The road to treason

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The young Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess (1911-63) lost his father, a Naval officer, at thirteen, went to Eton, and at Cambridge, where he was considered “the most brilliant undergraduate of his day,” became part of a circle of debauched, entitled young aesthetes-cum-intellectuals (including the heir to the Rothschild fortune). While enjoying a louche, lavish life of privilege – garden parties, champagne breakfasts, lunch with E. M. Forster, a weekend chez Somerset Maugham on the Riviera, servants who waited on him hand and foot – Burgess also became a Communist. After joining the Apostles, a “secret society” of leftist, pacifist, atheist, artsy students, Burgess and his friend Anthony Blunt set about packing the club with fellow Stalinists. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon: it was the early 1930s, and thanks to the Party’s new tactic of recruiting students instead of workers, Cambridge as a whole was turning red: the Trinity Historical Society became Marxist and the Socialist Society affiliated itself with the British Communist Party.

stalin1As Andrew Lownie notes in a recent biography, Stalin’s Englishman, Burgess was expected to have “a brilliant academic future.” But when his thesis in progress was suddenly rendered redundant by a newly published book on the same topic, the trauma was so great that he was put off from pursuing an academic career.

What else could he do with his life? In 1934, he visited the USSR, where his status as a Cambridge Communist gave him access to a number of high-level officials. When one of them showed him a list of books that were being translated into Russian, Burgess – who was more Communist than the Communists – warned that one of the titles on the list, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, was fascist. He was so persuasive that the Soviets decided then and there not to translate it after all.

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Writer and journalist Goronwy Rees

Burgess wasn’t one of those Western Communists who viewed Soviet life through rose-colored glasses. Returning to Cambridge, he was honest about the USSR’s appalling housing and infrastructure. His friend Goronwy Rees would later observe that Burgess wasn’t particularly interested in the reality on the ground in Russia. A true academic, Burgess was in love with Communist ideas; whether they worked out in real life was of little or no concern to him.

All that was left was for him to become a spy. His fellow Apostle Kim Philby, who had already become a courier for the Austrian Communists, gave his Party contact a list of Cambridge and Oxford friends who might also be willing to work for the cause. He included Burgess, but put his name at the bottom of his list because he was an “enfant terrible,” a flamboyant type who, Philby suspected, didn’t have the makings of a good secret agent.

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Kim Philby

In the end, Burgess figured out that Philby and their mutual friend Donald Maclean – who had also signed up with the Communists – were involved in something clandestine and exciting and demanded they include him, too. “He must have been one of the very few people to have forced themselves into the Soviet special service,” Philby later said. And so it happened. The Soviet Comintern signed up Burgess, giving him the codename Madchen. He was now one of the men who would come to be known as the “Cambridge Spies.”

More tomorrow.

Zinn is winning

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Howard Zinn

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers, has vividly captured the impact of Howard Zinn‘s 1980 book A People’s History of the United States on the students who are assigned it as a school textbook. In a 2013 article, Greenberg recalled that when he was in school, he became “enamored” of Zinn’s opus.

In my adolescent rebelliousness, I thrilled to Zinn’s deflation of what he presented as the myths of standard-issue history….Mischievously – subversively – A People’s History whispered that everything I had learned in school was a sugar-coated fairy tale, if not a deliberate lie. Now I knew.

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David Greenberg

So it has been with millions of other American students. Zinn’s book was tailor-made to appeal to them – to, that is, low-information adolescents eager to rebel against their parents’ worldview. To be sure, a few of these kids go on to study history and, as Greenberg puts it, “come to realize that Zinn’s famous book is…a pretty lousy piece of work.” But a much larger percentage of students who’ve been brainwashed by Zinn never snap out of it, alas – they never realize the extent to which they’ve been misled. And consequently they grow into adults who truly believe that America has been the greatest blight on the world stage instead of the greatest blessing.

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Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

Earlier this week we looked at Howard Zinn’s intense involvement with the American Communist Party, the details of which were made public just six years ago. What’s striking – if unsurprising – is that these revelations haven’t put a dent in the enthusiasm for his book on the part of “educators” and other fans. Among those fans are the movie stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. They wrote the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, in which Damon’s character sang Zinn’s praises.

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Ben Affleck

After Zinn’s CPUSA past came to light, William Sullivan noted Damon’s and Affleck’s refusal to denounce Zinn for his Stalinism, and suggested that the only logical reason for this refusal must be “that they believe so fervently in America’s place as the wickedest of nations that they are unable to realize the absolute fact that Communism surpasses even National Socialism as the responsible ideology for more forced famine, death, and political oppression than any other governmental structure in modern history.” Sullivan elaborated:

To believe that Communism, in any form, could be less vile than our American republic is beyond comprehension, but Howard Zinn was guilty of it. And given that practical history screams the contrary of Zinn’s beliefs, one could argue that his followers have not so much been educated by the factual substance of his work, but indoctrinated by the slanted ideas therein.

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Stephen F. Cohen

We kicked off this week by discussing the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC). A 1995 article in the New York Times reported on the foundation’s plans to construct a museum in memory of the approximately 100 million people killed by Communism during the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine any decent human being criticizing such a project; but our old friend Stephen F. Cohen – the Russia “expert,” Kremlin sympathizer, and spouse of Nation publisher and limousine Marxist Katrina vanden Heuvel – disapproved strongly, telling the Times that the proposed memorial was “triumphalist,” an idea hatched by “cold-war warriors” whose “sermonizing against Communism” betrayed their lack of seriousness.

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The VOC’s Times Square display

That memorial has yet to be built. Meanwhile Howard Zinn’s magnum opus has sold millions of copies and poisoned millions of minds, as exemplified by the VOC’s own reports on young Americans’ ignorance of – and benign attitudes toward – Communism. Clearly, a serious nationwide educational effort is desperately required. The VOC itself has recently taken a small step in this direction, installing billboards in Times Square that seek to set the record straight on Communism. Kudos to them. But it’s only a drop in the bucket. Because Zinn – alarmingly – is winning.

Josef who?

You may never have heard of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. But if you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll probably want to know about it, for it’s an institution that seeks to address a profound need that lies very close to the heart of our own efforts: namely, the extraordinary ignorance of the brutal reality of Communism in today’s America, especially on the part of young people.

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Josef Stalin: only 18% of US millennials know who he was

The extent of that ignorance was underscored on October 17 by the foundation’s own annual report on American attitudes toward socialism and Communism. The executive director of VOC, Mario Smith, summed those findings up as follows: “An emerging generation of Americans have little understanding of the collectivist system and its dark history.” While older generations are aware of the evils of Communism, millennials (born between 1982 and 2002) aren’t. This makes sense, of course. The fall of the Iron Curtain occurred before they were born or when they were small children. They’ve been taught about the evils of Nazism, but little about Communism. They know about the Holocaust, but probably not about the Gulag.

The VOC’s sobering numbers confirm this ignorance. According to the study, only 18% of American millennials can place the name of Josef Stalin; the comparable figures for Lenin and Mao Zedong are 42% and 33%. The inevitable result of this profound ignorance of Communism is a disturbingly benign attitude toward it. While 91% of older Americans and 80% of baby boomers view Communism negatively, only 55% of millennials do. Fully 25% of millennials who recognized the name of Lenin actually view him favorably.

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Joseph McCarthy: the real #1 Cold War villain

This sympathy for Communism surely owes a lot to baby-boom teachers or professors who, when they have touched on Communism, have actually treated it sympathetically. Instead of underscoring the fact that the regimes of Hitler and Stalin were equally totalitarian, many of those supposed educators have drawn sharp distinctions between Nazism and Communism, pronouncing the former as unqualifiedly evil but depicting the latter as a beautiful dream that perhaps got just a wee bit out of control. In recent decades, school syllabi touching on Communism have focused less on the horrors of life in the USSR and more on the purported victimization of American Communists during the era of the Hollywood blacklist. In this formulation, the villain of the piece is not Stalin but Senator Joseph McCarthy.

030114-O-0000D-001 President George W. Bush. Photo by Eric Draper, White House.
George W. Bush: deadlier than Stalin?

Consequently, almost 45% of millennials actually say they would vote for a socialist president – a statistic that might have been surprising before the Bernie Sanders campaign, but perhaps isn’t so surprising now. Fully 32% of millennials actually believe more people were killed under George W. Bush than under Stalin. (The figure for Americans generally isn’t much better: 25%.)

Much of the millennial sympathy for socialism and Communism can be attributed to the widespread use, in high-school and colleage history courses, of a single book entitled A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1922-2010). We’ll get to him tomorrow.

Salvaging Heidegger?

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Martin Heidegger

We’ve been exploring the curious case of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose public loyalty to the Third Reich and support of its anti-Semitic policies didn’t keep him from being a hero to philosophers and philosophy students around the world, some of whom managed to convince themselves that his Nazism hadn’t been prolonged, or deep, or authentic, or important to his work. These fans, however, were rocked by the 2014 publication of a set of his diaries – known as the Black Notebooks because of the color of the blank volumes in which they’d been scribbled – that provided ample evidence that Heidegger had, in fact, been a genuine and profoundly dedicated devotee of Nazi thought (Jew-hatred included) throughout the Hitler era, and that he viewed this ideological proclivity as inextricable from his own philosophical oeuvre.

hitler1One of the reviewers of the Black Notebooks was Joshua Rothman, who recalled in The New Yorker that reading Heidegger had supplied him with one of the two or three most profound intellectual experiences of his life. “I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place—never both.” (Why not study neurology? Oh, never mind.) Then he read Being and Time. It was as if, having been trapped on the ground floor of a building, I had found an express elevator to the roof, from which I could see the stars. Heidegger had developed his own way of describing the nature of human existence. It wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t scientific; it got its arms around everything, from rocks to the soul.” He then turned to another Heidegger book, The Essence of Truth, wherein Heidegger “proposed a different and, to my mind, a more realistic idea of truth than any I’d encountered before. He believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them.” (This seems wrong on the face of it: after all, it is possible to know, say, that Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan without caring in the least about this information. But again, never mind.)

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Joshua Rothman

Rothman reported on a recent confab at which philosophers had gathered – in a sort of philosophical equivalent of an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council – to figure out what to do about the explosive contents of the Black Notebooks. His account shed a fascinating light on the mentality of academic philosophers. One prominent participant started off by making clear the importance to him of career considerations. “I’m the director of the Martin Heidegger Institute,” he said, “and I actually want to be that for a longer time.” The audience laughed. “If we would say that Heidegger really was an anti-Semitic philosopher, then,” he added, “yeah, that would be really a catastrophe, in a certain way, for me.”

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Babette Babich

Rothman appreciated the honesty of this admission; yet the ensuing remarks by many of the philosophers in attendance exhibited a reflexive desire not to get at the truth, however intellectually uncomfortable and professionally inconvenient, but to rescue Heidegger from himself – to find some way to preserve and esteem his philosophy in spite of his Nazism and anti-Semitism. One prominent philosopher, Babette Babich, made an argument that Rothman summed up as: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Yet the baby and bathwater metaphor is utterly inappropriate here. A baby and bathwater are two different things. A philosophy is of a piece – a man’s commitment to Nazism cannot be neatly separated from the rest of his thinking about life. However much some of Heidegger’s admirers may wish to isolate his Nazism from the rest of his philosophy, then, it’s an impossible task.

But no great loss. There are many other potential life guides out there – among them writers like George Orwell, who saw totalitarianism (in all its forms) for what it was, despised it, and expressed his contempt in clear, unpretentious language from which most philosophers would be well advised to learn. 

No apologies: Martin Heidegger

Yesterday we saw how Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), considered by many to be the most distinguished philosopher of the twentieth century, was also a devout Nazi and anti-Semite.

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Martin Heidegger in 1933, with his Hitler mustache

What happened to him after the war? Well, while other high-profile Nazis were put on trial or at least enrolled in denazification programs, he was forbidden from teaching but otherwise left alone. Fortunately for him, he had a number of prominent friends and admirers (among them Jean-Paul Sartre) who were eager to help in his postwar rehabilitation. His most fervent champion was Hannah Arendt, his former student and lover, whose 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism made her a big name and gave her a great deal of influence in intellectual circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Arendt, who had fled Europe for America in 1941, was herself Jewish, but Heidegger’s longtime, outspoken anti-Semitism didn’t keep her from doing everything she could to try to rescue her mentor’s reputation and to try to make everybody else believe that he hadn’t really been as devout a Nazi as he actually was.

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Hannah Arendt

She promoted him tirelessly, and as late as 1971 was still trying to get him off the hook by comparing him to Thales, an ancient Greek philosopher who became “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet.” (One point: isn’t it curious for a Jewish woman to describe a Hitler-besotted man as “absorbed in the heavens”? Another point: isn’t it pretty obvious that a philosopher who’s “so absorbed in the heavens that he stumbled into the well at his feet” is absolutely useless as a guide to life, which is supposed to be the whole point of philosophy?)

For his part, Heidegger, after the war, guilefully spun his sincere devotion to the Third Reich as, alternatively, (a) a charade he’d pulled off solely to save his own skin or (b) a noble effort by a serious educator to protect German education from pollution by Nazi thought.

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Jean Paul Sartre

Even after the war, however, Heidegger couldn’t entirely disguise his real sympathies. For example, he actually equated Nazi death camps with the “motorized food industry” – the idea being that both phenomena were deplorable instances of runaway technology. In a letter to a former student, he suggested that the student, who had apparently expressed outrage about Nazi genocide, should instead be angry about the Communist treatment of East Germans.

In any event, Heidegger never explicitly apologized for his own Nazism. Never.

Sartre and Arendt weren’t alone in striving to clear Heidegger’s name. He had innumerable apologists, and to read through their writings is to see the same arguments surfacing again and again. One: he was only a Nazi for a certain number of years, and then snapped out of it. Two: hey, a lot of Germans were Nazis – it was in the water back then. Three: he may have been a Nazi, but he was not as fanatical as many other Nazis, and in fact his intellectualism may well have helped take the edge off of Nazism in the minds of his students and others who came under his influence. Four: okay, he was a Nazi, but that fact doesn’t discredit his philosophy, because they’re too different, utterly disconnected things.

Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, during a speach in September 1934.
Paul Joseph Goebbels

But none of these arguments will wash. Yes, he was an outspoken Nazi for only a few years in the 1930s, until he was removed from his post as university rector – but after that, he never openly opposed the regime, and in his private notebooks continued to express admiration for Hitler’s regime. Yes, a lot of Germans were Nazis – but nobody’s asking us to treat their philosophical reflections with respect. Yes, he might not have been as evil as Goebbels or Goering or Hitler himself, but what kind of standard is that to hold a philosopher up to?

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T.S. Eliot

As for the idea that Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism can be viewed as unrelated to each other – no, this won’t do. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite too, and his anti-Semitism crops up once or twice in his poetry. But it doesn’t completely cancel out the value of his work. Eliot was an artist. Heidegger was not. He was a systematic thinker, all of whose ideas were parts of a coherent whole. His philosophy, indeed, was all he had to offer, and his prose was nothing more or less than a sturdy vehicle by means of which he communicated it. And an inextricable element of Heidegger’s philosophy was his Nazism.

Adolf Hitler, Austrian born dictator of Nazi Germany, 1938. Hitler (1889-1945) became leader of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party in 1921. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich in 1923, for which he was briefly imprisoned, Hitler set about pursuing power by democratic means. His nationalistic and anti-semitic message quickly gained support in a Germany humiliated by defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and, from the late 1920s, suffering from economic collapse. Hitler came to power in 1933, and persuaded the Reichstag (parliament) to grant him dictatorial powers. He proceeded to crush opposition both within his own party and throughout German society, and set about re-arming Germany. Hitler's aggressive policy of territorial expansion to secure 'lebensraum' (living space) for the German people eventually plunged the world into the Second World War. A print from Kampf um's Dritte Reich: Historische Bilderfolge, Berlin, 1933. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Many a professional philosopher, to be sure, has strenuously resisted this view. There is a tendency in the philosophical profession to act as if a philosopher’s real-life conduct, prejudices, and public statements do not necessary have anything to do with the value of his published philosophical works. They behave as if philosophy is all about abstractions on the page or in the classroom. On the contrary, philosophy is supposed to be a guide to living life, a set of prescriptions for how to conduct oneself in the company of one’s fellowman.

For years, Heidgegger’s defenders sought to preserve a firewall between his Nazism and his philosophy. Then, in 2014, came the publication of his so-called Black Notebooks, which contained expressions of Nazi enthusiasm and Jew-hatred more vehement than anything of his that had been previously published. The notebooks, which were widely discussed and reviewed, made it harder than ever for his admirers to dismiss or minimize his politics and prejudices. More on this tomorrow.

Hitler’s philosopher

Among other things, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is an example of why we called this website Useful Stooges and not Useful Idiots. For Heidegger was no idiot. He’s considered one of the great twentieth-century philosophers. He devoted his entire life to thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life. During his lifetime, he published enough on the subject to fill over a hundred volumes. He must have been a genius, right?

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Martin Heidegger

Or was he? For Heidegger wasn’t just a philosopher, respected – and in many cases revered – by followers around the world, especially in his native Germany. He was a Nazi.

How did this happen? How did such a man come to be a follower of Hitler? Well, in order to try to answer this question, we need to take a brief dive into his philosophy. The son of peasants who was educated by the Church and was, briefly, a Jesuit novice, Heidegger essentially turned away from the entire Western philosophical tradition. In his 1927 book Being and Time, he rejected the timeless, universal ideals served up every great thinker since Plato and insisted rather on the supreme importance of the specific time and place in which any given individual happens to find himself. Dismissing ethical philosophy’s (and Christianity’s) focus on good and evil, he insisted that existence was intrinsically meaningless and that the individual must therefore create meaning for himself by fiercely embracing his ethnic identity, affirming the “hardness of [his nation’s] fate,” and playing an active role in the history of his times.

hitler-gettyOpposed, in his view, to this ardent dedication to ethnic identity and identification with the history and future of one’s people was what Heidegger saw as the dehumanization of the modern scientific and technological world. (Of course, it is curious, to say the least, that a man supposedly appalled by technology and dehumanization could embrace a regime that perfected the technologically efficient mass murder of millions.)

Now, the problem with Heidegger’s kind of thinking isn’t that it leads one inexorably down a path to Nazism. It’s that it leaves that path wide open; it doesn’t warn you against taking that path; indeed, it accepts heading down that path as a fully reasonable option. With somebody like Hitler on the landscape, preaching Aryan destiny and national transformation in loud, ringing tones and attracting massive crowds to his cause, Heidegger’s philosophy made the path to Nazism look like a natural way to go.

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University of Freiburg

Or so it was, at least, for Heidegger himself. Appointed rector of the University of Freiburg shortly after Hitler was elected German chancellor, Heidegger gladly took an oath of loyalty to the Führer and delivered an inaugural address in which he called Hitler “the present and future German reality and its law.” Preaching to his students about the “inner truth and greatness” of the Third Reich, Heidegger sported a Hitler mustache, wore a swastika on his collar, “began his lectures and signed his letters with the phrase ‘Heil Hitler,’” and uncomplainingly implemented the ever-mounting restrictions on Jews by, for example, denying financial aid to Jewish students and purging Jewish professors. During the war, while the Nazis were busy carrying out the Final Solution, Heidegger turned victims into perpetrators and vice-versa, depicting “World Judaism” as a powerful, elusive force that was causing the tragic sacrifice of German soldiers as the Allies began to gain the upper hand on the battlefield.

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Edmund Husserl

Believe it or not, Heidegger’s own mentor, phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, had been Jewish; but this wasn’t enough to keep Heidegger from demonizing Jews. If the meaning of life was all about embracing one’s nation, one’s Volk, Jews, in his view, were a people who had no country of their own and who, therefore, lacked any kind of meaningful identity. They were nomads – avatars, and advocates, of a pernicious brand of modern rationality that was the sworn enemy of the kind of grand, irrational belief that, in Heidegger’s view, gave a life meaning. For Heidegger, this made Jews in Germany nothing less than a toxin, poisoning the most precious possession that “real” Germans had – namely, a robust sense of their own national identity. If Germans wanted to survive as Germans, he warned, they had to protect themselves by retaliating against this contagion “with the goal of total annihilation.”

And yet the man still has admirers. Many of them are distinguished professors of philosophy. More than a few of them are Jewish. How can that be? More tomorrow. 

“Totally amoral”: Michel Foucault

For students of the humanities today, Michel Foucault (1926-84) is a demigod. An intellectual descendant of Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and philosopher/Nazi lapdog Martin Heidegger, Foucault – author of a four-volume History of Sexuality, among many other works was for some time (and perhaps still is) the most cited humanities “scholar” in the world.

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Michel Foucault

We put the word “scholar” in quotation marks advisedly. Even Foucault’s teachers weren’t sure whether his scholarship was solid. Many serious philosophers today (because a philosopher is supposedly what he was) consider Foucault a lightweight who owes his fame to his lurid subject matter – and to the fact that he came along at exactly the right historical moment, when Jacques Derrida and company had made French cultural theory all the rage in the American academy.

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Jacques Derrida

Lurid subject matter, you ask? Well, let’s start at the beginning. At school, Foucault was viewed by his fellow pupils as “aloof, sarcastic, and cruel.” Briefly a Communist in his youth, he grew into a young man with a dark, twisted psychopathology. A fan of the Marquis de Sade, he “came to enjoy imagining ‘suicide festivals’ or ‘orgies’ in which sex and death would mingle in the ultimate anonymous encounter.” Foucault drank to excess, was a heavy user of LSD and other narcotics, and engaged in promiscuous sadomasochistic gay sex.

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Roger Kimball

But these aren’t just irrelevant biographical details. All these activities helped shape his “philosophy.” That’s especially true of S&M, with its fetishization of interpersonal power relationships. As Roger Kimball has written

Foucault’s focus was Power. He came bearing the bad news in bad prose that every institution, no matter how benign it seems, is “really” a scene of unspeakable domination and subjugation; that efforts at enlightened reform — of asylums, of prisons, of society at large — have been little more than alibis for extending state power; that human relationships are, underneath it all, deadly struggles for mastery; that truth itself is merely a coefficient of coercion; &c., &c.

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Foucault

The key point here is that when it came to power, Foucault was a man of two minds: even as he professed to fear and deplore the exercise of government power, Foucault got a major-league frisson out of authoritarian regimes, got off on exercises of power within personal relationships, and downright worshipped physical force and violence. To top it all off, he thought this made him a pathbreaking philosopher instead of just a run-of-the-mill weirdo or creep. For him, indeed, S&M wasn’t just a kink but a radical breakthrough in consciousness — and he truly believed that his commitment to it made him not a self-indulgent sex addict in desperate need of therapy but a world-class intellectual visionary. As one of his several adoring biographers, James Miller, has written, Foucault held out the hope that once the age of AIDS was over, men and women alike would “renew, without shame or fear, the kind of corporeal experimentation that formed an integral part of his own philosophical quest.”

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Noam Chomsky

For Foucault, the meaning of life was all about transgression — and not just sexual transgression, either. He also wrote about “madness,” which he saw as a matter not of mental illness but of psychic rebellion against normality. Debating Noam Chomsky on TV in the 1970s, Foucault rejected “such ideas as responsibility, sensitivity, justice, and law”; Chomsky, although himself a useful stooge of the first water, was actually the more sensible and principled of the two, pronouncing later that he’d “never met anyone who was so totally amoral” as Foucault.

Politically, the Frenchman’s amorality took a number of forms. To quote Kimball, he “championed various extreme forms of Marxism, including Maoism”; in 1978, looking back to the Cold War era, Foucault asked rhetorically: “What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin’s USSR and Truman’s America?” (For Foucault, in other words, Stalin and Truman were equally unsavory alternatives.)

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Jeremy Stangroom

A recent article by Jeremy Stangroom in Philosophers’ Magazine recalled  another example of Foucault’s useful stoogery: namely, his avid support for the Iranian revolution, as evidenced by several newspaper articles he wrote in 1978-79. In the armed uprising by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Foucault saw a hope for a new “political spirituality” that dreamed of “utopia” and that could – with any luck! – transform not only Iran but the entire Middle East and even Europe itself, if only Europeans could develop a sufficient “faith in the creativity of Islam.” In one of his articles published during those fateful months, Foucault rhapsodized about the glories of Islam and the golden future time that Iranians would enjoy under the benign reign of Khomeini:

With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others….between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights, but difference, since there is natural difference….each person, as it is laid out in the Quran, should be able to stand up and hold accountable he who governs.

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Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

For those of you who are too young to remember what happened in Iran after Khomeini took power in February 1979, Stangroom offers a few bullet points: 

Public whipping was introduced for alcohol consumption. Libraries were attacked if they held books that were “anti-Islamic.” Broadcast media was censored….on March 3rd, Khomeini decreed that women would be unable to serve as judges; on March 4th, that only a man could petition for divorce; on March 9th, women were banned from participating in sport; and on March 8th, as predicted by many more pessimistic voices, women were ordered to wear the chador.

michelfoucaultAnd naturally there were executions aplenty. When it came to executions, those early days of the Khomeini era in Iran brought to mind France’s Reign of Terror in 1793-4. One thing’s for sure: Foucault, a gay infidel practitioner of S&M and author of a shelfful of non-Islamic books, would have been one of the first people to be arrested and summarily beheaded had he actually resided in Khomeini’s Iran. Instead, he lived on until 1984, when – after several more years of sexual adventures and academic triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic – he died of AIDS in Paris at age 57, having never breathed a word of apology for his zeal for Mao or Khomeini, or (for that matter) any of his disgraceful political enthusiasms.