REAPPRAISALS: REFLECTIONS ON THE FORGOTTEN TWENTIETH CENTURY by Tony Judt Heinemann,
Who are the big intellectuals today? There are academics, to be sure, each with their speciality, and journalists, ditto. When something comes up the BBC will call on them to pontificate, to explain, but only on their speciality. Off their own piste they are no more valuable than a saloon-bar or dinner-party bore, eager to tell you 'what I always say'. I don't exempt myself.
Tony Judt, now a professor at New York University, is the rare real thing, the author of 11 books on Marxism and French intellectuals, European resistance and revolution, language in a multi-state world; he is to consider what has happened in post-war Britain, the US, Israel and France.
In this book, a collection of previously published essays grouped by themes, he looks closely at some of the big minds of the 20th century -- Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Primo Levi and Edward Said (who reads them now? ) and weighs up their values. I found his chapter on Koestler, whose great novel Darkness at Noon is especially insightful, critical and measured. He dismisses a critic who disparaged Koestler for having a rackety sex-life, but says, too, that while Darkness at Noon blackens the way the Soviets treated Communists, Koestler is silent on the famines, the expropriations, the wholesale deportations of peoples authorised by Stalin. The skeletons are those of Communists, mostly of Communist intellectuals.
Judt is the master of 'but'. He begins his chapter on Eric Hobsbawm by calling him 'the best known historian in the world'. He hails Hobsbawm's brilliance and style, noting that he was an Apostle at Cambridge, where his contemporary (and later my supervisor) Noel Annan recalled him as being 'armed cap-à-pied with the Party's interpretation of current politics'.
But -- this is the but -- Judt zeros in on Hobsbawm's ultimate weakness: 'Eric Hobsbawm was not just a Communist -- there have been quite a lot of those, even in Britain. He stayed a Communist for 60 years.' Hobsbawm, he reminds us, once said, 'There are certain clubs of which I would not wish to be a member.' By this, Judt observes, Hobsbawm meant ex-Communists, thus distancing himself from Camus, Koestler and Silone. 'By excluding himself from such company', Judt states, 'Eric Hobsbawm, of all people, has provincialised himself.'
In this collection, Judt concentrates on the 'role of ideas, ' bewails our culture of forgetting, and condemns self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalisation and the free market -- as if all these mean something if you bothered to consider them. We are on a path, he suggests, to a moral memory palace, with way stations labelled 'Munich', 'Pearl Harbor', 'Auschwitz', 'Gulag', 'Bosnia', 'Rwanda' . . .
with '9-11' as a bloody postscript for those who would forget the lessons of the century [the 20th] or who have never properly learned them.
To these markers cling what he calls 'separate pasts', assertions of victimhood, for example, by Jews, Armenians, German-Americans, the Irish and homosexuals.
This mosaic, Judt argues, 'does not bind us to a shared past; it separates us from it. A world just recently lost is already half forgotten.' One of the losses, he underlines, is the intellectual -- 'free-thinking or politically committed, detached or engaged, a defining glory of the 20th century'.
He does not mean left-leaning 'progressives' like Sartre, Grass, Sontag and op-ed writers. He praises those courageous individuals 'writing for the desk drawer', many of them Jews, exiles or rootless, from places like Cernovitz, Vilna, Sarajevo, Alexandria, Calcutta or Algiers.
He quotes Edward Said, an Episcopalian Palestinian, born in Cairo to a Baptist mother, long resident at Columbia University, remarking, 'I still have not been able to understand what it means to love a country.' No doughtier champion of the Palestinians lived until his recent death. He was accused by some of being 'the professor of terror', but he also condemned the corruption and irrationality of Palestinian leaders and added that as losers of everything they have nothing with which to negotiate.
Edward Said had three big goals, Judt explains:
To tell the world [above all Americans] the truth about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians; the parallel urgency of getting Palestinians and other Arabs to recognise and accept the reality of Israel and engage with Israelis, especially the Israeli opposition; and the duty to speak openly about the failings of Arab leadership.
Then there is Israel itself, and here Judt, a Cambridge-educated Jew who once lived on a kibbutz, will enrage many readers, especially Jewish ones, but may nudge the dormant brains and sensibilities of others. In its first decades, Israel, he says, represented nothing so much as a transposition into the Middle East of the preoccupations and mores of the Independent Labour Party of 1890s Britain or the Wandervogel walking clubs of late Wilhelminian Germany.
The Arabs were barely considered by these founders, because 'taking the Jews out of Europe did not take Europe out of the Jews. Israel in 1967 was a European country in all but name.' He recalls that 'many Israelis were just as prejudiced against immigrant Jews from North Africa or the Near East as they were against Arabs.
Perhaps more so'.
In those years, Judt asserts, Israel was widely admired as the beleaguered little country that had made the desert bloom.
Then came the Six Day War in 1967, a victorious Israel expanded four-fold, and 'no responsible Arab leader would ever again seriously contemplate the military destruction of the Jewish state'. From this emerged what Judt terms a messianic Israel armed with 'a Bible and a map'. Its 'mainstream politicians connived at the subsidised establishment in the West Bank of tens of thousands of religious and political extremists'.
Judt quotes Israel's great statesman Abba Eban:The exercise of permanent rule over a foreign nation can only be defended by an ideology and rhetoric of self-worship and exclusiveness that are incompatible.
Nowadays (and I await letters to the editor), to criticise any of this triumphalism is to be to condemned in many quarters as anti-Semitic. Judt is cruel but bang on target:
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 amour propre, quick to take offence and quick to give it. Like many adolescents, Israel is convinced that it can do as it wishes; that its actions carry no consequences; and that it is immortal.
He observes that an otherwise friendless Israel is defended to the knife by Americans -- no American congressman dares question the $3 billion paid annually to Israel, 20 per cent of the American foreign aid budget -- and that American Middle Eastern policy seems to imitate Israel wholesale, to import that tiny country's self-destructive, intemperate response to any hostility or opposition and to make it the leitmotif of American foreign policy.
To come back to his great theme, Judt reserves his greatest scorn for those American intellectuals -- he spares no reputations -- who supported the second Iraq invasion and now condemn it because it has worked out badly. In today's America, he wrote in 2006, 'neoconservatives generate brutish policies for which liberals provide the ethical figleaf.
There is really no difference between them.' I hope that readers of Reappraisals will resist the knee-jerk which so often passes for thought, and warm up those parts of their brains where true intellectualism always demands 'could some of this be true?'.
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Source: Spectator, The London