Our collective soul aches today. Tony Judt, historian, author, and one of our most robust progressive voices, will greet us from the pages of the New York Review of Books no more. Judt, born and educated in Britain, lived and taught in the US, where he pondered American culture and politics with the critical eye of an uncle whose affection was tempered by exasperation but buoyed by an undaunted belief in us. He understood what ails us -- our materialism, our selfishness, our delusions of perpetual growth and free-wheeling markets -- but he also gleaned our potential to regain our footing if we could but imagine alternatives.
In a time of anti-intellectualism, Judt wore his erudition gracefully. In a time of relativism, he dared speak of moral wrongs. Where his fellow-academics specialized, he approached the world with a broad and bird's eye view. In a technocracy-obsessed era, he understood the power of myth and language to shape us. While self-proclaimed "pundits" wrestled in the cable news mud, he fearlessly plunged into the most profound questions of our time in a profusion of books, lectures, and well-crafted articles.
Judt combined a deep understanding of historical trends with a faith in the power of human beings to evolve. He knew that abandoning the labors and achievements of the 20th century would speed our decline, but that building upon them would secure our future. Judt articulated a compelling vision of community and commitment that inspired us to look beyond capitalism and socialism to a new paradigm that incorporates the best of the old systems while improving on their flaws and inconsistencies.
Not that any of this is easy. Right now we're sinking in a morass of inequality, corruption, and distrust. Deficit hawks threaten Social Security and Medicare. High unemployment is reframed as the "new normal" instead of a crisis to boldly confront. We are in desperate need of a viable middle-class economics, a new industrial policy, a revitalized labor movement, and sane approach to regulation, energy, the environment, foreign policy, immigration and education. And that's just the short list. In the broadest sense, we need to know what the hell we can believe in. The only certainty is uncertainty.
My colleague Jeff Madrick had this to say upon learning of Judt's death:
"There was no more important voice in America than Tony Judt...I have read him for many years and, as a writer myself, was most impressed by his fearlessness. In a time when many see controversy as an opportunity, he saw the truth and wrote it no matter what criticism it brought him from foe or friend."
We will need this fearlessness as we struggle towards what can only be an intellectual revolution. The financial crisis has given us the occasion, but we have yet to rise to it. It's very seductive to continue bitching up a storm, throwing up our hands, and allowing ourselves to be swayed by the same free market ideologues whose Alice-in-Wonderland thinking sunk us down the rabbit hole.
That will not do. If we can't imagine alternatives, and if we don't take it upon ourselves to think, talk, and investigate them now, then someone or something very sinister will ride into the void to do it for us.
E.M. Forester gave us a challenge for the 20th century meant to wed our passion to our prose and heal our fragmented souls: "Only connect."
Perhaps an appropriate update for the 21st century would be: "Only imagine". Envision alternatives in the inertia-blasting, turbo-charged, fearless way that Judt showed us.
In one of the last pieces he wrote ("Ill Fares the Land," NYRoB, April 29, 2010), Judt gives us a hint on where we should start, after acknowledging that where we've ended up - fixated on material wealth and indifferent to almost everything else - does not make for good living.
"Perhaps we might start by reminding ourselves and our children that it wasn't always thus. Thinking "economistically," as we have done now for thirty years, is not intrinsic to humans. There was a time when we ordered our lives differently."
Do we dare to imagine that such a time can come again?