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Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2001 / 4 Tishrei, 5762

Paul Campos

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Rational views won't do now

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN the summer of 1941, George Orwell wrote a prescient essay titled, Wells, Hitler and the World State. The essay criticized the faith in scientific rationalism of H.G. Wells, who spent much of his life advocating the creation of some sort of world state. Wells envisioned a rationalist utopia, in which such anachronisms as patriotism, religious belief and fanaticism of every kind would be eliminated, and replaced by a future of gleaming steel skyscrapers, supersonic airplanes, a seamless global economy, and a pleasure-seeking culture not all that different from the one satirized in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

This vision of the future, which was extremely common among Western intellectuals in the early years of the 20th century, largely failed to survive the insane carnage of World War I, and the even bigger slaughter of the 1930s and 1940s. But Wells' faith in "progress" remained unshaken, even as the Nazi armies were sweeping across Europe. Orwell was exasperated by this attitude, which he attributed to the general unwillingness of liberal intellectuals such as Wells to face up to what actually motivates human beings.

"Hitler," Orwell pointed out, "is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men . . . for his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years, and then to fight for two more, whereas for the common sense, essentially hedonistic worldview which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood." What Wells failed to grasp was that "the energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions -- racial pride, leader worship, religious belief, love of war -- which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action."

Orwell, who was one of the first people to recognize there was no real difference between Hitler and Stalin, was also one of the few intellectuals in the English-speaking world who grasped the nature of the essential forces that helped bring such men to power. "Nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces that what [Wells] would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts that need a strong magic to lay them."

The kind of shallow optimism and naivete Orwell skewered enjoyed a major revival in the last couple of decades of the 20th century. In recent years, much of American politics has come to be based on the assumption that the rest of the world would eventually agree that the point of life was to acquire ever-larger televisions and sport utility vehicles. We have just been reminded that the adherents of militant Islam cleave to a worldview that, from the perspective of a Western rationalist, is indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia.

Although Wells has been dead for many decades, his attitude lives on. Consider Susan Sontag's complaint that the media coverage of last week's attack was "infantilizing," because it reduced a complex issue to a jingoistic confrontation of good against evil. This is the characteristically clueless reaction of an intellectual who, despite her formidable IQ, will never understand how the world actually works. By contrast, politicians and journalists both understand almost instinctively that it is not advisable to attempt to enter into a sympathetic understanding of your enemy's perspective as you are preparing to kill him.

What ultimately defeated Hitler was not faith in reason or a vision of an ever-more luxurious future, but rather, in Orwell's words, "the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners." And that, in the long run, is what will defeat the forces of militant Islam.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.

Up

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© 2001, Paul Campos