Interview with Tony Judt

Excerpt from the interview:

In the introduction to ‘Reappraisals’ you write that people prefer to describe unpleasant political situations in language that makes them somehow more tolerable. In Iran people used to say they lived in a ‘limited democracy’, before it became clear just how limited it was. What kinds of linguistic subterfuge do we practise in Europe and America?

In America the misuse of language is usually cultural rather than political. People will accuse Obama of being a socialist. Italians would say magari – if only. However, no one takes this very seriously. What we have instead in the US is cultural communities policing what can and can’t be said, and that shapes how we define difference. The idea is that you can’t have an elite, since elitism is undemocratic and unegalitarian. Therefore, you always make the point that people are in some important way the same. If they are badly disabled like me, they are ‘differently abled’, which I find very amusing. It is not a ‘different’ ability: it is no ability. But since it’s politically uncomfortable to distinguish between people who can do things and people who can’t, the latter are described as separate but equal. There are numerous things wrong with this: first, it is lousy language; second, it creates the illusion of sameness or achievement in its absence; third, it conceals the effects of real power and capacity, real wealth and influence. You describe everyone as having the same chances when actually some people have more chances than others. And with this cheating language of equality deep inequality is allowed to happen much more easily.

In Britain the most striking abuse of language is the redefinition of private, for-profit economic activities as services provided by the state. A concrete example is the way private entrepreneurs were given the right to run old people’s homes. However, no one wants to spell that out, which is why they are described as ‘delivering’ the service, as if they were the milkman bringing milk to old people. It prevents people from fully grasping that the state has handed over its mandate of responsibility to a private actor, whose motivation is to provide the cheapest possible service and make the most money.

That last paragraph is an argument for the HCR plan the Obama Administration is trying to pass. As Nicholas Kristof notes in a NYTimes Op-Ed today, recounting a tragic story about one neighbor who contracted stomach cancer, leaving some decisions in the hands of insurance companies, where the profit motive is supreme, is a recipe for tragedy.

Opponents of the reform proposals argue: If you like the Department of Motor Vehicles, you’ll love Obamacare. But as the drama of Zack and Jan shows, the only bureaucrats more obdurate than those at the D.M.V. are the ones working for insurance companies. The existing system is preposterous: we rely on insurance companies whose business model is based on accepting premiums from healthy people and devising ways to exclude from coverage those who most desperately need medical care.

As Krugman wrote on Friday, "In every other advanced nation, insurance coverage is available to everyone regardless of medical history. Our system is unique in its cruelty."

Another excerpt of note from the Judt interview:

If there seems to be one thing missing among today’s politicians, it is courage. It is considered idealistic, even naive.

Courage is always missing in politicians. It is like saying basketball players aren’t normally short. It isn’t a useful attribute. To be morally courageous is to say something different, which reduces your chances of winning an election. Courage is in a funny way more common in an old-fashioned sort of enlightened dictatorship than it is in a democracy. However, there is another factor. My generation has been catastrophic. I was born in 1948 so I am more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it, and many names could be added. It is a generation that grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political. There were no wars they had to fight. They did not have to fight in the Vietnam War. They grew up believing that no matter what choice they made, there would be no disastrous consequences. The result is that whatever the differences of appearance, style and personality, these are people for whom making an unpopular choice is very hard.

Someone once said: ‘But Blair’s choice to go to war in Iraq was unpopular with the majority of the population.’ I agree. But what Blair was doing was going for a different kind of popularity – he wanted to show his strength. To do this he had to do something unpopular, yet something that cost him nothing. Doing something unpopular that may cost you your job is much harder. The last generation in America with such courage was probably the generation of Lyndon Johnson. In a funny kind of way Thatcher, whom I certainly do not like, had courage. However, she fits the description of naive and idealistic; I don’t like her ideals, her naivety was a disaster, but it’s still a fair description. Today it is a criticism to describe a politician as idealistic. This is in a way a new phenomenon and it too is born from the fact that Europe has not been involved in wars that would demand the mobilisation of the whole population for over 60 years now. The last time there was such a sustained period of peace was probably the early Middle Ages. Traditionally leaders rose to power through wars or conquest. We have had six, seven generations of leaders who came to power exclusively by political manoeuvring, which is historically very unusual. It’s like inbreeding: there are no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself. This isn’t an argument in favour of war, just a historical fact.

Are politicians who vote for HCR today being courageous given the risk of a midterm election revolt, or is it in their interest? We'll see later this year.

Another noteworthy excerpt (I love Judt interviews, he is such a great historian that so much of what he says about Europe resonates with the situation elsewhere, as in the U.S.):

In Greece, we saw mass protests, aimed in part at a neoliberal economic system that has generated increasing inequality and has left young people feeling they have no prospects. Yet there seemed to be an enormous disconnect between the protesters and their government, and an even greater one with Brussels. How have we reached the point where people on the streets don’t matter?

Part of the answer is that this is just as true in big countries. In London there were two million people protesting against the Iraq war, but the government took no notice, and it made no difference at all. So the disconnect is universal. Why? It would be hard to give a complete picture. However, what we might call a ‘connect’ only lasted for a very short time. It began in the late 19th century with mass newspapers, mass literacy, speed and ease of communication and, especially, trains. Governments were forced to be very responsive to popular feeling. They felt very vulnerable. Elections could remove them from power and if elections didn’t work, then the masses on the streets might achieve the same result. After World War Two governments retreated from politics. The French economic plan, for example, was not decided by the parliament, but by administrators and bureaucrats. The EU was institutionally invented by bureaucrats. The first elections were held only in 1979. Until then there were no elections, no polls, no votes, nothing. There was a feeling, partly a consequence of Fascism, that you couldn’t trust mass opinion any more. It was not reliable. Not only were the masses willing to throw you out, they might be willing to overthrow the whole system. Steadily from the 1950s onwards the influence of the street, of the media, newspapers, public opinion, of ideology, was pushed further and further away from the actual decision-making processes. In the end it wouldn’t matter very much anymore if you threw out the government since it wouldn’t change the fundamental policies, institutions, laws of the country or direction of the majority of the issues of public policy.

It’s only now that we are really seeing the results of a process that has been going on for a long time. Much of the 1960s, which I remember as a student, was about the argument that governments were losing touch with popular opinion and preferences, particularly with the young, and that the only way to reconnect was on the street. Now we are realising that even that doesn’t work anymore. The old ways of mass movements, communities organised around an ideology, even religious or political ideas, trade unions and political parties to leverage public opinion into political influence – they are no longer there. Yet you need those levers. Without them people jumping up and down on the street do nothing. They don’t matter even if they are in the capital and even if there are millions of them. We destroyed the levers of popular politics or allowed them to be destroyed. We are left with people as individuals, and when people come together as individuals they can only come together either to do one big demonstration or to communicate through the internet as verbal pressure groups at an election. The combination of the physical mass and political leverage has been lost.

I can't help but think of this when I see news footage of Tea Bagge...err, Party groups standing in D.C. now shouting epithets at House Representatives as they pass through to go vote on HCR. It applies to other issues as well. Despite the ease of coordination afforded activists by the Internet, it rarely feels as if our politicians are listening.