“Seizing the Narrative”


Liberty at the Barricades, Eugène Delacroix, 1830

“Seizing the Narrative”

Long ago, I waited in New York City for a promised letter from Paris that never came. My first love, not a good correspondent, nor a good keeper of promises, was a communist. Not a party member, but an intellectually ardent sympathizer.

In my shattered amazement, what choices did I make? To spurn the Far Left with its utopian delusions, so entangled with lies? Not at all. On the contrary. I became a fervent Fidelista, an early adherent of what was to become the New Left. First kid on the block to read Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique.

Andre Philip, a family friend who’d been de Gaulle’s first Minister of Finance, arrived with the latest budget of news from Paris.

“Everybody is talking about Sartre’s new book on economics. Sartre knows nothing about economics. Nobody has read it.”

“Abigail has read it,” said my parents.

Philip looked at me with astonishment.

I did not stay in “the narrative” of the New Left, but that is another story. Here I merely recall the circumstance that led me to enter it. A refusal to accept humiliation as a woman – coupled with an urgent need to rewrite the history so as to force communism to keep its promises to me after all. What a loser of a plan! Even if I could have forced communism to make that concession, that would not have wrung it from my first love!

Recently I read a fascinating memoir titled Radical: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism by Maajid Nawaz, a young Briton of Pakistani origin, who is a gifted writer, political theorist and politician. Why, I wondered, would a British guy with such a bright future get into Islamist extremism in the first place?

Here’s why. In his younger years, he and his friends often had to run – literally for their lives – pursued by a gang of racist skinheads eager to use the knives they carried. One day, he and his brother found themselves cornered, outnumbered and scared to death. An astonished Maajid saw his brother step forward to chat with the gang leader. When the chat was over, the two young men shook hands and he saw fear in the leader’s eyes. What had his brother said?

“We’re Muslims and we don’t fear death. If we have to take ourselves out to take you out, that’s what we will do.”

For Maajid, the incident was transformative. He felt a thrill of male-over-male power. “The problem, quite simply, was respect.”

 A few months earlier, I’d read an unusual biography, titled The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. Its author, Deborah Baker, reconstructs the life of a certain Margaret Marcus. It’s unlikely that anybody reading this post will have heard of her. However, under the name of Maryam Jameelah, this Jewish girl from Larchmont, L.I., achieved enormous influence in the Muslim world.  She converted to Islam and managed to secure an invitation to live with the family of Abul Ala Mawdudi, who founded the Pakistani equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood. In books and pamphlets that were widely read and translated, Maryam Jameelah helped to frame Islamism’s rejection of the civilization of the West.

As a girl, Margaret Marcus had had trouble negotiating her way through the social gauntlets of her thoroughly pedestrian, middle-class milieu. Had she gone to my high school, with its painters and musicians, she would have done better. Not being so lucky, she was deemed maladjusted and subjected to what in those days passed for therapy: a psychoanalysis as doctrinaire as any extremist ideology.

The biographer reports the typical conclusion of one of her analysts: “In Dr. Harper’s view for Margaret to be a virgin at nineteen was abnormal.”

After such a therapy –

hell, I would have gone to live with Mawdudi myself.

The exact causal chain that led – from this kind of bull-in-a-china-shop blundering around in the delicate psyche of a young woman – to her transformation into Islamism’s American Muse goes beyond any ability of mine to trace.

But I can say, with a certain confidence:

Take sexual self-respect

from any man or any woman and

the targeted person will

sooner change world history

than settle for that.

If this be a theory of history, let us make the most of it!


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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