08 October 2012

An obituary for Baathism: "Resistance" is futile

Paul Berman is a self-appointed scourge of Middle Eastern radicalism. A political liberal, Berman since 2001 has been what you might call an anti-anti-neocon. He has waged a polemical campaign urging liberals not to let hostility to neoconservative Republicans turn them from a necessary struggle against dangerous ideologies emanating from the Arab world. He has most often and understandably focused on Islamism, stressing its bigoted and totalitarian elements, but with Syria's civil war in the global spotlight he has penned what he hopes will serve as an obituary of the Baath ideology upon which the Assad dynasty is ostensibly based. Baathism is an easy target for liberals. It has only resulted in tyranny and wherever it rose to the top, as Berman notes, it has taken a clannish, conspiratorial form that concentrates power in localized minority cliques: the Sunnis of Tikrit in Baathist Iraq, the Alawites in Syria. In Berman's account, Baathists never intended to take power in elections, but always favored seizing power through coups d'etat. Veering from leftism to anticommunism (depending on the eye of the beholder) and from piety to secularism, Baathism would seem never to have stood for much besides broad appeals to national chauvinism and a self-appointed vanguard's lust for power. Neither is Baathism's most defining characteristic for Berman. What defines Baathism, as well as most of what Berman abhors in the Middle East, if not the Third World in general, is what makes it a political dead end: the "cult of resistance" at its heart.

Surely this is Baathism’s most destructive trait of all. The cult of resistance leads to a culture of hysteria. Once you have spent 35 years or 50 years manning a machine gun and vowing resistance to the end, your ability to work up more thoughtful habits of mind is bound to become a little circumscribed. A capacity to weigh evidence, a feeling of curiosity about other people’s views, a spirit of tolerance, the traits that are necessary for a liberal alternative, in short—these traits are not likely to survive. We have seen the results in Iraq, and we will see them in Syria.

Berman asks the question this begs -- "resistance to what?" and comes up with the obvious answers: Zionism and "imperialism."  But his dismissal of resistance, beyond the arguable point that resistance can become a self-defeating end unto itself, itself begs questions. Shouldn't "imperialism," at least, be resisted wherever it threatens a nation? For Berman, however, "imperialism" is a chimera that may as well be in scare quotes even if he doesn't use them. He may feel that no one on Earth today has a legitimate beef against imperialism. Given his equation of "resistance" with intolerance, he may also feel that self-proclaimed anti-imperialism simply and skimpily masks xenophobia or raw bigotry. The point Berman wants to make is that "resistance" blinds people and nations to more pragmatic concerns. An official, enforced commitment to resistance, he argues, prevents places like Baathist Syria from seriously addressing such basic questions as "how to become prosperous." It also seems to suppress "a liberal willingness to evaluate the real-life results" of policies and ideologies. That's not wrong: all over the world, people are reluctant to change "their" way of doing things just because it doesn't work. The radical Japanese emulation of Europe and the U.S. during the 19th century remains an exceptional historic event that met much resistance, initially, in Japan itself. But what comes of labeling such resistance as "resistance," as if resistance was an ideology (or a cult), rather than calling it reaction or xenophobia? Berman, I think, is actually saying something of importance and relevance beyond the Middle East. He seems to be saying that "resistance" as an attitude is antithetical to liberalism. That may seem uncontroversial. In the U.S., liberals regularly denounce conservatives for their resistance to change. But isn't Berman also saying that liberalism is antithetical to "resistance?" And might we not say more strongly that Berman's sort of liberalism is intolerant of resistance? Perhaps not. We first need to know whether Berman acknowledges a middle ground where resistance (if not "resistance") is legitimate. The answer depends on the scope of resistance. We could assume that Berman would admit readily a nation's right -- or its people's -- to resist an invasion ... though the example of Iraq may throw his acknowledgment of such a right into question. Beyond that, what? The key question is whether Berman recognizes a sphere of resistance that is not simply military self-defense but is also not simplistically "intolerant." Liberalism can become dangerous -- this may be what is meant by "neoliberalism" or what is inherent in Republicanism's descent from "classical" liberalism -- when it presumes that all resistance is intolerant, irrational, and essentially unacceptable. Do people ever have a right to resist "progress" -- not just to dispute whether something is progress, but to know it as such but refuse it, for whatever reason? The actual reason probably should matter in our appraisal, and some progressives might concede that if people have sufficient reason to deny progress, it isn't really progress. But the question for today -- the relevance to Columbus Day is up to you -- is how willing liberals are to listen to reasons for resistance rather than dismiss them as reactionary unreason. Resistance isn't always right, of course -- but what is?

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