Tony Judt, Hero

Tony Judt has been a leading historian of, and thinker about, the post-war world for a number of decades. Any regular reader of The New York Review of Books will be familiar with his output, in which he regularly embarrasses most of the rest of us with his understanding, judgement, and, perhaps equally important, his humanity. He has been a near-singular and powerful voice for reason on any number of issues, including the mid-east, where he has been actively involved in Israeli issues since before the six day war (during which he volunteered on a kibbutz to replace settlers off fighting), and post-war Europe. He has taught modern European history for a number of years at New York University, and of course has received his share of academic honors, all deserved. Born in London’s East End of Jewish immigrant parents, he received his Ph.D. from Cambridge before eventually settling in America, as the English are fond of doing. On any number of grounds, he is one of the positive contributors to the world.

He also has amytrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neuron disease, and he is degenerating rapidly. The disease, which is invariably fatal, was diagnosed in September 2008, and by December he had lost the use of his hands, and a few months later was in a wheelchair. At this point Judt is confined to a wheelchair, where he is fitted with equipment to keep him breathing, and has no voluntary movement abilities aside from speech. In the most recent NYRB, Judt shares some of this experience:

In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole. First you lose the use of a digit or two; then a limb; then and almost inevitably, all four. The muscles of the torso decline into near torpor, a practical problem from the digestive point of view but also life-threatening, in that breathing becomes at first difficult and eventually impossible without external assistance in the form of a tube-and-pump apparatus. In the more extreme variants of the disease, associated with dysfunction of the upper motor neurons (the rest of the body is driven by the so-called lower motor neurons), swallowing, speaking, and even controlling the jaw and head become impossible. I do not (yet) suffer from this aspect of the disease, or else I could not dictate this text.

By my present stage of decline, I am thus effectively quadriplegic. With extraordinary effort I can move my right hand a little and can adduct my left arm some six inches across my chest. My legs, although they will lock when upright long enough to allow a nurse to transfer me from one chair to another, cannot bear my weight and only one of them has any autonomous movement left in it. Thus when legs or arms are set in a given position, there they remain until someone moves them for me. The same is true of my torso, with the result that backache from inertia and pressure is a chronic irritation. Having no use of my arms, I cannot scratch an itch, adjust my spectacles, remove food particles from my teeth, or anything else that—as a moment’s reflection will confirm—we all do dozens of times a day. To say the least, I am utterly and completely dependent upon the kindness of strangers (and anyone else).

Judt’s days are one thing—-he can at least get some help. Nights, however, are something else:

But then comes the night. I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse’s need for sleep. Once I have been “prepared” for bed I am rolled into the bedroom in the wheelchair where I have spent the past eighteen hours. With some difficulty (despite my reduced height, mass, and bulk I am still a substantial dead weight for even a strong man to shift) I am manoeuvred onto my cot. I am sat upright at an angle of some 110° and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows, my left leg in particular turned out ballet-like to compensate for its propensity to collapse inward. This process requires considerable concentration. If I allow a stray limb to be mis-placed, or fail to insist on having my midriff carefully aligned with legs and head, I shall suffer the agonies of the damned later in the night.

I am then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since—like the rest of me—they now suffer from a permanent sensation of cold. I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed…and there I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.

Of course, I do have access to help if I need it. Since I can’t move a muscle, save only my neck and head, my communication device is a baby’s intercom at my bedside, left permanently on so that a mere call from me will bring assistance. In the early stages of my disease the temptation to call out for help was almost irresistible: every muscle felt in need of movement, every inch of skin itched, my bladder found mysterious ways to refill itself in the night and thus require relief, and in general I felt a desperate need for the reassurance of light, company, and the simple comforts of human intercourse. By now, however, I have learned to forgo this most nights, finding solace and recourse in my own thoughts.

The latter, though I say it myself, is no small undertaking. Ask yourself how often you move in the night. I don’t mean change location altogether (e.g., to go to the bathroom, though that too): merely how often you shift a hand, a foot; how frequently you scratch assorted body parts before dropping off; how unselfconsciously you alter position very slightly to find the most comfortable one. Imagine for a moment that you had been obliged instead to lie absolutely motionless on your back—by no means the best sleeping position, but the only one I can tolerate—for seven unbroken hours and constrained to come up with ways to render this Calvary tolerable not just for one night but for the rest of your life.

My solution has been to scroll through my life, my thoughts, my fantasies, my memories, mis-memories, and the like until I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased. These mental exercises have to be interesting enough to hold my attention and see me through an intolerable itch in my inner ear or lower back; but they also have to be boring and predictable enough to serve as a reliable prelude and encouragement to sleep. It took me some time to identify this process as a workable alternative to insomnia and physical discomfort and it is by no means infallible. But I am occasionally astonished, when I reflect upon the matter, at how readily I seem to get through, night after night, week after week, month after month, what was once an almost insufferable nocturnal ordeal. I wake up in exactly the position, frame of mind, and state of suspended despair with which I went to bed—which in the circumstances might be thought a considerable achievement.
I suppose I should be at least mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in accounts of natural disasters or isolation cells. And it is true that this disease has its enabling dimension: thanks to my inability to take notes or prepare them, my memory—already quite good—has improved considerably, with the help of techniques adapted from the “memory palace” so intriguingly depicted by Jonathan Spence. But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, inevitably—as it now appears to me—by those not exclusively dependent upon them. Much the same can be said of well-meaning encouragements to find nonphysical compensations for physical inadequacy. That way lies futility. Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.

But this is not Judt’s particular heroism—although his description of his days and nights (which will be explored further in a number of forthcoming essays in the NYRB) makes it clear that anyone with this disability has to be regarded as heroic at a certain level for simply getting through the day, or night. This existence sounds unendurable—and yet there are thousands and thousands of people worldwide who go through their days and nights in exactly this same fashion. But Judt, who has a mind and knows how to keep using it, is doing something heroic with it—-he is engaging, actively, with the world, with a specific goal.

Judt is not alone in being a member of a generation (he is two years younger than I am) that still regards collective action, including by the government, as a desirable goal, and a usable tool. And he is apparently so appalled by the fact that no one under thirty has ever heard anything positive about the government and its ability to act positively that he has resolved to act. As Ed Pilkington in The Guardian reports:

His current intellectual preoccupation is with the role of the state in western societies – the subject matter of his NYU lecture. His thesis is that over the past 40 years, western democracies have forgotten the positive virtues of collective action. “What has gone catastrophically wrong in England and the States is that for 30 years we’ve lost the ability to talk about the state in positive terms,” he says. “We’ve raised a generation or two of young people who don’t think to ask, what can the state do that is good?”

At the end of the lecture he was struck by how many young people came up to him expressing amazement at ideas they had never heard before. “This is the second generation of people who can’t imagine change except in their own lives, who have no sense of social collective public goods or services, who are just isolated individuals desperately striving to better themselves above everybody else.”

Judt now intends, in the time he has left, to devote himself to writing a book to help young people think collectively again. “It could really have an impact if I get it right. Something that will get the next generation to see there is a way to think about politics that is not just the way we’ve been habituated to do it. I care about that and I think I can do it.”

Judt is already working on the book, using the same memory technique that he deployed for his NYRB essays. During the night he builds in his mind a Chinese memory palace – or in his case a modest Swiss house – and into each of its rooms he imagines placing a paragraph or theme of the piece he is composing. The next day he recalls each room in sequence, unloading its contents by dictating it to his assistant.

This is grueling, as Pilkington disccusses elsewhere in the article. Judt’s disease continues to progress, and it’s not clear that he will finish the project. But to undertake it in the first place—to reach out to a generation or two of people who for the past thrity years have heard nothing but scorn about government, and to try to tell them that that’s the wrong story, is as noble a goal as I can think of. Judt is helped by the fact that he already has a built-in platform, throught his NYU position. And it’s work that desperately needs to be done.

Because Judt is correct-—unless we can somehow cure the malaise that has been deliberately engendered in American society over the past three decades, we’re doomed. I blame this all on Reagan, of course, because it’s so easy to blame Reagan for so many things. But to an extent it’s true—-Reagan was the guy who got laugh lines in his sttump speeches by saying “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Whatever Richard Nixon’s faults, and there were many, an innate philosphical hostility to the concept of government action was not one of them. Few remember that Nixon proposed one of the most ambitious health reform measures ever, one which was ultimately derailed by Watergate. Nixon also brought us the ability to actually aggressively enforce enviromental laws—many of which were passed under his administration. No, the change occurred under Reagan—the same era when it became ok to openly worship mammon again (and, yes, the two phonomena—the government is the enemy meme, and the markets rule meme, are not unconnected). And it was under Reagan the the independent media buckled and got co-opted by the Republican party, as Mark Hertsgaard chronicled so vividly in On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. Perhaps Reagan’s greatest sin, one which is still being perpetuated by the Republican party, is the trivialization of the concept of public service.

And the press is still enthralled with Reagan, even now that he’s long dead. Or not so long. Remember the media breathlessness during Reagan’s funeral? No one else in the country really cared, but the media was relentless in trying to make sure that we mourned him as much as the media did. Ah, that train journey, with Brian Williams of NBC palpitating madly and tearing up about Reagan’s greatness and whatever. Which brought out all of maybe 100,000 mourners in Washington. When Lincoln died, his funeral train was viewed by one million people, in a country of 32 million at the time. Roosevelt’s coffin was viewed by 500,000 in Washington alone, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands en route. The atttempted equivalence leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

It’s broader than just Reagan, of course. Remember how vaguely embarrassed papa Bush used to look about the whole thing? That certainly passed quickly. And Bill Clinton, who clearly did believe in government activism, was treated as a minority figure, if not a visitor from Mars, by the media for this view during the entire period of his presidency. And then, of course, the past ten years. And anyone growing up in America during this period, as my own children did, with exposure to the media (and who hasn’t had this?) has been treated to a relentless barrage of opinion, innendo and belief systems clearly designed to prove to us that the government is not our friend. It can’t do anything. It’s full of crooks (that we elected). And you can’t do anything about it except reduce it. It’s a joke-—a laugh line in a Reagan speech.

Judt is clearly of my generation, and regards this as not only abhorrent, but dangerous. The fact that the response at NYU was so positive is encouraging—-but, of course, this is a major east coast elite establishment. (For more on the speech, and on Judt, see here). But it’s the place to start. It was the capitulation of the major east coast elite establishments in the first place that brought us George W. Bush, a failed businessman with a Harvard MBA and two failed wars that threaten to poison us all for at least a generation with their resulting resentments, and Dick Cheney (an arguement against geographic representation if there ever was one) at Yale (before he dropped out), a man with an empty space where most of us have a moral compass.

So Judt will do what he can. The fact that he can barely do anything except speak, and that this will be lost soon, is in incentive, clearly. And I wish him well in what time he has left—-he will certainly inspire more people during this brief period he has left than most of us will during our entire lifetimes. And if the end result is more young voters, and more young activists, and more young persons without an innate hostility to “government”—-in other words, people who understand that government, since the mid-19th century, has been used as an engine of economic and social progress—-then that would indeed be heroic

9 replies »

  1. Thanks, wufnik. This was an excellent read. I guess i’m of one of the cynical generations, but it’s not that i think government can do no right…it’s more that i think government in the hands of people like Ronald Reagan (and his political descendants on both sides of the aisle) is working for the wrong group of people.

    30 years we’ve heard about making government smaller because it’s so ineffective. Has it gotten any smaller? No. The last three decades have been a terrible joke played on the American people, though not just the American people. What i don’t understand is why we’re still falling for it? It’s our government and our economy. We can take both back any time we want and use them to produce something good rather than enrich the top 1% or whatever the current number is.

    But i guess it’s hard to think about collective action when you’re trying to get enough hours at the Walmart to pay the bills so that the free market can keep on keepin’ on. One day, one day the millions of little Atlases are gonna shrug in unison and the masters of the universe who stand on their collective backs will feel the ground tremble beneath their feet. Or at least i hope that’s what happens.

  2. I know how easy it is to give in to cynicism, especially when we look at the state of government and how it’s been continually trashed over the past 30 years. And the world is a different place, certainly, than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when perhaps it was a bit too easy–certainly who has the time for activism now? Retirees on social security afraid that the US government is going to take over medicare. Hmmm. You’re right, people are scrambling to stay even in a way that no would one expected 30 years ago. But the european model is applicable here–the social commitment that the government is a necessary part of continues to thrive here. And this is why unions are so important. I’ve always found it ironic that America had its greatest expansion of the middle class–in the 20th century–at the time that unions were the strongest, although this was also the period when the govenment was pretty generous as well–funding for veterans to buy homes and go to college, for example.. So your main point–that government continues to work for the wrong people–is right on. That will only change when we start electing better people. I’m not holding my breath, but I’d like to think we can actually do this.

    • I’ve been wondering what’s going to happen with the Tea Party (TP)stuff and its relationship to the GOP. Most TPers are more conservative than the average Republican, and most seem to have no pragmatism bone in their bodies, so there’s a chance that they’ll split the GOP even more than it already is. If you put a whole bunch of TP-supported candidates up against Democrats, the TPers might win once, maybe even enough to take control of Congress, but they’ll get tossed out the next election cycle after the voters realize how poorly the TPers’ ideas work for the country.

      Assuming, that is, that the voters care enough about anything to recognize that they’ve been beaten up by the TPers.

  3. The United States will go to its grave with its arms wrapped around the myth of the maverick.

    I’d read the Judt speech and his piece in the New York Review of Books. Astonishing how he still retains such clarity in his writing.

  4. It really is wonderful clarity. The sort of voice i dearly wish we had more of…

    Wuf, i really don’t think that scraping by – as so many Americans must – is a good reason or excuse for lack of activism. It’s a reason, sure, but not a good one since the lack of activism or mobilizing votes to demand the sort of things that built the fabled American middle class (all those GI bill grants for school and loans for houses made pretty huge difference after WWII) is what keeps so many of us just scraping by.

    Funny that you mention unions. I unloaded a semi-trailer full of soil today and the driver was telling me about new DOT regulations that go into effect in July, and how the estimate is 175,000 truckers will be put out of work. The driver never said the word “union”, but he was most certainly talking about a full-blown trucker strike. Now there’s something if you want to imagine America grinding to a screeching halt in under a week. He said that he’s talked to other truckers about it, but that a lot of them say that they’d be afraid to go without pay during a strike.

    This driver didn’t buy it. “Save up a little money and live frugally for a while,” was his response. I thought about how if they were all unionized there would be a fund to defray lost wages during a strike. How there would be a venue for the truckers to hash out the issue and their collective response to them. Etc.

    I know why the powers that be and make me so damned cynical hate unions: they’re afraid of them. And as far as i’m concerned, we need more things and people that those powers are afraid of. (For the record, i grew up in a union town; i realize that unions can be corrupt and not terribly helpful for the employee-employer relationship at times…but it’s never a good idea to throw the baby out with the bathwater.)

  5. One of the running themes of science fiction of the second half of the 20th century was (and still is, in fact, in this new century) are the various means by which whatever powers there are use to keep the populace in line. Usually it’s some sort of drug–and look, we’ve got television too! But the easiest means is fear, which is what we’ve seen plenty of the past decade. So what we’ve got now is a whole gaggle of clever controls–debt, fear of terrorism, more debt, fear of immigrants, even more debt, the opiate of the media, a little more debt….it’s been a phenomenally successful program, when you think about it. Look at the number of people who are prepared to support Sarah Palin while their economic livelihoods drain away.

    Yes, scraping by isn’t really an excuse, but I think it’s an explanation. Removing the fear is the key. I had hoped that Obama might be able to do that, and for all my unhappiness with his slow pace in some areas, at least I think he’s tying to do just that. And that will make things easier, I think, in terms of actually getting people off their collective asses.Which may help some truck drivers decide that saving a bit of money for the next fight is worth it.

    Don’t truckers have a union? I guess not all do.

  6. Some truckers are teamsters, but i think that the majority of over-the-road/long haul guys are not unionized.

    It is an explanation, and one which i can understand. What i don’t understand is how/why so many people don’t get that there is a way out. Makes me sad, then angry, then cynical.