Reading Tony Judt on people telling themselves stories

Tony Judt was a lefty intellectual historian who died at 62 of ALS in 2010. When I was writing The Case for Rational Optimism,  he wrote Ill Fares the Land, his title a seeming rebuttal. Indeed, it was a lament that his leftist politics was losing. Still considering myself a “conservative,” I didn’t read it, put off by the tendentious title.

That was then.

Recently I stumbled upon Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Judt with Timothy Snyder, published in 2012; transcribing conversations the two had while Judt neared death. Much is rather abstruse intellectualizing about the interplay among the century’s big “isms” — Communism, Marxism, Socialism, Fascism, Nazism. In that landscape, classical liberalism may be likened those little proto-mammals eking out existence amidst dinosaurs.

That past world might seem remote to us now. But the world of 2010-12, when the book was compiled, already feels similarly remote. In hindsight an interlude of comparative calm and sanity. The 20th century turmoil analyzed in the book has many current parallels. It’s a pity the authors didn’t get to discuss them.

Many other writers and thinkers are mentioned, including some clear-sighted ones, like Orwell, able to penetrate the fog of the sturm und drang around them. But mostly one is driven to scream, “Was everyone nuts?” One line, mid-book, jumped out at me: ” . . . the biggest story of the twentieth century: how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories with all the terrible consequences that ensued.”

How that resonates in our current moment! Britain is literally destroying itself in a manic Brexit seizure. Italy and Brazil elect clowns and knaves. Others throw democracy away. And in America a big population segment tells itself a story grotesquely at odds with truth.* Whose terrible consequences I’m still hoping can be stanched.

Part of the explanation is fingered by Judt the historian. People fall for false stories because they don’t know true ones, ignorant about facts shaping their cultures.**

It’s an odd feeling reading this book’s discussion of a past time with so many disturbing echos to my own. Today any sane person knows Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were monsters.*** But back then an awful lot of people were telling themselves different stories. Just like today with Trump.

I believe future generations will look back on ours with restored clarity. They too will wonder “how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories.” Unless Trump and his ilk succeed where those earlier monsters failed, and finally do create the world Orwell warned about.

* Watch for their snarky comments on this blog post! But it’s not just the political right. Judt was sympathetic to socialism, but the book shows how that faith failed. Yet now America’s left is telling itself a false story about it. Or trying to sell one. (No, socialism is not merely government building schools and roads.)

** Unfortunately when they move on to more current affairs, the authors go down a rabbit hole. Smugly dismissing the thinking of almost everyone else (like “the egregious Thomas Friedman”) not conforming to their rarefied ideas. Actually a distorting left-wing lens, full of notions I found cockeyed and just plain wrong.

*** Notably, the authors avoid any mention of Mao. Is that monster (unlike Stalin) still an icon a true-blue left-winger refuses to criticize?

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Reading Tony Judt on people telling themselves stories”

  1. Paul J Landsberg Says:

    Frank, as always I enjoy your writing. And writing about your reading! Where I still disagree with you is your quick and constant use of terms like leftist or elitist or whatever. When we look back at history, it was not the German left (or whatever it would be labeled) it was the Germans, as a nation, that failed to stop the madness. Their military engaged in madness. It took a $*&$-ton of killing and destruction to create a reset. Likewise this applies to Japan. Quite honestly it applies to us. When we keep kids in cages, WE have failed. When we are OK with torture on prisoners, WE have failed. The 2020 election will truly reveal the magnitude and depths of our failures, or, the ability of the United States to change course.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    I agree with most of what you say. But if it’s not linguistically appropriate to call Tony Judt a “leftist,” what single word would you use?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s