Monday, August 15, 2011

Scott McLemee: Culture War to Shooting War

Culture War to Shooting War
By Scott McLemee
Inside Higher Education

Shortly before the bombing and shooting spree in Norway last month that left 77 people dead, Anders Behring Breivik e-mailed a thousand people the document he called his “compendium” -- a more accurate label than “manifesto,” as some have called it, since large chunks of text were cut and pasted from various sources rather than composed by the murderer himself. In its opening, Breivik says he spent three years preparing the work. It runs to 1,518 pages in PDF. There is no table of contents or index. Its final pages contain a number of photographic self-portraits. In one, Breivik is dressed in a uniform with a patch that reads “Special Issue Multiculti Traitor Hunting Permit.” He holds a weapon, aiming it somewhat to the reader’s left.

Just having the file open on my computer’s desktop for the past couple of days has proven to be depressing. I was in no hurry to read Breivik’s magnum rantus, and the decision to download it was not a matter of morbid curiosity. If anything, I tried to avoid learning more about the massacre than absolutely necessary. Certain kinds of sensationalism leave you feeling contaminated. In any case, the inescapable details proved all too familiar. Breivik’s anti-feminism and Islamophobic rage, his conviction that “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” are destroying civilization, and must be stopped -- all of this is the usual stuff of contemporary resentment. Even his "traitor hunting permit" is standard-issue misanthropy.

But there turns out to be more to Breivik’s text than the usual hateful boilerplate. The killer was also a perverse sort of public intellectual.

He devotes almost 30 pages of single-spaced text to a peculiar tour of 20th-century thought. It is poorly informed but passionate. Breivik thinks of himself as an enemy of critical theory, which, by his reckoning, has ruined modern culture by undermining the rightful authority of European males. In particular, he appears obsessed with the influence of the Frankfurt School of philosophers and social scientists who fled the Nazis in the 1930s. (Many ended up in the United States; their research foundation, the Institute for Social Research, was affiliated with Columbia University between 1935 and 1950.) From the account in Breivik’s compendium, the school emerges as a tireless, ruthless, single-minded force seeking to destroy the good old days. This is unintentionally funny, given that a number of Frankfurt School thinkers were culturally -- and by the 1960s even politically -- rather conservative.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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