Beyond Shame and Outrage: Michael Ignatieff and the New Intellectual Barbarism of America

Article excerpt

The central fact of American political discourse today is a startling convergence between left and right positions. On the one hand, the favoured and feted of serious non-fiction--those rare liberal academics and authors with policy clout and routine access to the major media--have lately espoused positions that dove-tail with the Bush administration's defence of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus. On the other, the so-called radical wings of the academic humanities as well as dissident subfields such as post-colonial studies, taught by professors who calls themselves Marxists and even in many cases communists, are involved in arguing that empires no longer exist or that everyone, rich and poor alike, can now enjoy the fruits of a freewheeling cosmopolitanism. The world--that is, the United States--is now, without blush, considered genuinely attractive because of its supposed cultural productivity, inventiveness and freedom.

Whether as active defence of imperial government or merely passive rejection of all government as such, the work of many of the most "oppositional" intellectuals is now helplessly, and of course unintentionally, conservative. Given so daunting a convergence, it is no exaggeration to say that they have lost their ability to tell the difference between a left and a right position. This fundamental ambiguity is sought by them and, once found, is taken to be a great advance in thought.

These attitudes are the culmination of a long-term intellectual blurring. In its stand on human rights, labour law and the environment, for example, the traditional Left has always been conservative in the literal (and good) sense of seeking to conserve forests, endangered species, unionization, community values. In its stand on human rights and the environment, by contrast, the Right can be said to be radical and even subversive in that it seeks to uproot long-established norms and customs in the name of a blind and insouciant progress (what Aldous Huxley called a "brave new world" and Nietzsche a "revaluation of values"). By the same token, the notion of the individual that the new Left has for several decades updated into a politics of the counter-cultural "self" is, with the exception of a few tattoos or nose rings, indistinguishable from the Right's portrait of the solitary subject at war with society. Both sides, for example, virulently condemn the vision of debate-driven gatherings of mutually responsible citizens, seeing in it the dangerous outpost of a repressive collectivism.

The current moment, I want to suggest, represents a political-discursive watershed that did not simply evolve. Before the world knew anything of al Qaeda or September 11, for example, Fred Halliday's prophetic The Making of the Second Cold War (1983) warned that the media and government mantra of "terrorism" launched in the 1980s was an omen of a coming campaign. It averred that authorities would use small nations, political dissidents and immigrant undesirables to create a new grand peur to discipline the public and silence the middle-class critic. For its own part, the cultural Left began presenting its conformities to the new political terrain as innovations. With faith in globalization's inevitability, it devised its own shibboleths to prove it had abandoned the outmoded conflicts of the past: "migrancy" (we are all living in-between), "deterritoriality" (liberation lies in an indeterminate, post-national existence), "hybridity" (there are no victims or culprits for we are all gloriously impure).

Some have rightly argued that this convergence had philosophical roots. Several have pointed to the program of prolific ideologues such as Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, many of whose acolytes ended up in the Bush administration or became indefatigable writers of insta-books for the Heritage and Scaife Foundations. But it would be wrong to doubt that the convergence was also shaped by the aristocratic bohemianism of radical individualist and fiercely antisocial right-wing lineages within "left" cultural studies. …