Who’s Right? Who’s Left? Who Cares?

Just as the question of whether Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas or Edouard Bernstein’s gradualist ones would prevail in the pages of Partisan Review had nothing to do with the struggle against European fascism, it matters not a hoot whether you think Mr. Ramadan is a true moderate or a beard for fanatics. The simple fact is that his ideas, public or private, pose no threat to Western democracy.

There are no Ramadan clubs in American universities. There is no Alcove One, where Al-Qaedists argue passionately with liberals about the fate of the West. Unlike riven Europe in the 1930s-Mr. Berman’s own personal golden age-there is no furious debate in this country between Americans who side with the fanatics and the terrorists and those who don’t. New York bohemians are not poring over their copies of the Koran the way they once pored over their copies of Das Kapital. For that matter, there are no more bohemians, period. You can admire Mr. Ramadan and condemn Ms. Ali and still find a dance partner at B’nai Jeshurun’s next mixer. In his remarkable fantasy of intellectual potency, Mr. Berman has proven the utter irrelevance of the intellectuals.

Edmund White has a memorable line in his recent autobiography. He says that it is unseemly for someone to be drunk after the age of 50. It’s equally unseemly to be arguing about ideas after the age of 50. The Partisan Review writers who fought over concepts in the ’30s and ’40s were in their 20s and 30s. They were driven even more by ambition and insecurity than by the abstract principles they claimed to espouse. When their professional and personal lives fell into place, the heat subsided. They turned away from stentorian squabbles over the Aufhebung and the Grundrisse to the world around them. As their ship came in, they leaped onto the dock and tethered their ideas to sensuous particulars and consequential facts. As most adult intellectuals do, they realized that the ideas they fought over were often the psychic wounds they were evading. They realized the absurdity of intellectual attacks when nothing actual was at stake.

But Mr. Berman, now in his 60s, has the puerile fervor of an undergraduate pouring his sexual and emotional frustration into a dormitory screaming match over capital punishment. He spends page after page defining “the left,” “fascism” and “liberalism,” when in fact accurate definition is beside the point. (Not to mention the fact that social and political life have moved on to other realities, other paradigms.) Yet these are the concepts that ruled Mr. Berman’s radical youth, and you feel that Mr. Berman refuses to give up his erstwhile relevance. He argues his weirdly outdated concepts with such fury because he is really trying to make a case for his own importance.

Perhaps the conviction that ideas have consequences loses its power when you grow older and ponder the fact of mortality and begin to see other people in the same fragile light, when you marry or cohabit or have children, or simply realize that, as the old Yiddish saying goes, life is with people-not with ideas. Mr. Berman, however, seems entirely unaffiliated. He’s married to Paul Berman. He will pause every few pages to stop and have a dialogue with himself: “What does it mean to be on the left, after all? I mean the broad left. …”; “And yet, what are we to do with the expansive puddle of footnoted documentation that lies at the bottom of Fourest’s pages, and the additional puddle at the bottom of Landau’s? I have no way to resolve this quandary. …” (Oh, but thou must try!) Mr. Berman is so taken with himself that he introduces the book with a solemn “letter” to Marty Peretz and Leon Wieseltier, the editor in chief and literary editor, respectively, of The New Republic magazine, where the essay that led to this book first appeared. No other acknowledgments are there: no loved ones, no beloved friends, no dedicated editor, no loyal agent. Just the intellectual comrades in arms, the Ones Who Share My Abstract Principles. Mr. Berman ends his quivering missive like this: “And now I press the book, printed and bound, into your hands, inscribed to you.” You can imagine the moist eyes, the trembling hands, as the Prophet of Boerum Hill, moved by his monumental achievement, inscribed his sacred book. The sacred book of Paul Berman’s agon with his fellow intellectuals, who have turned on reason and Western civilization.

Who’s Right? Who’s Left? Who Cares?