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.