Tony Judt on Harry Lyme and Other Intellectuals

The other night at NYU, Tony Judt said, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night,” and then dropping his scarf and jacket on the stage, gave a barnburner about the intellectual’s responsibility. Here are some of his salient points:

1. Television has greatly narrowed the freedom of the intellectual to do his job and “disturb the public peace.” 100 years ago, the French intellectual Julien Benda could stand up against the establishment for Alfred Dreyfus “because he was innocent… in the name of universal values, not particular interests.” But that moment is over. Benda and others were given a platform by the rise of mass literacy in the 1880s; they were then disempowered by the rise of television in the 1970s. In that short 90 years, “educated elites had a mass literate audience.” No longer. Today newspapers and foundations are not willing to support views “that make them uncomfortable.”

2. Intellectuals are now in four spots. 1. Pundits. 2. Thinktanks. 3. Investigative journalists (like Gideon Levy and Anna Politkovskaya). 4. the academy.

3. Intellectuals in the academy are like clergy in the middle ages, protected but with obligations. When Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper made Harvard uncomfortable, it stripped its logo from their online version, in what Judt called “a very cowardly gesture.”

4. Self-censorship is “far more efficient” than official censorship. All the worries about threats to the First Amendment from the executive are small next to “the real issue,” people not saying what they know to be true and “camouflaging the truth from themselves.”

5. The neoconservative idea of “productive disruption” in the Middle East—”to get a western omelet, you need to break some oriental eggs”—is rather similar to the “best line in the history of movies,” the famous Harry Lyme line in The Third Man. (“ln ltaly, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. ln Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce ? The cuckoo clock.”)

6. Liberals must not be “pressured into silence” on the Israel issue by the Israel lobby in America. “Why is the American Jewish community so determined to convince itself that we are living in 1938. Why does the most successful, the most well integrated, the most culturally and politically influential, the most socially and economically well situated Jewish community since the late years of the Roman republic, why is it so worried about the demon of anti-Semitism—more worried than the Jewish community in any other country I know and certainly more worried than Israel itself? It’s an American issue.”

7. If any European country had elevated a “racist and fascist” along the lines of Avigdor Lieberman, deputy P.M. of Israel, “every newspaper in America would be screaming 1938″ and calling for boycotting, “quite rightly,” the European Union.

8. The unfortunate trend in intellectual life is the prevalence of “identity intellectuals who ask themselves of a policy, of the law or of the war, not Is it true, is it just, is it bad or good, but rather is it good for people like me or people like us, is it good for my cause?” These identity intellectuals have their counterparts on campus. “The crippling organization of American intellectual life at large is reproduced and magnified here on American campuses, where many colleagues are teaching in effect identity politics masquerading as cultural classes.”

A few comments. Judt is a great speaker, confident, grand, slashing, brilliant, stylish. He kept my attention for an hour, and some of his insights left me shaking my head in wonder. That’s something. He has to be a little bit wrong about Pt. 2, inasmuch as he never mentioned bloggers, who are obviously having some effect. Also, I felt a little disappointment that his promise of a “bumpy ride” and his interest in “identity intellectuals” did not result in his talking about dual loyalty, which I think he must believe is an issue for some Jews re Israel. As to his own question in Pt. 6 about the incomprehensible fear on the part of the successful Jewish community in the U.S., I think the correct answer is: American Jews feel it is their political responsibility to protect Israel by keeping the U.S. government at Israel’s side. This is an American responsibility, not a European one, and it is a weighty one. It is made more problematic by the fact that typically only the most nationalistic Jews go to Israel to see what’s going on. And so liberal Jews here have allowed the nationalistic to report to them and dominate the discussion. When these nationalist friends tell them that Israel’s existence is at stake, and the U.S. is the only thing protecting the little sliver of land, the liberals with their shared responsibility become fearful. Yes, they ought to take more actual responsibility for Israeli policy (like the right-wing religious stuff that when they see it in other Americans enrages them), but that’s how I think the Rube Goldberg device works, and doesn’t.