A recent dispatch in the New York Times reported from a conference at Yale on the 100th anniversary of Hannah Arendt's birth. Arendt, recall, was the author of the brilliant but flawed "The Origins of Totalitarianism," which explored the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, and "Eichmann in Jerusalem," which covered the trial of the bureaucratic mastermind of the Holocaust. At the Yale conference, according to the Times, political scientist Benjamin Barber "dismissed the idea that Islamist fundamentalism was in any way totalitarian but suggested that given the current administration in the United States, an 'American Eichmann is not altogether impossible.'"
For the record, under the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban, music was banned. Women were made chattel. Homosexuals were crushed with stones. Children were forbidden to fly kites. But don't believe your lying eyes; take Barber's word for it that such policies aren't totalitarian. Oh, and be sure to watch out for the Eichmanns in our midst.
Others at the conference conjured similar phantasms. Writer Jonathan Schell said America hasn't quite fulfilled Arendt's checklist for totalitarian systems, but "we are on the edge of that abyss." And so on.
We've been on the edge of that abyss for a while now. During those dark years of John Ashcroft's tenure as attorney general, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., lamented that the government had become "thought police." Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said that Americans had become "afraid to read books, terrified into silence" simply because the government was given the same power to investigate suspected terrorists that it long had to scrutinize drug dealers and mob kingpins.
One is tempted to invoke Orwell's dictum that some things are so stupid, only an intellectual could believe them. But, truth is, lots of otherwise normal people believe this stuff.
Yet Orwell's point is still relevant. Intellectuals look at the world through literary prisms of theory. They come up with a vision of the world - one that usually magnifies their importance - and then select facts accordingly. Arendt herself was so convinced a Goldwater presidency would usher in an age of storm troopers, she looked for an apartment in Switzerland after he was nominated.
The waves of paranoia currently sweeping through America could be seen as the democratization of intellectual dementia. Criticisms of President Bush, Christians, the right wing, the Patriot Act, whatever: These are all fine. But presumably, such large claims against America should come with ample evidence to back them up. Instead, we get the opposite. The smaller the example, the greater its significance. And that trick is the intellectual class's gift to America.