Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tony Judt Misses the 60s

From his new book, Ill Fares the Land, excerpted at the New York Review:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears "natural" today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

Judt's particular complaint is against rising inequality:

Income disparity exacerbates the problems. Thus the incidence of mental illness correlates closely to income in the US and the UK, whereas the two indices are quite unrelated in all continental European countries. Even trust, the faith we have in our fellow citizens, corresponds negatively with differences in income: between 1983 and 2001, mistrustfulness increased markedly in the US, the UK, and Ireland—three countries in which the dogma of unregulated individual self-interest was most assiduously applied to public policy. In no other country was a comparable increase in mutual mistrust to be found.

I would like to see more done to reduce inequality in the US, but I disagree that "something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today" -- except in the sense that there is always something profoundly wrong with human life. It is true that there is more inequality than there was in the 60s, but on the other hand there is less racism, sexism, and homophobia. There has been an enormous surge in technical creativity. Judt is unhappy about the fear of immigrants, but the main reason we have more fear of immigrants is that we have a lot more immigrants. They keep coming for two reasons: America is pretty nice place to live, and we are more welcoming of outsiders than most of the world.

I imagine that after hearing this confession Judt would type me as a child of the 80s, but I have to say that I am deeply suspicious of "collective purpose." I like subways and I would like to see a truly universal health care system, but the notion that we ought, as a people, to be involved in some grand national effort makes me queasy. I will choose my own purposes, thank you very much, and Judt can choose his. He found it wonderful, back in the day, to march in demonstrations for equality and peace. I find the sight of human mobs chanting slogans revolting; no matter what they are saying, a mass of people saying the same thing looks to me like a regiment of Black Shirts or Red Guards. I value individual thought too much to be part of anything that requires me to submerge my own spirit into the whole. What I love about my own time is that my contemporaries understand and respect this. In our mild age, we do not feel that we must enter the grand battle between Left and Right. We follow politics to the extent that we want or feel obligated to, but otherwise we go our own way, confident that the world as a whole will get along pretty well on its own. Sometimes this is exasperating, as in the way most Americans just don't care how many foreigners our government kills in faraway places. But on the whole, I believe, a world that pretty much leaves most people alone is the most humane sort of world. As John Stuart Mill once put it, "The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way."

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