Disturbing the Peace: Intellectuals and Universities in an Illiberal Age

The late great Tony Judt delivered this call-to-arms at the Boston College on February 6, 2007.

Tony Judt, the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, asserts that tenured university academics have a social obligation to “speak the truth in the public place.” In this Lowell Humanities Series lecture, he warns that public pressures and contemporary mores inhibit today’s intellectuals from espousing unpopular views. Controversial for advocating a combined Israeli-Palestinian state, Judt frequently contributes to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press, 2005).

Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’

This essay first appeared in The Drouth (‘The Thirst’), a quarterly magazine published in Glasgow (Issue 50, Winter 2014/2015). I wrote it in December 2014.

The Road to Iraq book coverThe Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Edinburgh University Press
£19.99

Reviewed by Danny Postel

I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today—the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading—let alone reviewing—a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction.

But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:

  • ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
  • The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration—the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
  • There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.

The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one: Continue reading “Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’”

Thinking the Twentieth Century

Yale historian Timothy Snyder discusses his remarkable collaboration with Tony Judt on Christopher Lydon’s excellent Radio Open Source. The result of Snyder’s extended interviews with Judt was recently published as Thinking the Twentieth Century.

The Social Democratic Manifesto

Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land: A Treatise On Our Present Discontents is an elegantly crafted elegy for the postwar consensus and a concise and erudite statement by a towering public intellectual of political wisdom accumulated over a lifetime of achivement. Its intended audience is ‘youths on both sides of Atlantic,’ who are too leery of civic engagement because of their disillusionment with politics and suspicion of government. Judt aims to invigorate their interest with challenging ideas and a practical project for political transformation. He offers no utopia, but an alternative that is ‘better than anything else to hand.’ He makes a case for social democracy, a form of government that can play an enhanced role without threatening liberties.

Judt begins with a diagnosis of the present malaise, a condition JK Galbraith described as ‘private wealth and public squalor.’ Judt finds something ‘profoundly wrong’ with an age which has made ‘a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.’ Like Oscar Wilde’s cynics, he laments, ‘we know what things cost but have no idea of what they are worth.’ With ‘growth’ as the only index of progress, politicians have been able to claim success even as inequality has reached grotesque proportions. The decline began with Reagan and Thatcher’s assault on the welfare state, but has proceeded apace both in Britain and the US under successive Democratic and Labour governments. The result is a society marked by extreme inequality and broken communities. Judt draws on the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, to show a correlation between the extreme inequality of the American and British society and its adverse consequences on health, crime, and social mobility.

Continue reading “The Social Democratic Manifesto”

PULSE’s Top 10 Global Thinkers of 2010

In response to the curious choices in Foreign Policy magazine’s ’Top 100 Global Thinkers’ list last year, we decided to publish our own. In 2010, Foreign Policy‘s selections were even more abysmal: among others it included Robert Gates, Ben Bernanke, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, Thomas Friedman, Ahmed Rashid, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bjorn Lomborg, Richard Clarke, Madeleine Albright, Salam Fayyad…and John Bolton! Would anyone outside FP’s editorial board confuse them for a thinker? Once again, it appears FP chose based on the alignment of an individual’s work with the global military and economic agenda of the US government. We therefore asked our writers and editors to nominate once again their own top 10 global thinkers. The following list was the result. (Also see our Top 10 Media Figures of 2010)

Tony Judt

A towering intellect, a moral giant, a master of prose, and an outstanding historian, Tony Judt did what only the greatest of thinkers do: he constantly evolved. More significantly, he never succumbed to orthodoxies, he was always on the edge. In his later years, he also outgrew his middle-of-the-road liberalism to adopt principled, at times radical, positions on war and capitalism. He also jettisoned his youthful Zionism to emerge as the proponent of a single binational state in Palestine. In 2006 he was the only mainstream figure to come to the defence of Mearsheimer & Walt for their groundbreaking London Review essay. He later excoriated Israel as the ‘country that wouldn’t grow up.’ He was also the author of Postwar, an elegant and expansive history of Europe since 1945. We mourn his loss.

Chalmers Johnson

An exemplary scholar, Chalmers Johnson metamorphosed from a hardline Cold Warrior into one of the most formidable critics of US militarism, mapping America’s expanding imperium of bases and spotlighting the fraying edges of its republic. His 2000 book Blowback was as prophetic as his subsequent books The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis were prescient. His longtime JPRI associate Steve Clemons has described him as the ‘acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the “developmental state“’ and as ‘an apostate and heretic in the field of political economy’ in the neoliberal hive at the University of Chicago. Johnson was also a literary critic, a skill he deftly used in his later writings to show how the imperial imagination was reflected in the language of metropolitan literature. His departure  has greatly impoverished the intellectual world.

Continue reading “PULSE’s Top 10 Global Thinkers of 2010”

Judt on Life, Death and Israel

A couple of shorts on the late, great Tony Judt. First, Still Life focuses on his grace and perseverance while terribly ill. Over the fold, Don’t Talk About Israel shows Judt … talking about Israel.

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Edge Man: Tony Judt (1948-2010)

Tony Judt, a towering intellect, a moral giant, and a master of prose, has passed on. He did what only the greatest of thinkers do: he constantly evolved. More significantly, he never succumbed to orthodoxies, he was always on the edge. And that is what gave his writing its distinctive freshness. In his last years, he also outgrew his middle-of-the-road liberalism to adopt principled, at times radical, positions on war and capitalism. He fought successfully to erase the gap between passion and principle. The Zionism of his youth had led him to volunteer for the Israeli forces in 1967; he was disillusioned after realizing that the Israeli soldiers he worked with were ‘right-wing thugs with anti-Arab views’ or ‘just dumb idiots with guns.’

Judt’s disenchantment turned him into one of the most courageous and eloquent critics of the Jewish State. But unlike some luminaries of the left, he also had the moral courage to re-examine his own easy assumptions. A year after his first public statement on Israel-Palestine, in which he had called for a two-state solution, Judt acknowledged its unviability and issued a call for a single binational state in Palestine. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Evan Goldstein describes the essay’s impact.

According to Benny Morris, a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009), Judt’s essay placed the one-state idea “squarely and noisily on the table of international agendas.” The Forward described it as “the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear bomb on Zionism.” Within weeks, The New York Review had received more than 1,000 letters to the editor. Suddenly, says Robert Boyers, editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and an observer of the liberal intellectual scene, Judt was a major voice weighing in on the Middle East. Indeed, if the death of Judt’s friend the literary critic Edward Said, in 2003, left a “yawning void” in the national conversation about Israel, Palestine, and the Palestinians, as Judt has suggested, then it is Judt himself who has filled that void.

In 2006, he was the only mainstream figure to come to the defence of Mearsheimer & Walt after they published their groundbreaking London Review essay. He later joined John Mearsheimer in a debate organized by the London Review of Books in which they argued against apologists for the lobby. In the same year an event organized by Network 20/20 at which Judt was slated to speak was cancelled following pressure from the ADL and AJC. This prompted Mark Lilla and 114 writers and intellectuals to write a letter of protest to the ADL. He also spoke eloquently in a must-see Dutch documentary on the lobby (in which he also recounts the Network 20/20 incident). Later, he would join Mearsheimer, Tariq Ali and others to stand up for Norman Finkelstein who was being unjustly denied tenure under Israel lobby pressure. He also wrote a burning indictment of Israel’s crime in the same year, calling it the ‘country that wouldn’t grow up.’

Continue reading “Edge Man: Tony Judt (1948-2010)”

Ill Fares The Land

By Tony Judt

—This essay is drawn from the opening chapter of Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land (Penguin), first excerpted at NY Review of Books. A review of the book will follow shortly.

On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one’s distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.

For thirty years students have been complaining to me that “it was easy for you”: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. “We” (the children of the Eighties, the Nineties, the “Aughts”) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us—just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”

If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?

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Israel 61: The country that wouldn’t grow up

As Zionists prepare to celebrate the 61 anniversary of the ethnic cleaning of Palestine, and declaration of the state of Israel, its an opportune moment to republish some of the better literature covering the six decades.  The following is by Tony Judt published in the Haaretz in May 2006 titled The country that wouldn’t grow up.

wk2By the age of 58 a country – like a man – should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all. We acknowledge, however reluctantly and privately, our mistakes and our shortcomings. And though we still harbor the occasional illusion about ourselves and our prospects, we are wise enough to recognize that these are indeed for the most part just that: illusions. In short, we are adults.

But the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature. The social transformations of the country – and its many economic achievements – have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one “understands” it and everyone is “against” it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced – and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting – that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal. Appropriately enough, this country that has somehow failed to grow up was until very recently still in the hands of a generation of men who were prominent in its public affairs 40 years ago: an Israeli Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in, say, 1967 would be surprised indeed to awake in 2006 and find Shimon Peres and General Ariel Sharon still hovering over the affairs of the country – the latter albeit only in spirit.
Continue reading “Israel 61: The country that wouldn’t grow up”