The Man Who Freed Me From Cant

Posted by on November 13, 2021 6:00 am
Categories: Everything Else

I always find it hard to list the books that have influenced me the most. Memory is tricky, and a work can assert its influences over my thinking long after I’ve forgotten its particular details, or even its title. Moreover, people who set as their job the task of judging what others do, and why, are not always reliable when turning the lens upon themselves. And then there’s the fact that any list of books that I feel made me, as both a writer and a human, changes with the day and feeling. Still, on that changing list there are a few mainstays.

Take Tony Judt’s Postwar. I first encountered Tony in a swirl of legend and myth, an intellectual hero who, in the dark post-9/11 years, inveighed against the Israeli occupation and filleted the “useful idiots” who sanctified the War on Terror. Having, at that time, read very little of Tony, I was left with the impression of an intellectual monk who eschewed the dictates of party or crowd. I’ve always been skeptical of writers who are spoken of in this way, intellectuals praised for violating the dictums of both “the left and the right” as though the best answer somehow lay unerringly in between. Maybe that’s why I didn’t read a book by Tony until after he’d died. It was my mistake. It was my loss.

[Read: The struggles of Tony Judt]

Postwar—Tony’s much-lauded synthesis of European history after World War II—felt like a natural starting place. I had taken the idea of race in American life as my field of study. That road necessarily led to Europe, where the idea of race was invented. But as much as the contents of Postwar ultimately influenced me, it was Tony’s style that left a mark. I was then a writer in my mid-30s, experiencing a period of novel stability and unlikely prominence. I found the former a better fit than the latter. I began to take note of the unique pressures that the world puts on “prominent” Black writers—specifically the demand that one write in a way that necessarily and explicitly provides “hope.” In its benevolent manifestation, the request originated in the very real inspiration that people took from the Black struggle in America. Less honorably, the demand for “hope” was little more than a demand to bleach the past. Benevolent or not, it somehow felt wrong to write with the intent of authoring a morality play in which the forces of good necessarily triumph. I didn’t quite know why I felt that way. I didn’t really know why quotes about the “arc of the universe” and the sense that good and right ultimately prevail repulsed me so. For me, the answers were in the pages of Postwar.

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt
This piece is adapted from Ill Fares the Land.

I had never read so merciless a book. Tony had no use for pieties—no tolerance for invocations of a “Good War” or the “Greatest Generation.” Power reigns in Postwar, often in brutal ways. Tony writes of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust returning to Poland only to be asked, “Why have you come back?” He introduced me to intellectuals, such as François Furet, forced to reckon not just with Stalin’s crimes but with a discrediting of a “Grand Narrative” of history itself. “All the lives lost, and resources wasted in transforming societies under state direction,” Tony writes of this reckoning, were “just what their critics had always said they were: loss, waste, failure and crime.” Early in Postwar, Tony quotes the observations of a journalist covering the ethnic cleansings that characterized postwar Europe. The journalist self-satisfyingly claims that history will “exact a terrible retribution.” But, Tony tells us, history “exacted no such retribution.” No righteous, God-ordained price was to be paid for this crime against humanity. The arc of history did not magically bend. It was bent, even broken, by those with power.

I can’t tell you how liberating I found all of this. By the time I’d encountered Tony, I was already fairly convinced that there was darkness in this world, and that darkness often triumphed. Now I was freed to say so. It is perhaps odd to find intellectual liberation in such grim work. All I can say is that the work was never so much grim to me as it was illuminating. It answered the gnawing question of why evil was so resilient, and why it was so difficult to bring forth a more egalitarian world. Postwar might have been grim, but it did not despair. It was a ruthless accounting of the depths to which men might sink, and thus a necessary precondition of a vision of the future that did not depend on slogans and fairy tales—that is to say, a true and durable hope.

In some ways his book Ill Fares the Land is an addendum—a remarkable effort at sketching out what such durable hope might look like. Published originally in 2010, at the height of the Obama presidency—five days before the Affordable Care Act passed—Ill Fares the Land takes as its subject the rise of social democracy in the mid-20th century, its subsequent fall toward the century’s end, and the potential path back. The social democrat, in Judt’s eyes, holds a classical liberal’s belief in “a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance” but adds to that a faith “in the possibility and virtue of collective action for a collective good.” In that vision, the state is the central vehicle, and much of Ill Fares the Land is a recounting of attacks on the state by conservatives and the halting, feckless defense of the state by liberals who’ve joined their one-time foes in their aversion to “big government” and deep faith in the wisdom of the market. The result of such rhetoric and the policy that has followed it—privatization and the shredding of the welfare state—has been “an eviscerated society,” writes Judt, one where the “thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum, with nothing except authority and obedience binding the citizen to the state.”

It is this “eviscerated society” and its attendant values of profit and efficiency that have given us an era of shameful inequality wherein a “democratic” country like the United States can have roughly the same index of inequality as authoritarian China. Tony notes that in 2005, about a fifth of America’s national income went to 1 percent of its population. It is a tragic testament to Judt’s book that by 2016, that 1 percent controlled a quarter of all income, and two-fifths of all wealth. And while the “eviscerated society” has allowed for massive wealth distortion, it has also seen the degradation of public goods and services under the logic of efficiency. “Thus, a private company that offers an express bus service for those who can afford it and avoids remote villages where it would be boarded only by the occasional pensioner will make more money for its owner,” writes Judt. “In this sense it is efficient. But someone—the state or the local municipality—must still provide the unprofitable, ‘inefficient’ local service to those pensioners.”

[Read: The myth of Western civilization]

Tony wrote those words 10 years ago. It is a compliment to him, but not to the countries he assessed, that they are now more appropriate, not less. Never has the “eviscerated society” been more in evidence than it is today. America is one of the richest countries in the world. And yet, when faced with the threat of COVID-19, it mounted one of the weakest defenses in the world. It would be a mistake to simply see this as the result of Donald Trump’s election. The story of how America became the epicenter of a pandemic may center on Trump, but it began years ago, when one party took as its mission to destroy government and the other decided to grant legitimacy to that effort. Every Democratic politician who sought to shore up their power by echoing conservative denunciations of “big government ” reinforced the sense that the key to a prosperous America was to tear down and privatize as much of the state as possible. This was an essential step. For Trump to spurn oversight, fire watchdogs, raise a Cabinet of personal toadies, and generally treat the office he held with disregard, there had to first be a belief that the nonviolent parts of the state were unworthy of defense. So they were not defended. Even now, with 750,000 Americans dead, defenses of the profit motive and assertions that public-health efforts must not interfere with the economy are constant. Efficiency rules.

For all my admiration for Tony, I can’t say that if he were here, he and I would fall on the same side of every question. In addition to the rise in the cant of efficiency, profits, and the market, Tony saw the plague of identity leading us to this moment. “The politics of the ’60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. ‘Identity’ began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity,” Tony writes. “The Vietnam protests and the race riots of the ’60s … were divorced from any sense of collective purpose, being rather understood as extensions of individual self-expression and anger.”

It’s a curious thing to claim that a movement aimed at ending the Vietnam War lacked “a sense of collective purpose.” And while the Long Hot Summers were certainly expressions of anger, the ghetto, too, is a collective. But the real flaw here is starting the story too soon. The survivors of Jim Crow would be quite shocked to learn that identity began to infiltrate “public discourse” in the ’60s. Indeed, they’d be shocked by the notion that such a “public” discourse ever existed in the first place. We need not even note that the very New Deal programs that Tony holds up were made possible by the racist authoritarianism of the American South. Or that white politicians did all they could to exclude Black people from ostensibly “public” programs. Right now we are in the midst of an effort by agencies of the state to banish Black writers and scholars from the public square. And that effort did not begin with Black Twitter and campus lefties, but with congressional gag rules, the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, and the banishing of Ida B. Wells.

It would be comforting to chalk this oversight up to Tony being European and thus not understanding the crucial role of white supremacy in American history. In fact, Tony, with his disregard for romanticism and homily, should have been uniquely positioned to see through the nostalgia of a color-blind public. My sense is that such an awareness would have enriched much of Tony’s work. If there is a major weakness that runs through Ill Fares the Land and Postwar, it is the scant attention Tony paid to the role colonialism played in Europe’s prosperity and thus the welfare state that was subsequently erected. I can only wonder how much more insightful Tony’s condemnation of the Iraq War would have been, had he thought more about Europe’s own colonial wars.

[Read: ‘In a starving, bleeding, captive land’]

Judt was not wholly unaware of the ways in which prejudice and bias have hampered the erection of a truly comprehensive public sphere. “The kind of society where trust is widespread is like to be fairly compact and quite homogenous,” he tells us, referencing the Nordic states, and a few pages later he notes that “the Dutch and the English don’t much care to share their welfare states with their former colonial subjects from Indonesia, Surinam, Pakistan or Uganda; meanwhile Danes, like Austrians, resent ‘paying’ for the Muslim refugees who have flocked to their country.” But these observations are not made in the context of a history; nor does Tony push past the question of resentment to that of the plunder of “the darker nations of the world” (to borrow Du Bois’s phrase.) The fact is that within the best of the Black freedom struggle, the call has always been concerned with both equal rights and a better world. Black Lives Matter, for instance, isn’t a call for special rights, but a reminder that a racist public is no public at all.

It would be a mistake to ignore this missing element in Tony’s work. But it would also be a mistake to disqualify the whole of it on such basis. No one writer can be totally comprehensive. An intellectual lineage, at its best, means that the progeny pick up, and attempt to improve upon, the work of their ancestors. I count Tony as one of mine. He freed me from cant and sloganeering and reinforced the idea, budding in me, that the writer is not a clergyman.

This piece is adapted from Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt, with a new preface by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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