Reappraisals

The next book on my list is Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.  Judt is one of my favorite historians and I always find his works influential, challenging, and well argued even if I do not always agree with his interpretation.  Reappraisals is a collection of essays examining twentieth century intellectuals and what we can learn from them about our time today.  In the introduction, Judt explains why these essays are important and what he is trying to accomplish.  His first concern, “is the role of ideas and the responsibility of intellectuals,” and secondly the place of recent history in our modern age.  In our modern age Judt is fearful that we in the West are forgetting our recent past and fawning at the idol of free market economics.  Now, it is no secret that Judt described himself as a social democrat, a concept that most Americans have little understanding, so many of his economic arguments derive from this context.  But, I think he makes a valid point concerning the use and abuse of recent history in our discourse as we bandy about terms like Nazi, fascist, Marxism, Stalinism, socialism, and communism without ever truly understanding these concepts and their meaning.

Concerning the twentieth century, Judt feels that the West takes a triumphalist approach to the past by remembering our history through museums not through study and contemplation; furthermore, the study of history has been broken down in specializations (Jewish, Armenian, Asia, Palestinian, African-American) that bifurcate history rather than create a shared historical memory.  In this way, he calls for a return to national histories.  Not only is our study of the past creating divergence but Judt also believes that the technological acceleration of our era (the rapid modernization and globalization) and the access to data aids in fragmentation.  We chose what to read and accept ideas and opinions that  reinforce our own beliefs which abolishes all sense of community.  This, I think, is a pertinent point especially when you examine the media and politics of the US today.  It is extremely easy to find others who reinforce your political beliefs and you can avoid altogether the arguments of the opposing side, but this leads to a lack of understanding between the two sides as no one is willing understanding the counter point.  We have become stuck in groupthink and cocoons of our choosing.

One of the most important lessons of the twentieth century that Judt believes we have forgotten is the consequences and repercussions of war particularly in the US.  The great wars of the 20th century were fought in Europe and Asia neither of which affected the American homeland.  This, he argues, gives us a false perception of war and its uses.  Never having had to deal with the ramification of war, American’s glorify war because we fought the “good” wars to preserve Western society.  The Second World War spurned American into prosperity and the collapse of the Soviet Union created a moral victory.  Both these outcomes, argues Judt, have led America to see war as the first option in international affairs rather than the last resort.  In this regard, I think that Judt makes a good case that having never experienced war on the homeland Americans perceive war differently, but I do not agree that Washington sees war as the first option (except for perhaps neoconservatives).  I understand how this type of perception can appear true especially after the debacle that was Iraq, but sending our soldiers to fight wars should always be down with extreme caution and when after all the alternatives have been explored.

Another characteristic of the 20th century that Judt emphasizes is “the rise and subsequent fall of the state.”  By this Judt means that in the early part of the century the nation state had developed into the most powerful institution in world.  The regions of Europe had finally coalesced in states with strong central governments.  The new concept of patriotism would ultimately lead to two great wars on the European continent.  By the end of the 20th century, the nation-state was no longer an important actor as globalization and the “flattening” of the earth have eliminated our need for boundaries and states. Judt believes, as a social democrat, that the lost of the state is detrimental to societies well-being.  He is not arguing for a Soviet style system of government but rather for the type of government created in Western Europe by Christian Democrats after WWII.  These welfare states provided important and crucial services to a population reeling from two major wars in under thirty years, and Judt believes that this model of state is crucial to Western society.  However, when advocating for modern welfare states, Judt fails to acknowledge that in the 1970s these Europe welfare states created after the war were stymied economically because of the financial obligations corporations and governments had in supporting individuals.  Europe did not break free from this stagnation until the deregulation of the 1980s that allowed for economic growth.  I agree with Judt that the term socialism is not synonymous with Soviet communism or Marxism, that there are certain things that the state can better provide than the private sector, and that finding a balance between what is provided by government and private corporations is a challenge for our time; however, I disagree that the post war welfare state (1945-1970s) of Europe is the model we should use.

One of the main themes of Reappraisals is the decline of the intellectual in the public debate.  Judt laments the loss of the intellectual in American society as today opinion is shaped not by men and women who have studied the issues but pundits, think tanks, party hacks, and demagogues – all with agendas.  This is not to say that intellectuals did not have agendas but at least intellectuals were not opposed to changing their mind one they were proved wrong.  Today’s taking heads take stands just to be on the opposite end of the argument whether it is beneficial or not.  While not explicit, Judt appears to suggest that the intellectuals lost their place of authority because so many of them were, at least initially, seduced by Marxism, and though many came to change their minds and denounce the atrocities of the Soviet state they became stigmatized.  This stigmatization continues today as academics and professors are labeled lefties, communists, socialists, and Marxist even though the large majority of academics would not place themselves in these categories.  The stigma that intellectuals are Marxists is anachronistic to Judt and he fervently believes that they should again be the shapers of public opinion.

Judt closes out his introduction by examining today’s obsession of the free market and the concepts of evil and fear.  In terms of the free market, he suggests the modern obsession is comparable to the 19th century obsessions with Marxism; we have replaced one economic idea for another.  With the term evil, Judt feels that the term no longer carries meaning because everything is “evil;” the word no longer carries the weight it once did in describe the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin, but, he argues, when it comes to the word terrorism, we have turned the word into a moral category.  Terrorism is not new Judt argues but we have elevated the term to mean a global battle over civilization.  Terrorism now represents the war between the West and “Islamo-fascism” not the political acts of violence that have occurred throughout history.  Judt worries that by placing terrorism upon a pedestal we will ignore many of the smaller challenges to our age.  His final point is that with the advent of terrorism is the reintroduction of fear into politics – politicians using fear to sway opinion in favor of their party’s policies.  Fear is a powerful political tool and if we examine the two great wars of the last century we can see the results.  In this respective, I think that Judt makes a valid point; however, I do not agree with his answer to this problem which is to increase the power of the state.  For Judt, if the state provides more services for the populace they will have little to fear.  While the state should play a role in society, I do not believe that the State should be the sole provider.  As I mentioned above, welfare states, like the ones Judt is advocating for, eventually failed, and therefore a balance leaning towards the private sector needs to be located.

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