Arts & Events
Tony Judt is a distinguished scholar, historian, writer, and academic, born in England and based mostly in America. Of his thirteen earlier books, I have read only one. Presently, I am working my way through his 2005 masterpiece Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. I am more familiar with his highly informed and probing reviews and essays in the New York Review of Books. One of those NYReview essays (December 17, 2009) grew into this book.
I picked it up and put it down half a dozen times—deciding to finish it/not to finish it, to review it/not to review it. My ambivalence came from two sources: the subject matter and the conditions under which was written—both of which are depressing to dwell on.
First, the conditions: the book was dictated—for the same reason that Judt’s last three pieces in the NYReview were dictated: at 62, Judt is in the later stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), immobilized except for his still barely viable vocal apparatus and his totally acute and aware brain (both evident during a recent telephone interview by Terri Gross on “Fresh Air.”) About this condition, the book says nothing, except for his brief acknowledgement and thanks to people who helped. As for the subject matter, Judt departs from his usually cool, fact-packed historical analysis to summarize our present condition, for “the young especially,” citing a “duty to look critically at our world . . .if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge.” His tone of urgency, as well as his command of reasoning and memory, is that of an eloquent deathbed statement rarely attainable outside the world of fiction.
The title comes from two lines of a long poem by Oliver Goldsmith (“The Deserted Village,” 1770, mourning the destruction of a way of life by a law that forced English farmers off their land and into industrial cities.)
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
Judt clearly lays out overlapping theses: that the general health and contentment of a society is based less on the total wealth of that society than on the spread of that wealth being “not too unequal.” The history of Western Europe, of England, and of the United States, he says, shows the broader sharing of wealth starting in the late 19th century and reaching a peak in the social legislation of the 1930s Depression, this “less unequal” arrangement holding until the 1970s. “Over the past thirty years we have thrown all this away,” retaining somewhat more of it in Europe, less in Thatcher/Blair England, and much less in America, from Reagan to Bush.
Judt takes the old saying about those who don’t know their history being condemned to repeat it, and adds a dimension: those who have forgotten or never lived through the pre-New Deal to Great Society years, have no idea how grim life was for most people before Social Security, unemployment insurance, government mandated safety laws in industry, etc etc. We should, he says, be fiercely fighting to protect social legislation and government regulatory powers, resisting “privatization” and shouts of “socialism,” used as a synonym for some sinister plot against “freedom.” The very real danger is that we will lose what we have by taking it for granted, by lack of memory, lack of experience, and through sheer lack of imagination. Judt takes upon himself, in what must be a final statement, the work of explaining, reminding, laying out the dimming facts, the short history of nations moving toward becoming “good societies,” bequeathing to a couple of generations, “security, prosperity, social services, and greater equality.” Far from being “socialism,” this good society, was necessarily mixed: “social democracy was always a mongrel politics.”
He offers a vivid but simple metaphor for this mixture. “Imagine a classic railway station (one of those) cathedrals of modern life.” Enterprises like newsstands, shops, or coffee bars in and near the station are best run by private enterprise, competing and surviving according to the quality of their goods and service. “But you cannot run trains competitively by placing two trains on a track and waiting to see which performs better, like two brands of butter on a supermarket shelf.” Exploring simple images like this, he expresses the obvious spheres of private versus public function, disposing of misused justifications for privatization, like “efficiency”; a really “efficient, privatized” railroad would never bother to lay track through sparsely-populated areas. But the role of government ownership or regulation is not to be “efficiently” profitable—it is to bind the country together. From his train station image we can all cite similar examples: “efficient” public schools would expel slow learners with special needs; “efficient” public libraries would buy only the few vapid best-sellers read by the most people.
(If all this should seem to be obvious and clear to everyone, don’t forget one example of present confusion that Judt didn’t need to cite, the mostly sadly hilarious and widely quoted objection to universal health care: “The government should keep hands off my Medicare!” Hello?)
This is a hard book to review because of the temptation to quote from page after page of his compressed but simple, clear explication. At one moment I decide I am learning nothing new by reading it; a moment later, I am rereading one page or another, admiring the connections he makes that help me to more deeply understand and affirm what I “know.”
So just buy the book, or insist that your library buy it, read it, then pass it on to one of the young people Tony Judt wants to reach before he dies.
ILL FARES THE LAND by Tony Judt (2010), 237 pages, Penguin Press, NY, $25.95