A pugnacious public intellectual looks to Europe for his ideal
By Jean Bethke Elshtain
June 1, 2008
Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt, Penguin, 462 pp., $29.95
Tony Judt is a member of that breed known as the public intellectual. His erudite books and essays are written for the well-informed reader. His essays appear regularly in The New York Review of Books, and it is primarily essays first published in NYRB from 1994 to 2006 that he has collected for this volume. The essays cut a wide swath. An unabashed Europhile with a special fondness for the French, Judt is at his best assaying the world of French political and intellectual life.
Judt is a great admirer of Albert Camus and has in the past written hard-hitting explorations of Camus’ unique, and in many ways tragic, role in French intellectual circles. At the time of his death in 1960, Camus was ostracized and isolated, having been condemned by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre had no apparent qualms about keeping silent about the Soviet gulags and purge trials (the greater good of the world historic project of Marxism trumped all other considerations); Camus demurred and was savaged for his troubles. Everyone now recognizes that Camus was right, although, as Judt points out in a discussion of politics and intellectual engagement, the so-called New Philosophers in l970s France, folks like Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann, did not acknowledge their indebtedness to Camus. And the notorious wife murderer and Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, whose turgid texts are, in Judt’s memorable words, “the most astonishingly abstruse, self-regarding, and ahistorical version of Marxist philosophy imaginable,” accused Glucksmann of trafficking in fantasies when he noted the horrors of the gulags—and this in 1985!
In Judt’s tribute to various public intellectuals, whose alleged disappearance he laments as a symptom of the insouciance (one of his favorite terms of denunciation) of our age, his political inclinations are made clear. The volume includes puff pieces on Edward Said, Arthur Koestler (here Judt downplays Koestler’s assaults on women), and Eric Hobsbawn, the Marxist historian. Leszek Kolakowski also earns praise, as do Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, in large part because Arendt determined to confront the problem of political evil even as modern secular society grew increasingly uncomfortable with any such notion. Judt does not note that Arendt was a student of Saint Augustine and thus acquired deep familiarity with Augustine’s powerful account of evil as a privation, an ugly and banal turning away from the good—hence her otherwise inexplicable shift from speaking of “radical evil” to speaking of “the banality of evil” in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Judt makes clear why he so often focuses his essays on individual thinkers. It is they, he believes, who help to combat the “unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not just the practices of the past . . . but their very memory.” The upshot is that we “have forgotten how to think politically,” and thinking politically, for Judt, means looking to the state for great programs—he has a fond spot for the European social democracy model now very much under pressure for many complex reasons. At the same time, Judt cites Edward Said approvingly when Said expresses bewilderment at the appeal of patriotism: “I still have not been able to understand what it means to love a country.” Not only does this render unintelligible Said’s championing of the Palestinian cause—a people who yearn for a country of their own—it confounds Judt’s articulated political commitments as well.
Consider that Judt rues the loss of “older national narratives” because they “had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience.” These older narratives were written with unabashed patriotic sentiment, even fervor, on the assumption that only citizens who loved their country would care about what sort of country it was. Judt further decries the fact that so much of our description of our collective purposes at present is cast in exclusively economic terms. He is correct in this, and it is something to lament, but he appears not to realize that even to speak of our collective purposes assumes an agglomerate of people glued together by some understanding of what it means to be French or American or British. This national sentiment, a sense of civic brotherhood and sisterhood I have called it, fairly cries out for bonds of affection that unite people horizontally, so to speak, because of their shared love for their civic home. If not that, how does one hold a people together so that they can commit themselves to the great public purposes Judt yearns for so ardently?
There is one profile of an intellectual that, sadly, misses its mark altogether: Judt’s dyspeptic sketch of Pope John Paul II. The pope is tagged an archconservative because he opposed liberation theology in Latin America. But Judt fails to note that John Paul’s objections to liberation theology are of a piece with his own criticisms of orthodox Marxism—an overarching and rigid ideology that breeds resentment and class warfare, turning the world into a crudely dichotomous configuration of victims and victimizers. Instead, unmentioned by Judt, the pope championed the commitment of Catholic social thought to the poor and the oppressed (“the preferential option for the poor”) and placed intense focus on the rights and dignity of workers, beginning with his great encyclical on labor, Laborem Exercens, issued in 1981.
Judt incorrectly identifies John Paul as “a committed Thomist,” with no flexibility in his thought. Of course, any pope is committed to some aspects of Thomism, but John Paul did more to break the stranglehold of a rigid Thomistic orthodoxy than any pope since the 13th century, calling upon all the major currents of 20th-century intellectual life, especially phenomenology and personalism. As a result, the grounding of papal encyclicals shifted dramatically. A dramaturge and poet, an intellectual recognized in international circles, John Paul lectured at Harvard University and other American and European institutions of higher learning. His major book, The Acting Person, was published by a Dutch press that specializes in phenomenology. And in his own books—written in longhand—his references to thinkers and other texts put paid to Judt’s charge that John Paul imposed “a Polish partiality upon the universal Church.”
This is a risible claim as one considers the whole range of Enlightenment philosophers and 19th- and 20th-century thinkers who John Paul studied and referenced (Nietzsche, Freud, semioticians, Marxist theorists of all sorts). If Judt had been attentive at “The Enlightenment Today” seminar held at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence—one of the seminars in philosophy that took place throughout John Paul’s papacy—and if he had spoken to Charles Taylor, Paul Ricoeur, or Leszek Kolakowski, also in attendance (as was I), he might have been disabused of the bizarre view that John Paul was a provincial rather than a worldly thinker.
Alas, the essay on John Paul leaves a bit of a bad taste in one’s mouth, so it comes as no small relief when Judt moves to another section of his collection and offers: a superb piece on the fall of France in 1940; an erudite essay on the uniqueness of the French and the manner in which they commemorate the past; and informative and admirably clear essays on Belgium and Romania, posing the question of where Romania fits in the overall European scheme of things, having never been part of the old Hapsburg territories. Even as his special love for France shines through, he turns churlish in “The Gnome in the Garden: Tony Blair and Britain’s ‘Heritage.’” Blair, Judt opines, is a nasty piece of work—all talk, obsessed with control, a man who really doesn’t like people very much. And, as for London, well, by comparison to, say, Paris, it is all glitz, no substance.
A terrific piece on the tragedy of Whittaker Chambers, ill kempt, frumpy, quixotic, brilliant, mismatched when brought up against the suave, well-groomed Alger Hiss, reminds us of how certain hopes die hard. Despite the fact that all the Russian evidence made available since the fall of the Soviet Empire corroborates Chambers’s claims that Hiss was a Soviet agent, there remain those who claim that there is “room for reasonable doubt” where Hiss’s status is concerned. Judt accuses Clinton operative Sidney Blumenthal of such errant nonsense. Judt is also in top form as he offers a riveting account of the Cuban missile crisis. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev wind up looking pretty good. Judt takes a rather large cudgel to Henry Kissinger, insisting that Kissinger possessed no strategic originality. He goes on to accuse the leading American scholar of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis, of being “unapologetically provincial”—the worst of all possible sins (next to insouciance).
The Gaddis takedown offers a hint of what is to come. In a nasty footnote to that essay, Judt attacks Paul Berman’s “fervently ideological support” for the Iraq war. He accuses Berman, a man of the Social Democratic left and one of our truly independent public intellectuals, of desperation in his attempt to link Iraq and al-Qaeda. Judt’s tone turns increasingly pugnacious and polemical. He sets out to slay the minions who differ with him on a range of issues, especially American post–9/11 policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. It irks Judt that many of the public intellectuals who possess solid liberal and left-wing credentials are not, for some nefarious reason, lined up in the correct ideological order. Judt is in a mighty huff about it. He takes two tacks. In several essays, he blasts the United States—for its primitive social policies (by contrast to Euro-style welfare states); for its squalid mass culture (has Judt watched any daytime programming in Europe lately?); for its “marked religiosity”; for its lack of universal health coverage. The charges are broad. Very little evidence is presented to buttress his claims. The condemnations he proffers so freely are weakened by a lack of nuance and complexity.
Consider that the United States is worst in education, Judt insists, with American students consistently underperforming; indeed, the picture Judt paints is of such severe wretchedness that one wonders why U.S. institutions of higher learning remain a mecca for aspiring young scholars everywhere. Poor benighted America, with its “widespread religiosity, suspicion of dissent, fear of foreign influence”—all these parochialisms make us akin to the worst nations in the world—and this despite the fact that, over the years, America has taken in and created a civic home for a more diverse and multicultural population than exists anywhere else. By comparison to unattractive America, the European Union is “almost too attractive for its own good.” It is a “luminous model,” no less, of trans-state cooperative justice and harmony. It is, in other words, utopia, for only utopias, surely, are characterized by luminosity. One wonders, then, why Europeans rejected the proposed European constitutions or, for that matter, how the euro will bind Europe together—although, according to Judt, we should have no fears on that score given all the justice and harmony floating like a benevolent penumbra above all things European.
The wheels really come off as Judt extends his attack on the United States as “the only advanced country that still glorifies and exalts the military.” The vaunted moral superiority of Europe in this regard is irksome. All serious students of post–World War II geopolitics acknowledge that Europe was able to demobilize because the United States provided for its security under the auspices of NATO. This peace dividend for Europe gave many leave to denigrate the very U.S. power that afforded them that dividend in the first place. As well, taking off the rosy-hued blinders, one can reasonably ask: What about Bosnia, ethnic cleansing in Europe’s back yard? Did Europe have no responsibility? Was that responsibility discharged when Dutch peacekeepers, acting under UN auspices, stood by as thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys were hauled off to be slaughtered? Is this really morally superior to the use of force to interdict the violence of ethnic cleansing?
In “The Silence of the Lambs: On the Strange Death of Liberal America,” a September 2006 essay published originally in The London Review of Books, Judt’s tone is at its most strident. The picture of America he paints is grim and forbidding: “A fearful conformism” has gripped the media post–9/11, and “America’s liberal intellectuals,” whom Judt disdains, have “found at last a new cause.” Liberal intellectuals were right about communism—in this Judt surely agrees—but he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that there just might be good reasons to warn about the threat radical Islamism poses to the West and beyond.
Rather than taking up this issue, he trafficks in ad hominem attacks. For instance, he writes that Paul Berman “recycled himself as an expert on Islamic Fascism” in publishing a book, Terror and Liberalism “just in time for the Iraq war.” This is grotesquely unfair. Berman studied the history of the precursors to al-Qaeda, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and found striking similarities between their ideology and that of 20th-century fascism, especially in the grounding principle of pervasive anti-Semitism. Also, Judt knows well that books are completed a year before they appear in print. Berman could in no way have been planning a preemptive strike for a war in Iraq as he completed a book in 2002.
The worst crime Judt charges the United States with is that it now has “an Israeli-style foreign policy, and thus America’s liberal intellectuals overwhelmingly support it” (emphasis mine). Let me get this straight: liberal intellectuals support U.S. policy because it imitates Israeli policy? This claim makes hash out of criticisms of Israeli policy mounted by some of the people Judt condemns. His attacks on Israel are scattered throughout this volume. Israel presents a “ghastly image” replete with “sneering 18-year-olds with M-16 carbines” taunting old men. An Israeli kibbutz, where Judt spent some time in the mid-1960s, was “provincial” and “puritanical.” He assaults Israel’s Six-Day War as a dark victory and speaks of comparisons of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa being commonplace. Israel is a “strategic burden” on the United States and a “liability in the war on terror.” Indeed, “Israel now can stand comparison with the Spain of General Franco.” Does Judt find this comparison credible? Why repeat it if not? It is not my impression that Franco’s Spain had a free press, an independent judiciary, and a raucously democratic politics. Indeed, Judt goes so far as to launch the implausible claim that the identification of criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism is “now the leading source of anti-Jewish sentiment in Western Europe.” Has he studied this issue? The bitterness seeping through his treatment of all things Israeli is painful to read. His grand conclusion is that “Israel has entered fully into the Middle Eastern world. It, too, has crazed clerics, religious devotees, nationalist demagogues, and ethnic cleansers.” Yet he extols the self-defeating brutalities and corruption on display in contemporary Palestinian politics under the aegis of Hamas as a shining example of democracy in the Middle East!
This harsh denunciation of Israel feeds Judt’s churlish charge that liberal intellectuals are “exploiting their professional credibility” to make a partisan case. What sort of bizarre claim is this? Do not all public intellectuals rely on the credibility they have earned over the years to make a case for or against a policy, or issue, or development? Is Judt not offering a partisan case as he lays about, charging liberal intellectuals with providing the ethical fig leaves for “brutal policies,” for, in so doing, they are “imitating Israel wholesale”? An ugly turn of phrase—“their ilk”—appears, and Judt shockingly compares “Bush’s liberal supporters” to fellow travelers “like Stalin’s Western admirers.” This likens the United States to the Soviet Union under a dictator. Such intemperate stuff demeans and diminishes its author.
By the time Judt gets around to condemning a number of the heroes of the peaceful revolutions of 1989—Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel—for fighting the threat posed by global radical Islamism, the reader recognizes that she is immersed in what has descended into a tirade that makes no attempt—none at all—to explore why such distinguished architects of the new Europe might support efforts to unseat brutal regimes. Disagree with them, fine, but do they really deserve what Judt dishes out? One might think that the fact that such heroes of resistance favor what Judt opposes would make him a bit less absolutist and harsh in his judgments but, alas, it does not. From his empyrean height, the complexities of the political world are invisible.
So, as the United States runs amok “flattening” countries willy-nilly—one wonders which countries Judt has in mind—I shall make a modest proposal to him. I suggest taking two aspirin, having a bit of a lie-down, and then embarking on a road trip that takes him somewhere to the west of the Hudson River, out of the cosseted world of the New York City intelligentsia where old battles are refought over and over again and, as a result, new insights are hard to come by. Perhaps somewhere on Interstate 80 in Nebraska or Interstate 70 in Kansas, Judt will regain some perspective and balance.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her Gifford Lectures, Sovereignty: God, State and Self, have just been published.
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