Howard Cincotta's Reviews > When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010

When the Facts Change by Tony Judt
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it was amazing
bookshelves: history-biography, nonfiction, essays

I have read and admired Tony Judt for at least 20 years, largely in the pages of The New York Review of Books, where many of these essays were first published. They now appear in this superlative, sadly posthumous collection, edited and with a moving introduction by his wife, Jennifer Homans. (Judt died of ALS in 2010, heroically writing up to the end of his life.)

I find it fascinating to compare Judt with another British-born Jewish scholar and historian of Europe, also educated at Cambridge, Simon Schama. I’m reading his 2010 essay collection, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. Since they are the same generation, Judt and Schama must have been acutely aware of each other, but I find little evidence that they met very often, much less became friends. Perhaps it’s just as well: they are very different personalities, each with a brilliance and erudition that the other may have experienced as a succession of sharp elbows.

Judt can be an entertaining writer, but it is the rigor and clarity of his arguments that strikes a reader like me so forcefully. Homans reveals one of his secrets in her introduction: deep reading (no surprise) supplemented by an elaborate system of note taking and outlining. Judt writes on many topics here – his love of railroads, for instance – but he doesn’t range as far afield as Schama in his topics. Judt is always disciplined in his focus and penetrating analysis, Schama more sprawling and ecumenical.

The only drawback to Judt’s collection is its timing. Many of these essays on foreign policy and the contrasts between Europe and America (a perennial subject) were written in the early 2000s, when the Bush administration squandered the world’s goodwill following 9/11 with its harsh unilateralism and the disastrous Iraq war. Judt’s responses here are more in sorrow than anger, but he is utterly ruthless in his dissection of America’s failures and delusions – as he is of Israel’s and Europe’s too, for that matter.

As a result, I found most enjoyable the essays not explicitly linked to contemporary events. One is on Albert Camus, perhaps Judt’s greatest hero – and it shows. The essay concerns Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague, less celebrated than The Stranger perhaps, but a greater book in Judt’s view. On one level, The Plague is a loose allegory of Vichy France and the accommodations that people must make in the face of evil. But it is also a profound meditation on the “absurdity” of the human condition that implicitly rejects the callous political classifications of “right” and “left” that so preoccupied his contemporaries such as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Indeed, Camus was heavily criticized for not being “political” enough in this and other works, leading to his break with much of the French intellectual world, still in thrall to the dream of Marxism.

In many ways, the heart of the book is the commentaries on Israel, which proved remarkably controversial when first published. Judt, after all, was not merely Jewish, but for a brief period in his youth, a kibbutznick and committed Zionist. But in his later years, Judt became an unsparing – and often despairing – critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its turn toward hard-line orthodoxy. His intellectual and political struggles are on display here: a proposal to consider a binational state followed by a later essay conceding that a two-state solution is the only feasible road for Israelis and Palestinians. Otherwise, he says bluntly, the continued occupation will remain “the chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide.”

Judt’s other great theme here is the loss of communal responsibility and a skepticism about the importance of the public sphere, exemplified in the rise of politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The collective abandonment of the institutions and values built so painfully by social democracies over generations amounts to an irreparable loss, he argues, one that leaves isolated individuals facing the uncaring power of modern corporate capitalism. This is especially the case in the United States, with its emphasis on hyper-individualism, unchecked free markets, and demonization of government.

Judt is the quintessential anti-ideologue, someone who rejects an uncritical faith in any formal political or economic system. “If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century,” he writes, “we should have at least grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying the consequences.”
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Reading Progress

June 1, 2015 – Shelved
June 1, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
June 1, 2015 – Shelved as: history-biography
June 1, 2015 – Shelved as: nonfiction
June 10, 2015 – Started Reading
June 18, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 26, 2018 – Shelved as: essays

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