Strong and Soft Opinions

Tony Judt, Public and Private

by Robert Loss

10 March 2011


Pragmatism, Realism and Elitism

Judt’s vision of social democracy is supremely reasonable. It recognizes the free market and capitalism as the prevailing economic system of our times—eschewing Marx’s belief that it would fall on its face, or must be overthrown by revolution—but never mistakes it for a political system. (In America, on the blogs and nightly news, it’s difficult to tell whether or not we know the difference.) Put simply, the state exists to do what business cannot and will not do, and by neutering the state we will only increase the divide in wealth beyond our current condition, in which more than 21 percent of American income is retained by one percent of its people.

Judt’s belief in pragmatism, realism and even elitism—the latter visible moreso in The Memory Chalet—offsets any notion of outright equal distribution of wealth. Yet conservatives will bristle, maybe even scoff, at some of Judt’s proposed solutions. First among these is a need to “recast the public conversation” in a manner which promotes civil dissent. “We need to re-learn how to criticize those who govern us,” Judt writes.  “But in order to do so with credibility we have to liberate ourselves from the circle of conformity into which we, like they, are trapped”. The first priority of any change is to reduce inequality, and this will require an evaluation of the term “wealth”. Boldly, Judt hypothesizes, “Take humiliation: what if we treated it as an economic cost, a charge to society?” This is certainly a step outside the circle of conformity. Judt acknowledges the difficulty of quantifying such costs. But the accounting of social mood and individual afflictions would go a long way to involving more people in a discussion of politics which often seems outside their concern. This is the democratic urge of “social democracy”, a recognition of every individual’s worth. Of this we are lucky to hear anything more than lip service.

Judt’s honesty should demand the same in kind from the rest of us, and certainly from his ideological opponents. I suspect few of us are brave enough to give it.

With a remembrance of history and a priority on creating more equality, Judt reminds the reader that “The Left has something to conserve”. American culture is notoriously amnesiac, and the liberal base of this country is no different. “We take for granted the institutions, legislation, services and rights that we have inherited from the great age of 20th century reform,” Judt writes. “It is time to remind ourselves that all of these were utterly inconceivable as recently as 1929”. Wise words to those following the collective bargaining debates raging in the Midwest, where I’m writing from. Here, it’s beginning to look a lot like 1928.

A More Honest Politics
By discussing his private life, Judt opens up a window for his critics. His arguments about public transportation, they may argue, are affected by the obvious love for them expressed in The Memory Chalet. Ah, they may say, now we see the man’s biases. Better, one might think, to keep the window shade drawn and maintain the divide between the public, argumentative voice and the private.

cover art

Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945

Tony Judt

US: Sep 2006

If anything, the coupling of these two books amounts to a full disclosure which makes it easier to think through the seemingly-abstract politics. Judt’s honesty should demand the same in kind from the rest of us, and certainly from his ideological opponents. I suspect few of us are brave enough to give it.

“I prefer the edge”, Judt writes in The Memory Chalet, “the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life”. This sentence from the “Edge People” may help those perturbed by Judt’s stance on Israel, which he addresses in the memoir’s penultimate essay, “Toni”. Judt mistrusts identity politics not for its positive self-affirmation but for its tendency toward insularity, or what he succinctly terms “communitarian solipsism”. (He notes in Ill Fares the Land that American interest in politics has become dominated by single-issue viewpoints; everyone has his or her cause.) Thus he laments that the American Jewish community is “obsessively attached to the recollection—and anticipation—of its own disappearance”, an ever-present threat which demands allegiance and has become a “secular attribute, externally attributed”. This from a man who, as a teen, experienced “an all-embracing engagement with left-wing Zionism”, detailed in the essay “Kibbutz”. Once again, the personal informs the political; reading Judt’s reportage on his kibbutz experience sheds light on “Edge People” and “Toni”, and provides a case study on the self-regard of the ‘60s youth generation which is lacking in Ill Fares the Land.

Judt’s writing illuminates the ceaseless motion between public and private. The boundaries are of our own making, and should be, but we ought to more honestly recognize the way one informs the other. Perhaps then we’d stop enacting the farce of an unreasonable objectivity, ignoring the validity of an informed subjectivity, turning a blind eye to the obvious prejudices and self-interests of our elected leaders, and nodding vigorously when “We the People” means only the speaker’s constituents. Perhaps then what’s private wouldn’t matter only if it’s made public—Facebook, Twitter—and what used to be public would stop its regression toward the segmented and gated. The Memory Chalet and Ill Fares the Land are utterances of complexity and soulfulness, soft opinions with the strong, self-inquiry without narcissism, and together they make for a more honest kind of politics and thought.

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