What do all these people have in common?
Paul Berman, Peter Beinart, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick, Thomas Friedman, Jacob Weisberg, Adam Michnik, Václav Havel, André Glucksmann, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Michael Walzer.Well, one thing they have in common is that they all crop up in a piece by Tony Judt in the London Review of Books, to exemplify something very bad that has been happening since 9/11, though Judt says the origins of the process go back before 9/11. The something bad? A 'collapse of liberal self-confidence', 'liberal intellectuals... fast becoming a service class', support for the Iraq war and/or war on terror and/or Israel and/or Bush's foreign policy - you know the story. Judt's focus is on American liberalism, but you'll be able to infer from the list of names above that he's willing to extend it more widely. It's a wonder he stopped at those 13 names. He could have added others: Jose Ramos-Horta, Pamela Bone, Nick Cohen, Bernard Kouchner, David Aaronovitch and more.
Here's the thing, though. While Judt's characterizations of those whom he discusses are far from flattering, he does allow a suggestion of what they themselves might think to peep out, if only to jab it in the eye with a screwdriver:
A commitment to the abstract universalism of 'rights' - and uncompromising ethical stands taken against malign regimes in their name - can lead all too readily to the habit of casting every political choice in binary moral terms.And yet, stop as you read Judt's article to ask what the reference point is, what the set of arguments, against which he finds all these people guilty. Set of arguments: none. Reference point: an unargued assumption that there is simply a right side of all the issues he passes in review, that he is on it, and that the people he names are on the wrong side of them. Talk about binary moral terms; Judt precisely fits the charge he levels. He can't allow that a commitment to the 'universalism of rights' might have led others to different conclusions than his.
It's only one opinion piece, and Judt is only one writer. But what he has written here has a general significance, and one strangely relevant to his chosen subject. For, if you want to reflect on a failure of recent liberalism (in the American sense of that word), it is the current this opinion piece of his represents that you should take note of. Forget - in this context - the Hizbolleft: those who were unembarrassed to hope for a US defeat in Iraq by Saddam's armies, then to express solidarity with an anti-democratic and murderous insurgency, and more lately to do the same with an avowedly anti-Semitic movement opposed to the existence of Israel. More interesting are all those good liberals and leftists of anti-war conviction to whom none of this applies, but for whom, nevertheless, there has been only one truth and one virtue, to be the same as them; and the main object of whose animus, whose almost daily passion, has been - what? - not 'malign regimes', not apologists for terror, certainly not the denizens of the aforesaid Hizbolleft; no, as demonstrated again here by Tony Judt, that main object has been the segment of the liberal-left (when they allow that we do actually remain liberal or left) which has taken a view on current international conflicts that is opposed to theirs. What a sorry debacle. (Thanks: DB.)