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Ben Sen

Ben Sen
New York, N.Y.,
December 31
I'd rather be judged on the basis of my posts than anything written in my bio. It's put down and gathered as a record of my experience and a response to what I see as the important issues in the world today. I don't pretend it's anything other than subjective. The purpose is to analyze, interpret, express opinions, challenge the status quo, open a few doors, and entertain. I heartily welcome ratings, comments and dialogue. That's what makes this media unique and valuable. It also keeps me honest and encouraged since I'm not getting paid. Take a risk and say something; it feels better. A "conversation" is essential for the growth of the individual and the collective. I have faith it extends beyond the confines of what is said here. "For it is necessary for awake people to be awake, or a breaking line may discourge us back to sleep, the signals we give--yes, no or maybe--should be clear: the darkness around us is deep." From A RITUAL TO READ TO EACH OTHER by William Stafford


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MARCH 22, 2012 1:29PM

Book Review: Thinking the Twentieth Century

Rate: 6 Flag

     What a relief to find a contemporary, incredibly informed writer who is not in the grips of the prevailing ideologies, and actually provides analysis.  I "discovered" Tony Judt hiding in plain sight in the pages of the New York Review of Books.

     I'm now ashamed to admit I'd been reading his material for years, but never fully grasped the full nature of his contribution until I read the series of articles he wrote while on his death bed from ALS in 2008 and 2009.  They were among the most compelling essays I've read in years, stopped me in my tracks, and I'm no exception.  He died in 2010 at the age of 62 not long after completing Thinking the Twentienth Century with Timothy Snyder.  It's basically an "as told to" book, since Judt could no longer write.  The wry and insightful Mr. Snyder eggs him on.

     Tony Judt was the child of Eastern European Jews who migrated to England prior to the Second World War.  He worked his way diligently through the English school system arriving at its very pinnacle, Kings College, Cambridge, in a time that he thinks won't come again. 

     He became a historian by trade and an academic by necessity, the author of 14 books, an expert on French and Eastern European history. His most acclaimed and read book is Postwar, on the aftermath of WWII in Europe.  He eventually arrived at New York University where he established the Eric Maria Remarque Institute in European Studies in order to train a new generation of independent minded scholars like himself.  He lived and taught only a few blocks from my door, but I never met him.

     It's hard to pick a place to start to enumerate his virtues and review this remarkable book.  It makes it clear within the first few pages how we live in an era where most of what passes for "political" discourse and writing is mostly polemics.  It's hard to see how global communications and the instant access to information has made the situation any better.  Judt takes that "deeper cut" where those in the service of the marketplace dare not tread. 

     Judt's most controversial position, since he was Jewish, a Zionist, and former Kibbutz resident for two years of his young life, argues that Israel, the land he loved, took a self-destructive imperialist right turn soon after the Six Day War, and hasn't come back.   Under considerable pressure Judt stood by that view for the rest of his life in and out of the public eye.  Try this quote for size:

     In a serious discussion of the Middle East and Israel, someone is going to ask you whether the time has come to distinguish Israel from the Holocaust, since the later should not be allowed to serve as a Get Out of Jail Free Card for a rogue state.

    Can you imagine him dropping this grenade at the table with Charlie Rose and say, Bibi Netanyahu?  Judt's article, Israel: the Alternative published in NYRB in 2003 proposed a "one nation" solution to the problem in Israeli occupied Palestine, to the consternation of perhaps everyone but his friend Edward Said, the professor at Columbia who was his friend and perhaps the most hated Palestinian intellectual since that war.  That's chuptzpa.  (I'd never dare say something like it since I'm not Jewish and fear the line that would be crossed could never be uncrossed.)

     Judt brings insights long precluded by conventional views, and provides a solid perspective on many of our problems both economically and politically.  He's just as good on Keynes and as he is on Hayek, and Marxism, whose template he notes was Catholicism.  He's emphatic in his observations related to the "culture of fear" that has taken over our national discourse and in fact places our democracy at risk.    

     We have re-entered an age of fear.  Gone is the sense that the skills with which you enter a profession or job would be relevant skills for your working lifetime.  Gone is the certainty you could reasonably expect a comfortable retirement after a lifetime of work--the paralysis of fear...was why so many Americans were willing to throw in their hat with Bush for eight years, offering support to a government whose appeal rested exclusively upon the mobilization and demogogic exploitation of fear.

      I find the truth refreshing and to find it still has a place in the dialogue gives one hope.  As does the revival of the role of the "public intellectual" which has died.  As much, for instance, as I disagreed with Normal Mailer at least that's what his credentials genuinely made him--and now who is there to replace him and his arch enemy Gore Vidal?  The chippies, male and female, with their bright shinning teeth vying for the anchor job?  For the meantime, we can at least say what we think in the blogosphere, but one wonders who is listening and how long will the bubble last?

     How does one explain a nation and middle class that votes against its own best interests, again and again and again?  Where are all those would be millionaires who believe in the dream yet never will partake in it except in their imaginations?   Yet they complain at providing a safety net for themselves rather than more security and military expenditures.  The American dream has ended with them.  Goverment is "evil" despite what it does for them.  It's the one thing you can count on them for.  How did this nation become so confused? 

      Its reached the point where seeing anyone who challenges the status quo find a platform is an delight, but when they do it so well it's something else again.  The screech of the ideologues has become a deafening roar, and the anti-political culture is getting worse. If there's a way out it seems some application of reason to the issues is necessary in the future, hopefully without recourse to the wars that marked the 20th century.  I know that marks me as a "liberal" but at least not a faux liberal since I vote.

     But I'm not going to let Judt off easy--not as a native American and member of the diaspora of the city of Detroit.  I don't think he fully understands the role race plays in this country, though he certainly does in the case of Europe.  His view of Obama is mixed, as is expected, and while he was clearly encouraged the nation finally found a competent politician and representative for the middle class, he knows it was by default--the right was taken by surprise. 

     What Judt didn't see is how race has influenced Obama's choices and tactics, at least until the time of his death.  There's not one mention of the fact in the book, and not one black American author in the index.  His life here was in the university, not the streets, and that shows.  I don't think dismissing it as "the race card" in this country works any better than it did in Europe.  The fact that American racists have learned to conceal and deny their prejudices doesn't mean they've gone away--not to anyone paying attention to our "foodstamp" President.

     What would Judt say if in fact Obama is re-elected with the plurality he has been lacking?  He didn't see it as a goal at the time of dictating the book.  But I think it only would have been a matter of time.  Here's the hint:

     The choice we face in the next generation is not capitalism vs. communism, or the end of history vs. the return of history, but the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes versus the erosion of society based on the politics of fear.

     In other words, it is not the old that needs to be displaced, or the rhetoric of the new, but the present that needs to be faced as it is rather than tired ideologies that no longer address the issues for anybody. 

     Liberals can't allow each other to default from the political process any longer, and need to recognize the necessity and duty to vote for the candidates who most closely approximate their interests without throwing that vote away.  This isn't "evil," their souls will not be besmirched.  It's how the political process works in a democracy, and dare I suggest it would be a good idea to do so in the next election.   


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Thank you for celebrating Tony Judt. I too read him for years in the NYRB without paying attention to who he was. A real loss.

You identified the current raging problem in your last paragraph.
I haven't read Tony Judt, though I've seen his name appearing on lists of 100 most influential intellectuals and such. I'm now motivated to read him.

About participation in democracy, it requires discipline, and as you say it requires showing up. The 2010 midterms were a disaster in my view because people who had high expectations were disappointed in Obama. It isn't realistic to expect one election and one man to fulfill all political dreams. In fact, the complexity and practical realities of the job require a President to work within the parameters of political power, competing interests, economic reality, and the inherited status quo as a starting point. So counting on your fingers 5 things you wanted personally but didn't get doesn't qualify as a serious political analysis. Or counting 3 things you hate about what a President did has to be carefully balanced against everything the President has done, and what he is trying to do but encountering opposition for, and the longer term goals he is speaking out for. And it all must take into account the very real and unyielding constraints, the serious responsibilities, and conflicting demands faced by the President.

Deciding to punish a President because he has failed to meet perfection, or because he has gone against your preferences in a specific number of limited cases doesn't qualify as the kind of long term political discipline needed to bring about change. The non-voting punishment approach cedes power to the rivals. The way to gain political power is to be a reliable numerous voting block that clearly articulates it's positions. Even if you don't get everything you want this year or next year, your best chance of being listened to down the road is to continue to build consensus, continue to grow your voting base, continue to deliver votes reliably over time. That is a platform for political power. It's natural that politicians will listen more closely if you have demonstrated the ability to bring large numbers of voters to the polls again and again. Getting excited in one election and then punishing by abstaining 2 years later is too fickle an attitude to build serious credible sustained political power.

It's like a giant tug of war that moves very slowly with many different interests pulling in different directions. The one certain rule of the game is to never drop your rope. You just keep working harder at making the rope you choose to pull on more focused, more clearly directed toward recognizable goals, more effective at articulating a persuasive message and inching the crowd in your direction patiently with an emphasis on long term vision. Complaining and criticizing and staying home just helps your rivals.
this sound interesting, I am all for complex solutions;
however, I do not think that the pro Bush types have any monopoly on fear
thousands of undocumented migrants entering the country are being told that people for secure borders hate them and that the only reason they are concerned is that they are racists; I know this to be a lie in many cases. It is like communism, you have to prove without doubt someone is a racist before you slime them. If this isn't a recipe for hate and violence and future division in society I don't know what is. Dems stoke a future majority by stating over and over that all Republicans are racists. A few Republicans espoused radical birth control views and now the leaders of the Democratic party try to raise money under the constant drum beat of a"WAR ON WOMEN." Don't make me laugh. I am a woman and I am more afraid of their transparent attempt to fan the flames of division and fear. Race against race. Now men against women.
I am an Independent. I despair of Republicans. But I equally despair of Dems.

You're what I call "anti-political." Rather than support the most likely candidate or party to represent you and what you are interested in, you will disparage them both. I'm asking you to look at that from a different perspective. If our government was fascist, and your side won, would that give you what you want?

We're on the same page. I call it "successive approximation." It's how democracy works.

I suspect the reason you wrote that was no more than to get my goat. It's so blatantly an ideological jab it does not deserve consideration. Have you ever considered reading anything that wasn't ideologically motivated? Do you understand the difference between ideology and politics? What I've seen from you indicates you don't have a clue and your only purpose here is to antagonize.
Thank you for writing this. Speech worthy. If Israel attacks Iran or should the reverse happen, it will be WWIII. No doubt. There is so much in this post to ponder I will re-read and look for articles by Tony Judt.

Unfortunately I do not think I will see peace in the Middle East during my life time. How could we have sent our troops into Afghanistan...nobody wins there. Nobody ever wins there. Has there been no attention to history?
I JUST put that book on hold at the library after reading about him in another's post. Oddly, when you shared the review on the Smith book, Just Kids, I was already twenty pages into it. How's that for synchronicity? I should go back and read the review now. I thoroughly enjoyed Smith's book, by the way.
"The choice we face in the next generation is not capitalism vs. communism, or the end of history vs. the return of history, but the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes versus the erosion of society based on the politics of fear."

That's a pretty good summary of what I think the central question is in our politics as well. That is why I've said there are really two parties in America: the Community-building Party and the Leave me Alone Party. It makes no sense in the sweep of history for the Tea Party to call Obama a socialist. But it does make sense in the context of right wing ideology in which any sort of collective action or interaction between groups who are different from one another is suspect.

You are right to focus on the issue of "politics" and the need for liberals to recover politics from ideological politics, which is no politics at all but just a brute display of force. While it is tempting to fight right wing ideological fire with left wing ideological fire you can't really be a liberal unless you embrace politics. And as unsexy as that may be, politics is a process not a fixed destination. I will never forget what professor Theodore Lowi taught me: Conservatism can only govern a society that is already homogeneous. Liberalism works in complex modern societies because it creates the values and processes that lets diverse communities to overcome and even embrace its differences to live together in peace. Conservatism is divisive by nature. But if liberalism implies politics, and politics presumes compromise as difficult as that may be with people as intractable as those on the right, then liberals cannot be true to themselves if they become ideologues like their right wing opponents.
Thank you very much for your profound essay on Tony Judt.

As to American politics, I would tell liberals to take heart, because better days are coming. I just got through listening to John Dean discuss inside baseball of the Supreme Court, and it's highly likely that not only will Obamacare be found constitutional, but that the Citizens United decision will be overturned by the court shortly.

For us naysayers, it might be hard to accept a string of victories for our side, but that seems entirely possible.

Something that scared Judt scares me too, following what we have seen this country is capable of since 9/11. And that is what would happen if the "enemy" was not a band of tribesmen from the desert? This scares most of Europe about the US too since we are indeed the last "super power."

The fascist element in this country is very strong, and I would disagee with your professor to the extent of saying that "conservatism" is ordinarily the default position especially in times of confusion. The "homogeneous" societies of Northern Europe are liberal, and also disprove the assumption that societies that care for their citizens can also do so while exercising fiscal restraint.

We have met the enemy that they are us. Why is that we find that so hard to believe, or treat as traitors those who do see it? I once wrote for a former Coast Guard commander, a sophisticated guy who was once a White House fellow under Reagan, who liked to say that the only foreign territory America ever seeks is the ground to bury our dead. I almost burst out laughing at the ludicrousness of that statement and the blindness that allowed him to say it.

As for Lowi: You are right about many homogeneous communities being liberal. In fact, I think it's their homogeneuity that often encourages liberality because of the kinship connection. Race is one reason I think that the New Deal (whose benefits were mostly confined to whites) produced a durable coalition that governed America for 50 years while the very similar but multi-cultural Great Society produced a backlash. Perhaps Lowi's point should be refined to say that homogeneous communities are not necessarily conservative but conservatism can only thrive in a community that is homogeneous.

There's another aspect. I remember during Nam how incredibly critical the Dutch were of the US and of course we have long been seen as suspect for our racial policies, but there is a limit since these are such homogeneous societies that they have very little insight into ours. The same may be said for the French. Then, of course, the shit hit the fan with their Muslim populations and they don't get to be quite so self-righteous. I think there's a lot we can learn from European history, but it ain't the same. What's great about Judt is he goes into it in a depth that allows you to recognize what is salient.