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February 15, 2004 - Albert Camus? Meet Paul Wolfowitz.

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We live in a strange world where folks write the oddest things.  Albert Camus?  Meet Paul Wolfowitz.


Last Saturday this was published in The New York Times - a discussion of Albert Camus and his relationship to the American neoconservative movement that brought us the startlingly new US doctrine of our inherent right to preemptive unilateral war against any nation we felt might in the future be some sort of threat.  They could be trouble down the road?  We then have the right to overthrow that government and occupy that territory and run that country - until we force them to form a government more to our liking.  Thus the business in Iraq.  We had to do it.  It was the only prudent thing to do. 

Think of it this way.  You're a punchy middle-aged white man walking down the street.  You see a young black man, dressed in ways you think you have read about - droopy pants and something you remember about gang colors from a magazine article a month or two ago.  But you really do follow the news - you know about crime statistics and the odds that this young man, rather than a young white fellow in a GAP outfit, is some sort of low-life criminal who means you harm.  Let him pass?  Ignore him?  Your decision.  So you pull out your handgun - you are constitutionally permitted to carry one after all - and you shoot him dead.  You had to do it.  It was the only prudent thing to do. 

Same sort of thing. 

If you wait to know if this young black man is going to kill you, you could be real dead.  That's dumb.  And with Iraq?  If we only reacted to an actual terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction then tens of thousands would be dead.  Can't have that.  We have the duty to get ahead of the curve.  You've heard the arguments. 

What does this have to do with Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher who died in the fifties?  Not much.  But we live in a strange world where folks write the oddest things. 

See Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect
Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, February 7, 2004

First you must accept the idea that matters these days, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, parallel how things stood at the end of WWII -


Consider the period just after the Second World War, when another tyranny had just collapsed.  It seemed as if the Allies had, through their trials, learned something about totalitarianism and democracy.  Could those concepts be used to understand the Soviet Union, the West's erstwhile partner?  Was it something very different (a humanitarian revolutionary state gone awry) or something very similar (a fascistic state beyond saving)?


Today, what are we to make of the Islamic world?  Is it beyond saving, or something that can be "fixed" in some way?  Can we turn the Middle East into a region of free-market secular democracies all living together in peace and harmony, and all buddies with Israel?  Iraq seems to be our first stab at this. 

Since it seems there never were any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, at least since the early nineties, we have been told the real reason the second Iraq war was so important is this seeding of secular, capitalistic democracy in the area.  Just as we defeated the Soviet Union and now have a nation there stumbling toward capitalism and democracy - even if Putin doesn't quite get the concepts - so we can transform Iraq and all the Middle East.  This is, after all, the core of the neoconservative argument. 

Well, according to Rothstein such issues affected the impassioned arguments between the two most important writers in postwar France, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.  Rothstein refers to a new book, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (University of Chicago), in which Ronald Aronson, who teaches at Wayne State University, "traces the nuances of their friendship, their mutual influences and hostilities, and the themes that still haunt contemporary debates."

What of that?  They were concerned with post-war communism, not Islamic terrorists flying airplanes into tall buildings, nor with a strange dictator in a sandy land behaving badly. 

What really was going on with these two guys then?  Is there a parallel? 


Their schism over Communism was not academic.  At the time of France's liberation, buoyed by its Resistance role, the Communist Party had 400,000 members; that figure almost doubled by 1946, and the party joined a coalition government.  In addition, according to Mr.  Aronson, the party dominated the largest trade union, published dozens of newspapers including the country's two largest, and had a payroll of more than 14,000.  The Communist Party was part of the mainstream in a way it never was in the United States. 

But its allegiances were just as open to question: it slavishly followed Soviet leadership; fellow travelers idealized the Soviet Union, despite readily available accounts of horrors. 

André Gide, who visited Russia in the 1930's, said he doubted whether anywhere, even in Hitler's Germany, the "mind and spirit are less free, more bowed down."


Okay then.  The issue then was this - can communism be fixed, or tamed, or in some way transformed to make it... user friendly? 

The question today is for the messianic neoconservatives - can the Islamic world be "fixed," or tamed, or in some way transformed to make it... user friendly?  We're working on that. 

Camus and Sartre disagreed - just as some of us feel perhaps the neoconservatives are more than a bit loony in thinking the Islamic world can be made "more like us" and thus, in Douglas Adams' famous formulation "Mostly Harmless."

Rothstein points out Camus had joined the communist party in Algeria in 1935 and left two years later in dismay.  Aronson even implies that Camus' views on absurdity and freedom grew out of that experience. 

But the Germans rolled into Paris, and then were booted out, and one had to make some judgments:


... in France, during the German occupation, Camus did heroic work as editor of a Resistance newspaper, Combat.  Sartre, in their developing friendship, called Camus an "outstanding example" of a life lived in "engagement. " After the war, both men saw an opportunity to remake the world, redressing social ills.  Both also wanted to steer the French left away from the Communists while distancing themselves from the growing cold war. 

But by 1948, Sartre had become a fellow traveler, even giving the party the right to censor one of his plays.  He called freedom under capitalism a "hoax" and France a "society of oppression."  He refused to denounce Soviet labor camps or the show trials.  And he justified revolutionary violence, praising the African revolutionary Franz Fanon. 

Meanwhile, Camus found himself ever more repulsed by Communism, which he called "the modern madness."  He saw Communism as a desperate attempt to create meaning and certainty.  He wrote, "Those who pretend to know everything and settle everything finish by killing everything."  If there were a choice between justice and freedom, meaning a choice between the ideal Communist state and the flawed Western state, he wrote: "I choose freedom.  For even if justice is not realized, freedom maintains the power of protest against injustice and keeps communication open."


And there you have the split. 

After Sartre's journal, Les Temps Modernes, panned Camus' influential counter-revolutionary book The Rebel in 1952, the friends never spoke again.  Sartre's influence was so strong that Camus' French reputation was not repaired even after winning the Nobel Prize in 1957.  And then Camus died drove his Citroën into a tree on Boulevard St-Germain, just down the street form the Hôtel Madison where he was staying, across the street form the Café de Flore where his used to meet Jean-Paul and Simone when they were still friends.  Or was that Les Deux Magots?  (See June 22, 2003 Reviews for more detail and my photo from Camus' hotel room, and my photo of the small village, Lourmarin, where his was buried.)

Now this may be drifting from a real parallel with the neoconservative agenda today.  But you do have two guys arguing over what can be fixed and what cannot.  There is a sort of parallel. 

Aronson apparently does not want the reader taking sides.  He insists that we have to "free ourselves from the dualistic thinking of the cold war," and not take the "currently fashionable" view praising Camus. 

Well, maybe so.  Like Rothstein, I find that Camus, "in his concreteness and human sensitivities, is more perceptive, and in his compassion, more trustworthy."

Rothstein says Camus had a major influence on later French writers like André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Pascal Bruckner - guys he calls the neo-cons of the French left.  If so, fine. 

Rothstein also says that in Camus' "rejection of utopianism and his acceptance of sad compromise there remain hints of what might form some sort of realistic political ideal."

But that does not sound at all like the idealistic claptrap of the neoconservatives over here who have been creating our national policies for the last decades and implementing them for the last three years. 

Our on "neo-cons" know nothing about compromise, sad or otherwise, and certainly have no urge to reject utopian visions.  They are shoving those visions down our throats, and slapping Iraqi folks around, hard, with those visions. 

Camus would just sigh.  He'd seen it before.  That's why he walked away from Sartre. 




An excerpt from Aronson book is available here on the web: Chapter 1: First Encounters.  Excerpt from pages 9-17.


Ronald Aronson
Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It
©2004, 302 pages Cloth $32.50 ISBN: 0-226-02796-1