U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tony Judt on American and European liberalism

Tony Judt was one of the first intellectual historians I read and enjoyed. I spent a semester during courses thinking about the choices about communism made by western leftists after Stalin. Then when his masterful Postwar Europe came out during my comps, I was first in awe and then cursed its timing.

I was saddened today to learn that he has an advanced form of ALS and is now a quadrapalegic. An article in the Chronicle shows that his mind and sense of humor are still sharp.

A taste:

He began by joking, referring to himself as “a quadriplegic wearing facial Tupperware” and promising not to use overdramatic hand gestures. The tension abated, and Judt moved into the substance of his talk, “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?” […]

Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans have forgotten how to think politically and morally about economic choices, Judt warned, his fragile, British-accented voice growing louder. To abandon the gains made by social democrats—the New Deal, the Great Society, the European welfare state—”is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come. […]

I ask how he felt after the lecture. “Elated,” Judt replies simply. Some friends and colleagues had encouraged him to scrap his planned remarks and speak instead about ALS. “I thought about it,” Judt says, “but I have nothing new to say about ALS. I do have something new to say about social democracy, and by saying it in my condition I can maybe have some influence on people’s understanding of sickness.” He takes a deep breath. “There is something to be said for simply doing the thing you would do anyway, doing it as well as you can under the circumstances, and getting past the sympathy vote as soon as possible.”

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this, Lauren. I was unaware that Judt had ALS. What a harrowing and sad story (though Judt’s insistence on keeping on thinking and writing in the face of it is very impressive)! Incidentally, the comments on that Chronicle article are appalling (if not surprising): the conversation is dominated by a number of anonymous, self-described friends-of-Israel reveling in Judt’s illness.

  2. I had no idea that Tony Judt was ill. I have for years admired the bravery that he has exhibited when he speaks the truth in the face of propaganda. Thanks for this posting.

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