Jean Baudrillard, who died on Tuesday in Paris at the age of 77, was a French intellectual in the most sinister meaning of that term.
He was intoxicated by hastily concocted theories and drunk on incomprehensible explanations of world affairs. He could make any subject more obscure just by briefly visiting it. Many of his readers eventually discovered that his work, some 50 books in all, usually wasn't about what it claimed to be about. His real concern was always Baudrillard and the passionate drama of his daydreams.
His way of thinking involved intense snobbery on his part and great tolerance on the reader's. To the public and his students he said, in effect: "You poor fools are deluded by all your ideals, your dreams, your accomplishments. You think that's reality? It's a fraud, all of it. I know better."
Strange as it seems, in the 1970s much of the Western world was ready to embrace him. He and Jacques Derrida were among the most prominent members of the platoon of French imperialist intellectuals who landed on the shores of North America and conquered a whole continent.
They set up base camps on elite college campuses and soon began enlisting local recruits for their army of postmodernists, post-structuralists, post-Marxists and full-time professional obscurantists. They became an all-consuming vogue. Soon it was impossible to get through Yale without encountering them, and by the early 1990s their thoughts had penetrated Western Canada, where you could hear professors talking the ugly and mostly incomprehensible language of critical theory while students struggled pathetically to keep up. In some circles, those who didn't imitate the French stars were considered eccentric.
What is it about North American (and Australian) life that makes generation after generation of progressives, artists and intellectuals defer so slavishly to the putative superiority of European culture and thought? From early twentieth century American expats in Paris to Swedes like Myrdal and Bergman to existentialists like Sartre and de Beauvoir to artistic weirdos like Dali to radical darlings of the sixties like Marcuse through to the cerebral pathologies of French deconstructionalists, our intellectual history is marked by a repeated self-abnegating embrace of European philosophical fads we hold to far beyond their sell-by dates.
The themes are always the same: America is rough, unlettered, materialist, exploitative and (let’s face it) stupid. By contrast, Europe is learned, wise, subtle, sharing, reflective and aesthetically rich. Their toilets may not work, they may be self-immolating demographically, their economies may be in reverse, there may be riots in their streets and they may even be going through one of their periodic internecine slaughters, but my goodness, these people know how to live!
Certainly we want our children to tap into the formative richness of European cultures. There is an admittedly limited return from cathedral tours of Wyoming and Ontario or post-doctoral work on the social philosophy of Daniel Boone. But almost all of that cultural treasure-trove long pre-dates the twentieth century and has been renounced repeatedly and comprehensively by European elites for generations, sometimes with words, sometimes with guns. Yet still they come with their gobbledegook celebrating despair and decline and still we welcome them speechlessly with feigned deferential awe, secretly praying it’s all a bad dream our children will grow out of someday.