Friday, February 10, 2012

The Century of the Intellectuals

“The twentieth century,” Tony Judt asserts in this luminous book of conversations with the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “is the century of the intellectuals.” What does it say about intellectuals, then, that the century in which they exercised so much influence on policymaking and public opinion was also the bloodiest in history?

. . . the raucously polemical century began with the obviously malign thinkers on the right such as the antisemitic newspaper editor Edouard Drumant and the fascist Robert Brasillach. These were followed by the idealistic thinkers on the left whose endeavour to make a better world for all of humanity ended in, as Albert Camus wrote, “slave camps under the flag of freedom,” and “massacres justified by philanthropy.”

After two world wars and the Holocaust came an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity in the west—the perfect interlude, you might think, for intellectuals to uphold their oft-asserted ideals of reason and justice. But the cold war seems to have enhanced the capacity of writers, academics, politicians and journalists for terrible ideological choices. Stalinism and the gulag did not lack for apologists in the west. Nor did the unconscionable nuclear build-up at home, and the destructive proxy wars abroad for the sake of the “free world.”

 --Pankaj Mishra

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