Monday, August 27, 2007

The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11

John Brenkman, The City University of New York
Princeton Univ. Press, 2007
Introduction [HTML] / [PDF]

Since 9/11, American foreign policy has been guided by grand ideas like tyranny, democracy, and freedom. And yet the course of events has played havoc with the cherished assumptions of hawks and doves alike. The geo-civil war afflicting the Muslim world from Lebanon through Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan confronts the West with the need to articulate anew what its political ideas and ideals actually are. In The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, John Brenkman dissects the rhetoric that has corrupted today's political discourse and abused the idea of freedom and democracy in foreign affairs. Looking back to the original assumptions and contradictions that animate democratic thought, he attempts to resuscitate the language of liberty and give political debate a fresh basis amid the present global turmoil.

The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy picks apart the intellectual design and messianic ambitions of the neoconservative American foreign policy articulated by figures such as Robert Kagan and Paul Berman; it casts the same critical eye on a wide range of liberal and leftist thinkers, including Noam Chomsky and Jürgen Habermas, and probes the severe crisis that afflicts progressive political thought. Brenkman draws on the contrary visions of Hobbes, Kant, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, and Isaiah Berlin in order to disclose the new contours of conflict in the age of geo-civil war, and to illuminate the challenges and risks of contemporary democracy.

John Brenkman is distinguished professor at the City University of New York and director of the U.S.-Europe Seminar at Baruch College. He has published widely on culture and political theory. He lives in New York and Paris.

"Brenkman's book is a fascinating read. His sophisticated analysis--situated in a deep understanding of political philosophy--of what democracy and freedom mean for the United States and the West against the backdrop of the 'global war on terror' and the invasion of Iraq provides compelling insight into both domestic and foreign policy. Brenkman's compelling work will surely raise the level of debate about these issues in the United States and Europe."--Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations

"In this fine book, John Brenkman tells us the story of the nefarious marriage of fear and hubris in post-September 11 U.S. international and domestic politics. In a lucid and powerful language, Brenkman makes an original contribution to political theory. He reminds us of the fragility of democracy, of how easily political creativity can turn against itself and become an agent of destruction, rather than a foundation and consolidation of civil life."--Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University

"This brilliant essay on post-9/11 political thought tackles democracy's inherent contradictions: civic and liberal freedom, U.S. domestic and foreign policy, human rights and civil rights, and cosmopolitanism and liberal nationalism. Brenkman puts into play Kant and Hobbes's divergent political visions of sovereignty and human nature, Arendt and Berlin's reflections on positive and negative freedom, and Habermas and Schmitt's thoughts on law and human rights. In doing so, he opens up new and surprising spaces of reflection on the challenges confronting democracy in the United States, the European Union, and the Islamic world today. His concluding chapter on the ordeal of universalism is, moreover, the most compelling treatment of the subject I have read in a long time."--Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University

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