Wednesday, September 11, 2002

September 11 in Paris

" L’intellectuel qui attache du prix à l’organisation raisonnable de la Cité, ne se contentera pas de marquer les coups, de mettre sa signature au bas de tous les manifestes contre toutes les injustices. Bien qu’il tâche de troubler la bonne conscience de tous les partis, il s’engagera en faveur de celui qui lui paraît offrir sa meilleure chance à l’homme — choix historique qui comporte les risques d’erreurs inséparables de la condition historique. L’intellectuel ne refuse pas l’engagement et, le jour où il participe à l’action, il en accepte la dureté. Mais il s’efforce de n’oublier jamais ni les arguments de l’adversaire, ni l’incertitude de l’avenir, ni les torts de ses amis, ni la fraternité secrète de ses combattants. "

- Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals

Many Americans will be attending ceremonies to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001. Considering the enormity of the events of a year ago, one would expect a great deal of patriotism on display. For the average American I suspect affection for one’s country is quite natural. But for many of the “educated elite” both in the US and in Europe patriotism is a boorish sentiment.

To those of a more sophisticated taste, patriotism is often looked upon as a primitive relic of a former imperialistic age. In the minds of some, ridiculous shows of love for one’s homeland are impediments to the realization of a more humane and pacific world, where social justice, equity and cooperation are the norm.

Living here in Europe, one need not look far to find those quite willing to snub their noses at the infantile Americans with their endless flag-waving and bravado. The leftist European press spills a great deal of ink chastizing the US. Many an editorial column laments the lost opportunity on the part of the United States to rise above pointless revenge and machismo over the last year.

But in the US itself, there are those who would prefer to remember, to pray, to reflect, but never to react or retaliate. Americans should manage their pain and seek healing, but they should never express their anger, let alone act on that anger. Control, dialogue and consensus are the watchwords among the more refined.

Such is the view of the sophisticated here in Europe and the US: patriotism is out. But is this really such a sophisticated view? Or is it perhaps the case that there is something highly simplistic about a view of the world, of the human, that demands he reject his patriotism, his desire for revenge, his anger? After all, these too are human things.

According to the sophisticates (or perhaps sophists would be a better word here), these basic human things should be suppressed, forgotten, buried by an advanced democratic civilization. The first objection to such a view is that one certainly may succeed in sublimating revenge and anger among the masses of the population, but there will remain some truly cruel individuals who will simply take advantage of this illusion that hatred and anger are not humane. When a complacent and pacified people forget the complexity of human things, the uncivilized few will be more than willing to step in to remind them in bloody extremes.

The second objection is that anger and revenge may also have a positive role to play in a truly human life. When one surveys the lives of the greatest leaders throughout history there’s ample demonstration of anger, arrogance, rash behavior and sometimes cruelty. Passions excited by a great leader, such as a Churchill or de Gaulle, an Epimanondas or Saladin can often serve a worthy purpose.

It is one of the oddities of the modern educational system that it speaks so much about abstract sentiments of community and solidarity, yet has no real understanding of the authentic attachments manifest in patriotism. So this leaves me wondering whether the sophisticated are in fact the foolish, whether the educated are really the blind? Perhaps it is America’s more refined critics who are the real fools, ignorant as they are of a fundamental part of human reality.

With this in mind, I’ll be travelling this September 11, to Paris, where many an educated boor has made his home in the past. My mission will be none other than to enrol in a doctoral programme in political studies at a Paris university. If this seems a bit like heading into the mouth of the beast, I would point out that the school where I intend to study is named for French political philosopher Raymond Aron. Aron spent his entire academic career trying to understand the complexity of the human things. He also spent his entire career challenging the shoddy ideas that made such intellectual nightmares as communism and Nazism a reality. One of his abiding ideas was that intellectuals are themselves a great danger to the human things precisely because they wish to eliminate the fullness of reasons and emotions attached to the political life. Aron was a man who understood something about patriotism, about anger, pride and even how to laugh at one’s critics and oneself.

My advice to Americans: be proud, be angry, even be boastful (that really riles the educated)...but keep a sense of humor, with all these little critics running around, you’ll need it.


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