I miss Tony Judt. As I read the news every day, I speculate on what he would have to say. I was thinking of him during the mid-term elections as I listened to blatant misinformation about the Affordable Care Act coming from conservative politicians. Judt was interested in broader themes than mid-terms and health care, but his life was about intellectual honesty. He was never afraid to speak the truth, even if his position was controversial. Timothy Garton Ash makes this point quite nicely in his obituary of Judt.
So I was momentarily shocked today to see – in The New York Times – an op-ed by Judt. Turns out it’s from a collection of essays, The Memory Chalet, which goes on sale this Thursday. I was pleased to see that this particular essay – on New York City — was not one that I’d already read in The New York Review, so there are more new essays to read. The New York piece is a good example of how superbly Judt could write.
[S]trange as it may seem, bad times can also be good for health. Forget individual health for a minute. This is about the macro picture, the health of entire societies. And there statistics show that as economics worsen, traffic accidents go down, as do industrial accidents, obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking. Population-wide, even deaths from heart disease go down during recessions.
The report was based on the work of economist Christopher J. Ruhm – the favorite expert of journalists who want to attract readers with something counter-intuitive.
Two years later, no one is so glib. Yes, we did manage to pass health care reform. More people will eventually have health insurance, but that’s not until 2014. In the meantime, people are not just unemployed. They’ve been unemployed for a long time. And those people need to eat. Read more
Tony Judt died on August 6. He had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in September of 2008. Over the years he had been both guest and guest host on the Charlie Rose show. Rose interviewed Judt just eight days before he died. As you can see from the video, Rose was visibly moved as he introduced the interview – Judt’s last, as it turned out.
Death is a huge uncertainty in anyone’s life. A friend once told me of a woman with leukemia who said “At least now I know what I’m going to die from.” For some, this knowledge brings relief.
What I find fascinating about the shared experiences of those with a limited time to live is the uniqueness of each response. What I find valuable is the opportunity to contemplate my own life and death.
Here is Judt’s answer to a question on his thoughts on dying and any insights into living.
I’m better on living than I am on dying because, until you die, you know nothing about it, but by then it’s too late. But I can tell you a little bit about the peculiarity of knowing you’re going to die and knowing when – roughly speaking.
Most of us, most of the time, have absolutely no idea where we’ll be in five years – you, me, anyone — anything could happen to a normal person. But we’re pretty clear where we’ll be next month: doing the same thing we’re doing this month.
My situation is exactly the reverse. I have no idea where I’ll be next month. I could be silent. I could be dead. I could be exactly like this. I could be in a variety of stages. But I know, absolutely with certainty – within reason – that I’ll be dead in five years. And that reversal of consciousness means that I am very focused upon life in the next two weeks.
Focuses on the controversy over Judt’s position on Israel.
“I think he was one of the most important intellectual historians of our era,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history at Columbia University and a friend of Judt’s. “He was also, I think, one of the most courageous public intellectuals of his generation.”
His 2003 essay on Israel caused a firestorm. In it, Judt called for a single, binational Jewish-Arab state in the Middle East. He lost many friends over that essay.
“I think he thought he was performing a public service,” said Khalidi. “I think he felt there is so much misinformation that it would be inevitable that he was saying things frankly and bluntly that people didn’t want to hear [and] would inevitably make him unpopular. I don’t think he cared about it.”
I feel as if I’ve been on a death watch for Tony Judt all year. In his January essay, “Night,” in The New York Review of Books, he discussed his 2008 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Helplessness is humiliating even in a passing crisis—imagine or recall some occasion when you have fallen down or otherwise required physical assistance from strangers. Imagine the mind’s response to the knowledge that the peculiarly humiliating helplessness of ALS is a life sentence (we speak blithely of death sentences in this connection, but actually the latter would be a relief).
Judt’s brilliant mind remained undiminished by the disease. He dictated a series of essays – autobiographical reminiscences with contemporary insights. They appeared in each new issue of the NYRB.
As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders. Relative indifference to wealth for its own sake was widespread in the postwar decades. In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well. Today’s schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job.
How should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else?
At the end of the introduction to his book, Judt quotes a comment he received on his New York Review of Booksessay “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?”, which contained the theme of Ill Fares the Land:
“What is most striking,” she wrote, “about what you say is not so much the substance but the form: you speak of being angry at our political quiescence; you write of the need to dissent from our economically-driven way of thinking, the urgency of a return to an ethically informed public conversation. No one talks like this any more.” Hence this book.
Saul Goldberg, a student of Tony Judt, will be cycling across the country this month to raise money for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and to increase awareness of this devastating disease. Goldberg will travel from Astoria, Oregon to Brighton Beach, New York, leaving on May 25th and arriving on July 25th.
Those who would like to participate in the Move for ALS ride are welcome to join for any portion of the trip, moving on foot, by bike, or in a wheelchair. The trip itinerary is posted on the Move for ALS website, and I’ve posted the map below. Goldberg will be accompanied the entire length of the ride by Augustin Quancard.
Move for ALS hopes to raise $75,000 for Project A.L.S., a non-profit organization that seeks to find effective treatments for ALS and ultimately a cure. Currently more than half that sum has been donated. The Move for ALS website has more information, plus videos and a blog.
Here is a statement from Tony Judt on ALS and the Move for ALs project:
Tony Judt, the historian and author, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2008. He describes his condition as “progressive imprisonment without parole.” The life expectancy of ALS patients is normally two to five years after diagnosis.
Judt, who contributes regularly to The New York Review of Books, has been publishing brief memoirs that touch on the many meaningful aspects of his life. Since he has been passionately involved with history and social democracy, the essays reflect on historical change and what the future will bring.
Part two of this post discussed disillusion with the idea of progress and a yearning for a higher purpose. How did we end up in this unsatisfactory situation and is there hope that things will change for the better?
I recently read Robert Reich’s book Supercapitalism. I was impressed with the clarity with which he described economic history, from the “Not quite Golden Age” (between the end of World War II and the 1970s) to the supercapitalism that followed.
Supercapitlaism refers to the technological, globalized, deregulated, and privatized economy of the present. Under supercapitalism, politics is dominated by business firms and financiers who successfully lobby government to act in their narrow interests. Meanwhile, this leaves no one responsible for the broader public interest.