Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tony Judt & The Common Good

There's a nice review of Tony Judt's latest book, Ill Fares the Land (2010) in the New York Times (h/t Michael Perry). For those who haven't followed Judt's recent articles in the New York Review of Books, Dwight Garner writes that

The British historian Tony Judt is dying, slowly and painfully, from a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He has written matter-of-factly about his condition — he is now, essentially, a quadriplegic — in The New York Review of Books. At some point he will be able to communicate only by blinking an eye. For now he is dictating his words to assistants.

One of Judt's recent essays in particular I recommend: "What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?", even if I might have made essentially the same argument in slightly different terms, eschewing, for example, Judt's suggestion that "If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear." By this he means the need to remind the public of the considerable and perhaps taken-for-granted achievements of the twentieth century he believes we're in peril of loosing in toto or in part: "The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve." Now while this is undoubtedly true, I'm not convinced a "backward-looking" orientation should dominate the discourse of the Left. Still, that's a wee quibble in light of the larger argument.

As for his newest book, I paused for a moment in light of the following from the review:

What caused this dire loss of faith in our government and leaders? Mr. Judt spreads the blame around. He criticizes the narcissistic left of the 1960s, which was largely uninterested in social justice. “What united the ’60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each,” he writes.

One hesitates to criticize Judt, but I think he has this wrong, as does Alan Wolfe and others who have become fond of this fashionable canard, which appears based on an overly whiggish or unduly functionalist view of recent history.

The self-identified Left was in fact quite concerned about social justice. Whatever its other shortcomings, evidence of this concern is found in the Students for a Democratic Society's (SDS) Port Huron Statement as well as in numerous civil rights organizations and is plausibly viewed as a fundamental premise of the Highlander Folk School (and an explict value of today's Highlander Research and Education Center). Think too of the impact of Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), a work almost singularly responsible for the short-circuited "war on poverty:"

Among the book’s readers, reputedly, was John F. Kennedy, who in the fall of 1963 began thinking about proposing anti­poverty legislation. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the issue, calling in his 1964 State of the Union address for an “unconditional war on poverty.” Sargent Shriver headed the task force charged with drawing up the legislation, and invited Harrington to Washington as a consultant. (Maurice Isserman in the New York Times)

In fact,

Mr. Judt cites some of the achievements of the Democratic-led Congresses of the 1960s, achievements that would be nearly impossible in today’s political climate: “food stamps, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid, Head Start...."

Much of the inspiration for such achievements came from the direct and indirect effects of political theorizing, agitation, and old-fashioned political pressure on the part of the Left (broadly construed), and several of these programs may have been largely the result of the impact of Harrington's book. Consider too the myriad "experiments in social change" of that time which also revolved around concerns about social justice: see John Case and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, eds., Co-ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s (1979). And Martin Luther King's interests and campaigns eventually widened to include a focus on social justice issues both here and abroad, not surprising given that justice is said to have been one of the three key themes (along with love and hope) of King's theology. Again, whatever its considerable shortcomings (e.g., its militancy and Sorelian infatuation with violence), the Black Panther Party demonstrated a principled exemplification of a commitment to social justice:

Before the Black Panther Party officially disbanded in 1982...it succeeded in feeding thousands of hungry childern across the country. It first publicized and then helped to treat sickle cell anemia, a debilitating blood disease primarily afflicting blacks. Panther Free Health Clinics brought decent healthcare to thousands who were mired in poverty and unable to afford medical care.(From Curtis J. Austin's Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, 2006).

Narcissism in some measure might be counted among the vices and virtues of the counter-cultural movements and ethos of the 1960s, but this should be distinguished from the actual values, principles and practices of the (Old or New) Left of the period, the memory of which is worthy of conservation as well.

Update: From the London Review of Books, an interview with Judt in which he is asked, "In a recent essay you call for a ‘social democracy of fear’. But hasn’t the ‘war on terror’ of the last eight years shown just how dangerous appeals to fear are? When can fear be good?" Here is Judt's reply:

I wouldn’t want to claim that there are good fears, but good and bad uses of fear are possible. The bad uses are clear. There is the demagogic exploitation of fear of outsiders and strangers, which culminates in putting up barriers against immigration, refugees or exiles. The sense that things are out of control, that we may lose our jobs next year because of competition from China or India, or that some farms may become unworkable in five years’ time because of climate change, has been intensified by globalisation, and it has given rise to large, unspecific fears which are played on in America by people like Sarah Palin, or in Denmark by the anti-immigrant party, or in Switzerland with the referendum against minarets. These fears may breed nationalism, patriotism, preventive wars and repressive anti-terrorist legislation, but in the end it’s just excessive state power. It can’t save you from terrorism, which is a political problem; it can only create a too powerful state. This can happen in very open democracies.

Britain has more closed-circuit television cameras, which keep a record of almost everyone’s movements everywhere at all times, than any other democracy in the world. In the old days we would have seen this as an unacceptable intrusion on personal freedoms, yet today it’s accepted because people are frightened of crime, outsiders, terrorism. We no longer have a choice of a wonderfully happy and prosperous, secure and stable future: this isn’t Sweden in 1965. That’s why I propose a social democracy of fear. We will have to have active interventionist states protecting us against things that frighten people: states controlling changes so they don’t get out of hand or create a political backlash. Why not face up to this challenge in the name of a progressive state with collective objectives and purposes, which preserves institutions that give us a sense of shared identity and values? We are going to have to find a new language in which to express the role of the state in this uncertain world. We have a choice to leave it to other people to come up with a language we won’t like or to come up with a language ourselves.

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