Berman, Paul (Lawrence) 1949-
BERMAN, Paul (Lawrence) 1949-
PERSONAL: Born September 29, 1949, in White Plains, NY; son of Alan (in business) and Hannah (a teacher; maiden name, Rubman) Berman. . Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1971, M.A., 1974. Politics: Socialist. Religion: "Judeo-Whitmanian."
CAREER: Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY, instructor in Western civilization, 1973-74; WGBH-TV, Boston, MA, researcher in labor history, 1975-76; Harper's (magazine), New York, NY, editorial assistant, 1977-79; Village Voice, New York, NY, contributing writer, beginning 1980—. Has worked as trombonist in various bands, 1967-70, 1977-81. Board member, Dissent magazine.
MEMBER: National Writers Union, National Book Critics' Circle.
Quotations from the Anarchists, Praeger (New York, NY), 1972.
Make-Believe Empire: A How-to Book (juvenile), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
(Editor) Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, Dell (New York, NY), 1992.
(Editor) Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1994.
A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
(Author of introduction) William Herrick, Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical, AK Press, 2001.
Terror and Liberalism, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of a documentary screenplay. Contributor to magazines and newspapers, including New Republic, Nation, New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, American Prospect, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and Village Voice.
SIDELIGHTS: Paul Berman, according to David M. Oshinsky in New Leader, is "one of America's leading social critics . . . a throwback to the era when 'serious thinking' existed outside academic walls. He belongs to a dying breed—the public intellectual." Currently a regular contributor to Village Voice, Berman has recently published two books—A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 and Terror and Liberalism—that have sparked debate among colleagues and critics.
In A Tale of Two Utopias Berman attempts to draw a connection between the late-1960s movement for a "participatory democracy" and political events in eastern Europe in the late 1980s that led to the fall of several Communist regimes. As Michael Ignatieff explained in a New Republic review of the book, "The Berman thesis is that the student revolutions in 1968 prepared, and were ultimately vindicated by, the liberal democratic overthrow of Communism in 1989. This is an intriguing and very counterintuitive thought." Ignatieff proceeded to point out that the student movement of 1968 was very much against capitalism, while Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, and other countries wresting themselves out of the Soviet Union's grip embraced capitalistic ideals. Similarly, Wilson Quarterly reviewer Jonah Goldberg said that "Berman's mostly hortatory attempt to equate 1989 with 1968 founders on the facts. Unlike the New Left, the protest movements of Eastern Europe did not dream of building the perfect society. They did not consider liberal democracy to be morally bankrupt."
Despite the doubts critics had about Berman's central theme in A Tale of Two Utopias, reviewers found much to admire about the book. For example, Oshinsky called the work "crisp, learned and perceptive," and he especially enjoyed the "superb essay about the worldwide student rebellions of 1968." Critics also appreciated the author's open-minded approach to the issues and movements he discusses, with Ignatieff attesting that Berman "is delightfully free of the Americano-centrism which dogs so many accounts of '68." Nick Cohen, writing in New Statesman, said, "Berman is funny, literate and internationalist," adding that "unlike most lefties, Berman isn't sniffy about the emphasis on personal liberation. In a brilliant section he shows how the penetration of permissive attitudes into eastern Europe undermined Soviet Communism."
With Terror and Liberalism, in which he depicts the Islamist movement as a carryover of the totalitarianism that was central to Germany's Nazis and eastern Europe's Communists, Berman once again sparked controversy. As James R. Holmes put it in Library Journal, Berman asserts that, contrary to what many analysts believe about the current clash between Western and Muslim societies, "America is engaged not in a 'clash of civilization' but in the latest phase of its struggle against totalitarianism." Thus, in Berman's view the recent terrorist acts of radical groups such as al-Qaida are not simply the backlash of a people who feel oppressed by foreigners, as some liberals would have it; rather, explained Joshua Micah Marshall in Washington Monthly, it is a "deeply pathological" movement that shares characteristics with earlier totalitarian regimes. "Like every extremist movement that posits a sufficiently transcendent utopia, it is capable of rationalizing almost any degree of brutality and butchery in achieving that goal."
Tracing the root of radical Islamism to the writings of the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 after being accused of terrorism, Berman draws parallels between Qutb's belief—the ideals of Islam and its followers are under attack by outside forces—and the "us-versus-them" attitudes of the Communists and Fascists. As with A Tale of Two Utopias, however, analysts have questioned Berman's thesis. Berman, in Marshall's view, "seeks to lay the template of fascism and anti-fascist commitment onto the current reality of fanatical Islamic terrorism and Arab nationalist authoritarianism. Yet reading his book one cannot help but feel that the equation never quite works. There are similarities both meaningful and suggestive. But the analogy is not only incomplete, it is fundamentally wrong. One can recognize the grave dangers posed by radical Islamism without forcing it into a mold in which it does not fit." As Mary Kaldo explained in her New Statesman review of Terror and Liberalism, "Totalitarianism was based on terror and both Stalinism and fascism were movements of terror. But not all movements of terror are totalitarian." She further commented, "The main failure of this book is that Berman has taken no account of globalisation, or what is sometimes known as the second phase of modernity, and what this means for totalitarianism and war. One of the benefits of globalisation is that it is much more difficult to sustain closed states based on terror." Thus, it is unlikely, if not impossible, for an al-Qaida, or Baathist, or Taliban movement to lead to a totalitarian state similar to 1940s Germany or twentieth-century Russia.
New York Times Book Review contributor Gary Rosen, however, noting that Berman "is one of the few commentators who haven't used the label ['totalitarian'] simply as an epithet," found the author's thesis "compelling." Foreign Affairs critic Walter Russell Mead described Terror and Liberalism as the "first significant ideological contribution" to the war on terrorism, and concluded that it "demands to be read." As Kaldo noted, "Berman is right, I think, when he says that many of the left have not taken these new movements seriously enough, and that they do represent a profound challenge to liberalism." Adrian Karatnycky, writing in National Review, observed that "in examining the key ideas and debates that emanate from the war on terrorism, Paul Berman has written an accomplished intellectual history of fanatical Islamism and shed light on the ideas and prejudices that currently predominate in the Western Left."
Berman once told CA: "My interests are literature and politics, especially the 'bloody crossroads' where they intersect. I enjoy trying to define the political imagination that animates serious writers. . . . I also write about the theater and, from time to time, when I become sufficiently indignant, political topics of the day. I have had great success with dull essays on Marxism and am slowly putting together a series of essays describing the progress of the American Left. I enjoy writing for children and hope to do more of it in the belief that children need better written, more intelligent books than they usually get. I once wrote a screenplay for a documentary film on anarchism, which was produced, and though working with film people was less than delightful, I might like to do more of that anyway."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America, August 18, 2003, John T. McGreevy, "Freedom vs. Totalitarianism," p. 22.
Booklist, January 1, 1992, Roland Wulbert, review of Debating PC: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, p. 800; September 15, 1994, Roland Wulbert, review of Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, p. 108; July, 1996, Ray Olson, review of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968, p. 1783; May 1, 2003, Brendan Driscoll, review of Terror and Liberalism, p. 1558.
Commentary, January, 1982; July-August, 2003, David Warren, "Knowing the Enemy," p. 69.
Economist, October 19, 1996, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. S3; May 3, 2003, "The Utopian Tendency; Political Islam".
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August-September, 2003, review of Terror and Liberalism, p. 54.
Library Journal, February 1, 1992, Lois F. Roets, review of Debating PC, p. 107; April 1, 2003, James R. Holmes, "My Country Right or Left," p. 116.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 1, 1992, review of Debating PC, p. 3;; November 12, 1995, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 11.
Nation, July 29, 1996, Adam Shatz, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 35; November 11, 1996, Alexander Cockburn, "Berman and Linder," p. 10; April 28, 2003, George Scialabba, "Clash of Civilizations," p. 31.
National Review, May 19, 2003, Adrian Karatnycky, "The Liberals' Collapse."
New Leader, April 6, 1992, Roger Draper, review of Debating PC, p. 16; May 8, 1995, Stephen J. Whitfield, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 16; August 12, 1996, David M. Oshinsky, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 8.
New Republic, December 23, 1981; January 31, 1983; August 19, 1996, Michael Ignatieff, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 42.
New Statesman, July 4, 1997, Nick Cohen, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 45; May 26, 2003, Mary Kaldor, "Armageddon Myths," p. 48.
New York Review of Books, October 17, 1996, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 39; May 1, 2003, Ian Buruma, "Revolution from Above," p. 4.
New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1992, review of Debating P.C., p. 3; December 11, 1994, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 28; August 4, 1996, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 4; November 16, 1997, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 76; April 13, 2003, Gary Rosen, "What Would Woodrow Wilson Do?," p. 11.
Polity, winter, 1999, William F. Fine, Nancy S. Love, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 285.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1991, review of Debating PC, p. 51; August 1, 1994, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 64; June 17, 1996, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 55; March 24, 2003, review of Terror and Liberalism, p. 70.
School Library Journal, May, 1982, review of Make-Believe Empire: A How-To Book, p. 58.
Times Higher Education Supplement, June 6, 1997, Mike Marqusee, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 28.
Times Literary Supplement, June 9, 1995, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 15.
Village Voice, July 4, 1981; December 22, 1992, review of Debating P.C., p. 64; August 20, 1996, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 73;
Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1997, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 26.
Washington Monthly, May, 2003, Joshua Micah Marshall, "The Orwell Temptation: Are Intellectuals Overthinking the Middle East?," p. 40.
Washington Post Book World, November 13, 1994, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 7; November 23, 1997, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 12.
Wilson Quarterly, spring, 1995, review of Blacks and Jews, p. 92; summer, 1996, Jonah Goldberg, review of A Tale of Two Utopias, p. 94.
Salon.comhttp://www.salon.com/books (March 22,
2003), Suzy Hansen, "Bush is an Idiot, but He's Right about Saddam;" (March 25, 2003), Ellen Willis, review of Terror and Liberalism.*