Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, (New York: Penguin, 2013)
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime-minister, once invited an editor to his office to discuss literature. After the meeting, Ben-Gurion’s private secretary inquired whether it was a good conversation. “Yes,” replied the editor, “but Ben-Gurion is not the best partner for small talk.” Ben-Gurion overheard it and called the editor back to his office. “Sit down!” he ordered. “Now we make small talk!” The art of conversation does not come naturally to some people and it cannot be forced or learned.
The mass media’s sound bites contributed to the decline of the conversation as an art form. Most people can name their favorite authors, journalists and bloggers. But who are the contemporary equals of Voltaire, Oskar Wilde, or Isaiah Berlin? American Public Broadcast Television gives Charlie Rose an hour each day to do an interview. On Israeli Radio, I have been listening to Yitzhak Livni’s weekly interview hour on Fridays at 11 PM since 1978. Over time, one gets to know interviewers like Rose or Livni even when most of the airtime is devoted to the people they interview. But these are almost anachronistic exceptions in today’s twitting media.
Tony Judt was a great conversationalist, articulate, quick, opinionated, engaging and entertaining. His book records conversations he held in the last couple of years of his life with a fellow historian, Timothy Snyder. It is a rare treat to read an intelligent conversation between two historically erudite intellectuals. The genre was forced on Judt when he became afflicted with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) that robbed him of the use of his limbs. He was able to talk and dictate, but not to write. Judt made the best of this constraint. It gave him an excuse to engage publicly in the art of conversation.
Impending death, the confrontation with personal finitude, individuates and can lead to authenticity. In what Jaspers called a limit situation, Judt reacted like an authentic historian. He proceeded to generate lasting record of himself, to historicize himself and his thought. Historical immortality is the preservation of evidence that explains. The book reads like a series of intelligent small talks. Tony and Tim could have been meeting for tea, crumpets and cucumber sandwiches, to talk about life and history, rather than meeting to record Judt’s last thoughts as he lay paralyzed from the neck down.
The book follows the associative rules of conversation. Each chapter starts with Judt talking about a period in his life that is then associated with historical themes, for example, his childhood and British history, visiting Paris in 1968 and the intellectual history of the Left. Sometimes the associations are less obvious and perhaps more revealing in a Freudian sort of way, for example, the collapse of his second marriage and the history of European Fascism. Snyder did not attempt to keep his interlocutor on topic, let alone stir the conversation. Since Snyder often shared Judt’s views, there is sometimes a choirlike quality to his interventions.
As a book of conversations, it is thematic but not systematic. There are broad generalizations, for example that friendships and alliances in France are founded on politics more than on sexual liaisons, while in England it is the other way round; and overstatements, for example, speaking of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Judt commented, “By the end of this career he was widely regarded as louche, devious, dissembling, dishonest, cynical, detached and—worst of all—incompetent. To be sure, most of these attributes are compatible with membership in the intelligentsia, especially in a country where intellectuals are characteristically dismissed as too clever by half.” (70)
Judt lived the tensions between conflicting identities, inconsistent convictions, and between his ideology and professional practices. The unbounded, unconstrained and loose structures of a conversation allowed these complexities to be more apparent here than in his scholarly books. The son of Jewish immigrants, owners of a hair salon in South London, Judt climbed up socially through studying at Cambridge University and then spent the rest of his life in elite universities. Still, despite, and perhaps because of, the social climbing, he felt an outsider in England and the United States and among his fellow Jews. He was fascinated by historical figures he considered kindred spirits, including Churchill, Disraeli, and Thatcher. Judt’s fascination with outsiders led him to forge friendships with East European, Polish and Czech émigrés during the Cold War, and shift his interest from French social and intellectual life to Central and Eastern Europe. Judt took pride in launching Jan Gross’ academic career. Through him he met other Polish intellectual émigrés in Paris. Still, despite Gross’ protests, Judt decided to study the Czech language rather than Polish, as he preferred self-irony to heroism.
Through political philosopher Steven Lukes, Judt, who was working then at Oxford, was introduced to Jan Kavan, just after he was caught on the Czechoslovakian border carrying forbidden books and pre-prepared mail labels of their addressees. The labels were swiftly used by the Czechoslovakian Secret Police to target the dissidents who then lost their jobs and became subject to other forms of repression. Kavan’s choice of bringing the list with him was odd, and many Czech dissidents concluded that he either worked for the other side, or was an idiot. Judt described meeting a depressed Kavan on pills, who attempted in desperation to use Judt to preempt the broadcasting of a program about the incident produced by London Weekend Television.
From one Czech affair to another, Snyder introduced the topic of the Kundera affair. Snyder was surprised at the shocked reactions to the revelations that Kundera may have informed on an American spy to the Czechoslovakian police, since Kundera’s youthful Stalinism was well-known. In a European context, indeed, there was nothing special about Kundera’s politics in comparison with the kind of fellow traveling contemporary French intellectuals Judt wrote about. In my opinion (if I may join the conversation) the shocking difference about the Kundera affair was that there was a concrete victim, albeit a real American spy, who spent many years in prison because of Kundera’s alleged denunciation. The French intellectuals were just as Stalinist, but they were lucky in not producing victims, at least not individual victims with names.
Anti-Bolshevik Marxists, Tony Judt’s parents saved him from infatuation and disappointment with communism. Instead the youthful Tony turned to Zionism as a social utopia and spent altogether two years in Israeli Kibbutzim in pursuit of both this utopia and a married Israeli diaspora youth organizer named Maja, until the inevitable disillusionment. Real Zionism appealed to people who had to leave their native lands, originally in Europe, and could not immigrate to a better place than Israel, like North America. As such, Zionism had nothing to offer to somebody who did not have to leave England and would later go to America. The Zionist vision for most of its mature adherents was not the creation of a utopia, but the achievement of the kind of European nation state that discriminated against them at the turn of the 20th century, following the ideals of 19th century nationalism. That is exactly what they achieved, anachronistic though it may seem. Kibbutzim served many immigrants who had no family, money, or connections to help them settle elsewhere. Zionist Kibbutzim would therefore have had very little to offer to an English boy who was admitted to study at Cambridge University. Arendt’s dialectics of the Jew as parvenu and pariah comes into mind here, the parvenu rejected the pariahs. After the 1967 war, Judt discovered that Israel was nationalist and by 2003 he came to reject his previous “fanaticism and myopic, exclusivist tunnel vision.” Having taken publicly an anti-Zionist position, the former outsider was invited to address “church groups, ladies’ organization, and schools.”
Snyder suggested that in Europe, the Holocaust became a metaphor for the crucifixion. The disappeared Jews became a symbol of the guilt of Europe and the meaning of European history. Israel disrupted this narrative of Jewish sacrifice and European guilt. Snyder did not further follow the implication of his Dostoyevsky-like interpretation of Israel as a Christ resurrected against the will of his followers, and what Europe (as the great inquisitor) may try to do to Israel to maintain the myth…. Judt in response denied that Europeans see in Israel anything but its imperfections and its increasingly unsuccessful manipulation of their guilt over the Holocaust. Judt and Snyder may both be right, when Europeans look at Israel, they see reflected back at them their own ancient nationalism and intolerance both as causes and effects; and they may not like this reminder.
Judt pledged allegiance to a kind of historicism, understanding the past for its own sake, in its own terms, by contextualizing. But he acknowledged that he has been practicing the opposite, using history for present debates from an ethically Universalist stance. Yet, Judt also criticized Rawls’ Universalist Kantian theory of justice for assuming historically disembodied moral agents who cannot make the sort of ethical decisions Rawls’ thought experiments demanded of them. Judt’s ideal historian was a cosmopolitan intellectual, grounded in space and time, yet not parochial. Perhaps self-ironically he stated that “people who talk about everything are in danger of losing the ability to talk about anything.” (298)
Politically, Judt was more of a 19th century liberal than a 20th century democrat. He emphasized that constitutionalism and rule of law, liberal institutions and separation of power, preceded democracy historically and logically. He bemoaned that mass democracies generate mediocre politicians. Yet, liberal aristocratic Judt considered himself a social democrat, a supporter of Keynesian economics and of limited non-Soviet style state planning. Judt was on a sure footing when he criticized Hayek for leaving no space for social democracy between totalitarianism and liberalism. Judt also attempted to deny or at least to minimize the perception of crisis in social democracy since the stagflation of the mid-seventies. He claimed that not all planned economies were the same and that planned economies in France, the Netherlands and Denmark were ahead of the US and UK economically, though state planning was discredited in the US, UK, Italy and former Soviet Bloc countries. Judt believed that the state could do some things better and cheaper than the private sector, emphasizing that the state should create some “natural public monopolies.” A train buff, Judt connected railway fortunes to those of the welfare state, ignoring the history of the grand train-lines and train-stations that were built by many of the robber barons of the 19th century, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The greatest dissonance was between Judt’s professional practice and his personal convictions. He railed against commodity fetishization and hailed state economic planning and intervention. Yet, he spent most of his career in the private higher education sector and was a direct beneficiary of its commodification of degrees. A native of England, Judt could have chosen to work at a British state university. But because of central planning and monopolization of higher education in the UK, he would have had to work more for less money; much worse, he would have been bullied by state-appointed managers to meet centrally planned targets, dumb down the quality of education to graduate all students and even falsify grades if necessary, conduct less research and only on topics prioritized by the planners, and of course forgo any notion of academic freedom. It is no coincidence that British academics that have the option opt to work for private American universities. Centrally planned higher education is a nightmare. As Judt acknowledged, his own path for upper mobility was blocked by the British central planners when they eliminated selective merit based public education and introduced instead non-selective comprehensive schools. Somebody of Judt’s lower middle class background today would have graduated from such a comprehensive school and would have won a place at a public university, but not at Oxford or Cambridge, and consequently would have been denied an academic career.
The business model that gave Judt freedom and made him wealthy required the commodification of degrees. For example, New York University operates many study-abroad programs such as the one in Prague. It outsources education by offering locals salaries—considerably lower than those paid in New York—while charging its students high American tuition. Why don’t the students pay a much lower tuition directly to the local instructors and get the same quality of education? The reason is commodification. They would not purchase the brand name commodity, the NYU degree. NYU uses the profits it makes abroad to compete with older and more established brand names in the private higher education industry like Columbia and Princeton universities that sell competing commodities (degrees), by paying star academics like Judt higher salaries and provide them with housing in Greenwich Village. Judt’s dreams of state planning are reminiscent of the Israeli definition of American Zionists: “Jews who swim in cream and fantasize about sewage.” Yet, as another great New Yorker, Walt Whitman put it,“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
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