Tim Snyder and Tony Judt: another narrative for Campaign 2012


Timothy Snyder, a rising-star historian at Yale (most recently of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), is turning up the heat on his friend Tony Judt’s parting sermons about “social democracy.” I’m taking Tony Judt’s last books as “a catalog of the malaise” in the land, and as a catalyst of an Open Source quest for an alternative narrative of the 2012 presidential campaign. Grab a line, please! Tim Snyder drew almost literally the last words out of Tony Judt as he succumbed two years ago to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Thinking the Twentieth Century is their “talking book,” which they spoke and edited together. It’s Judt’s intellectual autobiography and a shared reflection on history at a dicey moment in the Western world. Tony Judt’s hope was in the “social democratic” compromises that keep alive dreams of equality, inclusion and fairness on a capitalist playing field. Tim Snyder adds his own high notes of urgency. What’s ruinous today, he’s saying, is not the cost of “social democracy” in education, public health, and modern transport, which can be shown to pay for themselves. Rather it’s inequality and social isolation that exact a price in many measures of health and happiness — in crime, mental illness, life expectancy and social stability. The problem in Europe, Snyder says, is typified by Greece, which “like the United States has lots of wealth inequality and lots of rich people who avoid paying taxes.”

This is another lesson of history: you can tell states are about to fall when the wealthy people who have been their bulwark are no longer contributing. They’re making bets elsewhere, and the state isn’t strong enough to make them pay taxes. And that’s kind of where we are now, which is why I worry. Not only do we have very rich people who don’t pay very many taxes, but we have this idea that it’s bad to make them pay taxes. And Mitt Romney incorporates that argument.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

I hear a piercing cri de coeur in Tony Judt’s last several books, touching something much hotter and heavier than the campaign rancor so far, clearer and deeper than anything the Tea Party or Occupy have articulated, but not so distant from the general panic attack that many millions among us are facing:

We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. p. 217.

Tim Snyder is speaking also of something gone drastically wrong in the public conversation. We now have a 24-hour news cycle, as he puts it, and an ever narrower discourse. It annoyed Tony Judt, he says, that we call ourselves a nation of non-conformism and free speech, when in truth “our intellectual life is impoverished compared with many democracies in the world or with the U. S. 50 years ago.” Here’s the Tony Judt version in print:

We cannot hope to reconstruct our dilapidated public conversation — no less than our crumbling infrastructure — unless we become sufficiently angry at our present condition. No democratic state should be able to make illegal war on the basis of a deliberate lie and get away with it. The silence surrounding the contemptibly inadequate response of the Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina bespeaks a depressing cynicism toward the responsibilities and capacities of the state: we expect Washington to under-perform… Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. pp. 161, 172…

Tony Judt acted out a rare conviction in the power of the word — and of his own words to the last breath. He believed it was the intellectuals’ job not only to broaden the public conversation but to change it. “If we do not talk differently,” he wrote , “we shall not think differently.” So a central part of this Tony Judt challenge we’re pursuing has to do with the mainstream American discourse we call “media” — how it works and what we make of it. Our next conversation in this thread is with the ever provocative champion of “civic media,” and now a star of “social media,” Jay Rosen of the dauntless and durable PressThink website, who chanced also to be Tony Judt’s colleague at New York University. By way of reintroducing Tony Judt, consider his passion for trains, and train stations — those “cathedrals of modern life,” collective projects for individual and common benefit, as he wrote. In Mumbai and Milan, Paris and New York, trains and their stations remain both “perennially contemporary” and “aesthetically appealing” — quite unlike airports. And they work! — much as they were designed to work from the beginning. Tim Snyder makes trains a sort of lesson that Tony Judt learned in scholarship, in life, in politics — that “we don’t become individuals all by ourselves. We can’t become responsible, we can’t become interesting, we can’t become individuals of any sort without some sort of collectivity. And I think trains were all about that…”

When you’re on a train, you can be all alone — reading your book, you don’t have to be paying attention to anyone else. But you are with other people, even if the only thing you have in common with the others is that you’re going to the same place, in the same direction. But the process of being on the train is one of looking around and noticing differences, right? So you can be alone together. Which is different from, on the one hand, the American practice of commuting in your car by yourself, staying up late playing a video game, where you’re alone alone. It’s also different from the kind of radical socialist or communist dream of being together together, where we’re all part of the same working class and we’re going to get rid of all those other people who aren’t… It’s somewhere right in the middle. It’s alone together. Together alone. Trains give us that, and in some sense I think that’s what modern society has to be like. The alone-alone is kind of a nightmare. The together-together is kind of a nightmare. It’s the alone-together, you know, which is tenable and which we can make if we want to make it.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

Comments, please! Or email to chris@radioopensource.org. And thanks!

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  • nother

    Maybe because I just read a John Adams bio but I see our current state of affairs as the end of one particular narrative. I know Mr. Snyder says that we’re not supposed to look at “stories,” but the narrative I see starts out with Mr. Jefferson writing the “pursuit of happiness,” and it ends in 2008. It’s a story of pursuing happiness through a collective rise in the standard of living.

    Our current anxiety/disillusion stems from a stark realization that we’ve reached the end of that road, we’ve collectively hit the ceiling, and for many that’s not a happy ending to the story. When In fact we already went too far, we should’ve been content with the ability to pay for college, a house, and retirement.

    Only (big surprise) many still want more, so some are intent on leaving the rest behind so they can keep rising and break through that damn ceiling where they’re intent on writing their own new happy ending. Well what really gets my goat is that this ambition and avarice isn’t just selfish and inhumane, it’s F’ing Unpatriotic. Our nations only recourse is write a new narrative for the pursuit of happiness and I only hope it won’t take a calamity for us to make that revision.

  • Rob Crawford

    Chris, this interview is you at your absolute best. Once again, I feel compelled to buy the book. The profusion of challenging ideas greatly enlived my daily bike ride in the French Alps!

  • Canadian Business Owner

    I always enjoy the program. I am an immigrant from a country with the train system discussed by Tim and live in Canada which is the welfare state Tim also would like to see in the US. I have been running a business for eighteen years which I am closing to go and work in a large corporation.
    Tim certainly lives in an ivory tower and has never had to meet a payroll. When he talks about Romney’s taxes, Tim must realize that Mitt is not making a salary so taxes on capital gains and property taxes will not be at the same level because that is tax on money that has already been taxed. Saying the rich in the US are like the Greek wealthy is laughable. First, there are no billionaires made in Greece anymore. The whole system is on cash or barter and no tax reporting as well as no collection by the government. The US is organized and the tax collectors the mist irganized in the workd. Greece is tiny, not even the size of a state. It has become a place where people retire. For Germany to cover Greece’s debt costs is not too onerous as the total dollar amount is small compared to Germany’s GDP. It s seen as reparations for war.
    The train system where I grew up was a system of terror as youths would kill and push people off them. They are now rusted and running poorly. That would be a cultural behavior as it was one group killing another. Each country in Europe is fairly homogenous and small, Sweden is seven million, for example. People live close together. I would say schools, church, pubs, community centers provide far more of the glue than rail systems even though the income level and cultures self select to group together.
    The US needs to get a sales tax so that everyone contributes when they consume. They could also do a gas tax. Your country was designed and built to be for the automobile, unlike Europe. You have a massive population and massive space. California is the size of Canada’s population. Having one state subsidize another like Michigan would be folly as politicians find it useful to pay off unions and their workers so as to get paid.
    As an example, my brother is the head of one of Canada’s province’s and as a. Govt official, he has retired after 25 years with 80percent of his highest salary plus benefits and indexed to inflation. You would have to have five million saved and unlike my savings which the crash cut in half, he has no risk from the market.
    Our health care does not cover birth control or any drugs or dental, etc. my son had to wait one year for an operation to remove a large cyst from his spine without knowing if it was cancerous or not. The hospital was dirty and I had to take him home the same day. Getting nurse care for the twelve weeks required meant driving to the nurse centre to get bandages changed. It is more like car mechanics. I paid for medicine and bandages.
    As for taxes, my business was taxed. I had to take half of my employee wages before they received the money and send it to the government. Plus HST tax sent quarterly which is one of the sales tax I mentioned. So health care is not cheap. It is hidden, plus my province had me take one thousand dollars per year from each employee in addition as a health care tax. When you actually write the cheques and see the tax being removed from your bank account, the reality of being a business owner hits. Then when you see far nicer work conditions and retirement for govt union people like my brother, it is hard to take.
    The govt has been getting more and more into my market space in a well meaning way. But I visited one company receiving fifty million a year from the govt in the morning as a crown corp. and drove to my business client owner in the afternoon who made fifty million revenues. The govt supported company had a massive building with air con and engineering staff who wanted strategy to continue on although the Chinese are eating their lunch.
    In sharp contrast, the business is in 1950s buildings and warehouse and we could not hire engineers or finance people the calibre of the ones in the Crown corp. as we could not afford the same salaries. Crown corps are abundant in Canada but are sucking up resources. Do they pay tax? The employees do but not the corporation as they are given their money. The company was threadbare and the owner mortgaged to the hilt. I do private equity so helped that business owner and hit top forty people who bought shares in the business by mortgaging their homes. Five years later, the two hundred jobs were saved and the company is now doing projects in twenty countries. We skip the US because of your govt and IRS.
    the govt is now running funds to loan to companies. Nice. It has put me out if business as I was in the ten million investment size and the govt has muddied the waters. Solyndra is a larger loan than most of our private equity funds put together. Even our largest funds, which are pensions of teachers and hospital worker unions, would not lend that amount and process. Money is a tough business at the higher risk end. In my business, we have saved thousands of jobs which our banks would have closed.
    I like listening to All ranges of political thought and agree with Tim that some govt is good but seeing my hard work get taxed and seeing that cash go to make busy Crown corps and my brother’ retirement at fifty two made me decide to close down. That is ten jobs gone plus all the companies under fifty million revenue who are in decline here in Ontario. You need your entrepreneurs to have some reward. Romney was an early pioneer in high risk lending. I respect his success where so many have failed. I see myself as having failed. If I could keep the taxes if even one if my employees, it would have made all the difference but I am tired of carting all the risk and nit having a retirement package.

  • dave bernard

    The BPL was central in my coming of age, but Educators were primay players in sabotaging the natural, inevitable direction of History.

  • Zak

    Another great program, Chris. I haven’t posted for far too long, but I’ve been listening diligently, and I just had to contribute today because what Tim Snyder was saying about the welfare state’s ability to relieve the everyday anxieties that consume us as Americans–worries about commuting, health care, retirement, etc.–so we can focus on what holds more meaning for us. It seems like such an obvious point, but it’s the first time I’ve heard anyone make it so lucidly. Snyder, who’s just a bit older than I, cut through the nonsense of our this age time and again during your talk, and I was absolutely riveted. Bring him back soon!

  • EveT

    Regarding the argument that capital gains money “has already been taxed” — I don’t see how this would be true. The principal that was invested may already have been taxed, but the profits realized were not. As a middle-class person, if I bought a house 30 years ago and can now sell it for 3x what I paid (despite the recession), I haven’t already paid tax on the extra money I’ll get from the sale. Please explain how that differs from someone like Romney or Buffett investing in the stock market and making millions in capital gains.

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  • Sean McElroy

    This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information. Tony Judt. Thinking the Twentieth Century p. 91

  • Potter

    “We look for ways to slumber”

    There is so much here to chew on, to sink in, to realize or re-realize. I hardly know what to comment lest it be longer than the longest already here. One of the points that stick out is about words, their power ( especially in this political season) and the story or stories we tell and go by, believe, versions of history. And then there’s the shallowness of the conversation that make divisions pronounced and keep us here from being a social democracy, what we claim to be (free, just) “the discrepancy between what we declare and what we practice”. We sorely miss, it seems, the knowledge, or acknowledgement, the feeling, that we owe something to one another, morally and to survive. I am convinced that if the conversation (arguments) went deeper we would find or arrive at more common ground. The value of providing decent education decent health care for all should not be contentious.

    Reading Judt’s book “Ill Fares the Land” I find it very clearly and simply written. I have been an admirer of his essays for several years now. Thank you again.

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  • The Parrot

    Chris, really enjoying these shows framed by “ill fares the land” (an excellent book, both in content and unbelievable clarity and expression of concern).

    I leave you with this quote: “It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.” Kenneth Clark, Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism, Civilisation (1969)

    A nearly Emersonian thought … best to all …

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