Paralyzed but undaunted, Judt wills the left to a battle against inequality

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Tony Judt rolled on to the stage at NYU last night in a wheelchair, with a breathing tube strapped to his head and a blanket over his form, and began his lecture in a surprisingly strong voice by “shooting the elephant in the room": A year ago he was diagnosed with a form of amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative disease of the muscle, and it had progressed to the point that he was now paralyzed below the neck. Some friends had urged him to make the subject of the Remarque Lecture the nature of his disease, so as to advance the health care debate, but he had concluded there was no point in show and tell. The show was obvious: this is what the disease did to a body, left him quadriplegic “wearing facial Tupperware," a machine breathing for him, making a rhythmic wheezing. The hope others had that he would give an uplifting lecture about what a body can do under these circumstances he must also disappoint: "I’m English, we don’t do uplifting.”

Yet in spite of himself, Judt achieved both assignments. The speech he gave over the next 100 minutes, in which you wondered whether he was going to keel over, was a call to arms to leftwingers. The world faces a "terrifying" period of insecurity stemming from the amorality of capitalism, and it needs us more than ever. Our failure, he said, was discursive: we had failed to talk about justice in politics. We had given all our ground to the center right, and assumed that globalization and economic efficiency are the ways of the world. "We learned to talk about public policy as neoclassical economics. This is our problem." This reflected our enslavement by five conservative economic thinkers, Ludwig von Mises, Josef Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek, Popper and Peter Drucker (!), all born within a short train’s journey of Vienna.

And all had fled Vienna because of "the failure, the fall, the collapse"– Judt became incantatory– of liberal society the last time it was put to a great test. Then it had given way to totalitarianism; and these refugees had come up with the idea that the only way to restrain the fevers of the left and right was to "keep government away from the economy."

Wasn’t always this way. A hundred years ago, social reformers had had "confident stories to tell about the purposes of history… the collective purposes that we should be aiming at." But 20th century ideologies had all worked out badly. No social democratic party in Europe can run on the platform of actual socialism. Because the USSR had socialism in its name- and produced the Gulag, as Judt was to remind the one nonworshipful questioner, a stowaway from the Communist Party. Today social democrats have "no story to tell that distinguishes them from the center right."

So forget about socialism. Stop talking about it the same way you have stopped thinking/talking about your first wife, he advised, genderbound– and try to imagine other ways of speaking of justice and equality in our politics.

The aura of the lecture was pure crisis. Of course there is Judt’s personal crisis, which gathered up all 2000-odd people in Skirball Hall, some tearyeyed, but also the sense of global crisis. The idea of a common good has given way to tax farming, privatization, and the benevolent humiliation of people who can’t get work. The inequalities in the US approach the inequalities in China, and will only produce bad effects. It was one thing to privatize the sandwich shop at the railroad station (the public did a bad job of running them, in Judt’s boyhood, he said) but another to have privatized the station and the rails. We are on the verge of a period of huge unrest that he likened to the late ’30s.

Because– per Keynes, the hero of the lecture, along with Orwell–after World War I the capitalists also spoke confidently about globalization, but economic crises produced totalitarianism in European states. And today the nation state is still the only political unit in town. For all the talk about India’s modernity—and I thought of Tom Friedman—only 400 million of over 1 billion Indians are employed and less than 1 percent of them are in the high tech industries. So what can globalization do for a crisis in India?

I watched the lecture with a mix of emotions. I admire Judt no end. He imagined the one-state solution in Israel/Palestine 8 years ago (having served in the Six Day war as a driver ala Hemingway), and the timid New York Review of Books has steadfastly refused to follow up on his daring. A man of great intellectual courage, he broke with the so-called liberals of the New Republic over Zionism, then took Walt and Mearsheimer’s side when it mattered in 2006, and joined Mearsheimer on stage at Cooper Union to explain to Shlomo Ben-Ami and Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk that just because anti-Semites agreed with something you said doesn’t mean you are wrong, read Arthur Koestler on Communism. His many accomplishments as a historian were read off by the NYU provost and the vice chancellor in introducing him; for myself I can say that his doorstop production, Postwar, is a pleasure to dip into, at any page.

So there was real grief in seeing a great man so reduced by an illness that he has approached with a stiff upper lip. His running shoes looked like toys sticking out from the blanket, we never saw his hands. The breathing became more labored over the near-two-hour performance, he seemed to want to be there longer; and I wondered if he had, ala Ted Kennedy, decided to deliver himself of wisdom now he has seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

A huge community of leftleaning New Yorkers turned out because Judt has been so important, and this public act was one of leadership. As he has done on other occasions, he pulled aside the curtains and the wings to show that the little world we are used to accepting is not necessarily the world of history. It is the world of recent "opinion." 

"We should be angrier than we are about what we’ve lost, morally, rhetorically, collectively," he said, invoking Penn Station and jammed highways. We must go on the attack, we must employ a "language of fear… the language of memory"– the memory of what happened the last time capitalism created such inequalities between rich and poor.

His words were specially cast for Obama. The left always thought that capitalism was going to fail once and for all, but then it didn’t fail once and for all. So we had the story wrong. "What has failed is our ability to articulate a response to a distinctive partial failure. This is a failure on our part… We don’t know how to say that something is unjust." 

It was in the end a thrilling spiritual message, forged by Judt’s own misery, and a challenge to our creativity, to break the chains of established opinion and tell a different story about history.

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