Thursday, April 21, 2016

How I miss Tony Judt

"Tony Judt was an inspiration: an intellectual Titan, a fierce warrior, a brilliant orator, a charismatic public intellectual. To be sure, he was all of the above. But he never set out to attain any of those accolades. He just wanted to say what he thought had to be said and say it until people noticed"
The Observor newspaper 

Six years have passed since the death of Tony Judt, the distinguished historian, public intellectual, political commentator, essayist and author.  His words, ideas and invigorating presence are missed in these troubled and dystopian times.

Judt was a speaker of unfashionable truths about history and the contemporary politics of Europe, America, and Israel. He was an outspoken critic of conventional wisdom and intellectual and academic dogma on many issues, including political and economic issues, social policy, American foreign policy, the war on terror, global politics, the future of Europe and the state of Israel. For his staunch criticism of Israel he was vilified and attacked.

Tony Judt died, aged 62, on 6th August 2010, just 2 years after he was diagnosed with  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS is a progressive motor-neuron disease that causes the central nervous system to degenerate. Over time, patients lose the ability to move their bodies, but retain full control over their minds.

Judt once described the effects of the disease as "progressive imprisonment without parole."

Within months of the symptoms appearing in 2008 he was paralyzed and unable to breathe without mechanical assistance.

Despite his illness, he produced some of his finest work during that time. 

He wrote the book Ill Fares the Land, a searing critique of market fundamentalism and the way we live today and an argument for a politics and economics shaped by ideas of progressive social democracy.

Judt argued that we face the terrifying prospect of perpetual insecurity and growing inequality as a result of the triumph of corporate power and market capitalism.

How prescient he was. Judt wrote:

"For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest. ... The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth-creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities [between] rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth."

Judt warned of a “new age of insecurity”- which has come to fruition. If social democracy had any future he argued, it had to be reformed, not as a set of idealist and utopian promises, but as a bulwark against all that had gone wrong during the 20th century.

Although he was critical of parts of the European left and key leftist figures, such as Eric Hobsbawn for their attachment to Soviet Communism, Judt presented the seemingly contradictory notion that a key task for the Left was to conserve its past achievements, as well as renew their moral appeal, whilst being able to change policies and develop new agendas where necessary.

Judt was prolific in the last years of his life and numerous collections of his essays, interviews and writings have appeared since his death, including, When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010 (published in 2015), Thinking the Twentieth Century: Interviews between Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder (published in 2012) and The Memory Chalet (published in 2012).

Many of his essays can be found here at the New York Review of Books. 

Words were important to Tony Judt.

He believed that words lose their integrity when they privilege personal expression and rely on rhetorical flourishes. When this happens, Judt believes, public ideas that can be expressed and discussed through language fall into disrepair and eventually are lost.

Judt argues that the professionalization of writing, be it by academics, journalist, writers or politicians, favors obscurantism and has:
"encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib popular articulacy.. It is the performer rather than the subject, to whom the audience's attention is drawn".
His conclusion is a timely warning to us all:
"If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have".

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