Since I arrived in Rome not long ago to take up a post as a guest professor, this most fascinating and puzzling of cities has more and more come to strike me as an urban-architectural attic, a place in which the achievements of humankind over twenty-five centuries have been accumulated and recorded. This accumulation has resulted in a largely haphazard and undifferentiated mass, a collection riddled with serendipities and self-contradictions, in which almost everyone of note gets to have a street, or a block or two of a street, named after him.
The naming falls on the just and the unjust alike. Even the zanily theatrical medieval revolutionary Cola di Rienzo, the kind of man most cities would prefer to forget, has been granted a long and important thoroughfare in the Prati neighborhood. True, there is no Via Mussolini in Rome. But one does not have to look too hard to find even his name in public places: the medallion high above the stage at the Teatro dell’Opera, his bust on the wall of the famous Caffè Greco.
Rome does not tell one story, or five, or even a hundred, but an infinitude, and it is up to you to sort them out. This is true of any great metropolis. But it is particularly true here: the artifacts of history are plentiful and undeniably important, and beg to be interpreted, yet so often are ambiguous in meaning.
A contretemps about the value of political blogging is currently taking place between Oliver Kamm and Norm Geras, two British intellectuals who have vigorously opposed what today passes in Britain for mainstream liberal commentary–and, as it happens, two formidable bloggers. Kamm, a leftist in domestic politics, vocally supports a neoconservative foreign policy; Geras is a Marxist political philosopher and a co-author of the Euston Manifesto, an online statement denouncing the growing alliance between the European Left and radical Islamists that has garnered dozens of signatories.
So what, you might ask, are they arguing about? About this puzzling statement from Kamm in the Guardian last week:
Blogs are providers not of news but of comment. This would be a good thing if blogs extended the range of available opinion in the public sphere. But they do not; paradoxically, they narrow it. This happens because blogs typically do not add to the available stock of commentary: they are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions that traditional media provide.
This was a curious lament from one who not only has his own blog but who sees nothing but political tendentiousness on display in such “old media” outlets as the BBC and, indeed, the Guardian. What is more, Kamm’s book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy shows how ideological echo chambers, whether on- or offline, have always diminished the style and substance of political debate. Were Communists in the 1930’s any less “parasitic” on the stories and opinions of the Daily Worker than bloggers are on their mainstream-media counterparts today?
As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.
In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.