Pankaj Mishra’s Reckoning With Liberalism’s Bloody PastHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, political history, liberalism
Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire
by Pankaj Mishra
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $27.00
In July 2017, Donald Trump gave a speech in Warsaw that seemed, at the time, to herald a new age. In remarks dredged from the imagination of adviser Steve Bannon, the president drew a rhetorical line in the sand and enlisted his host—the Eurosceptic, right-wing populist Polish President Andrzej Duda—in an epochal fight. “I declare today for the world to hear,” Trump said, as if he were standing behind ramparts and not a podium, “that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.”
Trump struck the pose of a defender of an embattled cause, invoking Poland’s history of repeated invasion by foreign aggressors. But who was this paladin of the West going to protect civilization from? The danger of “radical Islamic terrorism” merited one mention, as did the scourge of “government bureaucracy” (never underestimate the apocalyptic peril of regulation); for the most part, the speech was fairly vague in pinpointing the enemy. “This continent no longer confronts the specter of communism,” Trump said, “but today we’re in the West, and we have to say there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life.” Less than 0.1 percent of Poland’s population is Muslim, and the country has yet to experience an Islamist terrorist attack. But the exact nature of the menace mattered far less than the fact that a menace existed—and that Trump and other right-wing leaders had the courage to do something about it.
The speech alarmed many liberal critics back in the United States, who suspected with reason that the president’s rhetoric signaled encouragement to white supremacists (the infamous, murderous neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville would occur later that summer). Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart insisted that invocations of civilization were coded appeals to racial identity. He was surely right. But for all Trump’s strident language and its dark echoes, his address did not constitute some kind of norm-shattering departure from the rhetoric of presidents past. As the conservative writer Marc Thiessen pointed out in The Washington Post, U.S. presidents of both parties all the way from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton had dutifully invoked the sanctity of Western civilization. Clinton, basking in the heady certainty that followed the end of the Cold War, said in 1994 that “Western civilization was the greatest of all, and America was the best expression of Western civilization.”
One of the unfortunate temptations of the Trump era has been the rush to find radical breaks with the past where, in truth, the lines of continuity are strong. The themes of Trump’s speech were already well circulated among the Anglo-American elite, whether in the work of the political scientist Samuel Huntington or in the pages of the British political magazine The Spectator. “Invocations of the free world and talk of Western values came into vogue during the Cold War, and were meant to assert Western democracy’s superiority over Communism,” the left-wing Indian critic Pankaj Mishra wrote for Bloomberg.com at the time. “They were never very convincing even back then: The free world often supported brutal dictatorships, quickly discarding its values when it felt the need.” The president only did what so many previous European and American leaders have done, draping themselves in the mantle of culture to inveigh against an amorphous other. Appeals to Western values “invoke grand moral and political communities,” Mishra wrote. “But these imagined communities appear cohesive only so long as they can clearly identify an antagonist.”
Much of Mishra’s career has been spent rewriting that imagined “antagonist” into the history of liberalism. In Bland Fanatics, his latest collection of essays, Mishra notes that “racial exclusion has long been central to liberal universalism.” The 16 essays in the collection touch on numerous subjects—including modern reckonings with slavery and race in the United States, the life and legacy of the nineteenth-century Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen, the meaning of World War I, and the fascist mysticism of the popular Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson—but together advance Mishra’s rereading of the history of the twentieth century. The world looks rather different if you see the central event of the past 100 years not as the contest between Western liberalism and its antonyms, but rather, as Mishra does, the tumultuous process of decolonization, which reshaped the lives of most people on the planet.