Paul Berman devotes much of this essay on the “Arab Spring” to his favourite subject: the faults of intellectuals – unnamed, always unnamed – who criticise his view that terrorism can be rooted in its actors’ Islamic views. Funnily enough, writers to his left spend a lot of time griping about people who criticise the view that terrorism can be rooted in the woes of people on the wrong end of Western imperialism. Is this so complicated? They’re both true! Ideas of jihad against the kufr have inspired people, yes, but invasions, bombing and the like have been a great recruitment tool: they make others think, “Perhaps these “kufr” types are as bad as they’re cracked up to be”. Of course, this poses other, far more complicated problems – which ideas these are and how widely they’ve been disseminated; which actions provoke such a response – but if people are unwilling to accept that much I’m inclined to think they’re looking for a fight.
Still, Berman has – right up to his wearisome attempt to coax Obama into starting more, entirely ambiguous, conflict in the Middle East – the germ of a point: that people split between highlighting material and ideological conditions underlying people’s deeds. But, again, I’m not entirely sure what the problem is: it’s a false dichotomy. (I’ll admit a prejudice I hope I’ve restrained – whenever intellectual speak about the power of ideas it makes them sound like pharmacists lauding anti-depressants. I know that’s unfair.) The power of ideas lies in their ability to meet people’s desires and answer their frustrations; these can be material – so, revolutionary ideas flourish among starving folk – or, for want of a better term, spiritual – so, people hunger for identity; belonging; purpose. These factors determine the kinds of ideas people will be receptive to. If you want to promote or oppose beliefs, then, you’re obliged to meet the greatest desires of the most people. To that extent, depressingly, one of the greatest talents that an intellectual can have is in marketing.