One of the strangest sights in contemporary intellectual life has been the apotheosis of the secular saint. Like the holy men and women of the past, they gather disciples around them, whose interviews devoutly record their words and deeds; like the martyrs, they suffer for their unbelief, but their last utterances, transfigured by suffering, are all the more treasured. Their lives and deaths are reported in hushed tones, for these magi of the social media are trumpeted by their hagiographers as the true prophets of our time, baptised in wine and purified by sin. In the secular pantheon, cleanliness is next to ungodliness. As a preacher, a Terry Pratchett promoting euthanasia outranks any pope, pastor or rabbi. When Christopher Hitchens died last year, a Diana-like shrine was erected outside his apartment. Not piety but celebrity is the highest virtue.
Among those venerated by the intelligentsia, a prominent place is held by the late Tony Judt. For two years before he died in 2010, Judt was paralysed with motor neurone disease and his ordeal added to the mystique that surrounded him. Ever since his notorious call for Israel to commit national suicide by renouncing its role as the homeland of the Jewish people and embrace a post-Zionist identity as part of a mainly Palestinian state, Judt has been revered as a hero by the academic Left. In his latest posthumous work, written with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century (Heinemann, £25), Judt admits that he felt “genuine discomfort” at such idolisation, because “the fact is that it took very little courage to publish a controversial piece about Israel in the New York Review of Books while holding a tenured chair at a major university.”
Judt knew, then, that in the United States he lived in a free society where his right to make common cause with those who deny Israel’s right to exist was constitutionally protected. That recognition, however, did not stop Judt from libelling his political opponents (for example Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney) as avatars of “a native American fascism”. Intolerance of conservatism allied to intellectual snobbery has always been characteristic of liberals — 150 years ago John Stuart Mill was already sneering at the Tories as “the stupidest party” and today George Monbiot deploys dubious scientific research to assert in the Guardian that “conservatism thrives on low intelligence”. But Judt refused to accord his antagonists the most elementary courtesies. He not only denounced Israel but also the “Israel lobby”, which he accused of attempting to silence him, notwithstanding the fact that few public intellectuals can have ever been quite as public as Tony Judt. Attributing such sinister power to American Jews placed him in the company of assorted extremists and conspiracy theorists, whether of the Islamist or Leftist kind, but thanks to his status as a secular saint, such ideas gained a respectful, even reverential hearing in liberal circles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Judt’s repudiation of the Zionist sympathies of his youth — he had spent two years in Israel and served in its army — was of a piece with his rejection in his final decade of the US, his adoptive homeland, in favour of European social democracy, which he championed in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and in Ill Fares the Land. In earlier books, he had been critical of French intellectuals and of the European Union, but the transatlantic polarisation that followed 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq caused Judt to revert to what he saw as the uniquely prosperous, peaceful and civilised social experiment that had improbably emerged on European soil after Hitler and Stalin. Judt insisted that social democracy had brought with it an unprecedented security, which in turn had made possible a “private life” in which culture could flourish. The return, as he saw it, of a climate of fear and insecurity was the fault of free market ideologues, chief among them Friedrich Hayek, and their political adherents: Thatcher, Reagan, Blair and Bush. Thinking the Twentieth Century recapitulates this argument succinctly — and with more than a touch of bitterness.
For Judt lived to see his beloved social democracy decay from within. That process has only accelerated since his death. The debt crisis has made manifest the fundamental fact of life that Europe had contrived to ignore for decades: the promise of social security held out by the soft Left was always an illusion, because it mortgaged the future to pay for the present. There are too many drones and not enough workers. The European model has run out of Europeans.
Writing in the Washington journal National Affairs this month, the Catholic writer George Weigel describes this “unprecedented reality: the systematic depopulation on a mass scale through deliberate and self-induced infertility” as the underlying cause of Europe’s economic and political malaise. Others, too, have been warning for many years that Europe was not only living beyond its financial means, but consuming its moral capital too by squandering its Judaeo-Christian inheritance. It is no coincidence that the most powerful critics of this abdication of responsibility for civilisation are religious voices, such as Rabbi Lord Sacks and Pope Benedict XVI. An exclusively secular Europe is a Europe without a past or a future.