Suicide bombings produced a philosophical crisis among those who wanted to believe that a “rational logic” governs the world. Terror and Liberalism presents a powerful critique of the claim that individuals behave in reasonable ways in pursuit of normal and identifiable interests.
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Terror and Liberalism
“Clear and accessible … drawing on a great variety of literatures and touching on the major cultural and political movements of the last 200 years…Highly recommended.”
“An engaging, delusion-busting history primer.”
“Berman’s book is penetrating, insightful, honest, erudite…it is always intense.”
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (May 17, 2004)
Author: Paul Berman
Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism was published in April 2003 subsequent to the 9/11 suicide bombings. Apart from the insights the book provides on terrorism, it remains one of the most profound reflections and critiques of an ideology that continues to dominate political thought, namely, the belief that behavior in the public domain is governed by rationality. A “realist,” Berman says, is someone who—no matter what bizarre events occur around the world—“professes not to be surprised.” In the realist picture of the world, wars break out because “some nation’s desire for wealth, power and geography brushes up against some other nation’s equally tangible desire for the same.”
Suicide bombings, however, produced a “philosophical crisis” among those who wanted to believe that a “rational logic governs the world.” Liberal thought recoiled at the idea that human beings sought death and destruction for no apparent reason.
Berman connects the behavior of Islamic radicals—and of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party—to European totalitarian movements. During the era of totalitarianism, leaders were like “deranged, virile, all-powerful gods” who thrilled their worshipful followers, “heroes with blood on their hands.” The totalitarian leader was someone “freed of the humiliating limitations of ordinary morality” who could “gaze on life and death with blasé equanimity,” and “order mass executions for no reason at all.”
According to R. J. Rummel, 262 million people were killed in the 20th century as a result of actions undertaken by governments. What were these killings all about? Do we really understand why the 20th century was the “century of megadeath” (Brzezinski, 1994)?
European movements such as Nazism and communism were organized programs for “human betterment,” impractical programs for the whole of society, Berman says, that could “never be put into effect.” On the other hand, death was practical. Death was the “only revolutionary achievement that could actually be delivered.”
Despite the monumental death toll of the 20th century, and the incredible, astonishing forms that political violence took, the liberal belief in “rationality” persists. We prefer not to look at reality. We might acknowledge, Berman says, that “individual madmen” might step forward. But surely “millions of people are not going to choose death, and the Jonestowns of the world are not going to take over entire societies.”
And yet—in the 20th century—the Jonestowns of the world did take over entire societies. What Jim Jones did at Jonestown (918 deaths) pales in comparison to the mass deaths generated by men like Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. The difference between Jones and these leaders lay in the fact that these other men were heads of state, and had far more adherents or followers.
Many of us are not aware of how vast the killing was within sections of the Muslim world during the last quarter-century. Berman claims that millions of people died. The terrorist attacks that occurred in New York, London, Madrid and elsewhere were not isolated events, but ought to be seen as “foam from a larger wave.” The really devastated places have been Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Syria, Sudan and Afghanistan.
Is the world truly a place where human beings create mass movements and “march themselves to the cemetery”? In the face of the political history of the 20th and 21st centuries, are we wrong to assert that “from time to time political movements get drunk with slaughter”?
These statements accurately describe the facts. Yet people around the world, Berman says, continue to claim that individuals are “bound to behave in more or less reasonable ways in pursuit of normal and identifiable interests.” This mode of explanation dominates the political establishment and academic world.
Political scientists, foreign policy experts and historians begin with the assumption that governments are prone to act rationally out of “self-interest.” According to this perspective, political conflict is about the clash of interests: military power, class struggle, territory or economics.
Yet, throughout the 20th century and 21st centuries, political actors slaughtered people—generated mass murder—for no apparent reason. There is no evidence to support the view that leaders and governments behave in “more or less reasonable ways in pursuit of normal and identifiable interests.”
The belief that the world is governed by rational principles represents an ideology. This belief system has done wonders when applied to the physical world. I am astonished by the working of my computer and by cell phones. I have barely a clue as to how or why this is able to happen. Yet I assume there are rational principles that govern these happenings: the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Yet, happenings in the political world don’t seem to work so well. Indeed, at this very moment, we witness chaos and destruction, the same old, same old. It would appear that we are wrong to assume that political behavior is governed by rational principles.
The belief that human beings act based upon rational motives is a delusion. Why has this delusion been so persistent? Why do we avoid examining the motives that have generated the monumentally destructive forms of behavior that are so common in the political world?
One of the deepest motives governing human thought and behavior, I have found, is the desire not to know. However, we also desire to know—to understand. If we wish to pursue our desire to understand, the first step is to abandon the delusion that human behavior is governed by rationality.
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We exhibited and promoted W. W. Norton titles at the following 2013/2014 conferences:
- 2014 Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society in collaboration with the Society for Visual Anthropology
- 44th Annual Meeting of the Jean Piaget Society
- 30th Annual Conference of the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration
- 7th Annual Conference of the Society for Humanistic Psychology
- Southwestern Psychological Association 2014 Convention
- 46th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences
- International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology Conference, Los Angeles
- 26th Annual Conference of the International Association for Conflict Management
- 36th Annual International Conference on The Psychology of the Self
- Thinking Publicly: A Conference on Public Intellectuals