The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Friday, January 29, 2010

An Intellectual and the Boulder of Memory

This article was also published in The Beaver under the title "The boulder of memory".

In 2008, British historian Tony Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neuron disease. Today, he is paralyzed from the neck down and cannot live without a wheezing breathing aid. ALS typically removes mobility but not sensation, a mixed blessing and a strange torture when on the verge of sleep one cannot reach for an itch (see Judt's moving thoughts on the subject in this short video with The Guardian). Last October, despite his paralysis Judt delivered an impassioned, two hour lecture defending welfare state. The sight, of this man under a blanket constantly pausing for air, to share the fruits of a life’s worth of reflection was at once pathetic and heroic. It inspired me to reread some of his works and try to draw out the essence of the man.

I do not want to say that Tony Judt is our greatest historian. He is not a thinker with a grand narrative or an overarching system, but is certainly a man with a method. Why care about history? For Judt, we cannot understand ourselves unless we remember where we came from. Today, we are intellectually lazy. It seems so easy now, as we recite the verses of freedom, democracy, mixed market economies and universalism; all laudable, no doubt, but it forces us to forget why often good, intelligent people became Communists or Fascists or so often chose war over peace. Why would Europeans cheer as they head towards the horrors of the trenches? Why would Russians wage war against themselves in the messianic hope and sheer terror of Communism? Why would Nazis attempt to annihilate and enslave entire races? Judt believes we have duty to remember some of this, to have the beginnings of understanding. To this end he set himself an aim of some ambition: to save the twentieth century – with all its marvels and terrors – from “the enormous condescension of posterity,” to paraphrase E.P Thompson. A man of the Left but unswervingly critical of its failings, he seems a more appropriate voice than most to redeem social democracy and the welfare state.

Though an obsessively European historian, Judt lives in the United States of America. There is something of that other great voice of reason, Stanley Hoffmann, in Judt’s choice to live, teach and write in North America. These are two men who have in part dedicated their lives to explaining Europe to Americans for whom the Old Continent is increasingly of purely touristic interest. This might have placed some constraints on Judt’s writing. He once bemoaned the “middle-brow political acceptability” of the “terribles simplificateurs” that are American public intellectuals. Indeed, one need only read a few of the cartoonish opinion pieces that grace the pages of America’s newspapers of record – those of Thomas Friedman or Charles Krauthammer for example – to understand what is meant and to shudder at what passes for “discourse”.

Yet, Judt never dumbed himself down or pandered to his audience. Many people have come under the withering criticism of his pen. The effect is devastating and memorable. The academic texts on the esoteric Marxism of Louis Althusser’s are “unreadable excursions into the Higher Drivel.” Judt writes of Tony Blair that “He conveys an air of deep belief, but no one knows in quite what.” But he is also not afraid to say things that might make him unpopular in his adopted country. He excoriated the American “Left” in a classic 2006 article on “the Strange Death of Liberal America”. In this work, Judt condemned the stunning array of liberal intellectuals who jumped onto the bandwagon of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, from opportunistic “converts” like Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman to even thoughtful writers like David Remnick and Michael Ignatieff. They were, for Judt, nothing more than “Bush’s useful idiots”.

But if Judt has railed against America’s “liberal armchair warriors”, his entire world view could be described as one of total opposition to the American Right – which has sometimes cost him. It is one thing to extol the virtues of the welfare state or to attack American Cold War triumphalism (notably the “naively self-congratulatory” accounts of the popular historian J.L. Gaddis). It is quite another to criticize Israel. Judt has written on the country’s “dark victory” in the 1967 Six Day War and of the criminal and stupid policy of sending more settlers to live in the West Bank. Characteristically, he was able to write harsher things in the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz than in the American media. Where criticism and praise for his work was “more measured” in Israel, in America it was often “hysterical”. Judt has gone so far as to advocate a one-state solution for Israel-Palestine, a position which, whatever its merits, is one that requires great courage to take in America. As a result of this he lost, among other things, his seat at The New Republic’s editorial board.

Still, even as Judt is an engaged intellectual – indeed, one with an agenda – this does not lead him to falsify or exaggerate or mislead. He would rather us merely understand what has occurred. How else can one interpret his magnum opus, Postwar? This brick-like 900-page tome is something of a chronological encyclopedia of European history since the Second World War. Judt could have written, as the title suggests, a triumphant story of how the Europeans came together after total war to achieve peace, prosperity and an embryonic union. Instead, there is no imposed narrative, no theme except the subject itself. The book suffers from this, sometimes seeming like a series of unrelated articles. But it also a sign of the author’s integrity that he cannot distort history in an artificial, preconceived narrative. In such a self-conscious bid to make himself the historian of Europe, he sought to give Europeans a history, a sense of the road they traveled from the abyss that were the years 1914 to 1945. Judt writes as an heir to those “chance survivors of the deluge” who were European intellectuals – among them Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus – who having lived through war, Nazism, collaboration and Communism, had no choice but to write of it. There is something autobiographical when Judt says of these writers that “they were constrained, like Camus’s Sisyphus, to push the boulder of memory and understanding up the thankless hill of public forgetting for the rest of their lives.”

Is the work of Sisyphus futile? One could be excused for having that impression. We need constant reminding that the welfare state was born of the misery of depression, that the desire for peace comes from the horrors of war. And need it be stressed that the paths of both Stalinism and Nazism passed through the industrialized death of the Great War? The work of remembrance never ends. Judt himself has not stopped working, despite the temptation of suicide. And now, even as he is subjected to the quiet torture of his bodily prison, even as this article approaches the tone of the obituary, I cannot help but hope for more words from this most admirable of intellectuals. The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci produced his celebrated Prison Notebooks under the duress and censorship of Mussolini’s jails. The great theorist of postcolonial revolution Frantz Fanon penned the most eloquent lines of his Wretched of the Earth under the feverish pain of the leukemia that would soon kill him. The mind stays even as the body fails. If Tony Judt cannot heal, then let him produce a few lines more.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On American Interventions

This piece was published in The Beaver under the decidedly more imaginative title "Dominance at the drop of presidents’ hats". A few might protest that there isn't nuance or balance in this piece. I can only plead that there is only so much one can do in 900 words, but one can list a few little-known, elementary facts and attempt to draw a truth from them.

The United States of America is the only country today with the ability to independently send large amounts of forces almost anywhere in the world. To those who face the prospect of American bombs and boys in their country, it can be hard to fathom why Washington might choose to intervene in their forlorn corner of the Earth, and not others.

The answer cannot usually be found in terms of “vital national interest”. The most hard-headed “realist” scholars – from Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan on Vietnam to Stephen Waltz and John Mearsheimer on Iraq – have tended to oppose America’s wars in the Third World. The countries of the South are underdeveloped, often fractious and unstable, typically lacking in industry and technology. So, when (as is frequently the case) our American presidents bring up Hitler and Stalin, World War and Cold War, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, we can only be somewhat dubious at the contrast.

American wars of intervention are overwhelmingly “optional”. Prior to waging war in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur had said the peninsula held little strategic value. The “fall” of South Vietnam to Communism could hardly mean that the Viet Cong guerrillas would now swim across the South China Sea to seize Malaysia or Indonesia (Lyndon Johnson once said they would be on the shores of Hawaii). Equally, in places like Rwanda, Bosnia or Kosovo, where “humanitarian intervention” is called upon or practiced, there is rarely a serious American national security interest. One could say the same with Iraq. There was no reason why Saddam Hussein with his little rump state would be more difficult to live with, even if he had nuclear weapons, than Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China.

American interventions occur because American leaders feel like it. But if the idea of war holds a certain mystique, Americans do not like wars. Or, at least, they do not like the cost in youth and taxes. So if American leaders feel like waging a war, it is usually because they think it will be an easy thing. Yet the “Wilsonian”, “universalist” and “liberal democratic” impulses of the American ideology place high standards. Suddenly they expect flowering Republics and economic miracles wherever American boots are, so many countries – whether composed of illiterate peasants or warring ethnicities – promise to become post-war Japans and West Germanies.

The record of past interventions, however, is not very encouraging. In Vietnam, “counter-insurgency” meant the pure and simple removal of the rural population. In Panama, the U.S. invasion of 1989 led to much chaos, looting and death. In Bosnia and Kosovo, huge amounts of international aid and ten and fifteen years of peace have not made Serb, Croat, Bosnian or Albanian any more likely to live in the same democracy. Their economies continue to be extremely weak, with over 40 per cent unemployment. All the disasters in Iraq – human, economic, ethnic, anarchic – were presaged in past interventions. Against this record, the invasion of Iraq can only be attributed to the Bush era national security clique’s inordinate sense of themselves and their power. That they in fact were gods in whose hands the Arabs were only so much malleable putty that they could reshape in their own image.

But we are not there today. We have a new, good, liberal president, one whom Europeans cannot accuse of pandering to religious bigots or of flaunting a crass American nationalism. Yet it is Barack Obama who is sending 30,000 men on a “quick-fix” mission to Afghanistan, as George W. Bush did in Iraq in 2007. Obama goes for political reasons above all. He campaigned relentlessly on this “good war,” largely to avoid the curse of Jimmy Carter. But more than that, it is difficult for any politician to concede defeat after so much effort, particularly in America.

Yet we can be reasonably certain, once the foreigners leave, that Afghanistan will again face “anarchy” and “warlords,” and no doubt a few of the latter will choose the moniker “Islamic” for good measure. The notion that the “Afghan National Army” will be tripled in size in half a decade and will be able to “secure the country” even as the U.S. and NATO are incapable of the task (and the attempt costs several times Afghanistan’s entire GDP every year) is manifestly absurd. Yet Obama must fight.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson chose to begin the movement that would lead to over 550,000 Americans in Vietnam, just so that the Republicans would not be able to accuse him of “losing” 20 million more Asians to Communism. The Vietnam War’s cost was great, wrecking Johnson’s half-fulfilled domestic programs, ruining an endeavor that might have given America a true welfare state. In purely economic terms, the Afghan War is likely to cost at least as much over the next few years as Obama’s vaunted project of universal health insurance. Of course, Johnson did not have the embarrassment of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office, only to use the occasion to expound on theories of just war. Those time-tested words return: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.