racial superiority of Anglo Saxons; he believed in the goodness of the Indian Civil Service; but he did not believe in power for power's sake. He justified the ICS, and adumbrated Anglo-Saxon superiority, in terms of work and responsibility. He had, in other words, wholly other standards than the fascists. I will quote Orwell at length here:

"And yet the 'Fascist' charge has to be answered, because the first clue
to any understanding of Kipling, morally or politically, is the fact that
he was NOT a Fascist. He was further from being one than the most humane
or the most 'progressive' person is able to be nowadays. An interesting
instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without
any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the
line from 'Recessional', 'Lesser breeds without the Law'. This line is
always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a
matter of course that the 'lesser breeds' are 'natives', and a mental
picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a
coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite
of this. The phrase 'lesser breeds' refers almost certainly to the
Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are 'without the Law'
in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The
whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a
denunciation of power politics, British as well as German. Two stanzas
are worth quoting (I am quoting this as politics, not as poetry):

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law--
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget--lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word--
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Much of Kipling's phraseology is taken from the Bible, and no doubt in
the second stanza he had in mind the text from Psalm CXXVII: 'Except the
lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord
keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.' It is not a text that
makes much impression on the post-Hitler mind. No one, in our time,
believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes
that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is
no 'Law', there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true
belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually
hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or
power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up
with the age they are living in. Kipling's outlook is prefascist. He
still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish
HUBRIS. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and
the secret police, or their psychological results."

We've been thinking of Orwell's point because we've been thinking, oh so hard, about Paul Berman. We've already mentioned one review of Berman's book in the Nation. "Terror and Liberalism" is apparently designed to match concept to a particular slogan of the last two years: Islamofascist. This hybrid has, as the semantacists say, an empty extension. Like the phrase son of a bitch, it isn't an insult that merits scientific work. However, since it gained currency among such grave pundits as Christopher Hitchens, and since it has circulated among the company of those who listen, in revanchist ecstasy, to the dulcet tones of Rush Limbaugh, Berman apparently felt it was time to lasso Islamofascist for all of world history.

Berman is an intellectual historian. Intellectual historians are professionally prone to view history too� intellectually, as if what is really happening out there is a battle of ideas. Battles of ideas rarely happen even in philosophy departments, where battles often turn out to be more about getting ahead than, say, sacrificing one's career on the altar of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language. This is not to "reduce" history to material forces - rather, it is to humanize ideas, which arise in heads connected to bodies, are thought out on paper, computer screens, and voice, and stimulate to action in extra-ideational contexts. The idea of salvation, for instance, has passed like a wind through the Roman Empire, through the courts of the Frank, through the auto-de-fe of fifteenth century Spain, through the anti-slavery movement in England, and through the streets of Lubbock Texas two days ago; in each case, it stimulated to action, and in each case, the action it stimulated was determined, as well, by other circumstances.

In the 1920s, fascists would tell you they were fascists as readily as libertarians will tell you they are libertarian today. Outside of self-professed fascists, there were fellow travelers. Since 1945, however, for obvious reasons, the number of self-professed fascists has diminished. So the hunt is on for the fellow travelers. In the 20s and 30s, some of the fellow travelers were Catholic. There was one insurmountable objection to fascism, however, for these people: fascism was militantly secular.

How did such a political philosophy play out in the Middle East? It played out, as one would expect, as secularism. The attraction of Fascism for Arab nationalists was obvious: the fascists opposed the French and the English. The French and the English were the proprietors of large swathes of the Middle East; hence the alliance between fascists and Middle Eastern nationalists. But these allies of Hitler and Mussolini did not go down with that duo after WWII. They retained a certain bizarre credit in the eyes of the Brits and the Americans. Why? Because they were sterling anti-communists. After WWII, as the Brits and the French lost their sphere of influence in the Middle East, they - and the Americans - played a game with the politics of the region in which anti-communism mixed with the desire to retain the dibs on oil. The big question, then, was nationalizing oil. The paradigmn case is that of Iran. Mossadeq was given the boot in an American arranged coup, the chief mover of which was General Fazollah Zahedi. When the history of this unfortunate incident was reported, at length, by the NYT in 2000, General Zahedi was described as "retired". Ah, your average NYT reader can't bear too much reality -- that seems to be the editorial decision making process here. He actually was arrested by the British in WWII and sent into exile, because of his German sympathies.

The reconstruction of fascist sympathizers in the Middle East didn't imply that Americans or Brits were themselves fascist sympathizers. They were following the path laid down by their perceptions of national interest. The game was premised on aggrandizing Western interest. That meant supporting old allies of fascism in Iraq and Iran, which they did without hesitation or protest from Western intellectuals, and supporting anti-fascism, in the guise of versions of Islamic theocracy, against regimes like Nassar's. Paul Berman's discovery of the writings of one of Nassar's enemies, Sayyed Qutb, is the foundation of his comparison of fundamentalist Islam with the totalitarianism of fascism and the totalitarianism of Communism; alas, in the report on Qutb he published in the NYT Magazine, there is hardly a word about what was happening in Egypt at the time of Qutb's imprisonment.

We'll continue with a general post about Berman's "theory." But before we get to the theory, read Marc Ericson's articles on the history of fascism in the Middle East published in the Asia Times. Here's a juicy quote from one of the articles:

"And yet another player fond of playing all sides against the middle had entered the game prior to Farouk's ouster: In 1951, the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of president Teddy, who in 1953 would organize the overthrow of elected Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh and install Reza Pahlavi as Shah) opened secret negotiations with Nasser. Agreement was soon reached that the US, post-coup, would assist in building up Egypt's intelligence and security forces - in the obvious manner, by reinforcing Nasser's existing Germans with additional, "more capable", ones. For that, CIA head Allen Dulles turned to Reinhard Gehlen, one-time head of eastern front German military intelligence and by the early 1950s in charge of developing a new German foreign intelligence service. Gehlen hired the best man he knew for the job - former SS colonel Otto Skorzeny, who at the end of the war had organized the infamous ODESSA network to facilitate the escape of high-ranking Nazis to Latin America (mainly Peron's Argentina) and Egypt. With Skorzeny now on the job of assisting Nasser, Egypt became a safe haven for Nazi war criminals galore. The CIA officer in charge of the Egypt assistance program was Miles Copeland, soon a Nasser intimate."

Ericson is just a journalist. As a journalist, he knows an idea without a context is a flower doomed to bloom unseen. He is not an intellectual of Berman's caliber, who apparently believes that the plant is all bloom. Berman, for instance, never points out, in his article on Qutb, was that he was, after the US-Nassar rift, on our side. Or at least he was appropriated to our side:

"And then things got truly complicated and messy. Having played a large role in Nasser's power grab, the Muslim Brotherhood, after the 1949 assassination of Hassan al-Banna by government agents [see part 1] under new leadership and (since 1951) under the radical ideological guidance of Sayyid Qutb, demanded its due - imposition of Sharia (Islamic religious) law. When Nasser demurred, he became a Brotherhood assassination target, but with CIA and the German mercenaries' help he prevailed. In February 1954, the Brotherhood was banned. An October 1954 assassination attempt failed. Four thousand brothers were arrested, six were executed, and thousands fled to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon.

Within short order, things got more tangled still: As Nasser in his brewing fight with Britain and France over control of the Suez Canal turned to the Soviet Union for assistance and arms purchases, the CIA approached and began collaboration with the Brotherhood against their ex-ally, the now pro-Soviet Nasser."

In an ironic turn, Bush's Iraq adventure is beginning to seem like a second breath for an Islamicist movement. We've been here before. In fact, we keep arriving here because demented people are at the wheel, who have substituted their convictions for any acquaintance with the culture and history of the places in which they have decided to implement their convictions.

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