To my sorrow, Tony Judt is dead, at 62, of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A brilliant historian and political essayist whose work is not nearly as widely known as it deserves, he spent the last months of his life writing — or rather, since he was paralyzed from the neck down, dictating — a remarkable series of personal essays, all published in The New York Review of Books.
This morning, in my own small in memoriam for a man I’ve never met except through his writing, I went into the NYRB website and re-read some of Judt’s work. One piece in particular caught my eye. Edge People is on the dangers of identity politics, especially when used as “a flimsy cover for political exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment.” But the whole idea of identity politics, wrote Judt, was alien to him:
As an English-born student of European history teaching in the US; as a Jew somewhat uncomfortable with much that passes for “Jewishness” in contemporary America; as a social democrat frequently at odds with my self-described radical colleagues, I suppose I should seek comfort in the familiar insult of “rootless cosmopolitan.” But that seems to me too imprecise, too deliberately universal in its ambitions. Far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.
In any event, all such labels make me uneasy. We know enough of ideological and political movements to be wary of exclusive solidarity in all its forms.
Like me, Judt saw the fact of his being placed at intersecting margins as “a decidedly advantageous perch” from which to see and grasp what’s going on in the world:
Unlike the late Edward Said, I believe I can understand and even empathize with those who know what it means to love a country. I don’t regard such sentiments as incomprehensible; I just don’t share them. But over the years these fierce unconditional loyalties—to a country, a God, an idea, or a man—have come to terrify me. The thin veneer of civilization rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity. But illusory or not, we would do well to cling to it. Certainly, it is that faith—and the constraints it places upon human misbehavior—that is the first to go in times of war or civil unrest.
We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself—the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies—will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.
Being “Danish” or “Italian,” “American” or “European” won’t just be an identity; it will be a rebuff and a reproof to those whom it excludes. The state, far from disappearing, may be about to come into its own: the privileges of citizenship, the protections of card-holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand “tests”—of knowledge, of language, of attitude—to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French “identity.” They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals: the edge people. My people.
Read his last book Ill Fares the Land, a cogent defense of social democracy. Read his 2003 piece on the possibility of a binational Israel-Palestine here. Read the correspondence that followed that piece, with the knee-jerk accusation of offensiveness from the Anti-Defamation League‘s predictably offendable Abe Foxman. And thank God for such “rootless cosmopolitans” as Tony Judt.