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'Surrender' by Bruce Bawer

A missed opportunity to explore the intersection of Islamic fundamentalism with Western multiculturalism.

May 20, 2009|Tim Rutten

A mediocre book on an important topic always is disappointing.

When the treatment also is shallow and vulgarly argued -- as is the case with Bruce Bawer's "Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom" -- this reader is inclined to get up with a sour sense of resentment over time wasted, the sort of feeling that comes from being seated next to a garrulous bore at a dinner party.

A literary critic and writer for various neoconservative cultural and political journals, Bawer is also openly homosexual and has written extensively for a number of gay publications. He and his partner have lived in Europe for some time, and since moving there, Bawer has become one of those writers alarmed by what he sees as a cultural fifth column of Islamic immigrants gnawing at Europe's traditions of tolerance and democracy.

There certainly are dangerous, intolerant Islamists among Europe's immigrants, and their allies, he argues (not always inaccurately), are the dogmatic multiculturalists who find cultural equivalency between Magna Carta and sharia. The problem is that Bawer spins glancingly off that interesting, rather important point into descriptions of a vast, interlocking conspiracy of cultural, literary, journalistic and even entertainment elites he believes want to appease fundamentalist Islam and sell out the West's tradition of individual and civil liberties.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 30, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
"Surrender": A review of Bruce Bawer's book "Surrender" in the May 20 Calendar said that Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn was murdered by an Islamic extremist. Fortuyn was murdered by an extremist objecting to Fortuyn's views of Muslims in that country.

Why they're engaged in this betrayal is anybody's guess. That doesn't stop Bawer from enveloping one alleged case in point after another, rather like the rhetorical equivalent of a kudzu vine -- and with about the same logical structure.

Too often Bawer simply gets things wrong, both factually and by degree. For all his academic prominence, the late Edward Said never enjoyed anything close to the influence Bawer imagines for him; the notion that his debated book "Orientalism" changed the way the majority of Western writers and intellectuals perceived Islam simply is preposterous. Similarly, if the ranks of "journalists, editors and producers" are so thoroughly peopled with dogmatic multiculturalists, why is it that so many of the critics of that tendency cited by Bawer make their living in the media? Richard Bernstein, Leon Wieseltier, Christopher Hitchens and this critic are but a few such writers whom Bawer quotes approvingly.

Bawer's notions of cultural and historical causality -- and they are notions rather than ideas -- are tenuous to the point of being not simply arguable but simple-minded. He quotes Jesus' admonition against judging others: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" Bawer then asserts, "Thanks largely to the influence of the Gospels, the capacity for self-criticism and self-correction is especially strong in Western culture and is a major reason for the West's success."

Part of that sentence is true: The West's capacity for critical introspection is a vital cultural attribute, but if you want to chart its lineage, you'd have to start with the Aristotelian revival of the high Middle Ages and follow it from there. If its origins were primarily religious, then why has the Western religious institution with the greatest historical continuity, the Roman Catholic Church, found it necessary to armor itself against criticism by promulgating the doctrine of papal infallibility and declaring unfettered intellectual criticism a heresy called Modernism? Moreover, if the West's capacity for self-criticism was a product of the Gospels, why did the church wait until the late 20th century and Vatican II to reject theological anti-Semitism and until the papacy of John Paul II to apologize for persecuting Galileo?

Making errors

Similarly, if one is going to acknowledge in passing the United States' failure to live up to its 1st Amendment obligation, why cite the usual high school civics class laundry list of examples -- John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson -- and ignore the example of greatest relevance to Bawer's case: that Andrew Jackson ordered the U.S. Post Office not to deliver abolitionist newspapers, journals or tracts? Adams, Lincoln and Wilson were acting under the exigencies of war; Jackson's ban was supposed to be a guarantor of social peace, an aim far more congruent with that of the multicultural ideologues.

Factual errors large and small infest this text like weevils. Their homophobic views played a role in the cancellations of Michael Savage's and Laura Schlessinger's short-lived, not particularly popular television shows. Neither lost their highly rated radio shows, as Bawer writes. In fact, Schlessinger was America's third most-listened-to talk show host last year. Bawer sets out a sequence of terrorist and other violent incidents, then castigates the Western media for not "educating themselves seriously about Islam" in their wake.

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