August 19, 2010

Moving to Tumblr

I've decided to migrate the blog to Tumblr, for a variety of reasons. My domain name,, should automatically redirect to the new site, as well as my Feedburner link; if not, go to, where I've imported the content from this blog (thanks to this handy tool). See you there.

August 17, 2010


I was very sad to hear that Tony Judt, the historian, died recently. He was well-known, of course, for his book, Postwar, his critical statements about Israel, and, most movingly, his struggle with ALS, which ultimately killed him. What I particularly liked about him was his ability, as a good historian should, to draw a line between historical events and ideologies and their relevance to the contemporary scene. This was much in display in his last book, Ill Fares the Land, and in one of his last published pieces, a blog post in the New York Review of Books about Czeslaw Milosz' famous essay, The Captive Mind. He noted that the problem it grapples with -- namely, the temptation among left-wing intellectuals to explain away the evils of Soviet communism -- has become largely alien to younger generations:
Milosz takes for granted his readers' intuitive grasp of the believer's state of mind: the man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression. In 1951 he could reasonably assume that this phenomenon -- whether associated with communism, fascism, or indeed any other form of political repression -- would be familiar.


Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.
Judt went on to argue that the Captive Mind that Milosz describes is not a dead concept, however, and compared the rationalizations of Marxist intellectuals to the elite cheerleading in the West for the Iraq War, even among nominal liberals, as well as the continued devotion in elite circles to laissez-faire ideology despite its manifest failures.

For me, though, what stands out about this passage is a perhaps defining feature of our era: the absence of the spirit of revolution, which inhabited the West, and much of the rest of the world too, for over 200 years. There are certainly many people, left and right, who adopt the pose of revolution -- the Tea Partiers, to take one high-profile example -- but it's difficult for me to regard hard-right conservatism, as destructive as it is to the national discourse, as an alternate modernity, as fascism and communism once were to liberal capitalism -- "liberal" being used here in the technical sense of the word. Certainly, the American right is premised on the semi-utopian belief in returning to a small government Eden unblemished by the welfare state, despite the fact that it runs aground any time it conflicts with keeping taxes on the wealthy as low as possible or with preserving entitlements for senior citizens. Still, it's recognizably liberal, in the sense used above -- notwithstanding the fact that the modern conservative movement contains much that is illiberal (again, the Tea Party is a prominent example).

Another way of putting the matter is that Francis Fukuyama had a point with his End of History argument: After the tumult and bloodshed of competing ideologies over the past two centuries, liberal capitalist democracy really has no serious competitors in terms of producing stable, prosperous societies. Dictatorships exist, obviously, but they do not pose existential challenges to liberal capitalism the way that fascism and communism once did. China may be a rising power, but you don't see many countries copying its model for governance.1 Islamism might be considered a competing system, but my read is that political Islam means different things to different Muslims -- from quasi-totalitarian systems like Iran's to religious nationalist democratic parties like the AKP in Turkey. In any case, outside of majority Muslim countries, it's not a political movement that has much traction, despite the fever dreams of the American and European right.

To return to my original point, I do think we in the developed world are in a post-revolutionary age: A rising sense of individualism has dampened enthusiasm for signing on to mass movements that privilege concepts like the volk or the proletariat over one's own sense of identity, as Judt describes above. Not that mass participation in the political process isn't possible, of course, but it's something we do as an expression of our individuality, rather than the reverse. In some respects, this is a good thing, and a natural outcome of liberal governance; but it also makes good and necessary ideas, like solidarity, harder to realize.

1 You could point to China's partnerships with, say, Sudan, but those strike me as more alliances of convenience than some kind of ideological front, in the way that NATO or the Warsaw Pact once were. China needs oil, and it'll cut deals, abet any atrocities, &c., with any country that provides it. There's about as much ideology there as when the US looks the other way at human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.