Strong and Soft Opinions: Tony Judt, Public and Private

The writer protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year, referred to as Senor C by his typist, struggles with his editor to define the political opinions he is contributing to a book commissioned by a German publisher. Should they be called Meinungen, “opinions subject to fluctuations of mood”, he wonders, or Ansichten, “by contrast…firmer, more thought out”? Ansichten, Senor C decides, and indeed this seems the accurate description of what we have read so far in Coetzee’s graceful, formally experimental novel.

But Senor C, a self-exiled South African novelist now living in the modern-day Australia of Bush/Blair acolyte John Howard, is self-conscious of his right to assert himself on political matters. Anya, the woman he has hired to type his dictation, adds to his doubt. Senor C’s political thoughts are boring, she says, outdated and irrelevant. She suggests: “Write about cricket. Write your memoirs. Anything but politics… Politics is about shouting other people down and getting your own way, not about logic”. In our age of celebrity worship and the clashes over collective bargaining, her argument sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Senor C persists, and his 30 short essays on politics and society are gathered as Strong Opinions, at least in Coetzee’s book. In the novel’s second half, Senor C writes the ‘soft opinions’ Anya has requested. Mortality, the author’s father, the French region of Languedoc, and, most beautifully, Dostoevsky: these are his private wonderings. Thus Coetzee explores the ways in which we perceive the meaning and worth of opinion and memory. The critic James Wood astutely wrote of Diary of a Bad Year that, “Coetzee, I suspect, wants us to reflect on the differences in rhetoric between public and private ideas”. It’s not just the differences that are important, nor the similarities, but the way they converse over the border lines we draw. We have a tendency to shove a person onto one side or the other: politicians and historians work in the public terrain of social policy and strong opinions, while novelists and memoirists dwell in the private, “soft” land of memory and thought. (Even my verb choices, “work” and “dwell”, hint at our perception of these occupations.) But the truth is, of course, more complicated.

Book: The Memory Chalet

Author: Tony Judt

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2010-11

Length: 226 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $25.95

Image: Days

You will find in Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, alongside quotations from and meditations on Hobbes, Rene Girard, Machiavelli and Jorges Luis Borges, a reference to the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by the late Tony Judt. Postwar will continue to be a highlight of the historian and independent intellectual’s career, but I suspect the two, slimmer books published two books in 2010— the political diagnosis Ill Fares the Land and the essayistic memoir The Memory Chalet—will occupy a significant place as well. Both were written quickly under the duress of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which eventually took his life in August of 2010; Ill Fares the Land, based on a lecture given at New York University in late 2009 and a subsequent essay in the New York Review of Books, was written in an astonishing eight weeks. You’d never know it. That Judt continued crafting his thoughts into the written word during the advanced stages of his disease is a testament to his willpower; that each book is superb will remain evidence of his sober yet lively intellect and of his concern for the world he was forced too soon to leave behind.

Ill Fares the Land is a polemic about history’s lessons for contemporary policy decisions and social democracy, and it’s seemingly written with Flannery O’Connor’s advice in mind, that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures”. Judt begins bracingly:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.

The Memory Chalet, a collection of brief essays—most of them originally published, again, in the New York Review of Books—is no less immediate. Before its recollections of Judt’s youth, education, and early professional life, the book draws an exacting, painful but brutally unsentimental portrait of living with the paralytic condition of ALS. In order to fend off the prison of night, Judt employs the mnemonic device of “the memory palace”, preferring instead a beloved Swiss chalet from his youth. By this method he is able to create his essays, store them until the morning, and then dictate them, gaining some measure of victory: “The alm-uncle and his dyspeptic reminders of the world I have lost weigh as nothing: the past surrounds me and I have what I need”.

The similarities between Coetzee, his protagonist, and Judt—the precise writing style, the fierce but accessible intellectualism, moral concern, the shadow of mortality—are matched by too many dissimilarities to justify criticism I’d find either appropriate or tasteful. But like Coetzee’s novel, Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, taken together, do reveal the diverse cross-pollination of public and private speech. Ill Fares the Land ostensibly contains the strong opinions, The Memory Chalet the “soft” opinions. Yet motifs and themes resound, connect: the dignity of work; moralism and social justice; Judt’s love for trains and public transportation; intellectualism and the contemporary resistance to it; the decline of egalitarianism and, in Ill Fares the Land, the rise of “Hobbes’s war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty”. As a political thinker, Judt never loses sight of abstract public policy’s effect on the individual’s private world, and as a memoirist he continually frames his private joys, defeats and lessons in the larger context of the world around him, from Great Britain of the ’50s to the New York City of today.

The books may be remembered separately, but I hope not. It is a risk for a respected intellectual to embrace the invective or the memoir; both expose the subjectivity and emotion at the heart of any argument. Judt ought to be remembered for opening up in his latter days and leaving us with an honest, vulnerable portrait of his deepest worries and loves.

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.

Book: Ill Fares the Land

Author: Tony Judt

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2010-03

Length: 237 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $25.95

Image: 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”.

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.

Book: Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945

Author: Tony Judt

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2006-09

Format: Paperback

Price: $20.00

Image: 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.