Friday, May 3, 2013

Review of "Thinking the Twentieth Century" by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder

I was asked to read this book by the publisher (Penguin Books). I can't remember if I was supposed to read it for review (in which case, I am not required to give a positive review), or for consideration for use in a course. If it was the latter, the end of the matter (as the Teacher says) is that I would not recommend Thinking the Twentieth Century for use in a class covering modern and contemporary political thought. I would not even really recommend it for a course on the history of 20th century intellectual movements, nor for a course on biography/memoir. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to think of a class for which I would recommend this book--unless there exists a class on how to be a thoughtful, engaging, and articulate intellectual, in which case this book would be a perfect addition.

You see, for all my non-recommendations of this book, it is quite frankly an excellent read. For a work that deals largely with intellectual matters, it manages to be well-written and fast-paced without sacrificing depth. Moreover, the slightly odd format contributes to the flow of the narrative, rather than being the distraction I at first suspected it might be.

Summary and an Envious Aside

In broad strokes, this book is formatted as a "conversation" between Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder. Dr. Judt carries the bulk of the "conversation," with Snyder merely making brief addenda and and asking occasional questions (in italics) throughout. Each of the nine chapters begins with a brief biographical exposition, which then segues into a discussion of Judt's intellectual interests at that stage in his life. And since he has been interested in pretty much everything (including: Zionism, Socialism, Communism, Modern Liberalism, and a good number of other -isms), the book covers a truly staggering intellectual spectrum.

And if I may be allowed a brief reflection on Dr. Judt's biography: at the risk of speaking ill of the dead, I hereby publicly confess my envy of his career. A bird's eye view of his life in dialogue form would look something like this:

Cambridge University: "Young Mr. Judt, we'd like you to come study here when you're ready for college."
TJ: "Does that mean I can drop out of high school and travel the world?"
Cambridge University: "Certainly! And when you're done with your PhD we'll have a teaching position for you as well!"
UC Berkeley: "Young Professor Judt, would you like to come teach for us for a while?"
TJ: "No thank you, I don't want to live in California."
UCB: "Oh? What if we offer you more money?"
TJ: [Sigh] "fine." 

Put that on repeat and you've basically got Dr. Judt's professional career. And yes, I am well aware that this summary is rooted in envy on my part--and I'm even more aware that Dr. Judt was both staggeringly brilliant and living at a time when jobs in academia were plentiful. Nonetheless, I remain envious. Do with that confession what you will.

Overall, Thinking the Twentieth Century engages most of the major mainstream intellectual movements of the Twentieth Century, as well as a number of not-so-mainstream bodies of thought (mid-20th century Zionism, for example).


As I've mentioned, this book is well-written, informative, and philosophically fascinating. Dr. Judt's life-long transformation from "idealist" into "critic" partially fills-in a number of blank spots in my own education (I certainly knew nothing about what was going on intellectually in Eastern Europe during the era of Commie dominance) and provides numerous opportunities for reflection.

It's really Dr. Judt's ability as a critic that makes this book worthwhile. Because he had been either a student of or personally involved in so many philosophical and political movements in the 20th century, his criticisms come from a position of knowledge and compassion. For example, he was a Zionist for long enough that his informed criticisms of modern Israeli policy have the feel of an older sibling gently chiding a younger from the perspective of life experience. Likewise, when he engages in economic criticism, it is as a Keynesian who has had years to see and reflect on the failings of Keynesian economics, and only desires to see these failings corrected.

Most of all, however, his criticism of the current state of historical scholarship is much needed in today's academic world. Dr. Judt notes that the rise to dominance of modern leftist scholarship has included the introduction of hyphenated history, "feminist-history," "African-American-history", and so forth. And while this has meant a Renaissance in our depth and breadth of historical consciousness, it has increasingly been at the expense of the actual material of history itself. That is, the teaching of history has been so concerned with establishing a "feminist/racial/gender/etc" worldview in the classroom that it has stopped bothering with the events themselves. Introductory textbooks teach the role of women in the American Civil War, the lot of slaves in the South and of the working class in the North, and so on, but don't bother teaching what actually happened in the War itself. Though this has been done with the (sort-of) laudable intent of de-moralizing our view of the past (as in, we shouldn't think of ourselves as the heroes of history but should remember even those who don't write the history books), the results has been wide-spread historical ignorance.
You cannot teach children American history by saying: it is widely believed that the Civil War was about the abolition of slavery, but ha!--I can assure you that it was really about something else altogether. For the poor little things in the front row are turning to one another and asking: 'Wait a minute, what's she talking about? What is the Civil War? When did it happen? Who Won?" These supposedly critical approaches, intended-let us be generous-to help children and students form their own judgments, are self-defeating. They sow confusion rather than insight, and confusion is the enemy of knowledge. Before anyone-whether child or graduate student- can engaged the past, they have to know what happened, in what order and with what outcome. Instead, we have we have raised two generations of citizens completely bereft of common references. As a result, they can contribute little to the governance of their society. The task of the historian, if you wish to think of it this way, is to supply the dimension of knowledge and narrative without which we cannot be a civic whole. If we have a civic responsibility as historians, this is it. (266)
The same applies to my own discipline in teaching politics: it is my job as a professor (certainly in the lower-level courses) primarily to teach about how government works. I can't expect my students to hold a worthwhile civic discussion on, say, the merits of the Electoral College, if they don't know what it is and how it functions. Dr. Judt gives a somewhat shocking example when he takes to task-of all things-the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. (It's not the only public institution he criticizes, but it's probably the one we'd least expect to be criticized.) The way the Museum is set up, he argues, is intended to generate a mood or emotional state of mind in the visitor--not to provide information about the past. One comes out of the Holocaust Museum with the feeling that the Holocaust was a very bad thing, but without having actually learned anything about it. And, on reflection, I suspect that there's some truth to this claim. I myself have been through the Holocaust Museum, and while I can tell you that it is a very powerful experience, I don't know that I can name a single historical fact I picked up while there. We are, Dr. Judt suggests, forcing students to skip to the end--to have a reaction to history before having the history itself under their belts. The discipline needs to get back to the basics and restructure along more traditional pedagogical lines. These historical reflections alone make the book worthwhile and interesting.

The biggest strength of Thinking the Twentieth Century, however, is the model that Dr. Judt sets of how to be a useful public intellectual. (He may set a similar model in his other books- I haven't read them so I can't say.) The way he engages with source texts, reflects on what he has learned, and transforms that information into public knowledge should be a model to scholars everywhere. While, not being much of a modern liberal myself, I do not necessarily agree with some (or even most) of his philosophical premises and conclusions, nonetheless he provides a picture of what a scholar should be. He has a mastery of his field, a sharp analytic mind, and the ability to use that mastery and that mind for the public good. Given the number of noisy pseudo-intellectuals currently trying to shove their screeds down our collective throats, it is refreshing to know that until very recently there was at least one out there who could be trusted to be informed, thoughtful, and concerned for the common good--even if he and I have serious disagreements about what that common good is.
I think an example of the from the book will be a useful way to end the discussion of the strengths of Thinking the Twentieth Century. In this passage, Dr. Judt identifies what he believes to be one of the functions of an intellectual:
[In a conversation with David Brooks on the Charlie Rose Show] It was about what the U.N. could do to solve the Iraq crisis, rather than leaving it to America just to do its own thing. Brooks was arguing very smoothly that the U.N. was useless and couldn't be counted on to do anything forceful. he said: look at how useless it was in the Balkans. I went into some detail at that point about the resolution of the Kosovo crisis and, in particular, the role of international agencies there--in catastrophic situations, I argued, it was still possible for international agencies to do good things, precisely because they were international agencies. And I expected Brooks to come back with: what about this, this, and this. Instead, he just said: well, I don't really know anything about that. And changed the subject.
And I remember thinking: you've gone on television, made ex cathedra statements against the whole idea of international action to resolve political crises in dangerous places, making a case for America to do its own thing because no one else can; and then when you're pushed on it, you say: well, I don't actually now what I'm talking about. Here we had the public intellectual who now occupies not only prominent television space but also op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers in the English-speaking world: and he knows nothing. (312-313)
Don't get me wrong, I do think that the U.N. is largely useless, and I'm not so critical of David Brooks in general (since I'm pretty ignorant of who he is or what he does), but I also think that public intellectuals have the responsibility to know something before making declarations about how our foreign policy, or domestic policy, or personal lives, should be set.


Really, there are only two major weaknesses in the book (other than what I've already mentioned about the book not being useful for a course. Which isn't so much a "weakness" of the book itself as it is one less way the publisher should promote it).

The first is that, as interesting and wide-ranging as Dr. Judt's reflections are, most of the works he engages are only going to be known either to academics who work within those fields or to specific people groups. For example, he has a large section on Polish literature and thought, which--as he himself points out--is really only known to the Poles themselves and to the handful of scholars who study it. And while he keeps the discussion within Thinking the Twentieth Century interesting and relevant even to those of us who are likely never to encounter Polish philosophy (or other obscure topics that he engages), by and large that means that we can do little more than observe this conversation between Judt and Snyder, without having much in the way of our own thoughts and additions. Which is no doubt helpful in reining in my own pride and desire to express my opinions on everything, but I suspect will still damage the long-term usefulness of this book. (This is not to say that all of the book is focused on obscure fields of study, just that enough of it is to be an occasional distraction.)

The second weakness is that for all the scope and breadth of his book, Dr. Judt never really wanders beyond his own philosophical backyard. Since that backyard is modern liberalism, it's a big one and there's no particular need (academically) for him to have done so, but I would still have been interested to have heard his reflections on, say, Burkean conservatism, or Federalism, or any of the other (admittedly smaller) counterpoints to the dominant liberalism of academia and the modern world. Obviously this isn't technically a "weakness" as much as it is me wishing that he had written more (which I suppose counts as praise more than anything) and on subjects that I am interested in myself. So in addition to envy, I guess we can add "self-centeredness" to my list of public sins...

With that said, I really do want to know what he thought about the more thoughtful aspects of the right wing, of Christianity, and of traditionalism. (He touches briefly on Hayek and libertarian economics, but only briefly.) He is a good enough writer and a thoughtful enough scholar that I am certain his reflections could only have advanced such conversations...

Overall, this is an excellent book, which I highly recommend to those interested in intellectual life in the 20th century.