Tony Judt died in 2010. He was brave and true to himself to the end. I miss that voice, so I got his book Thinking the Twentieth Century, with Timothy Snyder (2012). Here’s what Judt had to say about New York Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman, and other pro-Iraq war intellectuals back in 2003. Judt reports that he was on Charlie Rose with Brooks and when he challenged Brooks about the effectiveness of international agencies to resolve the Kosovo crisis and by extension the Iraq crisis, Brooks said “I don’t really know anything about that.”
Here we had the public intellectual who now occupies not only prominent television space but also op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers in the English-speaking world: and he knows nothing.
Men like Brooks know, literally, nothing. So I encountered in those troubled months a combination of catastrophic acquiescence in authority and plain, old-fashioned dumb ignorance masquerading as commentary. These were the circumstances which allowed a criminal political action to be pushed through the public space with very little opposition.
Something else to remember, though, is that the people who did know something just rolled over. I’m thinking of Michael Ignatieff, or David Remnick, or Leon Wieseltier, or Michael Walzer. Instead of asking questions, they all behaved as though the only function of the intellectual was to provide justification for the actions of non-intellectuals. And I just remember being profoundly shocked and also feeling very lonely. Not that I felt comfortable with the isolationists either…
Brooks is an interesting case because it’s all done with mirrors–there is no expertise. The apparent expertise consists of the capacity to talk glibly each week about any public event in a way that readers have gotten used to as a sort of enlightened commentary. Thomas Friedman, another prominent contemporary “expert,” trades on a slightly different notion of expertise. Notice that pretty much every Friedman column includes a reference to som famous person he’s spoken to. So he makes explicit the notion that your expertise is a function of your contacts… It doesn’t really matter, actually, who it is. It’s the notion of access to something special.
In Friedman’s case, access to information is very carefully recalibrated as the acceptable middle ground on any given policy issue. And Friedman’s position on the Iraq War was contemptible. Not only did he run along with everyone else, but he actually probably slightly misread the tea leaves and ran along a little too fast on the anti-French, anti-European thing. It was Friedman who ran a column that said that France should be kicked out of the U.N. Security Council for having the chutzpah to oppose the United States on such an important issue.
More to come!