March 13, 2015

March 10, 2015

Tony Judt “When The Facts Change:  Essays:  1995-2010”

I’m going to record a series of fragments and personal reflections from this superb collection of essays.

 “Europe:   The Grand Illusion” (1996) --  Tony Judt is speculating on the “protective arm of ‘Europe’” which he equated to the European Union and NATO.  He expressed the belief that this would “surely not extend beyond the old Hapsburg Center (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Poland).”   He went on to opine that the rest of what he described as “Byzantine” Europe (from Latvia to Bulgaria) “will be left to fend for itself, (being) too close to Russia and Russian interests for it to be prudent for the West to make an aggressive show of absorption and engagement.” 

This, of course, is exactly what happened and the impact of which we are feeling to this very day, witness the Ukrainian crisis.

 “The New World Order” (July 2005) --  Here is a wonderful quote from Harry Truman:  “We all have to recognize – no matter how great our strength – that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.” 

Judt goes on to describe our military outreach:  “We are maintaining 725 official U.S. military bases outside the United States, and 969 at home, while we spend more on defense than all the rest of the world put together.”

“The Wrecking Ball of Innovation” (December 2007) --  “If modern democracies are to survive the shock of…capitalism they need to be bound by something more than the pursuit of private economic advantage, particularly when the latter accrues to ever fewer beneficiaries:  the idea of a society held together by a pecuniary interest alone is, in John Stewart Mills’ words, ‘essentially repulsive,’ a civilized society requires more than self-interest, whether deluded or enlightened, for its shared narrative of purpose.”

As Albert O. Harshman wrote, “The greatest asset of public action is its ability to satisfy vaguely felt needs for higher purpose in the lives of men and women.”

This, too, is the greatest asset of a company like Procter & Gamble or Walt Disney or Yale University, for that matter.

“Why the Cold War Worked” -- Judt offers a remarkable perspective on what the senior leaders of Europe faced in terms of the major challenges as you look back at the years 1900-1945: 

1.     How to restore the international balance upset by the rise of Prussia—dominated by Germany after 1871.
2.     How to bring Russia back into the concert of nations in some stable way, following the distortions produced by the Russian Revolution and its international aftermath.
3.     How to rescue the international economy from the disastrous collapse of the inter war years and somehow recapture the growth and stability of the pre1914 era and,
4.     How to compensate for the anticipated decline of Great Britain as an economic and political factor in international affairs.

If you ask me, three of these four challenges or dilemmas, as Tony Judt put it, have been fairly resolved.  The one that has not been resolved is bringing “Russia back into the concert of nations in some stable way.”  We had a shot at this post 1989.  By “we” I mean Russia and the West.  But we squandered it.  The Ukrainian crisis is clear evidence of this.  I hope it can be recovered by making Russia part of a wider Europe, even as it reaches out as it surely would to Eurasia.

“What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?”  Judt asks.  “Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities (are so apparent)?  We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it.”

He continues:  “For the last 30 years, in much of the English-speaking world..when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad?  Instead we inquire:  is it efficient?  Is it productive?  Would it benefit gross domestic product?  Will it contribute to growth?  This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition.  It is an acquired taste.”

Read these words from Adam Smith:  “(this) disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” 

Smith regarded the likelihood that we would come to admire wealth and despise poverty, admire success and scorn failure, as the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society whose advent he predicted.  It is now upon us.

Judt asserts that we have lived through an era of stability, certainty and the illusion of indefinite economic improvement.  Frankly, I am not so sure of that, but I do believe he is correct in saying that “for the foreseeable future we shall be as economically insecure as we are culturally uncertain.  We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, environmental well-being, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II.  We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own in reassuring ways.”

He goes on to talk about the importance of our setting high sights for the future.  That we “remind (ourselves) of the achievement of the 20th century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.”  He sees that in this period we went a long way in “promoting our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty:  those were no mean accomplishments.” 

As we go on now to confront the issues of our own generation “giving every child the opportunity to fulfill his or her own talents and ambitions, confronting the need to work together across the world for peace, recognizing there will always be elements for whatever reason combatting that,” I agree that we will be searching for “imperfect improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances” as the “best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek.”

“What Have We Learned, If Anything?”  -- One of Tony Judt’s assertions that I embrace is that we have taken haste to put the 20th century behind us.  In the United States, at least, he asserts “we have forgotten the meaning of war.”  And indeed for many of us, I am not sure we ever really knew it.  I was a youngster in World War II and recall it only as a distant memory.  The Korean War is no clearer emotionally.  Vietnam became a searing “episode” but that’s about what it was, “an episode.”  Iraq and Afghanistan, other than for those brave men and women who fought in it and their families, were events most of us saw on the news or read about in the paper.  We felt sympathy for returning veterans, but that’s about it.

Unlike the people of many, if not most other nations, we avoided the scar of war in the 20th century.  In World War I, the United States suffered slightly fewer than 120,000 combat deaths. For the U.K., France and Germany, the figures were respectively 885,000, 1.4 million and over 2 million.  In World War II, the United States lost 420,000 of our armed forces in combat.  Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million.  Vietnam, as horrible as it was, recorded the deaths of 58,195 Americans over a war lasting 15 years.

And these combat deaths were far less than the civilian deaths.  The estimated American civilian losses in World War II were less than 2,000.  Contrast that with the British with 67,000 dead, France 207,000 dead, Yugoslavia over 500,000 dead, Germany 1.8 million, Poland 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 11.4 million.

If there is one thing we have learned, “war is hell.”  And it should be entered into only as a last resort.  A mandate we have unfortunately not followed in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other ventures where we, knowingly or unknowingly, have set off internal wars, as in Egypt and Libya.

I believe that the reluctance of France and Germany to enter into what could lead to a major war with Russia, Ukraine and the West is influenced by the bloodletting which they and their people have experienced in prior conflicts.

                                                                        J. E. Pepper


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