The End of the Enlightenment

No where has the abuse of knowledge been more violent and intolerant than in the public discussion of an area that is defined as somewhere in the middle of the east. A handful of vocal and visible critics–none of whom have made any real or substantive contribution to any field of knowledge–have contributed to the claims that the Enlightenment as we know it is for all practical purposes over.

For too long has enlightened reason­­which helped to disenchant the world and free humans from slavery, serfdom, the daily humiliation of colonial rule, and the bitter attitudes of discrimination­­has also worked in the opposite direction, instrumentalizing notions of progress, democracy, and freedom. The universal principle of democracy, which is in widest and most conventional circulation in contemporary society, is fast becoming evacuated of any real and substantive meaning at all. Political leaders, political commentators, and the medium of almost all human communication in general has in large part compromised all universal principles to inflame the latest political passions, trends, styles.

Throughout your writings you vigilantly monitor, police, and above all, attempt to suppress the ideas and writings of many of those whose opinions happen to differ from your own. In the United States, this tendency, sometimes called a response to the so-called “new” anti-Semitism has widely been compared to a New McCarthyism. Reminiscent not only of the 1950s when many intellectuals, writers, scholars, actors, were vigorously prosecuted, the circumstances also recall the political environment of World War I in the United States, where, as Carol Gubar has shown in Mars and Minerva, German faculty were subjected to ruthless attacks simply for being German.

Digitally, electronically, and through virtually ever medium that is available to you, you rarely mention the vicissitudes of Palestinian life, how entire cities and towns and villages are surrounded by road-blocks. You speak rarely of the daily intimidation of Palestinians, the curfews, the destruction of orchards, political assassination, and the death of thousands of human beings who have been killed in Israel’s costly and ongoing war against the Palestinians. You show little remorse for the injured children, adolescents, adults and elderly and the ill who have little access to hospitals to which ambulances now have to travel hours to reach for even the most fundamental medical procedures and care. Difficult pregnancies are transformed into infanticide, minor infections into systemic organ failure, and a slow but certain coma and then death is assured.

Your attitude, which is cavalier, pugnacious and knows no other form of writing than the simplest polemic, is justified by the threat of terrorism, and you can hardly be asked to even acknowledge that the Israeli military-its so called “defense forces”– practices a form of terror as well, of an entirely different category, of course. Indeed, with the helicopter gun-ships, diesel tanks, F-16s, Caterpillar bulldozers and machine guns. The Israeli army doesn’t kill human beings in the same gruesome and crude way as a handful of young Palestinians who strap themselves with explosives and blow themselves and other innocent human beings along with themselves to bits.

In the West, the images of the remains of Arab bodies-Palestinian bodies­­are hardly, if ever, seen. The collective horror is drowned out by other forms of desperate, retaliatory, idiotic, but above all immoral and the particular violence against unarmed Israeli citizens. The roar of bombs, the rat-tat-tat of “live” ammunition and rubber bullet fire from the barrels Israel soldiers’ weapon is but a faint sound heard. In this historical hour, the human subject is a mere gesture of existence hanging onto life.

Yet groups of so-called Middle East “experts” and “terrorist experts” (like yourself) are consulted and appear as commentators about a terrible and collective human predicament. With almost no exception, you depend upon official and prepackaged conventions of thinking to interpret what are the plain facts that stare anyone in the face who cares to look at them.

You have learned to repeat the chorus of a decaying generation of Orientalists, who see the world in Manichaean terms. Your explanatory powers extend no farther beyond the simplistic idea of those who view the world in grand and reductive terms. It is said to be a “clash of civilizations,” and not a difference of two historical experiences-that of Israeli Jews and Palestinians-whose lives are intertwined like ivy growing up the tree of time. Baudelaire’s spleen masquerades in the form of knowledge.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has lasted longer than Japan’s occupation of Korea, and more UN resolutions have condemned the matter than any other that the world has known since the UN was established and its charter issued. It stands in violation of the Hague Conventions of 1907, a law that is nearly a hundred years old. The rights of human beings to self-determination is over half a century old and was enshrined in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, the Articles of the Geneva Convention. Look at how far we have not come! These principles are reaffirmed everyday by a body nations that convenes in New York City, that is held together in form of another charter that decrees the humanity of humanity, but it is at the same time denied and negated on the outskirts of Ramallah, Rafah, Jenin, around which there are markers, “checkpoints,” and where a sneering face of a wall rises from the ground in the form of a terrible fence around our humanity. It is denied too in the cafes and nightclubs of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, where a simple trip to work on a bus is transformed into a sanguinary spectacle of needless death.

Humanity, if such an idea can exist in contemporary and secular world at all­­if it exists as an idea at all­­persists in the form of the denial of the humanity of others. It is the negative image of freedom that enables Palestinians to exist in spite of the effort of the most powerful empires of the world to deny them a fragment of their being, their ontology­­what in the German language is called Dasein-being in the world, which is both as solid and invisible as the very air we all breathe.

It is not difficult in principle nor practice to face and condemn the tragic fact there are pathological terrorists in this world, who know no other language than that of domination, conquest, and territory. Yet the discourse of the peace has far too long occluded the fact that it is really a discourse of war, territory, settlement, displacement, expulsion, dispossession, assassination, harassment, humiliation, poverty­­that all bears the stench of death. The obstacles to peace are as visible and sharp as the barbed wires and electric fences and the watch-towers that surround Palestinian villages, towns, cities and close Israelis off from their neighbors.

To know what form the end of this form of existence will take is look beyond the walls, turrets, watch-towers, fences, soldiers and terrorists. It is to think beyond the intolerant polemics of partisans like yourself. In time and in history, which are by no mean yet identical, the false principles upon which existence of both Israeli and Palestinians subjects are founded will transform themselves in a way that can only be imagined in the negative form of the present.

ANDREW N. RUBIN, an assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University, is the co-editor of The Edward Said Reader and Adorno: A Critical Reader. His book Archives of Authority is forthcoming in 2006. He can be reached at