Strange things are happening in the intellectual world. Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic, has been steadily denouncing Israel, a country he once defended with equal ferocity, only to find himself denounced as an anti-Semite by his former colleague Leon Wieseltier. Peter Beinart, another former editor of the New Republic, has also been steadily denouncing Israel in the past week, a country he too once ardently defended, only to confess that he now believes that leading American Jewish organizations are reflexively quashing debate about Israel’s policies and alienating a younger generation of American Jews. Meanwhile, Paul Berman, in his new book The Flight of the Intellectuals, is busily decrying several of his peers as cravenly flinching in the face of Islamic terror.
Now comes the announcement of another ex-New Republic editor, Lawrence F. Kaplan, that he is resigning as editor of the bimonthly World Affairs. Kaplan’s move offers further evidence of the continued fallout from the Iraq War that has shaken up the world of neoconservatives and liberal hawks, a divide that Kaplan straddled as a senior editor at the New Republic, only to find his views profoundly upended by the war. Unlike many of the intellectuals who pontificated about the war from the remove of a cozy armchair in Washington, Kaplan repeatedly visited Iraq for months at a time to see the carnage and bloodshed and trauma firsthand. He sought out reality and became something of a realist.
In helping to relaunch World Affairs, a small journal that was, for many years, owned by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and who herself was, at bottom, a realist rather than a crusading neoconservative, Kaplan wanted to focus on ideas, to let a thousand flowers bloom. He himself didn’t quite know what to think any longer about the big questions but wanted thinking to take place. Kaplan skillfully presided over a cornucopia of essays that, more often than not, possessed a nicely heterodox edge, whether it’s Barry Gewen, an editor at the New York Times, raising an eyebrow over blanket liberal opposition to torture or Andrew Bacevich hurling anathemas at the governing class, while attempting to resurrect the shade of Christopher Lasch.
But now Kaplan says that the intellectual world is so “atomized,” in his words, that it’s almost impossible to hold continuous discussions within one magazine. What’s more, intellectual debates often seem to be woefully detached from reality. He points to a scorching essay in the latest New York Observer by Lee Siegel about Paul Berman. Siegel dismantles The Flight of the Intellectuals, which alleges that Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, among others, are cravenly cowering before the threat of Islamic terrorism. Siegel observes,
Mr. Berman is that terrible nightmare of the New York Jewish intellectual: the luftmensch, the man who eats and drinks ideas and lives bereft of life. For in the end, Mr. Berman's idea-besotted ignorance of the fate of other people has given his own ideas--such as they are--a rotten aspect. For years, he beat the drums of war like a misanthrope on amphetamines, and even now, seven years into the war in Iraq, after the deaths of thousands of Americans and the crippling of many thousands more Americans, and the death and maiming of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, this self-infatuated, foolish man is still beating the drums of war, without apology, and arguing like a medieval scholiast . . .
It’s not an edifying spectacle. World affairs will continue to rumble along, but will intellectuals have much to say about them or will they withdraw further into their petty, sectarian feuds, casting illusory glances at a vanished golden age, when their predecessors at Partisan Review supposedly engaged in great debates, even as they largely and blithely ignored World War II? It’s enough to make you think that those contemporary intellectuals who don’t ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.