John Brenkman’s lucid and probing essay, The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought Since September 11 (Princeton University Press, 2007), is a timely excursion into contemporary intellectual history, covering both the response to the shock of a terror attack on U.S. soil, and the political thought that produced the Iraq War and its dismaying aftermath.
Analyzing political discourse in what has come to be called the “post 9/11 era,” Brenkman illuminates the verbiage emanating both from the White House and the media. What he finds is a series of fallacies and delusions driving America’s foreign policy and the so-called war on terror. Articulate and finely crafted, The Cultural Contradications of Democracy deals with the nature and limits of military might, as well as the poisonous brew of fear and hubris at the root of recent policies.
In writing about the ‘big’ questions of democracy—human rights, law, civil responsibility, cosmopolitanism versus nationalism—Brenkman digs into political thinkers such as Kant, Hobbes, Arendt, and Berlin, without letting these intellectual heavyweights overwhelm his own keen perceptions of contemporary rhetoric and culture. While dissecting what the author characterizes as the grand, messianic ideals driving the neoconservatives toward a reckless interventionism, Brenkman also looks at the flawed assumptions and conclusions of their liberal opponents. Islam’s “geo-civil wars,” erupting throughout much of the Middle East, are, Brenkman suggests, a phenomenon that are not adequately addressed by either a neoconservative or progressive agenda.
A University Distinguished Professor of English, Brenkman is also director of the U.S.-Europe Seminar at Baruch College.