Tony Judt: Thinking the Twentieth Century

Tony Judt, one of the vital public intellectuals of our time, died of ALS in August of 2010.  Against all odds, as his wife Jennifer Homans tells us, he managed to finish three books in the time of his dying.  Thinking the Twentieth Century, from which this excerpt comes, a series of conversations with his friend and colleague Timothy Snyder, was the last.

The Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others  as some — but limited– truth.  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.

Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically, if you like — that’s the Orwellian point about language.  They corrode because most people don’t’ care very much about them.  Notice that the European Union, whose first parliamentary elections were held in 1979 and had an average turnout of over 62 percent, is now looking to a turnout of less than 30 percent, evem though the European Union matters more now and has more power.  The difficulty of sustaining voluntary interest in the business of choosing who will rule over you is well attested.  And the reason we need intellectuals, as wll as all the good journalists we can find, is to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors.

For his wife’s stirring memory of him, see her Tony Judt: A Final Victory in The New York Review of Books, March 22, 2012.  The excerpt above comes from the same issue but is locked after the first third.

The three books he finished in the last two years of his life are:

Ill Fares the Land
The Memory Chalet
Thinking the Twentieth Century

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