Tony Judt, RIP

Tony Judt

Tony Judt was always admirably blunt and would have wanted nothing but the truth in his obituaries. So I hope I can be forgiven for saying that he was not an agreeable man. I mean that in reference to his public persona, not what he might have been like in private: it was always easier to disagree with him than to nod in conformity at this ideas. When I heard the news of Judt’s death this morning my first thought was of all the times I’ve wrinkled my nose while reading him, the various bones I’ve had to pick with him over the years, the many essays and books he’s written which I’ve had problems with, small and large.

Judt’s greatest qualities were his contentiousness which bordered on the ornery, his unwillingness to follow a party line, his independence of mind.  I immediately thought back to his famous attack on social history — “A Clown in Regal Purple” (1979) – which struck me as profoundly churlish in its unwillingness to appreciate the efforts of historians to recover the voices and experiences of the marginalized. His study of postwar French intellectuals – Past Imperfect – was a formidable achievement but marred, I thought, by a certain lack of historical empathy, an unwillingness to grant his ideological foes a context for their follies.

Like many other people I admired Judt’s ideological evolution: he started off a hardened Israeli nationalist, indeed a member of the IDF in 1967, but became in the last decade an eloquent advocate for the Palestinians. But here again, he went too far for me: his advocacy of a one-state solution seemed uncharacteristically utopian and indeed endangers the one real hope the Palestinians have, the two-state solution.

It might sound like I’m putting down Judt but the reverse is true: I’ve learned more from him than I have from thinkers whose worldviews are closer to my own. He was a good man to argue with. The loss to our intellectual life is immeasurable.

In honour of Tony Judt, I’d like to point readers to one of his best pieces of writing, his tribute to Edward Said, another man who stirred up important and necessary arguments. Judt’s essay can be found here.

Of course, much of what Judt wrote about Said applies to Judt himself. An excerpt:

The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said’s view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in “extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth.” Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, “Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel’s qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society.” But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.

That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to “give” them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: “It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies.” But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country’s political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but “what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America–with Israel–from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.

Why Spy?

James Bond: does he serve a useful purpose?

Inspired by recent events, I argue in the Globe and Mail that spies aren’t all that important. You can read the article here.

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Conservatism as a Family Affair

 

Jonas Savimbi: A Black African worthy of Peter Worthington's respect.

Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott is puzzled by the presence of Peter Worthington at the Frumforum site. Wolcott quotes a Worthington column on the World Cup which includes this observation, “And as a reflection of African ethnicity, well, maybe the vuvuzelas are the apex of cultural achievement.” Wolcott rightly describes Worthington’s column as a “moldy crumb of racial condescension” and doubts that it “will make FrumForum a lot of friends in the African community.”
As a cultural commenter Wolcott is dauntingly erudite. He can write with informed verve about everything ranging from the film noir classics of the 1940s to the novels of Norman Mailer to the peculiar humour of Benny Hill. But even Wolcott can’t be expected to understand the genealogy of Canadian conservative journalists.

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Reagan Versus the Neo-Cons

Mikhail Gorbachev: More dangerious than Stalin, according to Commentary magazine

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the tendency of neo-conservatives such as Norman Podhoretz to celebrate Ronald Reagan as a great president is more than a little disingenuous. Back when Reagan was actually in power, the neo-cons supported the president against his liberal and leftist critics but had their own problems with the Gipper, who they regarded as a weak appeaser all too willing to negotiate with an implacable enemy, Soviet Communism. This neo-conservative critique of Reagan was especially virulent in President’s second term when he came to the conclusion that Gorbachev was a sincere reformer worth doing business with.

In his book The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich acutely sums up this phase of neo-conservatism:

Podhoretz found much to like in Reagan’s rhetoric, but he warned against confusing words with actions. The two differed, often drastically. To take Reagan’s famous condemnation of Moscow’s “evil empire” at face value was “to fall victim to a campaign of disinformation.” In practice, Reagan had proven himself “unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy” to break with the Nixon-Ford-Carter policy of détente. Like his immediate predecessors, the president seemed obsessed with making the world safe for Communism, thus implementing “a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire.” Indeed, to Podhoretz, Reagan appeared “ready to embrace the course of détente wholeheartedly as his own.”

For all of his high-sounding talk, the fortieth president of the UnitedStates, Podhoretz reluctantly concluded, lacked backbone. Although he “seems to have a few strong convictions,” wrote Podhoretz in 1985, Reagan “invariably backed away from acting on them” if they threatened to “cost him more political approval than he might gain by tacking and trimming.” As late as 1986—three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall—Podhoretz was still insisting that “‘the present danger’ of 1980 is still present today, and the question of whether ‘we have the will to reverse the decline of American power’ still hangs ominously as it did then in the troubled American air.” As the end of the 1980s approached, the threat posed by Communism was becoming, if anything, greater than ever. That Reagan was apparently falling victim to Mikhail Gorbachev’s charm offensive was almost unbearable. In Podhoretz’s eyes, to parley with the enemy was to appease him.

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Israel and Its Enablers

Over at the National Post I have an essay about the “peace process”. You can read it here. This is the opening:

The Romance of Counterinsurgency

John Wayne: the great hero of 1960s counterinsurgency.

The romance of war doesn’t just appeal to conservatives who have spent too much time reading Kipling and watching old John Wayne movies. Liberals also have their own tendency to glamorize war, going back at least as far as Woodrow Wilson’s absurd celebration of the First World War as a great battle for democracy.

For the last half-century, counterinsurgency has been the type of war that liberals are most likely to idealize. In theory, counterinsurgency sounds great: it’s war fought to win “the hearts and minds” of the people, war that involves building alliances with the local population, war done with the best of intentions, war as a giant social welfare program (with guns).

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Precision warfare

We’ve seen this in the movies dozens of times: highly-trained Western special forces burst suddenly into a target building, their weapons at shoulder height. Moving rapidly from room to room, they identify each potential target within a second, unhesitatingly shooting the bad guys while keeping safe the unarmed and innocent. When it is over, the audience breathes a sigh of mixed relief and admiration.

Being the movies, this cannot really depict reality — and in fact, it doesn’t. It turns out that when special forces burst into a house, they keep their eyes closed.

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Joseph Epstein: Nostalgia for the Empire and the Closet

Lawrence of Arabia: In the closet and a servant of empire.

My previous essay about Commentary earned me a rebuke from a friend who happens to be a former contributor to that journal. I had suggested that Robert Alter was the only first-rate writer still contributing to Commentary.

What about Joseph Epstein? My friend asked. Or Terry Teachout? Or Ruth Wisse? Or Victor Hanson Davis? Or James Q. Wilson? Or Daniel Pipes?

Most of these are not names that make my heart beat faster when I see them plastered on a magazine cover but I’m happy to make exceptions for Terry Teachout and most especially for Joseph Epstein. I’ve praised both men repeatedly in book reviews.

Epstein is a top-notch personal essayist, who has revived the ruminative, free-ranging tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt. Among more modern essayists, he’s the peer of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal (not company he’d be completely comfortable with, sadly).  He’s also a very entertaining short story writer. Mind you, if literature were organized the way baseball was, Epstein wouldn’t be playing with the New York Yankees against heavy-hitters like Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant but would have to have to content himself with life on a farm team in Albany or Akron. Still, the Akron Aeros have some good players and Epstein’s fiction has given me a great deal of pleasure.

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“A foul anti-Israel polemicist of uncommonly repellent vintage”

Over at Commentary, John Podhoretz responds  to my earlier post where I contended that the magazine had compared President Obama to Hitler.  Mr. Podhoretz argues that my post was based on “a patently deliberate misreading” of a post written by Jennifer Rubin. I’ve already responded to Mr. Podhoretz’s clarification of the original Rubin post in the comment section of my own earlier post, but I thought the issue is important enough to deserve its own separate statement. 

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Room without a view

It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.

No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.

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