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.