An Appreciation: Tony Judt, the civilized dissenter
We suffer these days from a surfeit of talking heads and an ever diminishing number of committed public intellectuals.
The former deal in opinions, and what now passes for television and radio news programming is awash in their blather. The latter deal in ideas and their exploration through reasoned argument that proceeds from evidence, and, too often, they must struggle to be heard. The talking heads are scrupulous of little but the party line and speak the language of commissars. They flourish because the 24-hour news cycle and our shrinking collective attention span abhor complexity and nuance.
The historian Tony Judt never did, which is why he was one of our most formidable public intellectuals. His untimely death at 62 on Friday further impoverishes our public conversation — not least because he was heedless of orthodoxies and contemptuous of piety, religious or secular.
British-born to émigré Jewish parents and educated at Cambridge and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Judt taught European history for many years at New York University, where he founded and headed the Remarque Institute. It was there that he wrote what doubtless will be considered his scholarly masterpiece, “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” a work of such breadth and eloquent erudition that one critic described it as a book with “the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.”
The dozens of essays, reviews and appreciations he wrote for journals of opinion and criticism, particularly for the New York Review of Books, also constituted a major contribution to the West’s public life. As the intellectual historian Mark Lilla told the New York Times on Saturday, Judt “had the unusual ability to see and convey the big picture while, at the same time, going to the heart of the matter. Most academics do neither — they float in between. But Tony was able to talk about the big picture and explain why it matters now.”
Though never a vulgar contrarian, Judt was unafraid of controversy, which certainly is what followed his break with the Labor Zionism of his youth, and his argument that contemporary Israel’s only morally viable alternative was to reconfigure itself as a binational state. It was a view that estranged him from many of his former — and natural — friends and allies. When I criticized his position in a review of his collection of essays — “Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century” — a lengthy correspondence, one of the most stimulating of my career, ensued. It did not matter that it ended, as it began, in profound disagreement.
Earlier this year, he told an interviewer, “I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community. So liberals should look especially hard at the uninterrogated assumptions of liberalism. Otherwise we are just hacks for a party line. If I have an Archimedean ethical standpoint, it really just consists of telling the truth as I see it even if I don’t much care for the implications, or if it offends my friends and my political allies.”
Thus, Judt was a trenchant critic of some of the academic American left’s sacred cows, including ethnic and gender studies, which he said encourage “members of that minority to study themselves — thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.”
Two years ago, Judt was stricken with a particularly aggressive form of lateral sclerosis, which deprived him of the use of his limbs and left him reliant on a breathing apparatus. He continued to dictate a remarkable series of essays and managed, though immobilized in a wheelchair, to give — from memory — a final public lecture 90 minutes long. It was published in book form earlier this year as “Ill Fares the Land,” a title borrowed from Oliver Goldsmith’s famous poem. It is a historian’s moral testament and an argument for the rediscovery of the social democratic values that he believed kept the peace in the postwar West.
“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” Judt said. “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 of 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.”
As Judt subsequently told an interviewer for the London Review of Books, “I think what we need is a return to a belief not in liberty, because that is easily converted into something else ... but in equality. Equality, which is not the same as sameness. Equality of access to information, equality of access to knowledge, equality of access to education, equality of access to power and to politics. ... It is another way of talking about injustice. We need to rediscover a language of dissent.”
That was a tongue Tony Judt spoke with utter fluency — to his great credit and the good of many.
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