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The Two Faces of Post Modern Barbarism: A Response to the Massacre in Nice

This morning, after the latest terrorist atrocity in Nice, one of the loveliest of places, I was imagining embarking on a new book project entitled “The Two Faces of Post Modern Barbarism.” The book would draw on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism and her accounts of modern barbarism, tyranny and evil. I would compare and contrast the modern with post modern. I would conclude with an analysis of the two faces of post modern barbarism. I would deliberately explore each of these moves in a separate chapter or set of chapters.

I admit, though, I don’t have the time or patience to embark upon this book project now. I am in despair. History is repeating itself as tragedy, definitely not farce, a variation on a horrifying theme, a broken record, the third major attack in France in the last eighteen months, fourteen major attacks in Turkey in the past year, repeated attacks in Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Egypt, Palestine and Israel, and attacks on almost a daily schedule in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and closer to my home, there was the Isis inspired murder of forty nine people in  the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Arendt tells us that the terror of the modern barbarian is directed primarily at innocents not opponents. Now we are seeing this with a vengeance, intentionally, apparently, at any time, in any place. (I fear in listing the attacks I remember I have missed more than a few. Please excuse me.)

Driving a truck to kill a random group of people when they are celebrating a national holiday, attacking a district filled with young people enjoying life’s evening pleasures, killing the staff of a satirical magazine and the patrons of a kosher supermarket (I have family in France so these hit close to home), killing people in political and peace rallies, airports, tourist areas and office buildings, in mosques, churches and synagogues: the point is to kill innocents and enemies alike, without distinguishing between them. Collateral damage is the point. It produces the terror that provokes fear and impresses post modern terrorists and their opponents. Barbarism.

How is this justified? Truth and power are again conflated. Ideology and terror, the key components of totalitarianism according to Arendt, are combined, as movement, if not as regime for the time being. Instead of a distortion of science, “scientism,” there are now distortions of religion, “religionism”: Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and even Buddist “fundamentalism” — not traditional, but post modern reactions against the modern.

I want to go beyond my original attempt to explain this development in The Politics of Small Things. I want to make clear that there is a way of thinking, connecting dogma with terror, that is the major problem of our times. The terror confirms the truth of the ideology, as the ideology confirms the necessity of the terror. The act is made visible through new and old media to a global public, and the connections among the true believers and their sympathizers are established now through virtual networks, no longer through hierarchy and party discipline.

I want to question those who avoid confronting this. Those who would see this as a problem of one civilization, Islamic, or another, and not the barbarism within civilization itself.

I think it is important to make clear that what happened last night is barbarism, repeating a pattern we are observing all over the world. It must be opposed, as Francois Hollande did in his speech in the middle of last night, addressing the French public. It is important to do so with resolve and commitment to the ideals of human rights and dignity, as represented in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

Yet, as I am perplexed and appalled by the barbarism of the terrorist act, I worry about the response to it. I know that the American response to the horror of 9/11 has led to great suffering around the world, including two wars that are apparently without end, spreading misery far and wide. I also know that the most resolute and determined opposition to Stalinism was National Socialism, as National Socialism was the most resolute and determined opposition to Stalinism, and some still justify one or the other on the European killing fields.

The two faces of post modern barbarism, as I see them: of course, the face of the man who drove his truck into the crowd last night, along with the men who flew the planes into the buildings almost fifteen years ago, along with the many others who engage in such acts, relatively small and monstrously large. But also those who respond brutally and without thought to these people, who without thinking declare a war on terrorism and see terrorist under every bush, or actually in people from a certain part of the world, who hold different religious beliefs than their own.

In France and the United States, I fear the demagogues who would fight the terrorists without considering the niceties of the rule of law and democratic governance. I fear the fear of the public and the politicians who incite that fear: Cheney and Bush in the recent past, Trump, along with Le Pen, now. They are more likely to undermine the quality of our lives: mine, my family and friends from around the world, my compatriots.

I also worry about my friends and colleagues who don’t see this danger, who explain with great ingenuity that Trump and Obama are not that different. Or who know that Hillary Clinton is a warmonger, not understanding that it is not only the positions of Trump, but more crucially his way of thinking and the way he connects it to the way he would wield power that distinguishes him, as the post modern barbarian tyrant he could be. I worry about intellectuals who enable post modern barbarism.

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Jeffrey Goldfarb

  • Dominique Suberville

    Sounds like what would, or will be?, an incredibly interesting read. I wonder what response you imagine? You describe two kinds of barbarism. Somehow they seem kind of similar to me. Both are violent, political, and ideologically motivated. Also, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the religion itself. I keep reading and hearing about this not “painting with a broad brush”. Not judging those that have different religious beliefs from you. But I have to ask, do you not believe there is some sort of cancer within Islam? It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s simply occurring in modern time and a different political climate. I’d love to learn mre about your thoughts on this. All the best!

    • Dominique, I am glad you appreciated the piece. I know I left questions unanswered. To truly answer the questions, I would have to write the book, I imagined writing this morning. But I will try to at least begin to clarify my position on the two kinds of barbarism, modern and post modern, and the two faces of the latter.

      Modern barbarism was of the 20th century, described and analyzed by Hannah Arendt. As I understand her, it was a consequence of modern tyranny which was vanguardist and modern in its ambitions, characterized by a conflation of ideology and terror, in totalitarian social movements and regimes, The ideology was scientistic. The terror was of the left and the right. The Nazis and the Stalinists shared the formal relationship between ideology and terror, even as the content of their ideologies were diametrically opposed.

      I think I see something similar in our century. More anti-modern than modern, a rejection of the modern, but very modern in the way the rejection is developed. A fundamentalist religion with the ideological politics and terror. Certainly the most virulent form of this development is in Islam, but I don’t think this definitive of or limited to Islam, and in fact, I see more similarity with the modern tyrannies of the recent past than with the religious beliefs, practices and communities of other Muslims, who are the primary victim Islamist terror.

      That said I think the way the this terror threatens us most directly is in the authoritarian responses of people like Trump, but also many other Republicans, and Le Pen, and many others. There is a dangerous potential relationship between them and the terrorists. This is what I mean by the two faces of post modern barbarianism.

  • Pait

    Well, the Russian and German totalitarian governments cooperated for just enough time as to ensure that each and both would cause the largest amount of damage. Likewise, the ingenious or ingenuous – as a non-native speaker of English I have almost as much difficulty as a native speaker typing these 2 words apart but in this case either applies, or both – extremists who would rather have a Donald in power than having to compromise and become less-than-pure may find a way to cooperate with the extremists on the other side, for just as long as it takes to put US democracy at risk.

    • Indeed, the risk is very real, and to avoid it, the Trumps of this world must be defeated decisively. I sadly see it as a kind of electoral equivalent of war.

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