I discovered Tony Judt very late, only really attending to his astonishing mind a year or so before he was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is a man much further to the left than am I, but I was convicted by his conviction and convinced by his belief that the intellectual life should serve a purpose larger than itself–what might have once been quaintly called something like the realization of the Good Republic. The most recent NYRB has an excerpt from his new book, Thinking the Twentieth Century. What I admire in the excerpt is the recognition that “democracy” is not a word that signifies an inherent good. Like all things human, “democracy” may be used for good or ill, may work to enhance human decency and community, or may work to corrupt it. Most recently, in my own view, I think we have seen the ways in which our “democracy” in both its electoral and legislative practices, debases rather than enhances our sense of our humanity. In a succinct summary from Judt: “Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it’s much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.”
Given this fact, Judt is suspicious of intellectual work that aligns itself in favor of grand abstractions like “democracy” or “freedom”, favoring instead a concrete and particularistic practice of nurturing and protecting the institutions and practices that make democracy possible:
I see the present century as one of growing insecurity brought about partly by excessive economic freedom, using the word in a very specific sense, and growing insecurity also brought about by climate change and unpredictable states. We are likely to find ourselves as intellectuals or political philosophers facing a situation in which our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones. And that’s a slightly different sort of situation, where the kind of intellectual who draws big pictures of idealized, improvable situations may not be the person who is most worth listening to.
We may find ourselves asking how we can defend established legal or constitutional or human rights, norms, freedoms, institutions, and so on. We will not be asking whether the Iraq war was a good or not good way to bring democracy, freedom, liberty, the market, etc. to the Middle East; but rather, was it a prudent undertaking even if it achieved its objectives? Recall the opportunity costs: the lost potential to achieve other things with limited resources.
All this is hard for intellectuals, most of whom imagine themselves defending and advancing large abstractions. But I think the way to defend and advance large abstractions in the generations to come will be to defend and protect institutions and laws and rules and practices that incarnate our best attempt at those large abstractions. And intellectuals who care about these will be the people who matter most.
This seems to me to be true in cultural life as a whole, not only in our politics in a democratic society. What are those institutions and practices that are most worth defending and nurturing that speak to our best efforts to incarnate large abstractions like “goodness”, “justice”, and “beauty”?
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