Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Tony Judt is an extraordinary man who has written an extraordinary book.  Educated at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, he is the preeminent historian of post-war Europe and has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley, and, now, New York University.  A Labor Zionist in his youth, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces in the '67 War, he has been one of the harshest critics of recent Israeli policies.
He is also dying.  He doesn't name the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) that has left him completely paralyzed, referring to his predicament only obliquely in the book's acknowledgements as "the unusual circumstances in which this book was written."
And, my, what a book he has written!  Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penquin, 2010, $25.95) cuts to the problematic core of today's America.  Must reading for new generations of Americans who have no memories of the New Deal and the Great Society and those of us who do, it is intellectually compelling and morally profound – a call to action for those who believe in a common good, in community and solidarity, and in redeeming our fading ideals in a time of greed and incivility.  It is written with the honesty, the moral clarity, and urgency of a dying man who loves his country and believes in collective action to save its soul.  
Judt derives his title from a 1770 Oliver Goldsmith poem – "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay" – an abbreviated statement of our problem that he expounds upon in the first dozen and one lines of the book:
"Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
We cannot go on living like this…."
No we cannot.  In the 235 pages that follow, Judt makes clear why not and what we can – and must – do about it.

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