Tony Judt: Why Liberals Should Speak Out

Tony Judt is an historian, essayist, liberal polemic, and the author of several acclaimed books, including Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. But in the past year, Judt has also become known for his battle with ALS, commonly called Lou Gherig’s disease. NEWSWEEK’s Louisa Thomas spoke to Judt—who is paralyzed from the neck down and answered questions via e-mail—about some of the larger issues on his mind. Excerpts:

THOMAS: In your new book, Ill Fares the Land, you write about the need for a new language for discussing the common good, and you suggest that equality is a place to start. You have also talked about how this language can’t be an economic language. What do you mean by “equality,” if not economic equality?

JUDT: I am very interested in economics and obviously the economic arrangements of a society are at its core. When I write that we are trapped in “an economic language,” I mean that we have become accustomed to answering (and asking) only economic questions, and only in economic terms. The great economists of the past, from Adam Smith to Keynes, would have thought this bizarre. For them (as for me), a well-ordered society needs to address ethical questions, questions of justice and fairness and goodness and morality and right and wrong. We can’t live just by asking, “Is this efficient?”, “Is this good for GDP?”, and so on. We have to relearn to ask, “Is this the sort of society we want?”, a question to which there will be economic answers but there cannot be only economic answers.

Business language—“goods” instead of “the good”—has the advantage of seeming neutral. How can we talk about “the good” without moralizing and with sensitivity to so many various and conflicting beliefs?

This is the debilitating delusion of the age: that there is something wrong with “moralizing” and that being sensitive to a variety of beliefs means having none of your own. If liberals (I am one, in the American sense) insist that there is something dirty about moralizing, then we leave judgments about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, to people (Catholics, Muslims, and other religious communities—as well as the political right, never afraid to moralize at other peoples’ expense) who still use that language. In which case we have no answers to hard questions about everything from overseas aid to abortion to euthanasia.

As to the problem of conflicting beliefs: if we are so concerned to take seriously other peoples’ convictions, why have we none of our own? Obviously a primary liberal conviction is that we should be tolerant of other peoples’ convictions. But if we believe in something, we had better find ways to say so convincingly. Otherwise, why should anyone listen to us? If we stopped using the word “moralizing” and rediscovered the phrase “public ethics,” which the ancient and modern philosophers employed without embarrassment, we would find it easier to talk about these things.

One reason leaders seem so skittish about talking about justice is that the political environment is so polarized. Obama has been described as a conciliator. You’ve encouraged rediscovering dissent. You’ve even encouraged being angry. But how can our leaders accomplish anything if they can’t get along?

One of the advantages of our system of democracy—like our system of justice and litigation—is that it invites (and to function well, requires) antagonistic perspectives and open disagreement. If there are things on which we are deeply divided, then we do better to say so. Obviously, compromises will be required, if only because the parties themselves are coalitions of interests and opinion. But the idea that cooperation (or that weasel word, bipartisanship) is a virtue in itself is one of the errors inculcated into us in elementary school. The truth is that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. And when it isn’t—when you know what the right thing is but you can’t get others to agree with you—you do it (or try to). I don’t favor dissent or anger for their own sake, though I think they are crucial and healthy elements in modern democracy. But we are so obsessed with not appearing “partisan” or “biased” or “moralizers” or “divisive,” that we have forgotten how to say what we think and act on it if we think it’s right. This is not bipartisanship, this is self-censorship. If we carry on like this we will no longer know what we think and in the end we won’t even know what is right.

Finally, Obama may well be instinctively a conciliator, and there are times when that will serve him well. Right now it is serving him ill in the Middle East and it did him no good for one whole year on the health issue. One has to hope that he will grow into leadership—which is more than just splitting the difference with your opponents—quickly.

You’ve said you’ve written your book for young people. Do you think that young Americans suffered a kind of disadvantage from seeing the man who embodied so much hope actually elected to the White House? It’s easier to galvanize than to govern.

Obviously there is some truth in that—the loss of enthusiasm is palpable, especially among the young, and that is a pity. It is also commonplace. Remember the disappointment that followed Jimmy Carter, of all people? But I think that Obama, if only by virtue of being black as well as talking hope, still has more capital than most people would have retained given his failed first year. The question is can he understand the need to regalvanize from above rather than from the side.

Has your sense of where we are and where we should be going changed since being diagnosed with ALS?

No. The only thing ALS has done is make me very, very sick. In principle I suppose this would sensitize me even more to the shortcomings of American “health care”—and I have certainly learned a lot about the near-criminal manipulations of the insurance industry. But then I happened to know quite a lot about that before. But I concede that I feel a greater urgency to say whatever I have to say, given that I may not have much time to say it. Hence this little book.

Editor’s note: Judt was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fatal disease that kills cells in the brain and spinal cord controlling voluntary movement, in 2008. On May 25, two men, including one of Judt’s former students, will begin a two-month long cycling trip from Seattle to New York to raise awareness and funds for scientific research into ALS. For more information about the project or to make a donation, visit MoveforALS.com.

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