Ten years ago, as a reaction for the size of the damage after the attacks for the World Trade Center, a famous writer and journalist broke the silence which lasted for a decade. Furious and proud she bitterly wrote an article where she slandered Allah’s followers and Western passivity in the face of Islam. In such a way she reminded about her hot-tempered intellect which is both admired by her fans and criticized by adversaries.
Even though she died few years ago, her texts written after the attacks on September 11, 2001 are still evoking emotions, they are still discussed and criticized and became a constant element of a debate about the European identity, especially in the context of multiculturalism. Without a doubt they are one of the most sharp and expressive, but also iconoclastic texts, which break with the European conventions of the political correctness. They are vulgar, hysterical, marked with negative emotions. Fallaci was not afraid of her opinions, not ashamed to present them, even if she was to call the Muslim paradise a place where “heroes screw with houris” and sum up her countrymen, the Italians, with a statement that they “whore around” because they can’t answer properly for the “Islam invasion” in their own country. One can’t be indifferent towards Fallaci’s opinions, wave them aside, one should read her but not necessarily admire her. And it’s worth asking a question about a function which she fulfilled in the public discourse. Was she only an excited journalist who pretended to be a writer, a scandalmonger who wanted to draw attention to her talent using her opinions or after all an intellectualist “a person of high intellectual and personal culture”, the one who produces “cultural goods”? Is her contribution to this discourse big enough to call her like that? Does the description “intellectualist” suits to such arrogant, selfish, vulgar and narcissistic people at all?
Fallaci’s texts written under influence of her thoughts after what happened in the USA in September 2001 cast a shadow over her carrier as a journalist and a writer in the 70s and 80s. It is very easy to criticize her for the memorable article in “Corriere della Sera”, for her books written already in the 21st century. It’s an easy target. Especially now when she has departed from this world so it’s sure that she won’t answer with a sharp philippic for a criticism. However, they seem to forget that no later than ten or twenty years ago she was considered as one of the most talented journalists despite the fact that even then she was controversial and uncompromising (like when she took off a chador in front of the ayatollah Khomeini during an interview). Many people think that it is her who is a mother of the modern journalistic interview and that she was the one who introduced women to journalism. She posed most difficult and insolent questions, broke taboo, wasn’t afraid of her interlocutors. Extended interviews with the high and mighty of this world, among others with Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat, are her trademarks. She had a clear advantage over her interlocutors mainly because of the fact that she didn’t have to hide anything, she was telling straight this what for example politicians couldn’t say. And soon at that time she stirred extreme emotions. Some people admired her style, considering it as unusually vivid, evocative, opinion-forming or even “vibrant” – this is how Dante Matelli described it. In her war reports she masterfully conveyed the atmosphere of the battle fields adding her own apt remarks, as it was when she was writing about the war in Vietnam: “I ran to the window, the sky was red over the horizon and I recognized war thanks to which I learnt too soon that life does not revive again in spring.”
Her opponents accused her of her excessive expressionism, emotionalism which made it hard to understand her texts. They were saying that she hyperbolized her images. They described it as “fallacius” meaning “forgery”. They accused her of an evident lack of objectivity. She also didn’t hide that she gave herself a right to write and express her opinions in a way which suits only her and agrees with her own conscience, that she is free from social conventions, from expectations forced on her. Despite the fact that her books evoked ambivalent feelings around the world she received a prestigious Italian prize Viareggio for the masterpiece “Un Uomo” (“A Man”). She was hoping to repeat this success and receive the same prize for the book “Inszallah” but the critics treated this publication very harshly and didn’t give her the prize for which the author felt very hurt. The first stage of her carrier ended with a piece of reportage concerning the war in the Persian Gulf which was published on March 26, 1991. Then she disappeared from the scene, stayed within four walls and rarely was active in the public life.
Until September 11, 2001. Then she came back and with even bigger impetus, hostility and rage attacked Western political elites, world of Islam and media. She impudently treated the political correctness and the idea of multiculturalism and integration. She was frantic with hatred which can be seen especially in her two books “The Rage and the Pride” and “The Force of Reason”. Her critics considered them as a racist gibberish, a hysterical attempt to come back to be the first-class of the world’s journalism again. I came across these books several years ago and I have to admit that now it is hard for me to tell which one was about what. However, I remember that they had an electrifying effect on me, both because of the fact that I like this style of writing, a bit similar to the Kapuściński’s style, and because they opened my eyes on the rubbish being told by the representatives of the second party, the politicians trapped in the political correctness, whose hands are tied by the falsely understood tolerance.
Fallaci was right in many cases. She was speaking loudly that the 21st century will be a witness of the weakening power of the West, its ideas of freedom, equality, individualism and blaming for this the concept of multiculturalism and political correctness. She did not agree for the social consensus established at the “correct people’s” bidding, she did not agree for being a part of the system of ready solutions and answers which actually didn’t solve any problems, were a fiction, an escape from reality. She was appalled at the lack of reflection and responsibility for what is published in the media, treating a word as a good for sale which would be nowadays called tabloidization. Many people shared her views, however, her characteristic form of expression distanced her from people of similar opinions. It’s impossible to support her views without taking a risk of being accused of chauvinism and xenophobia. But undoubtedly one can say that Oriana Fallaci was an intellectual, despite the fact that many people would refuse to call her so, just as she refused to name so other people.
I express this opinion in full consciousness that it sounds very exotic in the liberal environment. Despite her anticlericalism and secularity she is perceived as a right-wing writer and publicist. However, Fallaci breaks with commonly accepted definitions and schemes, she is a question of who is entitled to be called an intellectualist rather than an answer for this question. Intellectuals are people who seek the truth, enrich society with their thoughts, and explain the reality. But do intellectualists hold monopoly on the truth? And when, if this ever happens, do they lose it? Should there be a boarder of the truth, beyond which a taboo is hidden?
In the Polish tradition we tend to identify intellectualist with a moral authority, a person of irreproachable personality and life. Meanwhile, an intellectual should be identified with a vivid mind, exceptional intellect, the pertinence of the views. Obviously being a moral authority doesn’t mean that someone can’t be an intellectualist, however, these two issues don’t necessarily go hand in hand with each other. Let’s look at Lech Wałęsa. Without a doubt he is a great authority in many circles, however, he can’t be numbered among the intellectualists. Fallaci, on the other hand, can’t be called a moral authority. Her chauvinist views, vulgarism, egocentrism, narcissism exclude her from this circle. Anyway, I’m not sure if she would like to belong to the same group as Wałęsa, of whom she wasn’t very fond and described him as a vain ignorant. However, there is no doubt that Fallaci was characterized by admirable intellect. She brilliantly used rhetoric. “She was writing in such a way that you forgot she is a woman” – Matelli used to say. She knew which chords to strike during an interview to achieve an appropriate effect and answers she was looking for. As I have already written, she was a madwoman, but this emotionality did not cover her points of view. She knew how to delude readers with her argumentation, involve them both into the world where she was right but also the world of her phobias. She ruthlessly gave herself a right of being subjective. She compared herself to a painter, asking rhetorically: “If I am a painter and I do your portrait, have I or haven’t I a right to paint you just as I want?” She was her most faithful fan and follower, her own superstar as Santo Aricó a biographer described her. She was thinking that only she has monopoly on truth. She answered with shout and fury to any criticism. Looking at the din concerning her views, one should ask a question if there is any objective truth in the public discourse. No! We have freedom of speech and beliefs, even though it’s difficult to resign to it. One can’t forget about it especially because of the fact that creating public opinion should depend on intellectuals. These are intellectuals, each one of them, who have monopoly on their truth because they also have a right to individual views. Politicians, limited by the political correctness, gain respect thanks to what they don’t say, what they pass over and intellectuals, on the contrary, thanks to what they are not afraid to say. Several years ago Professor Krzysztof Pomian emphasized during an interview conducted by Jacek Żarkowski: “Europe happily survived the last half of the century among others thanks to the fact that the politicians knew what they aren’t allowed to say. This is not the matter of values but on healthy mechanisms of existing in a democracy. For a politician a value of overriding importance should be responsibility.” However, one shouldn’t forbid intellectuals to speak loudly about controversial issues. They should be free from any external pressure, transparent in their views, fall outside any mental schemes. On one hand, Fallaci often forgot about this rule, refusing to acknowledge the right to criticize her. She was inconsistent, demanding the right to freely express her thoughts simultaneously cutting off discussions with her opponents. But on the other hand she also had a right to this, if this helped her to retain respect to her own views. To some extent every intellectual is a narcissist, who has to believe strongly in one’s views so they won’t be flooded by mass information from pseudointelectuals who rate promoting themselves, which is easy thanks to dull media, more than the truth. She was faithful to her beliefs, critics didn’t stop her, she gave herself a right to speak truth louder than the others, she was saying openly that her views are “truer” than the views of others. Many people objected to it, but this also revealed hypocrisy of her opponents, who firmly believed that their views are “truer”, that they are the ones who have monopoly on truth.
One can ask: if there isn’t any objective truth in the public discourse then can an intellectual be wrong? When does he or she lose respect? Is it possible to stop being an intellectual? No, it isn’t! After all one can be called an intellectual thanks to the force of one’s mind, one’s intelligence which – indeed – gets older, changes and as the time goes by becomes less vivid and prolific but it keeps its virtues (except from extreme cases like for example mental illnesses). It is hard to state that intellectuals who are sovereign in their thoughts can be wrong unless they admit it themselves. They have a right to freely construct their opinions according to their beliefs, values and experiences. Looking at this from the perspective of the recipient of messages one can say that they are wrong only when they make gross, factual errors. Idleness or obduracy of their views can lead to the fact that they lose respect of their recipients and marginalize themselves. However, this doesn’t mean that they stop being intellectuals. One can’t deny that professor Jadwiga Staniszkis is a very intelligent person and colorful personality and without a doubt she deserves to be called an intellectual, however, a stubborn defense of Jarosław Kaczyński in the last few years caused that her authority suffered a lot. Fallaci was far more uncompromising. Many people, especially from the left-wing, continuously objected her disquisitions. She didn’t have an easy life in the Old Continent because of the fact that in Europe, according to the French tradition, the intellectual elite is mainly from the left wing. It was a huge mistake that she allowed anger and bitterness to dominate her works. They made her famous indeed but they also pushed her to the margin of public discourse. But she drew attention to issues important for Europe, broke the taboo of political correctness and mass, simplified information, she shouted: “Wake up!” As she broke off a decade earlier “in order not to take part in the orchestra of cicadas” then, after the WTC attacks she had to keep herself above this orchestra in order not to be shouted down and to force through her arguments. Here another question about the form of intellectualism appears: should there be any taboo?
Taking into consideration the fact that an intellectualist should have an open mind, free from external expectations, it looks like there shouldn’t be any taboo not to limit the freedom of thoughts. Intellectualism is also courage to enter into difficult subjects, cope with what is unidentified or thoroughly hidden from the public opinion. Fallaci broke the taboo and this was her main way to get to the receiver. She was talking about inconvenient issues, reproached politicians – mainly from the left wing – for duplicity, hypocrisy, not being reflective. She was shouting about things which were quietly discussed among the right-wing circles, she was the voice of the vast majority of them because she was not afraid of criticism. In this sense she was free. Despite the fact that it is hard to agree with many her views, especially with those which blame the whole Muslim society for the tragedy of terrorism, one also has to admit that she posed many important questions, which weren’t asked earlier by anybody else from the political elite and any of the left-wing intellectuals didn’t have the courage to say them loudly. She was touching on a very delicate sphere of defending her own culture or rather reluctance to defend it in the name of political correctness, in the name of the ideal of an intercultural dialogue and finally in the name of economic interests. She criticized the fact that because of the necessity of respecting foreign culture one also resigns from respect for his or her own culture, sacrificing its rules in the name of tolerance and multiculturalism. She cruised thoughtless welcoming of “foreign workers” cuttingly stating that “there are no doubts that some of them really work”, however, drawing attention to the fact that there is no factual strategy to integrate these communities with the European culture in the future. She was pointing out lack of consequence, reproached for lack of courage when talking about problems and criticized for being too lenient and unwilling to take care of the cases of immigrants, she wrote: “We invited them, gave them asylums and passports in hope that they will work hard and help the Western lazybones with dirty and difficult jobs and now we are surprised that being given our civil rights they feel like Europeans but absolutely different ones… .” She went beyond the borderline of what would be polite to say and what should be said. She promoted feeling obliged towards our consciousness, points of views and she deserves respect for this.
The key word for intellectuals should be the notion of freedom understood as being faithful to their own ideas, remaining unaffected by pressure, put by those who eagerly criticize, as well as open mind and courage in entering difficult subjects. An intellectual has to be free! It is hard to like Oriane Fallaci because of her xenophobic views, narcissistic gushiness caused by the sole fact that she exists, arrogance and vulgarism. However one can’t deny that she was faithful to her intellect, confident of her own truth. She used her talent as a writer to defend her views. She was free.
Translation: Joanna Brodowska