Who’s Right? Who’s Left? Who Cares?

Praising Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, the estimable and admirable Ron Rosenbaum wrote in Slate that the book reminded him of “those old Partisan Review smackdowns,” of the days “when engagé public intellectuals battled it out over Trotskyism, anarcho-syndicalism, and just who betrayed whom in the bloody streets of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War.”

It’s good for journalists to have friends. But Mr. Rosenbaum’s avowed friendship for Mr. Berman is not good for Mr. Rosenbaum’s judgment.

What most strikes you as you attempt to penetrate Mr. Berman’s onanistic tour de force is how far we’ve come from the days when intellectuals really were engaged with the world around them. Mr. Berman has produced 300 densely printed pages about an obscure and wholly inconsequential disagreement between a handful of American writers about the bona fides of two Muslim intellectuals. At the same time, insofar as Mr. Berman’s book does remind you of the scholastic feuding of the bygone New York Jewish intellectuals, you put it down-no one will even come close to finishing it, I guarantee you-relieved that those mythical days are long gone.

This self-infatuated, foolish man is still beating the drums of war.

It’s hard to know when the term “Partisan Review intellectual” became synonymous with polemical combat, and when the resulting fusion got identified with some golden age of high-level cultural achievement, but the glory days of Partisan Review had little to do with intellectual fisticuffs. The sectarian quarrels during the 1930s and early ’40s between left-wing and right-wing Trotskyists, between Trotsky himself and the editors of Partisan Review, are mind-numbing and embarrassing to read. They were so far removed from the carnage taking place in Europe that they verged on the irresponsible.

Rather, what established the little Manhattan journal as the exemplary forum for lofty thinking were its extraordinary essays on culture: Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”; Delmore Schwartz’s “The Literary Dictatorship of T.S. Eliot”; Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey”; Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” With the exception of Mr. Greenberg’s essay, these all appeared after the Second World War, when the struggle for “ideas” could no longer serve as a plausible pretext to settle scores, advance careers or sublimate the repressed sexuality of these children of immigrants. They were controversial essays. But they were not the bare-knuckled attacks that people now absurdly associate with the New York intellectuals’ more substantial accomplishments.

In the sense that it recalls the heated solipsism of Partisan Review‘s early politicized days, Mr. Berman’s “smackdown” reflects the worst tendencies of intellectual life, not the best. He has a simple point to make: Tariq Ramadan-a Muslim intellectual based in Oxford and taken up by some Western intellectuals as the spokesman for a moderate Islam-is a secret fanatic and a dangerous fraud. The intellectuals who defend him have betrayed Western civilization. On the other hand, Ayan Hirsi Ali-a Muslim intellectual, now based in Washington, D.C., who is highly critical of Islamic culture and is criticized by some of the same Western intellectuals for what they regard as her belligerent posturing-is a hero. The intellectuals who attack her have betrayed Western civilization. Though Berman sees Munich-like appeasement everywhere, there are, to my mind, good arguments, constructed in good faith, to be made for and against both these figures. But the arguments are irrelevant to the point of being ludicrous.

Who’s Right? Who’s Left? Who Cares?