Uh-oh, wingnut attack!!

David Frum, former speech writer for President Bush (and the man who coined the phrase “axis of evil”, not to mention ardent proponent of the Iraqi war) has been given a book by Foucault… and loves it!

The book he was given was as you might guess, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, which we have had cause to discuss on this blog already. And of course the reason he loves it is that he can use it to trash Foucault:

In the late 1970s, Michel Foucault succumbed to a bizarre infatuation with the Iranian Islamic revolution…

Foucault, a man utterly devoid of religious feeling…

…a homosexual who reveled in the brutalities of San Francisco’s sado-masochistic bar scene…

For Foucault, sexual pleasure was intimately bound to rituals of domination and outright acts of brutality…

[Foucault] decided in 1978 that the Khomeini revolution offered mankind’s best hope for personal liberation…

The mistake Foucault made about Khomeini is integral to Foucault’s own thinking – and calls into question much about Foucault’s own work…

“Bizarre infatuation,” “mistake,” sado-masochism… one wonders why wingnuts like Frum bother to deal with Foucault since they neither know anything about him and hate him in equal measure. But of course the object is not engagement, but to set up Foucault as some kind of representative of the left, who can then be taken down. In other words, polemics.

This is a standard fallacious argument, and Frum calls on other fallacies of argument such as ad hominem and straw man.

(Why is this a fallacy? Frum argues:

Foucault is a left-wing philosopher,
Foucault was wrong,
Therefore, the left is wrong.

Even granting the truth of the premises–which I don’t–the conclusion is falsely reached.)

Frum obviously draws his opinions on Foucault not from his writings but from the Miller biography:

Through his life, Foucault was fascinated by extreme experiences, experiences of torture, flagellation, mutilation and death. These experiences were central to Foucault’s own erotic life, as James Miller details in his lurid biography. (Not recommended for children!) The spectacle of Shiite worshippers whipping themselves into religious frenzy on Ashura – or seeking death and martyrdom in hypnotic mass demonstrations – exquisitely appealed to Foucault, as blood, spittle, and delirium always did.

So there! Torture was central to Foucault’s life. (This goes beyond anything that Miller was prepared to say.)

More substantively, Frum also misrepresents Foucault and his interest in the Iranian revolution. According to Frum Foucault decided that “the Khomeini revolution offered mankind’s best hope for personal liberation.”

Foucault does not assert that, neither generally nor specifically (as has been repeatedly noted. To do so would fall into the trap of the “universal intellectual.” Rée:

Unlike some other stars of Parisian intellectual life, Michel Foucault was always reluctant to air his opinions about big political issues. It was not that he was uninterested in politics or indifferent to human suffering, just that he was suspicious of the sort of thinkers–“universal intellectuals,” he called them–who consider it their privilege and duty to set the world to rights, as if history had appointed them to speak on its behalf, or morality had summoned them to be the conscience of the human race.


He was perhaps the first thinker to identify the perversity of the kind of progressive thinking that expects the oppressed to conform to a preconceived model of resistance or revolt. According to the progressive norm, genuine victims of injustice will be ennobled by adversities, strengthened by misery and purified by suffering. They will bear witness to their authenticity by playing a starring role in the good old drama of democratic resistance to oppression. And they will gratify their patrons by bringing new vigor and militancy to the part, and perhaps a dash of cathartic revolutionary violence, not to mention unimpeachable moral authority. If Foucault had a mission in life, it was to discredit the progressive model of the perfect rebel.

Note that what Rée is talking about here is precisely the figure that Frum wishes to say is Foucault: “bizarre infatuation” indeed.

As for Foucault’s position on the Iranian revolution, he had already noted that the process of modernization in Iran was a thing of the past, replaced with corruption. Thus, at least as far the protesters were concerned, the protests sprang from a desire to restore democratic principles, including as Rée notes “the dignity of labor, respect for minorities, equality before the law and government accountable to the people” which I would hazard even Frum would grant as standard enlightenment values.

Foucault wasn’t fooled that that these claims were the only motivations in play and I think he found them a bit derivative of a failed attempt to implement them in the West. He was far more impressed by the sense of spirituality in Iran: “it impresses me as an attempt to open up a spiritual dimension in politics” (What are the Iranians Dreaming About?“).

This emphasis on a political spirituality should be of great interest to Frum and his faith-based initiatives, but instead all he can do is protest that Foucault had no religious feeling.

Foucault said he didn’t know whether Iran could keep this interest going or whether it would dissolve in self-contradiction, but the question is important because it concerns:

this little corner of the earth whose land, both above and below the surface, has strategic importance at a global level. For the people who inhabit this land, what is the point of searching, even at the cost of their own lives, for this thing whose possibility we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity, a political spirituality.

Our first task then would be to understand what Foucault was saying, before assessing it. For all the people like Frum who identify Foucault as “celebrating” the Iranian Islamic revolution, more informed commentators note:

Despite their accusations, he had not taken it upon himself to advocate Islamic government: He had simply recorded some of the aspirations of the protesters, while trying to dismantle the stale and defensive notions that filled the heads of Western observers. “The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential one for our time and for the years to come,” he wrote, “and we cannot approach it with a modicum of intelligence if we start out from a position of hatred.”

Frum seems uncritically eager to accept Afary and Robinson’s tendentiousness as Rée puts it:

Having constructed an imaginary Foucault intoxicated by “authenticity,” “creativity” and “living dangerously”–notions that have no place in his work except as butts of his teasing paradoxes–Afary and Anderson offer their readers the astonishing assurance that “Foucault’s concept of authenticity meant looking at situations where people lived dangerously and flirted with death, the site where creativity originated.” And having transformed the gentle apostle of radiant uncertainty into a philosophical version of Charles Manson, they credit him with an “uncritical enthusiasm for the Islamist movement of Iran.”

But anyway, all of this is useless to Frum because as I said he doesn’t want to engage, but do polemics.


4 Responses

  1. amazing given that foucault was so unimpressed with authenitcity, with marxism and the like, that all these figures of the right could be so obsessed/impressed themselves with details of FOucualt’s dark earthly delights as a way ofunderstanding the man(?) without even having to read his work…

    still if dubya can read camus…

  2. I found this a useful & insightful post. I am a long way from being more than a Foucault beginner & the distinction you make between “progressive” (romantic) politics & Foucault’s beliefs is helpful to someone approaching the work. You are of course also absolutely correct in your analysis of Frum’s thuggish polemics. Failure to understand is forgivable, but intentional misunderstanding is simply a more or less sophisticated way of lying.

  3. […] Blog has a useful post detailing a particular right-wing attack (by David Frum) on Foucault, but which is also useful as […]

  4. […] universal was part of the Iranian enterprise that eg., as we discussed Bush’s speech writer got wrong. For this was not a naive endorsement of islamofascism, but rather to be […]

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