Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tony Judt on Intellectual Life in a Democracy

Once again, Peter Powers has written a thoughtful post at Read, Write, Now.  This time his subject is the late Tony Judt (pictured).  Like Pete, I did not start reading Judt until I learned he was dying, but I have found some of his stuff to be quite useful in helping me think about the role of the public intellectual in American life.  Here is a taste of Pete's post:

...The most recent NYRB has an excerpt from his (Judt's) new book, Thinking the Twentieth Century.  What I admire in the excerpt is the recognition that “democracy” is not a word that signifies an inherent good.  Like all things human,  ”democracy” may be used for good or ill, may work to enhance human decency and community, or may work to corrupt it.  Most recently, in my own view, I think we have seen the ways in which our “democracy” in both its electoral and legislative practices, debases rather than enhances our sense of our humanity.   In a succinct summary from Judt:  ”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.”

Given this fact, Judt is suspicious of intellectual work that aligns itself in favor of grand abstractions like “democracy” or “freedom”, favoring instead a concrete and particularistic practice of nurturing and protecting the institutions and practices that make democracy possible...