I'm back at that conference in Chicago and I'm now having a listen to what Tony Judt has to say. I'm expecting that he'll be a lot better than Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. Expectations are sometimes disappointed.
At least Judt starts with something I agree with. He says that if you can - as academics can - speak out when it is important to do so, you should. But then he backs this up with an argument that is at once alarmist and self-flattering. The argument is that for 100 years from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries there was public intellectual debate through the mass print media, in which other people than academics - public intellectuals who were able to support themselves from private incomes or the sale of their books - played a prominent role. It is much less the case today. That forum has narrowed, there are fewer public intellectuals with independent sources of income, and universities are consequently more important as a space in which to say unpopular things.
Judt's view is alarmist in suggesting that there is less possibility for public debate than there was - as if it has ever been easier in democratic societies for dissent to find expression in the public domain: in newspapers, on TV and radio, and on the internet (which he seems scarcely to have noticed). The self-flattery lies in exaggerating the importance of academics, as the one category of person occupying a space of free discussion. The general picture of embattlement gives a false account of the kind of society in which Tony Judt lives.
Later in his talk (go to 9 minutes in), he says that the Israel lobby in the US is a very distinctive lobby. His claim is that it denies its own existence and exists to silence and suppress. As to the first point, I thought I'd check out the website of AIPAC, surely a part of the Israel lobby. AIPAC stands for The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which seems rather clear in itself. But just in case it isn't clear enough, right underneath those words at the top of the website are these:
With respect to silencing and suppressing, Judt details certain activities - trying to have people disinvited from speaking, or blocking their works from being published, if their views are uncongenial to those doing the lobbying - that are indefensible. On the other hand, the claim that these views (views critical of Israel) are in fact silenced in the US doesn't withstand scrutiny. The views of Tony Judt, and Norman Finkelstein, and Noam Chomsky, and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, not only are heard, they are widely enough heard that they cause public controversy. I sometimes wonder if those who talk of being silenced - as, for another example, various spokesfolk against the Iraq war have from time to time talked - actually know what it means to be silenced for one's political opinions.
Towards the end (go to 19 minutes in), Judt again says something I can endorse. It's this. You have to say what you know to be true. You can't calibrate it so as to prevent others you don't approve of agreeing with you for their reasons. What he's referring to is the fact that if you hold his view of the Israel lobby, then you're close to thinking there's a de facto conspiracy, and this sounds a bit like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Others - 'idiots' - will latch on to what you're saying so that you can sometimes be 'in bed with the wrong people'.
Leaving aside the substantive issue of whether the Israel lobby is like a conspiracy, I think Judt is talking sense. It's just a pity that he doesn't extend the duty - or is it privilege? - of professing the truth as you see it, even when that means being in company that makes you uncomfortable, to people like Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Adam Michnik, Václav Havel, André Glucksmann, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Michael Walzer - people he not long ago presented rather disobligingly as part of a 'service class', not so much liberal as avowedly liberal.