Strong and Soft Opinions

Tony Judt, Public and Private

by Robert Loss

10 March 2011


The Deserted Village

Judt was known as an independent thinker wary of easy, lazy consensus. In Ill Fares the Land he may be shouting to the hard of hearing, but what he shouts contains no jingoism or soft math. In neither book does he maintain superficial allegiances; though an avowed social democrat, he criticizes liberalism, academia, contemporary French intellectualism and the Obama administration. The CATO Institute will be glad to hear Judt insist on the raising of the Social Security retirement age in America—that is, if the incestuous think-tank can be bothered to read the book. Some conservatives will happily sneer and likely miss the point as Judt criticizes identity politics and what he calls “single-issue, non-governmental groups unsullied by compromise”. There is no mistaking in either book Judt’s belief in social democracy, but he is careful enough to emphasize the need for pragmatism and community-building across party lines, and brave enough to reveal the personal experiences which have contributed to his beliefs.

Both Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet were written in the context of the Obama administration and the conservative backlash visible most stridently in the rise of the Tea Party. Not since the Reagan administration have American conservatives stressed an anti-state message so strenuously. Judt captures our current challenge in a way that may surprise.

The main problem, Judt argues, is not disagreement between opposing political sides. The differences are real and overlooked at one’s risk. As he writes in Ill Fares the Land, “The rich do not want the same thing as the poor…. Those who do not need public services—because they can purchase private transport, education, and protection—do not seek the same thing as those who depend exclusively on the public sector.” These disagreements must not be hidden in sentimental hogwash, nor dismissed in favor of any kind of enforced unity. Dissent, if it’s to be valued, must be allowed from all sides.

No, the real problem is the disagreement’s impoverished condition. Not for nothing is Ill Fares the Land‘s title taken from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The Deserted Village. The epigraph foreshadows Judt’s critique of amassed wealth at the cost of the working-class’ quality of life, but equally important is the image of an arid town gone bankrupt and dusty. Judt suggests that in this place we had once a stronger, more creative discourse. Now we live a few towns over, deaf from the shouting match Judt calls “[t]he etiolated condition of our present language—our inability to think our way beyond the categories and clichés that shape and distort policy-making in Washington and London alike…”  As the author says later in the book, “Politically speaking, ours is an age of the pygmies”.

In The Memory Chalet essay “Words”, Judt warns against the onset of an even more threatening foe than weakened or disingenuous speech: “nospeak”.  Here Judt’s sons, to whom Ill Fares the Land is dedicated, make a superb contribution, telling their father that their friends “talk like texts”. Today’s educators, he argues, have been content to praise what students are trying to say rather than what they actually say. Intelligent and multicultural discussion was the norm for the household of Judt’s youth and during his teenage years, but today’s academics “grasp…for the security of ‘theory’ and ‘methodology’”, an impenetrable and unshared specialization. In Ill Fares the Land he argues that economists similarly condescend “that economics and its policy implications are far beyond the understanding of the common man or woman—a point of view enforced by the increasingly arcane and mathematical language of the discipline”. These are what some call information silos, and Judt does not relent in either his invective or his memoir: we are losing our ability to communicate substantively.

cover art

Ill Fares the Land

Tony Judt

US: Mar 2010

Thus we may tighten with anxiety at the term “social democracy”, which sounds too much like “socialism”. (The author takes great pains to define it for Americans in the introduction to Ill Fares the Land.) Judt accurately assesses our fear as the culprit. As a society, we have enforced a ban on ideas we’d never tolerate if it originated from our government. Fearing retribution for the public utterance of our private ideas, we hesitate, grow distracted, bored, and eventually lose interest in conversation altogether.

The Public Good
The gist of the argument in Ill Fares the Land might well be summed up by this passage:

By 1945, there was a universal ‘craving for security’… addressed by the provision of public services and social safety nets incorporated into postwar systems of governance from Washington to Prague. The very term ‘social security’—adapted by Keynes from its new American usage—became a universal shorthand for prophylactic institutions designed to avert any return to interwar catastrophe.

“Today,” he continues, “it is as though the 20th century never happened.”

Our sense of history, like our ability to speak about politics, has been dulled by 30 years of conservatism, the pursuit of material success, and an increasing fetishization of our individualism. At a time when we should most be recalling the lessons of the early 20th century, we fully believe in globalization, unfettered capitalism and the privatization of public systems. The healthcare debate in America unabashedly sets against one another its corporations against its citizens; Social Security is seen on the Right alternately as an economic opportunity or a handout; the communal protection offered by the government is decried as totalitarian by people who lived through World War II and should remember what fascism really looked like. Rhetorically and in terms of policy, Judt suggests that we have undone the idea of the “social” and have drifted a long way from the Great Depression’s sense of shared responsibility, even if our circumstances look familiar.

Judt remembers the promise of postwar social democracy and documents it beautifully in The Memory Chalet, never moreso than in his loving descriptions of the mobility and equality offered by London’s public transportation system. In “Putney”, “The Green Line Bus”, and “Mimetic Desire”—there’s Girard again—trains and buses become comforting retreats, pleasingly quiet and efficient, and also methods of exploration, a concept now foreign to most of us. Again the private memory informs the public opinion. Judt includes in Ill Fares the Land a compelling case study of the privatization of British railways and its failures, comparing it to successful French and Italian services and even the privatized regional rail in Switzerland. Here the train is an example of modernity’s very definition of “public”, a “collective project for individual benefit”. What we have lost since the early postwar years is that sense of collectivity, and if we are to become what Judt describes as “gated individuals who do not know how to share public space to common advantage”, then, he suggests, we are done not just with commonality but “with modern life itself”.

Because we do not understand the value of the public good—because we do not fathom the necessity of public lands, services and support—it is inevitable, then, this tide of anti-government sentiment rippling through the United States. Both of these books were written in the context of the Obama administration and the conservative backlash visible most stridently in the rise of the Tea Party. Not since the Reagan administration have American conservatives stressed an anti-state message so strenuously. Judt captures our current challenge in a way that may surprise:

“We have freed ourselves of the mid-20th century assumption—never universal but certainly widespread—that the state is likely to be the best solution to any given problem. We now need to liberate ourselves from the opposite notion: that the state is—by definition and always—the worst available option”.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article