Sarah's Reviews > Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt
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's review
May 25, 2010

really liked it

I wish I could remember who recommended this book to me. I remember the conversation (me: I was basically burnt out on fiction and worrying that a steady diet of it was affecting my ability to parse the rest of the world; unknown person: enthusiastically recommending this extended essay as a remedy!)- but the rest of it- the person's face, voice, gender or relation to me- is totally and completely lost. I really feel bad if it's one of you, and I apologize. I also offer my gratitude- this was a dry but very, very good book to read.

It's a timely book; Tony Judt (professor of political philosophy (that sounds like such a fun job to be) at, I think, Columbia or Princeton or some such place) has turned a series of lectures he has given to his freshmen and sophomore classes into what is essentially an apologia for the liberal state. In a time when people seem to actively see taxes as government sanctioned theft and when the notion of shared responsibility seems to be a dirty thing to talk about, Mr. Judt offers a very even headed, extraordinarily rational but nevertheless deeply heartfelt defense of taxation, of government involvement in economic affairs, and in collective responsibility for the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, the children- essentially, for the most vulnerable members of any given society.

What I admire so much about this book, and what sets it apart from a lot of other liberal/progressive essaysists, is two parted: one, Mr. Judt draws on what feels to me a lost tradition of intellectual and academic discourse. His writing is deliberately calm, meticulous, and non-inflammatory. He inserts a wry observation here and there that tip off his political sympathies (except, of course, he also states his political sympathies in the very opening paragraphs, so there isn't really anything underhanded or sly) but other than that this is the work of a man deliberately placing himself in the tradition of calm, reasonable thinker. It's refreshing to read something so devoid of snark, of insults, or of bombastic and over the top emotions. It's refreshing to read a thinker who trusts in his ideas enough to let his writing rest on that, and not resort to emotionalism.

The second, and much more important, aspect of this book that I treasure is that Mr. Judt bases his argument for greater shared responsibility (enacted through taxation and greater civil engagement in governing) and government oversight of the finanical and industrial complexes, is that he bases his argument on analysis of long standing trends. Mr. Judt's premise is that what matters is not so much the ideology behind a political choice, but the consequence of that choice, and demonstrates that time and time again, the consequences of unfettered capitalism and gutted social systems are a fragmented, uneven, violent and ultimately very unhappy society. Mr. Judt does not, however, spare criticism of the left, which he argues has both misused public trust (abundant after World War II) and failed to live up to it's own ideals. Ultimately, however, his argument is that rather than strive towards perfection- the stumbling block of political purists on both the left and the right- we should, as a society, strive towards "good enough". He acknowledges that this humble approach lacks the sort of heroic appeal that draws followers to movements, but suggests that after decades of misadventures in the attempt for perfection, we might find a wisdom in a happy medium in our approach to self governing.

This book is not going to single handedly win over your libertarian friends or anything, and for a lot of progressive/liberal people I know, Tony Judt's ideas will seem pretty timid. But from where I stand, looking out over the political landscape, a return to modest discourse is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and I fervrently hope it catches on.
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