Tony Judt, the Kurds, and Captive Minds

The attempt to stand outside history and see ourselves in it is like trying to look at the back of one’s head: it is a trick done with mirrors, over the shoulder. The effort is unsteady, and the first thing you are likely to see is your own face.

Yesterday The New York Times reported on developments in Iraqi Kurdistan. The focus of the story was a topic for another day, but along the way, the accounting of Kurdish efforts in that region was much as we always hear.

Mr. Agresto said he had accomplished in the Kurdish region what he had failed to do in the rest of Iraq, namely introduce American-style liberal arts education….

The majority of Kurds are grateful for the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s government and America’s support of the no-flight zone in the 1990s that helped them establish their present autonomy. Thousands of foreigners, including many Americans, now live and work in the Kurdish region, enjoying comforts that are rare in the rest of the country.

“We love them,” Haro Ahmed gushes about Americans.

His family owns a real estate conglomerate, whose assets include a sprawling mall in Erbil that would not be out of place anywhere in suburban America.

Mr. Ahmed has reserved space in the mall for several American fast-food chains and says he is in talks with Marriott to build a hotel and golf course nearby.

Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who briefly headed the reconstruction effort in Iraq after the invasion, says that it is precisely this pro-American attitude, coupled with the region’s oil wealth and strategic location between Iran, Syria and Turkey, that makes Kurds the perfect partner in Iraq.

“Why we do not wrap our arms around them, I do not understand,” General Garner said.

When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved after the First World War, the Kurds, who had long enjoyed independent principalities and desired complete independence, did not get their own nation. More than thirty million are now split among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. We know, perforce, some of the modern history of the Kurds in Iraq. In Turkey, according to Wikipedia,

The region saw several major Kurdish rebellions during the 1920s and 1930s. These were forcefully put down by the Turkish authorities and the region was declared a closed military area from which foreigners were banned between 1925 and 1965. The use of Kurdish language was outlawed, the words Kurds and Kurdistan were erased from dictionaries and history books, and the Kurds were only referred to as Mountain Turks.[27]

In 1983, a number of provinces were placed under martial law in response to the activities of the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).[4] An extremely violent guerrilla war took place through the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s. By 1993 the total number of security forces involved in the struggle in southeastern Turkey was about 200,000, and the conflict had become the largest civil war in the Middle East.[28] in which much of the countryside was evacuated, thousands of Kurdish-populated villages were destroyed and numerous extra judicial summary executions were carried out by both sides.[23] More than 37,000 people were killed in the violence and hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homes.[29] [Emphasis added]

This was Turkey alone. Comparisons to another Middle-Eastern conflict can be made on your own. Meanwhile the Kurds, within a few years of suffering the genocidal chemical attacks of the Saddam Hussein tyranny, took advantage of the no-fly zone established after the Gulf War to develop a semi-autonomous political and social infrastructure in preparation for events the Iraq War did bring about. Even during the worst of that war, and all throughout, the Kurds of Iraq were creating the conditions of their future. It is not easy to imagine worse conditions under which to accomplish so much – all this without, still, a nation of their own, but with territory on which to organize themselves. Once again, comparisons to other Middle-Eastern groups can be made  in self-directed activity.

Why, one might ask, have the Kurds achieved these advances in Iraq, and not the other nations of their oppressed minority? The long answer is long, but the short answer is that independence, and futures, are created opportunistically. Iraq turned out, actually, to be the weak link among the four nations. The Kurds acted.

The Kurds in turn have leveraged their American connections, which in some cases go back decades, into an impressive lobbying and public relations machine in Washington.

Comparisons, comparisons. Note that the Kurds are not championed, in Iraq or anywhere, by those forces on the humanitarian Left who sip all the misapplied postcolonial clichés of Israel-Palestine like their morning coffee.

Meanwhile, on the same day as the Times report, on its blog The New York Review of Books publishes Tony Judt on Czeslaw Milosz, the latter’s famous The Captive Mind, and contemporary political matters analogously purposeful. Judt, the notable historian of modern Europe, is one of those people who does not just sip his morning Israel-Palestine, but mainlines it uncut, ill-cooked, and in used needles. Judt is a man of great learning who illustrates a sad truth, that of the uncertain journey from learning to well sifted wisdom – as a Mainer would say, in the kind of simple Americanism Judt might disdain – it is often so that “you can’t get theaah from heaah.”

Judt concentrates on the fascinatingly and, now, ironically Islamic notion of Ketman, as Milosz treated it in The Captive Mind.

Those who have internalized the way of being called “Ketman” can live with the contradictions of saying one thing and believing another, adapting freely to each new requirement of their rulers while believing that they have preserved somewhere within themselves the autonomy of a free thinker—or at any rate a thinker who has freely chosen to subordinate himself to the ideas and dictates of others.

This was the condition, as Milosz famously limned it, of the East European intelligentsia that succumbed to Stalinism. In attempting to adapt the notion to his contemporary purpose, Judt rather remarkably fails to distinguish between the romance of the Western and Eastern European intelligentsias, who were functioning under distinctly different circumstances. Of the Easterner’s Ketman, Milosz in 1951 might have appreciated Soviet Samizdat writer Sergei Dovlatov’s distillation of it thirty years later in his absurdist “Somebody’s Death”: “I left. Or, rather, stayed.”

But of the Westerner?

Milosz takes for granted his readers’ intuitive grasp of the believer’s state of mind: the man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression. In 1951 he could reasonably assume that this phenomenon—whether associated with communism, fascism, or indeed any other form of political repression—would be familiar.

And indeed, when I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students just why a “captive mind” was not a good thing. Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.

Contemporary students do not see the point of the book: the whole exercise seems futile. Repression, suffering, irony, and even religious belief: these they can grasp. But ideological self-delusion? [Emphasis added]

One really could write a very long essay on the compacted implications of this passage. There is a certain obvious truth recognizable to any teacher. Most students even at the best universities – and Judt teaches at NYU, a very fine one – are not deeply knowledgeable of history or of mental cultures not their own, and now, indeed, the communist world was pretty much gone when they were born. But be they students or not, Judt well knows the often youthful, and intellectual, identity of those who constitute the Western Left, and it is almost tautologous to state that the self-deluded cannot grasp self-delusion. The double bind of the ironist, too, is that while he stands in ironic relation even to his own irony, he is frequently blinded by it to the source of his irony. So, now, Judt wishes – ah, again, analogies! – to analogize the situation of self-deluded intellectuals in the closed communist societies of mid-century Europe to – well, read:

Recall the Ketman-like trance of those intellectuals swept up in George W. Bush’s hysterical drive to war just a few years ago. Few of them would have admitted to admiring the President, much less sharing his worldview. So they typically aligned themselves behind him while doubtless maintaining private reservations. Later, when it was clear they had made a mistake, they blamed it upon the administration’s incompetence. With Ketman-like qualifications they proudly assert, in effect, “we were right to be wrong”—a revealing if unconscious echo of the plaidoyer of the French fellow travelers, “better to have been wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.”

Today, we can still hear sputtering echoes of the attempt to reignite the cold war around a crusade against “Islamo-fascism.” But the true mental captivity of our time lies elsewhere. Our contemporary faith in “the market” rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelgaenger—the unquestioning belief in necessity, progress, and History.

Well, NYRB would have to pay me (that’s Murray Hill 5 to dig into all these subtopics, but we begin, as I suggested above, with about as inapt an analogy – closed, undemocratic, illiberal, repressive and persecutory societies representing a totalistic utopian idea, compared to their opposite, in every respect, pursuing a single war – as one could possibly conceive. There is, of course, a conservative intelligentsia, and there were liberal public figures (we’ll postpone automatic intellectual election) who made their best judgment in choosing to support the Iraq War, but to suggest that the Western intelligentsia, as a class, was supportive of the war (Judt’s link leads to two, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis) is as misrepresentative of historical truth as the analogy is a clunker.

Finally, Judt teaches The Captive Mind, yet his lesson for the contemporary scene is to be a leading voice in the demonization of the only democratic nation in the Mideast and to highlight for disparagement as a danger the notion of Islamofascism. I’ll refrain from the alternative Captive Mind analogy, and go instead for the metaphor. The standing outside history that historians pursue is a two-mirror trick. Here, Judt hasn’t gotten past the first: he is staring into his own face.



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