The British historian Tony Judt is dying, slowly and painfully, from a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He has written matter-of-factly about his condition — he is now, essentially, a quadriplegic — in The New York Review of Books. At some point he will be able to communicate only by blinking an eye. For now he is dictating his words to assistants.
Best known for his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), Judt has long been an engaged and unpredictable intellectual of the left, one who is sometimes given to controversial opinions. Judt, who is Jewish, has argued, for example, that Israel is an “anachronism” that should convert “from a Jewish state to a binational one” including Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. His prose tends to be as biting as his ideas.
Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land, is a slim and penetrating work, a dying man’s sense of a dying idea: the notion that the state can play a significant role in its citizens’ lives without imperiling their liberties. It makes sense that this book arrives now, not merely during the hideous endgame of the national health-care debate but during mud season; this book’s bleak assessment of the selfishness and materialism that have taken root in Western societies will stick to your feet and muddy
But Ill Fares the Land is also optimistic, raw and patriotic in its sense of what countries like the US and UK have meant — and can continue to mean — to their people and to the world.
Ill Fares the Land gets off to a distressing start. Judt tells us, right off the bat, that his book was “written for young people.” Which is something you never want to hear, really. It suggests that we may be in for a graduation speech. And Judt does occasionally serve microwavable brunch-time banalities. (“Young people must not abandon faith in our political institutions,” etc.) But these soggy bits are rare.
Instead he is persuasive about the disillusionment that smart, idealistic young people feel today. They do need a talking-to. “The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s,” he writes. “It is not by chance that historians speak of a ‘lost generation.’” Judt does not talk down to these imagined young people; he talks up to them, and the effect is bracing.
Judt surveys the political and intellectual landscape in Britain and the US since the 1980s, the Reagan-Thatcher era, and he worries about an increasing and “uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake.” What matters, he writes, “is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is,” and he sees growing and destabilizing inequality almost everywhere. He reminds us that the word “public” — in terms of what a government can provide for the majority of its people — “was not always a term of opprobrium in the national lexicon.”
Wistfully, Judt cites some of the achievements of the Democratic-led Congresses of the 1960s, achievements that would be nearly impossible in today’s political climate: “food stamps, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid, Head Start, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”