Thursday, October 6, 2016

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

Listening in to a great conversation
A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind. 
John Maynard Keynes (opening epigraph)



Reading Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (2012) was like eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between two very erudite gentlemen who happen to be discussing a topic in which you hold a keen interest. But this unusual book—as an extended conversation—arose from an unusual and sad course of events. Tony Judt was a historian who had risen to prominence based on his longer works and on widely admired (and sometimes criticized) pieces in prestigious publications such as The New York Review of Books. In 2005, he published his acclaimed Postwar:  A History of Europe Since 1945. But then in 2008, Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. The diagnosis is a slow motion death warrant. Yet Judt worked until his death in August 2010. After learning of his diagnosis, instead of writing a large, intended study, he decided to use recorded conversations with Snyder, a fellow historian, as the vehicle for sharing his insights. In fact, the unusual format of an extended conversation works quite well, serving to add a feel of intimacy to the work that it would not have enjoyed if it Judt had written it in the usual manner. Of course, this wouldn’t have worked were it not for Judt’s erudition and facility with words, nor would it have worked without the matching knowledge and insight of Snyder. Both men are professional historians, and both shared an interest in 20th-century European history, history as a discipline, and the application of historical knowledge and insight to current affairs. And perhaps of greatest significance, they both exhibit a profound ethical commitment.

The Berlinian [Isaiah Berlin] lesson most pertinent to daily political analysis and debate is the reminder that all political choices entail real and unavoidable costs. The issue is not whether or not there is a right or wrong decision to be taken, nor even whether you face a choice such as the "right" decision consists in avoiding the worst mistakes. Any decision – including any right decision – entails forgoing certain options: depriving yourself of the power to do certain things, some of which might well have been worth doing. In short, there are choices that we are right to make but which implicitly invoke rejecting other choices whose virtues it would be a mistake to deny. In the real world of politics, as in most other arenas of life, all worthwhile decisions entail genuine gains and losses. (196)

The conversation contained in each chapter begins with a consideration of Judt’s personal and professional history. Following E.H. Carr’s dicta, “Before you study the history, study the historian” and “and before you study the historian, study his background and environment”—dicta that John Lukacs considers a “half-truth”, but which must suffice at present—Snyder has Judt recount his background as the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to London growing up in the 1950s (Judt was born in 1948). From there, the story continues to Cambridge, Israel, Paris, Berkley, and eventually to New York City. Each portion of Judt’s biography serves as a springboard for a discussion of topics in the 20th-century history (centered on Europe and the U.S.). For instance, early on, especially relevant in light of Judt’s Eastern European Jewish heritage, the discussion turns to the role of Judaism and anti-Semitism in European culture. The discussion is enlightening, for one can’t understand 20th-century history and political thought without grasping the importance of “the Jewish question”. 

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that this [the Reagan-Thatcher view that the right to make any amount of money unhindered by the state is part of an unbroken continuim with the right of free speech] is not what Adam Smith thought. And it is certainly not the view of most neoclassical economic economists either. It would simply never have occurred to them to suppose a necessary and permanent relationship between the forms of economic life and all other aspects of human existence. They treated economics as benefiting from internal laws as well as the logic of human self interest; but the notion that economics alone could supply the purposes of human existence on earth would have struck them as peculiarly thin gruel. (247)

(I learned this as an undergraduate in modern history and contemporary political science who hailed from a small town in Iowa where there was only one Jew—that I knew of—in the town, and his living there was no big deal.  The better side of growing up in such a sheltered environment was that most ethnic and racial prejudices, while existent, were of little importance because, except for seasonal migrant workers (“Mexicans”), there were no racial or ethnic minorities. And I have my parents to thank for discouraging such nonsense if it did come up. But when it came to understanding the place of Jews and anti-Semitism in the modern world, I was at a bit of a--not unwelcome--disadvantage.)

It's terribly important for an open society to be familiar with its past. It was a common feature of the closed societies of the 20th century, whether of the Left or the Right, that they manipulated history. Reading the past is the oldest form of knowledge control: if you have power over the interpretation of what went before (or simply lie about it), the present and the future are at your disposal. So it is a simple democratic prudence to ensure that the citizenry are historically informed. (265)

But at the beginning with Chapter 6, my pencil came out. I’d read the beginning of the book with pleasure and profit, but beginning in Chapter 6, I started marking comments that I found especially revealing or with which I agreed, celebrating the identification of kindred thinkers. (I’ve spread some of these quotes throughout my review and at the end.) Judt and Snyder not only talk about events, beliefs, and actors in the 20th century, but they remark upon how those events and beliefs are manifest in our world today. They also provide some insightful comments on the history profession, journalism, the relation of memory to history, and the teaching of history that I found exceptionally well-considered. (And—again—they were making these observations via a conversation, not via a carefully crafted essay.) By the end of the book, I’d marked the book in more red pencil than I imagined I had available.

Nature doesn't mind paths [ways of understanding historical events], but nature abhors a vacuum. We have taken remembering events in a vacuum. Accordingly, we invoke them in isolation: "never again," Munich, Hitler, Stalin and so forth. But how can anyone make sense of such invocations and labels? In American and European high schools today, it is not uncommon for students to graduate having just taken one course in World coupled History: typically this will be either the Holocaust, World War II, totalitarianism or some comparably excerpted were from mid-20th- century Europe. However well taught, however sensitively sourced and discussed, such a course emerges from nowhere and, inevitably, leads nowhere. What possible pedagogical purpose can it serve? (273)

For anyone interested in the history of Europe and America, especially from the perspective of incisive commentary on social and political thought, this will prove an exhilarating read. As a lifelong student of history and as a firm believer in the value of history as a way of knowing and understanding the world, one could not ask for a more worthwhile example of the practice and culture of historical thinking and how it applies to our world. At a time when U.S. democracy and values are threatened by demagoguery unparalleled in my memory, taking (silent) part in the conversation of these two extraordinary historians reminds me that there are those out there who are shining their lights into the darkness. I’m with them. (Keep reading below--the best parts of this post!)

The Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others has some – but limited – truth. Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy was not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, or authoritarianism or oligarchy; it's much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.
 . . . . Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically, if you like – that's the Orwellian point about language. They corrode because most people don't care very much about them. . . . Democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a good, open society. I don't want to come across as excessively skeptical about democracy: as someone having a preference for the aristocratic, liberal societies of the 19th century. But I do want to make a (Isaiah) Berlinian point. We seem to have simply have to acknowledge that some earlier nondemocratic societies were in certain respects better the late democracies. (306;308)

I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory; to allow memory to put replace history is dangerous. Where as history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes: a theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, flag. Such pneumonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective; those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies – sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not. In either event, they cannot substitute for history. (278) 
Remember that in Europe above all, those who have been most successful in mobilizing such fears-fears of strangers, of immigrants, of economic uncertainty or violence – are primarily the conventional, old-fashioned demagogic, nationalist, xenophobic politicians. The structure of American public life makes it harder for people like that to get a purchase on the government as a whole, one of the ways in which the US has been uniquely fortunate. But the contemporary Republican Party has begun to mobilize just these fears in recent times and may well ride them to power.(386) 

This last quote, remember, was written before the rise of Trump and Trumpism.