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June 21, 2010

The Political Romantics and the End of History
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Ross Douthat has a fascinating post on Christopher Hitchens and 'political romanticism.' He cites David Runciman's essay in the London Review of Books:

Political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.

That sounds like Hitchens to me, and I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing. It reminds me of the last paragraph of Fukuyama's "End of History," which is probably one of my favorite paragraphs of political writing and one that's worth re-reading every year or so:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands... I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945.

For many of us, our politics is, or becomes, personal. Through politics, we wish to transcend politics. We want to believe we're fighting for something that matters, rather than for one uninspiring policy option over another. So we impress upon ourselves the notion that there is, and will continue to be, an existential struggle of some kind. I remember what it felt like reading Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism for the first time. It was an inspiring read, although I intuitively knew that much of the analysis was off. All the same, Berman was enlisting us in a fight that was about something bigger. This is the same way I often feel about Hitchens - the prose is nearly as romantic as the ideas. He's always fighting pitched battles that I - and I imagine most others - are not privy to. The battles are, in some sense, created, which is a bit different than saying they don't exist. 

With 9/11, history began again, or so we thought. Or maybe too many of us wanted to believe it had. Looking back at some of my older writing, I notice how it was inflected with a surfeit of existential urgency. I feel a bit sheepish about it. I think I probably attached too much importance to the treat of terrorism, a threat it may not have been (take for example this two-part essay I wrote for the American Prospect in 2006). If terrorism was a big enough threat, then it had the power to force us to fundamentally alter the way we looked at our relationship with the Middle East and the rest of the world. Terrorism became the engine of change in U.S. foreign policy, for better - the effort to promote Arab democracy - but, more often, for worse - pre-emptive and preventative war. Much of the overblown threat assessment of the post-9/11 period was probably due to somewhat subconscious desire to jump start history.

That said, so much of what Hitchens writes is refreshing because something, sometimes, is actually at stake. Reading Glenn Greenwald is enough to realize there are still existential battles - about basic matters of freedom - that have to be fought. It seems to me that so much of the Washington discourse on U.S. foreign policy suffers from the inverse of romanticism. I'm often struck by the smallness of so many of the foreign policy prescriptions that are bandied about in Washington - even, or perhaps particularly, the ones that are supposed to be new and original. In the age of post-Bush "realism," what we suffer from, more often than not, is a failure of imagination. And that certainly goes for our notoriously myopic Mideast policy, which has been so consistently bad for so long that it really is something to marvell. It's difficult to imagine a new Middle East, if you're, well, unable to imagine a new Middle East. Sometimes that needs a bit of political romanticism. It's just helpful to know when to stop.


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Nice post Shadi. Although, I feel that although it's necessary to have Greenwalds around, his black and white idealism and insensitivity to political reality can be grating. But overall excellent point, and thanks for the link to the Runciman article. A good read.

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