April 6, 2012

Tony Judt’s “Social Democracy” in America: A Call for Help!

Tony Judt’s “Social Democracy” in America: A Call for Help!

We in the West have lived through a long era of stability, cocooned in the illusion of indefinite economic improvement. But all that is now behind us. For the foreseeable future we shall be deeply economically insecure. We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, our environmental well-being, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II. We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010. p. 218.

The late historian Tony Judt (1948 – 2010) is my inspiration and spur, in two remarkable testimonies, Ill Fares the Land and Thinking the Twentieth Century, both composed in the last throes of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Confession: I’m a quick study but a slow learner. Reading the Judt diagnoses and warnings, two big ideas are finally hitting home. First, that Judt’s ideal of “social democracy” is precisely the framework I grew up in — the era from 1945 to 1975, through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies, in which six Lydon sibs hustled their way out of poverty with big scholarships at great schools; and then, essentially indifferent to money, found absorbing and useful lives in the Foreign Service, teaching, journalism, music and community farming. Just to have bought a house and worked steadily through that long expansion meant that we came to live comfortably middle-class without much thinking about it. Like Mark Blyth’s academic colleague Sven Steinmo, we can tell our kids now that we “have everything.”

I’m embarrassed that the second point sinks in so late: that the “commonwealth” era in an America of carefully constructed and shared well-being is decidely over. My father, the child of illiterate peasant immigrants from the West of Ireland, gloried in the inscription carved in granite on the side of the Boston Public Library in 1895: THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY. We all took note of the welcome, in stone, over the library door on Copley Square: FREE TO ALL. My kids in Boston today agonize over scarce lottery openings at decent public schools for their kids. The alternative, full of allure and dread, is top-drawer private kindergarten at $30,000 per child per year.

The wide-open question, in short, is: what happened to the “social democratic” underpinnings of our birthright American way of life? What happened to the assumption, in a rough-and-tumble world, of a fundamental human equality and the progressive taxes that kept it in sight? What happened to our enthusiastic investment in expanding the blessed circle of entitlement, most especially through heavily subsidized education? What happened to plain talk in a open but accountable public conversation that we all took seriously?

I’m going to New Haven on Monday to record a conversation with the European historian at Yale, Timothy Snyder, who drew Tony Judt’s last great book out of him, Thinking the Twentieth Century. It is a tour de force of interviewing that saved the final urgent whispers of an English-American historian of Europe who became a prophet of Biblical fire. Tony Judt’s last work reads to me like the missing manual of what ought to be the 2012 presidential campaign. Not the last word but an eloquent starting point where a vast swath of us could find a foundation. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” Tony Judt wrote at the opening of Ill Fares the Land

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ 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…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010. p. 1-2.

The worst of it, Tony Judt suggests, is that we simply do not know how to talk about these things anymore. I think he’s right. Despite the many blessings of the Web, we can seem worse off today than in 1988 when Joan Didion complained that “what strikes one most vividly” about the inside-baseball of the campaign was “precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Who has come close to voicing the common dread that underlies both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement? “We need to act upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe,” Tony Judt writes, and also to “theorize our better instincts.” Not the least of what he’s asking is: why do we experience such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society?

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