I'd like to reflect on a couple of passages from Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.
Modernization would render the classical concept of tyranny obsolete, [it was said,] and as nations outside Europe modernized, they too would enter the post-tyrannical future. We now know how wrong this was. The harems and food-tasters of ancient times are indeed gone but their places have been taken by propaganda ministers and revolutionary guards, drug barons and Swiss bankers. The tyrant has survived.
What's most curious to this observer of the intellectuals-and-the-Gaddafis debacle, is the many ways in which the big-time intellectuals who sipped tea with Gaddafi seem to have tried to believe something that they could see, with the sharpest possible clarity, could not be true.
Robert Putnam accepted his "standard consulting fee" and sat down for a little give and take with "a tyrant and ... megalomaniac" who looked "like the aging Mick Jagger." Why did he do that? Why did he lend his prestige to a man he knew was a tyrant? To be sure, "Two months later I was invited back to a public roundtable in Libya, but by then I had concluded that the whole exercise was a public-relations stunt, and I declined." Why did he go in the first place?
Anthony Giddens also took tea with Gaddafi and left with an image of him weightily "ruminating upon the relevance of his political thinking to current times." A deep thinker, Gaddafi, and, under the mass of curls, a real democrat.
Then there's the still-brazening-it-out Benjamin Barber, who went way past tea time with the regime until he finally resigned from their charitable foundation a couple of days ago. As my colleague Marc Lynch wrote to Barber years ago, in response to one of Barber's newspaper pieces praising Gaddafi:
You presented some very interesting ideas about Libya in your Washington Post op-ed. I found particularly interesting your ideas about Col. Qaddafi’s experiments with direct democracy and efficient government. I know just the person you should talk to about these ideas – a brave journalist exposing official corruption in Libya by the name of Dhayf al-Gazzal. Be careful shaking his hand, though, because about a year and a half ago he had his fingers cut off before his body was riddled with bullets and abandoned in the desert. Hey, wasn’t that right around the time you were having such pleasant chats about direct democracy and the Green Book with the flexible and adaptive Colonel? How embarrassing! Anyway, since he’s dead, he might not be as vivacious a conversationalist as Col. Qaddafi. But I’m sure he’d be fascinated by your notions of Qaddafi’s enlightened rule and might even have some notes.
Todd Gitlin recalls the salient quotation from an earlier era:
H. G. Wells visited Stalin in 1934 and chatted with him about the theory of socialism, noting that though he’d only just touched down in Moscow, “I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something very considerable is being done here.”
Gitlin notices, too, something intriguing about the aging of intellectual stars - men like Barber and Giddens:
[Giddens'] early work was no-nonsense, Weber-inflected sociology, but as he rose, he grew both more sweeping and puffier. I never could understand why his signature notion of “structuration” was taken as a major achievement when it was so vapid and tautological — promoting the incontrovertible notion that “”social structures are both constituted by human agency, and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution.”
More sweeping and puffier: This has been the shared fate of Giddens, Barber, Gaddafi, and Mick Jagger. Trolling an indulgent world in search of legitimacy, or the legacy thing, or retirement money, they do get themselves into holes...
And speaking of tautological: As Lilla notes, tyrants are tyrants, however sophisticated they may be in the use of Swiss bank accounts. Why don't these smart people see that? Why won't they see that?
Reforming a tyranny may not be within our power, but the exercise of intellectual self-control always is. That is why the first responsibility of a philosopher who finds himself surrounded by political and intellectual corruption may be to withdraw.
Not corruption of any sort, of course; you're supposed to withdraw when you find yourself surrounded by wild, rampant, bloody corruption, the sort of corruption only possible under raw tyranny.
The kindest thing you can say about aging intellectuals drawn to the political desert is that they don't seem to be motivated, like the subjects of Lilla's book, by ideology. Vanity, rather.
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