Tony Judt showed how to live with integrity, die with dignity.
Yesterday I lunched alone at a favorite little Spanish restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, reading, as I have countless times, an essay by Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books. It is only this morning I learn that Judt has died, not unexpectedly, from Lou Gerhig’s disease at age 62.
This particular essay, “Meritocrats,” is a social and economic criticism masquerading as a reminiscence of Judt’s education at King’s College, Cambridge, in the mid 1960s. Dropping names like E.M. Forster, Rupert Brook and John Maynard Keynes, Judt extols the education he received as the first member of his family to attend university.
Then he pirouettes from rosy nostalgia to the dank and grimy present:”For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of ‘reforms’ aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing ‘equality’….Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.’
Compared to Judt’s major work, such as Postwar, a 900-page history of modern Europe that was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, “Meritocrats” is a toss-off. And yet this brief essay exemplifies so much that was wonderful about his nontechnical work: a fetching, fluid writing style, deceptively dense with facts and opinion. It defends tolerance, educational elitism, meritocracy, “the incoherence of a certain kind of liberalism.”
This is the Tony Judt that I knew from his writings — a rigorous thinker and writer who enlarged my sense of the world. As a journalist who fled college sans degree to take up the reporter’s trade, I like to think I was his perfect reader: The attentive autodidact. In many ways, The New York Review, my favorite magazine for 25 years, serves as my graduate school, with Judt and writers like him as my professors.
So while I’m saddened at Judt’s early passing, I am gratified by the spectacle of a life well lived. Born of Jewish immigrant parents in London’s East End, he became one of the greatest liberal scholars, critics and social commentators of the second half of the 20th century.
Judt once wrote,”You don’t have to be Jewish to understand the history of Europe in the 20th century, but it helps.” As a young man he was devoted to Israel, serving as a driver and translator during the 1967 Six-Day War.
But he later turned against the Jewish state. In a 1983 New York Review essay he called it a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state.” Such criticism made him controversial, cost him a post at the New Republic, and led the canceling of a 2006 speaking engagement at the Polish Consulate in New York.
Probably no one would agree with everything Judt wrote. He followed his mind, instincts and conscience without fear. After his 2008 diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he continued to work tirelessly, writing among other things essays on his physical deterioration.
“In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is . . . left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration,” he wrote in an essay titled “Night.” Yet characteristic honesty led him to add: “There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated.”
Judt’s last public appearance came in October, when he delivered a speech from a wheelchair at New York University, where he taught from 1988 until the onset of his illness. An argument in favor of social democracy, and the capacity of government to do good, it was later published as a small book to critical acclaim as Ill Fares the Land.
“The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly,” Judt once said.
A last note: Don’t you find it hilarious when liberals or conservatives rush to find bias and conspiracy where, in fact, none exists? I’ve seen more than more comment on the Internet from a prickly liberal, wondering why the Main Stream Media is making so little of Judt’s passing.
Meanwhile, Tony Judt departs this earth with the gratitude of a provincial book reviewer he never met.