Ian Buruma

A Voice of Tolerance and Erudition Among Liberalism’s Intellectuals

by Hans Rollman

19 November 2015

In Theater of Cruelty the politics of love, war, and popular culture define the career of one of today’s foremost public intellectuals.
Otto Dix The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) (partial) 
cover art

Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film, and the Shadows of War

Ian Buruma

(New York Review of Books)
US: Sep 2014

In 2008 and 2010, Ian Buruma was selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals. It’s an ostentatious-sounding designation, but it’s appropriate for this Dutch-born man of letters who has made a career out of impatiently flitting from broadly ambitious topic to broadly ambitious topic.

He concedes as much in the introduction to his most recent collection, Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film, and the Shadows of War. “People sometimes say to me: ‘You write about so many things.’ I think this is meant kindly and I take it as a compliment. But there is no special merit in writing about a large number of topics, as opposed to mining fewer veins ever more profoundly. I suppose the main reason for my relatively wide range of subjects is that I am naturally curious and easily bored.”

Buruma is wrong: there is a certain merit to writing about a large number of topics, particularly in a world driven increasingly toward specialization. Buruma’s resistance to the trend, and his ability to achieve academic recognition in spite of it, is a rare accomplishment (he’s Paul W. Williams Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College in New York and has been awarded a range of prizes for his work, including the 2008 Erasmus Prize, the 2008 Shorenstein Journalism Award, and the 2012 Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life from the Princeton Theological Seminary).

His restless intellectual imagination reflects his ideological orientation. He’s one of the few remaining ‘public intellectuals’ and a thoughtful defender of liberalism. I say ‘thoughtful’ instead of ‘fierce’ as he acknowledges the limits and shortcomings of liberalism, yet tempers his pragmatic reflections with an idealism committed to the merits of liberalism’s accomplishments and untapped potential. 

While Buruma’s range of interests is broad, some intersections and themes reveal themselves. His first contributions as a public intellectual involved thoughtful forays into the culture of East Asia, first as a dancer and filmmaker, and later as a journalist, writer and editor. His interest lies in the intersection of culture writ large, with cultural production in the form of literary, artistic and media production. His 1984 study A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains in Japanese Culture is a classic example. The analysis of gendered (and “third sex”) archetypes of Japanese heroes and villains already reflected his interest in the deeper meanings of art and popular culture, and the cultural value of the artists who produce it: “Sometimes the imagination belongs to individual artists who would never pretend to speak for anybody but themselves. I have included them, nevertheless, because they represent something wider than themselves, something that tells us about the culture that nurtured them.”

It speaks, too, to his interest in popular culture, which is to say: “films, comics, plays and books catering to the taste of the maximum amount of people, and thus often the lowest common denominator. This is not always the best art, though it is certainly not to be despised, but it is often revealing of the people at whom it is aimed. Because of this, I have devoted more space to the raunchy, violent and often morbid side of Japanese culture than to the more delicate and refined forms with which we are more familiar in the West.”

A Japanese Mirror already bears the imprint of Buruma’s inveterate liberal, humanistic internationalism: “There is no point in studying another culture if this does not teach us anything about our own… It is the expression of fantasies that differs from one nation to another rather than the fantasies themselves.”

Buruma’s interest in Japan spans much of his early work, from the pop culture focus of A Japanese Mirror to his socio-political analysis of Japan’s modernization during the pivotal century 1853-1964, presented in his short but insightful 2003 study Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle. Other early works touched on Asia more broadly, including his excellent 1989 part-travelogue, part socio-political reportage God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey, which features chapters on Burma and Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, and the Philippines, in addition, of course, to Japan.

More recently he’s turned his focus to China: his excellent 2001 collection of reportage Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels From Los Angeles to Beijingstudies the lives and experience of Chinese dissidents, and their struggle with power.

But it is the art of cross-cultural comparison that consumes much of his work and has inspired some of his most impressive writing. His 1994 masterpiece The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan seeks to understand the radically differing responses to the trauma of defeat and collective guilt that emerged in these two nations following the war and across the second half of the 20th century. Equal parts sociological treatise, psychological study, reportage, and sociopolitical theory, the book established a theme to which he would return again, and one that features in his most recent collection, too.

But in recent years it’s a geographically different ‘East’ that has emerged in fraught engagement with the West, and Buruma has turned his attention to this space of cultural engagement with avid interest (and a heavy-lidded liberal western gaze). He tackles the topic in ambitiously theoretical works such as 2004’s Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, co-authored with Israeli professor Avishai Margalit, and his 2010 study of church and state Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents. In 2006 he emerged with the award-winning Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, about the Dutch film director who was killed by an Islamist militant in a religiously-motivated murder.

Works such as these represent only a portion of his published oeuvre; he’s even dabbled in fiction and published novels.

Theater of Cruelty

The title of Buruma’s most recent collection Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film and the Shadows of War sounds perhaps needlessly dramatic; it’s actually more thoughtful and broad-ranging than the title suggests. Winner of the 2015 PEN Award for the Art of the Essay, it collects a series of essays published in their original form in the New York Review of Books in recent years. In that sense it follows neatly from his superb 1996 collection The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West, an earlier collection of much the same type of work. Love and war, cruelty and war: the titles sound dramatic but the essays offer insightful reflections on the themes, contributions and cultural significance of a wide range of artists and writers. 

From his vantage as a writer who has traveled and written widely about Asia and Europe, Buruma has emerged as a balanced yet ardent critic of cultural conservatism. On this theme (which he treats more philosophically in Occidentalism), he delivers a volley of attitude in the opening chapter to Theater of Cruelty. Beginning with a discussion of Holocaust memorialization, he argues that in a world where ethnic identities are rapidly dissolving, the collective memory of pain has become a last grasping at the distinctiveness previously offered by ethnicity. Virtually every ethnicity and nationality has had its moment of collective suffering, and as those identity boundaries dissolve it is the identity of suffering which is being grasped at by today’s generations to define themselves. If we can no longer share the things that once defined our ethnic identities – shared meals, neighbourhoods, workplaces, festivals, religions – all that is left for many of us is to share a sense of pain and persecution, a sense of collective historical suffering.

This paradigm is reshaping not only politics but even history, Buruma warns: increasingly we tend to study history as it was felt, not as it actually happened. This involves a substitution of objective facts with subjective feelings; and although it is not a bad thing to respect subjective experiences of history, replacing facts and the clash of political ideologies with these “new religions of kitsch and death” can lead to problematic extremes.

“[T]he tendency to identify authenticity in communal suffering actually impedes understanding among people,” he writes. “Feelings can only be expressed, not discussed or argued about. This cannot result in mutual understanding but only in mute acceptance of whatever people wish to say about themselves, or in violent confrontation… without any ideology political debate becomes incoherent, and politicians appeal to sentiments instead of ideas. And this can easily result in authoritarianism, for, again, you cannot argue with feelings. Those who try are denounced not for being wrong but for being unfeeling, uncaring, and thus bad people who don’t deserve to be heard.”

Although he doesn’t state it so bluntly, there’s a vicious cycle here that Buruma has put his finger on. By demanding respect for authenticity in communal suffering, by substituting history-as-fact with history-as-felt, by denouncing those who try to challenge the subjective feelings of persecution and identity of others, well-intentioned efforts to impose tolerance and respect open the door to the same authoritarianism that gave rise to the Holocaust in the first place; which is to say, a politics of feelings and passions. “And that is the worst betrayal of [Jewish writer] Primo Levi and all those who suffered in the past.”

Buruma’s interest in transcending cultural conservatism surfaces again prominently in his essay on the politics of Anne Frank’s diary. He explores the struggle between Anne’s father, Otto, and Jewish activists like Meyer Levin who tried to promote more religiously partisan interpretations of Anne’s diary: “Otto Frank wanted his daughter to teach a universal lesson of tolerance; and Meyer Levin wanted her to teach Jews how to be good Jews.” Buruma’s presentation of the twists and turns of the legal and public struggle between these perspectives is riveting, but he concludes with a typically liberal analysis: “It has become fashionable to assert one’s minority status, especially in the US. And this can be a positive thing. Diversity is good… But this is no reason to feel such contempt for those who choose not to. Wanting to be assimilated does not necessarily imply self-hatred.”

Buruma is thoughtful and reflective, never aggressive in the manner of some contemporary liberals, but he also doesn’t hesitate to show where he stands: “The more I see people expressing their “identities” in communal rites of grief, the more I am inclined to admire Otto Frank’s dignity, and his perhaps naïve, but nonetheless admirable, wish to put his own grief to a more universal purpose.”

War doesn’t encompass the entirety of the book, but he does return to the theme in his most poignant essay, ‘Occupied Paris: The Sweet and the Cruel’. Juxtaposing the diary of a secular young Jewish woman named Helene Berr, a student at the Sorbonne, with that of Philippe Jullian, a non-Jewish dilettante who also kept a diary during the Nazi occupation of Paris, he draws a ghastly comparison of how the same historical moment can be experienced dramatically differently depending on one’s social or, in this case, ethnic and religious background. For Philippe and others like him, the Occupation was tiresome and occasionally interrupted their cycle of dinner parties and theatre-going. For Helene, on the other hand, it meant gradual disenfranchisement as a student, then as a citizen, and finally resulted in her deportation and murder in a concentration camp. The essay, and the excerpts of Helene’s diary, are heart-breaking, while Buruma’s deeply heartfelt analysis offers a lot to say about perspective in the experience of war and suffering.

Themes of war emerge in other essays: Buruma discusses the films of Clint Eastwood, the career of Leni Riefenstahl, the complex and seemingly contradictory politics of erstwhile progressive Japanese intellectuals who embraced wartime patriotism during World War II and the subsequent American occupation. What embarrassed these bitter writers and foiled progressives, suggests Buruma, “was probably not just that intellectuals had been unable, or unwilling, to stop their country from sliding into militarism (and indeed were quite willing to promote it) but the added humiliation that they played a less important part in the democratic restoration than they might have wished.”

But it’s not all war. The 28 essays in the collection cover a broad-ranging terrain, from the style and ‘invention’ of David Bowie to the cultural politics of theme parks in Asia. It’s an entertaining collection, but one that stimulates the mind, on top of educating the soul.

Buruma is a pleasure to read, and a rare voice of tolerance and erudition among liberalism’s intellectual proponents. But his first and greatest quality is a profound cultural curiosity; an open-minded delight in difference which has grown into a deeply humanistic internationalism, and which conveys to the reader the profound significance of popular culture – both base and profound – wherever it emerges. Buruma is one of the top global thinkers indeed, and one who deserves to be read more widely.

Topics: ian buruma
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