"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Of the many strange moments since Sept. 11, 2001, perhaps the most surreal was Dan Rather’s recent interview with Saddam Hussein. Here we have the dictator challenging George W. Bush to a debate and bragging about receiving 100 percent of the vote in the last election. And here we have America’s quintessential establishment journalist, unfailingly polite and even deferential, reminiscing about his last interview with the dictator a decade ago, asking him about the logistics of his debate proposal, and inviting him to say a few words in English.
“Where is Oriana Fallaci when we need her?” I muttered, recalling the classic interview in which the redoubtable Fallaci got Henry Kissinger to describe himself as a cowboy. Afterward, Rather was duly criticized by his peers for not challenging Saddam more aggressively. But the issue was not just Rather’s passivity. It was his obliviousness to the nuttiness of the encounter, based as it was on two absurd premises: that it is possible to have a reasonable conversation with a mass murderer and that something of value could be accomplished in an interview that Saddam had decreed would be taped and reviewed by his people and only then handed over to CBS. The pervasive subtext of the conversation was Rather’s awe in the presence of power, his self-congratulation at being allowed in this rarefied company, and his determination to say nothing that would jeopardize such access in the future. Clearly it had escaped him that the only reason for interviewing a perpetrator of crimes against humanity is to provoke him, through confrontation or manipulation, into revealing something of who he really is.
“There are no gas chambers. This is a lie.” “So, Mr. Hitler, do you speak any English?” Jeez!
This incident does not appear in Paul Berman’s new book, but it’s a study in Berman’s theme: the denial built into liberal rationalism and materialism. “Terror and Liberalism” contends that Islamic fundamentalism and Saddam Hussein’s Baath socialism are morally, ideologically and historically continuous with the totalitarian movements of the 20th century; that fascism and communism both fed on liberals’ resistance to comprehending the irrational nature of those movements; and that the same blindness is rampant today. The subject of Berman’s critique is liberalism in the broadly philosophical rather than specifically political sense, a worldview that underlies a range of political positions from the French socialists’ opposition to World War II and ultimate collaboration with the Nazis to the anti-interventionism that currently dominates the European and American left to the foreign policy “realism” embraced by European governments and our own diplomatic establishment.
Basic to this worldview, Berman notes, is the belief that people act rationally in their self-interest. It assumes that political conflict is about a clash of interests — about military power, or class struggle, or territory, or oil. When apocalyptic mass movements commit violence, it must be in response to grievances: exploitation by the rich, domination and humiliation by the powerful. Violence that makes no sense in those terms — if it’s aimed at random civilians, or Jews, or women who show their faces in the street; if it’s suicidal as well as murderous — only shows that its perpetrators are unhinged by oppression. In those circumstances, the irrational is rational. But totalitarian movements, Berman argues, do not fit this liberal calculus; they are wholly pathological, a nihilistic romance with death.
In tracing the origins of this pathology, Albert Camus’ “The Rebel,” published in 1951, is Berman’s touchstone. For Camus, the human impulse to rebel takes a sinister turn, beginning with the French Revolution and flowering with 19th century romanticism: “The love of freedom and progress” becomes “weirdly inseparable from a morbid obsession with murder and suicide.” This obsession finds its way into anarchist and socialist revolutionary movements in Russia, Europe, America. A variant of it crops up in European colonialists in Africa, with such insane events as the Belgian massacre of the Congolese. Ultimately it converges with mass movements of the right and the left. Somewhere along the way, the impulse to rebel has been harnessed to its seeming opposite, the ideal of submission to an all-embracing authority: “the total state, the total doctrine, the total movement.” (The word “totalitarianism” is Mussolini’s.) And this frenzy of absolutism is directed, above all, against liberal tolerance and pluralism. In this anti-liberal crusade Berman discerns a modern acting-out of the Armageddon myth: The people of God are under siege — from within by the corrupt city dwellers of Babylon, from without by the minions of Satan. After a war of extermination against the evil forces, the people of God, in their purity, will reign.
“Terror and Liberalism” challenges the notion that these are only Western stories, and that Islamic radicalism and Baathism have wholly indigenous roots. Berman documents the interpenetration of Western and Muslim identities and influences, the development of Islamic fundamentalism in response to liberalism, the incorporation of both fascist and Stalinist elements into the Baath movement. In the chapters that for me are the high point of the book, he analyzes the work of the late Islamist philosopher Sayyid Qutb, who wrote, among other things, an exhaustive commentary on the Quran. To Qutb, the world was a sinkhole of alienation, afflicted with a “hideous schizophrenia” that went back to the early Christians, with their separation of the sacred and secular realms, and that culminated in modern liberalism. The schizophrenia threatened to infiltrate and destroy Islam, not through conquest but through the spread of liberal ideas. This was the crisis that made jihad imperative: a theological, ideological crisis, not a geopolitical one.
In its broad outlines, Berman’s argument is compelling. I agree that totalitarian movements and regimes have certain fundamental characteristics in common despite their different positions on a right-left or religious-secular or East-West spectrum. I agree that both the left and the advocates of realpolitik seem incapable of recognizing and confronting such movements until their catastrophic consequences are obvious — and often not even then. Berman lays out the evidence for these propositions with eloquence and rigor. But when it comes to explaining the roots of totalitarianism and the depth of liberal denial, “Terror and Liberalism” is less successful. Berman’s framework for discussing the totalitarian impulse is moral and literary, an approach that leaves gaps in the narrative: Why does rebellion turn nihilistic? How does the quest for freedom become a craving for submission, and attraction to the forbidden act of murder merge with a lust for self-destruction?
Berman sees that these dynamics are profoundly erotic. He cites Camus’ observation that “the sinister excites. The transgressions of suicide or murder arouse a thrill that sometimes takes an overtly sexual form.” Yet because he does not pursue the logic of that thought, he ends up, as so many moralists do, suggesting that totalitarian terror is an unfathomable mystery, that it’s foolish not only to try to explain it in rational terms but to try to explain it at all: “At Auschwitz the SS said, ‘Here there is no why.’ The anti-war Socialists in France believed no such thing. In their eyes there was always a why.”
The implication is that irrational equals unintelligible — a notion long ago thrown into question by the liberal Enlightenment’s own self-critique, psychoanalysis. The problem with liberal-rationalist explanations is that they ignore the unconscious, the “why” that refers not to mundane conditions of life in the present but to fantasies shaped by hidden desire, rage and anxiety grounded in the past. The perversion of sexuality into sadistic aggression has always been the underside of repressive patriarchal cultures, East and West; suicide — aggression turned against the self — is its close companion. The will to power is the will to ecstasy is the will to surrender is the will to submit and, in extremis, to die. Or to put it another way, the rage to attain a freedom and happiness one’s psyche cannot accept creates enormous anxiety and ends in self-punishing despair: murder-suicide, the ultimate expression of rage and despair, stills the anxiety for good.
Since patriarchal culture in its various versions is our universal legacy — weakened yet far from surpassed even in “enlightened” liberal societies — it is by no means hyperbolic to suggest that in our hearts we are all potential terrorists. What then is the why that transmutes the urge toward murder-suicide from a private, unconscious nightmare to a symptom of mass-hysterical barbarism cheered on by whole populations? Berman may go too far in discounting the political and economic whys of the liberal rationalists. They do play a part, whether in creating unstable situations that loosen social controls against violent acting out or in exacerbating people’s anger while providing it with legitimate rationales and plausible targets. But such conditions only enable terror; they do not cause it. In his discussion of the “hideous schizophrenia” and the fear that it will subvert and destroy Islam, Berman supplies the key to the puzzle: Totalitarian terror is above all the reaction of people who have internalized a rigid patriarchal morality against the desires aroused by contact with liberalism — against, in a word, temptation. The very violence of the reaction attests to the strength of the temptation — to the lure of freedom.
So much for the terrorist; but what of the liberal? It seems to me, and I believe Paul Berman would agree, that understanding the motives of totalitarians may in the end be less important than understanding the reluctance to oppose them. Ironically, it is Berman who, in contemplating this part of the story, is lulled by the reasonable surface of things. He attributes the “rationalist naiveté that is shared by almost every part of modern liberal society” — including the FBI and CIA, who failed to foresee 9/11 despite myriad warning signs — to ideology: “a belief that, around the world, people are bound to behave in more or less reasonable ways in pursuit of normal and identifiable interests … that the world is, by and large, a rational place.” Irrationalist movements simply don’t jibe with the liberal worldview. But this answer begs the question. When people persist in their naiveté in the face of repeated experience, which is to say of history, it’s a good guess that something else is going on: namely that they are denying not just the terrorists’ dark impulses but also their own.
Rationalism, I would argue, is built on the scaffold of denial — not vice versa. And in this sense, there is an uneasy link between liberalism and the totalitarian left: Unlike fascism and radical fundamentalism, which anathematize liberalism and glorify the will to power, communism claims to be the true avatar of liberal values — reason, science, progress, equality, freedom — and denies the will to power that in fact is embodied in the totalitarian state. If the liberal uses rationalism to ward off murderous thoughts, the communist uses it to deny actual murder — hence the well-known gap between the ideals of communist revolutionary movements and the character of the resulting regimes.
In his conclusion, Berman picks up Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1949 call for “a new radicalism” — by which he means, as Schlesinger meant, a dynamic liberalism ready to fight for its ideals: for human rights and women’s rights, ethnic and religious tolerance, the rule of law against racism, anti-Semitism, obscurantism, poverty. I agree, absolutely, that we should defend democratic values, abroad as well as at home. But where Berman sees a battle to rescue liberalism from its failures, I see a problem with liberalism itself. For liberals the antidote to totalitarian absolutism is pluralism — as Berman puts it, “the tolerant idea that every sphere of human activity — science, technology, politics, religion and private life — should operate independently of the others.” The problem with this idea is that it does not correspond with reality, for in fact the various spheres — Berman might have included economics — are interrelated.
The relationships are not always obvious: It took feminists and other cultural radicals to point out, for example, that “private life” — sex, marriage, the family — has a political dimension, that it involves relations of power, often enforced by the state. What a real new radicalism might look like — a radicalism at once democratic and cognizant of the deep structures of our social and psychic life — is a subject for another essay. But it’s precisely the mindset that takes separate spheres for granted, and refuses to look at hidden connections, that invites the willed self-delusion Berman rightly scorns. To weave such connections into a seamless web of Truth is indeed totalitarian; but to deny them is also to simplify the world.
That simplification has its own dangers. If myopic liberalism bears a trace of resemblance to the illiberal left, militant liberalism easily drifts toward the illiberal right. While I’m generally leery of making comparisons between the Vietnam era and today’s very different landscape, it’s worth pondering that the liberal architects of that war saw it as a fight for democracy against totalitarianism. In Berman’s formulation, the United States represents the party of liberalism even under the present far-right administration; whatever the failings of George W. Bush, he is a mere annoyance next to the totalitarian threat. But is he really?
Bush’s couplike ascent to power, his singleminded commitment to the care and feeding of plutocrats, his view of America’s mission as cleansing the world of evil, his use of 9/11 as an excuse to launch a far-reaching assault on civil liberties, can fairly be said to represent a crisis of democracy. Central to Bush’s outlook (and that of his attorney general) is a Christian fundamentalism as hostile to liberalism as Sayyid Qutb. The recent conviction of abortion-doctor assassin James Kopp should remind us that Christianity has its own terrorist fringe; the violence committed by the fanatics of Operation Rescue and the Army of God may be puny compared to Osama bin Laden’s, but it’s similar in spirit.
Berman, who was characterized in the New York Times as one of the liberal left’s “reluctant hawks” on Iraq, does criticize Bush in his book. He notes that the president’s credibility has been damaged by his regressive domestic policies, contempt for the treaties, organizations, and vocabulary of international cooperation, minimalist support for the new Afghan government, and maximalist national security doctrine. But the problem, as Berman poses it, is that Bush has failed to effectively communicate his democratic intentions — not that the intentions themselves are in doubt.
For Berman, it is evidence of Bush’s good faith that we overthrew the Taliban — a policy I did and do support. But is it just a minor matter that with an indifference that looks awfully like cynicism we have basically abandoned Afghanistan to the warlords? Does American messianism, embodied in an expansive doctrine of preventive war (and combined with American corporations’ avidity to get their hands on those lucrative rebuilding contracts), bode well for democracy in Iraq? And when the war is won, and consolidating the United States’ control requires making deals with various pressure groups, which will have more influence — the “realist” State Department and the Europeans, or the Iraqi National Congress? (Take your time.) It’s troublesome questions like these that make me a reluctant dove.
All that said, “Terror and Liberalism” is an important entry in the debate over the meaning of 9/11 and after, not least because it is clearly written from a left-of-center perspective and aimed at a left-of-center audience. I hope that audience will engage the book, rather than dismissing its author as an apologist for war or American imperialism. For the left’s ability to address the issue Berman raises is nothing less than a test of its ability to make sense of the contemporary world. “Freedom for others means safety for ourselves,” he concludes. “Let us be for the freedom of others.” Let us, indeed.
Ellen Willis, one-time Village Voice senior editor and New Yorker pop-music critic, is a journalism professor at New York University. She has written several books, including "Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock and Roll."More Ellen Willis.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)