Tony Judt’s new book *Thinking the Twentieth Century*

It is a wide-ranging dialogue with Timothy Snyder, you can buy it here.  I will gladly recommend this book, but I have mixed feelings about it.  It is Judt’s “deathbed conversations” with Snyder, when he was paralyzed.

Is it fascinating?  Yes.  Did I read it straight through without pausing?  Yes.  Did I learn a lot?  Yes.

Yet it doesn’t show Judt in such an overwhelmingly favorable light.  He is cranky, unfair to his intellectual opponents, and he repeatedly misrepresents thinkers such as Hayek on some fairly simple points.  He conducts unsubstantiated attacks on various New York Times columnists, as if they had once beaten him in a debate and this was his revenge.  It shows his lifelong and mostly unhealthy obsession with what Daniel Klein has called “The People’s Romance.”  Unlike in some of his previous writings, his proposals for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem come off as an irresponsible and somewhat flip symbolic gesture, easy enough to make because he doesn’t have to live with the outcome.  As a reader and reviewer it is hard to not wonder whether/how Judt was medicated during these conversations, and how well he had thought through his lack of editing options before publication.  Or is this the real Judt?  Are we all really like this?  Pondering that question is as interesting as the dialogue itself.

The Austrians will be happy when Judt writes: “The three quarters of century that followed Austria’s collapse in the 1930s can be seen as a duel between Keynes and Hayek.”  Yet he has the odd view that free market ideas were “imported to the U.S. in the suitcases of a handful of disabused Viennese intellectuals.”  Others may underrate the importance of central/eastern Europe but in these dialogues he overrates it.

One does not have to agree with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom to find this an unfair characterization:

Hayek is quite explicit on this count: if you begin with welfare policies of any sort — directing individuals, taxing for social ends, engineering the outcomes of market relationships — you will end up with Hitler.

My favorite part of the book comes at Kindle location 1294, here is part of that discussion:

But even when Blunt was outed as a Soviet spy, in 1979, his standing in high society, and in the distinctive codes of that society in England, still protected him…Thus Blunt — a spy, a communist, a dissembler, a liar and a man who may have actively contributed to the exposure and death of British agents — was nonetheless deemed by some of the his colleagues to be guilty of no crime serious enough to justify depriving him of the fellowship of the British Academy.

If you are seeking to “normalize” this review, I consider Judt’s Past Imperfect to be one of the best books of the last few decades, his Postwar to be one of my favorite books ever, and his late essays to be some of the best writing, in any genre, in a long time.  (Though I didn’t like Ill Fares the Land.)  I can recommend this too, as something worth consuming and pondering and spending money on, but I still have a slightly queasy feeling in my stomach.

Comments

I love it when old guys with nothing to lose unload. For example, here's a 2006 interview with Lee Iacocca:

Q. "What sort of CEOs do you think George W. Bush and his administration make?"

Lee Iacocca. "I make speeches for the Washington Speakers Bureau, get $75,000 for 30 minutes, and all I ever say is, "Here's what management is about. Hire good people and set some basic priorities and objectives" Well, let's see how George Bush qualifies. The people that surround him are just friends, and I think most of them just schmucks, because I know a lot of them. Who runs the country? Cheney, is getting old and sick and had this hunting accident. And "Rummy," Rumsfeld, whom I know real well -- they've been together forever, and they run the country. They had Condoleezza Rice for lunch. I don't know what she's got on Bush, but, boy, he believes in her. Other than those three, the mastermind of them all, the boy genius, is Karl Rove -- slime bucket that he is. You've got to know him to see how slimy he is."

C'mon, Tyler, exit interviews are great! Here's 82-year-old Senator Fritz Hollings in a 2004 Washington Post interview as he was retiring after 7 terms in the US Senate:

But it doesn't take much to get that tart tongue going. Just ask him to rate the eight presidents -- from Johnson to Bush -- he's worked with.

"Well, it's easy to rate who's the most inadequate," he says. "And that's the present president. Jesus! He doesn't want to be president. He just likes the politics. He likes to get elected. He likes Air Force One. He starts out nearly every day with a fundraiser. He appears at some police station or some fortified something with policemen and firemen. You know, you gotta get the right pictures for the 7 o'clock news. Then he comes in and works out and sees a movie and goes to sleep. And he allows Condoleezza and Cheney and Rumsfeld to run things."

After that, Hollings is warmed up, and he proceeds to offer a variety of candid opinions.

The war in Iraq: "People say they didn't have an exit plan. Well, hell's bells, they didn't have an entry plan! And it's one big quagmire."...

"The black church is the stability of the African American community," he says. "There isn't any question about that. And they're all fine and I work with 'em, but they expect the money to get out the vote. . . . I can tell you of one race -- the minister is now dead. This is 20-odd years ago. He kept saying, 'I gotta get the money. I gotta get $10,000.' I got a friend to give him the $10,000 to get the black ministers to get the vote out. And, by God, [Republicans] came around after us and said, 'I know you need a steeple on that church -- here's $15,000, just don't hurt me tomorrow.' And that minister went up to Anderson, S.C., because his aunt got very sick and he had to go. And the Republicans took that [precinct]. . . .

He rips into George W. Bush again, scoffing at the president's plan to bring democracy to the Arab world.

"You can't force-feed democracy," he says... "But to walk into a place where religion is stronger than freedom -- they're not looking for freedom, they're looking for religion. Five times a day, they're down on their knees, man. You can't find that in America. You can't get 'em to go on their knees on Sunday -- "

Ah yes, the quagmire in Iraq continues to undermine America. Jeez Steve, not even the current showman makes you forget Bush?

Sure, Sailor, you could even say that ANYONE -- old or young -- unloading is entertaining, for a while. But is it good, thoughtful analysis? Not what you've quoted, not by a long shot.

And Fritz Hollings, a Democratic Senator for years ... we're supposed to believe his account of the routine at the White House?

Someone has been editing Sailer's comments. For example this
" love it when old guys with nothing to lose unload"
really should read
" love it when old guys with nothing to lose unload on george W Bush."

From Wikipedia:

Ernest Frederick "Fritz" Hollings (born January 1, 1922) served as a Democratic United States Senator from South Carolina from 1966 to 2005

So... a cranky old partisan disapproves of a president of the opposite party? Why I never.

oops, that was supposed to be in reply to Steve Sailer at 4:38 am

I'd (honestly) be interested to know how you can read through 432 pages without pausing (which methods?). After absorbing that quantity of information in one sitting, what is the "quality" of your evaluation? Do you have a command of the detail of the book or is it more of a general "sensation" of the highs and lows?

Based on the amount Tyler reads I'm pretty sure he's more than a couple standard deviations past the reading norm. 400 pages is probably a relaxing morning.

My first girlfriend worked as an RA during her undergraduate.

Part of her job was to read books that her prof's friends had written, but which the prof herself did not have time to read, and then summarize it. A good succinct page, enough to talk knowledgeably about at a dinner party.

Or maybe write a blog post ;).

Isn't the question of how you got to Hitler one of necessary and sufficient conditions, not to mention degrees? Isn't being mandated to pre-pay for the healthcare system that you may not support, for example, a little bit of serfdom?

Couldn't you also say that perhaps even Hitler did not know what Hitler would become before he had central planning power, of which war also plays a critical role in that evolution. Hitler only became "Hitler" after the addition of war-time central planning power, and it got to war in the first place in large part because of increased central planning power.

Wealth transfers from individuals to individuals with a minimum of direction, screened mostly on demographic rules (and misunderstandings of things like education and healthcare), probably isn't "central planning" as construed in the early 1900s. It's also looking less and less sustainable.

"Unlike in some of his previous writings, his proposals for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem come off as an irresponsible and somewhat flip symbolic gesture, easy enough to make because he doesn’t have to live with the outcome."

Arguments for continuing jewish supremacy in Palestine very often come off as irresponsible and somewhat flip, easy to make when the person doesn't have to live with the outcome the way that a Palestinian arab does.

what is so bad about a one state solution?

I could see an arab majority taking away the right of return, but given the only jews outside of Isreal now are in the US (every real russian jew having left years ago) is that an issue?

Intersting science fiction novel. In a future one state solutution, I.B. and orthodox jews make an unholy alliance. Westernized jews all leave and move to Asia. A thousand year later the new asian jews, with only tenous genetic connections, come back to the Midle east and impost their colonial militant religious solution on the peaceful, intermixed, Hasidic/Arab population.

The problem with a One State solution is that it would look like Gaza. How many Jews live in Gaza? Or Egypt? Or Algeria? Or anywhere much in the Middle East?

The hypocrisy of everyone on the subject of Israel is thick enough to spread on pumpernickel but any liberal who supports a One State solution is delusional.

… What would a Two State solution look like? What kind of land are you actually going to give up to link the West Bank and the Gaza strip? Are we talking about a Three State solution?

I find it really hard to take seriously any discussion of the topic whose conclusion seems to be "well, extending the Palestinian pogrom is in the long term benefit of Israel".

Tyler is correct. Hayek never ever said a welfare state leads to serfdom. He gives a short blessing to a welfare state in Road to Serfdom, and expands it in various places in the final third of The Constitution of Liberty. He is at pains to explain that it is government coercion that needs to be checked, and that service provision may sometimes best be financed by taxes.

I'm not a fan of Will Wilkinson but I recall him tearing Judt a new one over "Ill Fares the Land". The original post is gone but the internet archive has it here:
http://web.archive.org/web/20100420085105/http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2009/12/10/the-triumph-of-austrian-economics-in-tony-judts-mind/?

Surely Hayek doesn't say welfare leads to Hitler. He says that planning leads to Stalin.

Although presumably as a Marxist of Jewish origin he had his own (very good) reasons for disliking Hitler and every reason to minimize Stalinism.

May I just clarify that the subject of the second sentence is Judt. Not Hayek.

Damn Sub-editors.

"But even when Blunt was outed as a Soviet spy, in 1979, his standing in high society, and in the distinctive codes of that society in England, still protected him…Thus Blunt — a spy, a communist, a dissembler, a liar and a man who may have actively contributed to the exposure and death of British agents — was nonetheless deemed by some of the his colleagues to be guilty of no crime serious enough to justify depriving him of the fellowship of the British Academy."

That's nothing. Britain is one screwed up society. Look how many honors they have given Zygmunt Bauman.

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