The Age of Cheesy Abstractions

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The age of cheesy abstractionsIn the current spirit of dividing the world between good and evil, let me start by saying something good on behalf of abstractions. You can’t live life without ’em. They help us bundle experience into usable packages. But it’s worth being cautious when abstracting.

The renowned sociologist Max Weber built his theory through the use of abstractions he called ideal types, like “charismatic leadership.” But he warned that these abstractions never actually exist in the world, they are simply useful fictions, to help us understand the more complex, messy, impure realities — such as in-the-flesh political leaders.

Since September 11, I would say we have lived in a world dominated by abstractions that are neither good nor evil, but simply cheesy, and which don’t help much at all. Take last weekend’s New York Times book review by Yale history prof Paul Johnson of What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis, an expert on the Arab world. It’s a useful case since Mr. Lewis is the fount from whom many post-September 11 abstractions have flowed, such as his notion of “Muslim rage” against modernity, and his phrase “clash of civilizations,” which was then picked up by author Samuel Huntington.

“Sometime around 1760,” says the review, “Britain, then France and America took off to another world, one that was increasingly secular, democratic, industrial and tolerant in ways that left many of the other regions gasping ... ”

Now since “around 1760,” the U.S. also managed to eradicate most of its aboriginal population, Britain subjugated whole continents, and France had its own messy times. My point isn’t that they are “evil” countries, but that their reality was far more tangled than the abstraction suggests. It’s childish more than wrong.

“Certain societies in parts of Latin America or India or Russia,” the review goes on, “felt they had little choice but to follow suit, although hoping to brake the impacts of Western man.” As if societies are individuals while individuals don’t really exist or count — because everyone acts as determined by their society (or its metaphor).

“The Muslim world,” meanwhile, “rested on its laurels.” What can you say? It’s an image, misrepresented as a historical fact. Then comes a choice: It (or he, i.e. “the Muslim world”) can continue in “a downward spiral of hate and spite” or “abandon grievance and victimhood.” It sounds like a TV soap. Cue the organ. “The choice is their own.”

How many of these cheap abstractions have come our way since September 11? It’s hard to compile a full list. The Muslim world, the West, Civilization, Western Civilization, Modernity. Modernity gets used as if it has an address where you can call it up and book it for a coming epoch. All you have to do, following Bernard Lewis, is cite modernity as the source of “Muslim rage,” and you’re exempted from dealing with specific issues such as the role of oil in the Mideast or the Israel-Palestine imbroglio.

But let me focus on a domestic item on the list: anti-Americanism, about which we’ve heard a lot in Canada since September 11. It’s another term that gets tossed like a grenade rather than defined. In Monday’s National Post, in connection with the death of his friend, Peter Gzowski, Robert Fulford decried a week of what he called “loud-mouthed anti-Americanism.” As proof, he quoted three Liberal backbenchers: one was “concerned about our participation in this so-called war.”

Another called for “national sovereignty.” The third called U.S. trade tactics “a sort of bullying that is really unpleasant.” Plus our new foreign minister, who said: “The United States has a totally different perspective than we do on the world ... They feel that they can have their will,” which sounds to me like pure George W. Bush. (“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”)

Read those examples again and tell me if any of it merits being described as even soft-mouthed “anti-Americanism,” rather than a few specific criticisms.In a way, Peter Gzowski was a troubling presence, in death as in life, for the Canadian elites, among whom he counted. It’s hard to say why. Despite his ardent love for Canada, he certainly was not anti-American, by anyone’s definition. He never even took a position on the cause célèbre of free trade.

On the other hand, he left it open, and remained troubled by it, along with many other questions. I once said he had an easier time with free-speech issues than I did because he was a true liberal. He snapped back, “You mean a fucking liberal?” — oversensitive, I thought, to a criticism I hadn’t implied.

But he was very alert to nuances and disagreements, and often doubting of himself. His famous on-air stammer connoted a personal vulnerability, yet also a professional openness and uncertainty that was the essence of a questing mind. He was the very opposite of the kind of journalist who settles everything with a sonorous abstraction.

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