Tony Judt on Intellectuals and Democracy

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

On August 6, 2010, renowned historian Tony Judt died from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In the two-year span between his diagnosis and tragic death, Judt, incredibly, wrote three books. The final one has just been published as Thinking the Twentieth Century (with Timothy Snyder).

Jennifer Homans’ moving tribute to Judt’s life and work explains how Judt disliked the term “public intellectual” because “it seemed to him evidence of the failure of scholars to build links between the academy and public life.” Indeed, scholars may call themselves anything they wish, but it is perplexing to think how those who appear unable to conceive any broad relevance whatsoever for their work would expect to be acknowledged for their intellectual merit. Even so, today’s academy has become increasingly adept at drawing the line between “the professional scholar” and those intellectuals who work in the public interest.

As Homans explains, Judt was one of those intellectuals committed to public life, and this commitment involved “teaching and thinking and writing as clearly as he could.” The public was “a place and people whom [Judt] could teach and engage,” at the same time as it was “his ultimate adversary.” Homans here alludes to an irresolvable tension between the public and public intellectuals, emanating in part from the intellectuals’ drive to intervene and educate—to reform. They are compelled by both a love for humanity and a necessary hatred of the society that fails to protect and nurture all of its members. The public, then, serves as the embodiment of a persistent, urgent hope for human potential in all of its manifest disappointment.

Given such circumstances, it does not serve an intellectual to be either a naive idealist or a despairing cynic. Judt explains in a brief excerpt from the book that although intellectuals may “imagine themselves defending and advancing large abstractions,” they must put their efforts into “institutions and laws and rules and practices that incarnate our best attempt at those large abstractions.” According to Homans, “the only thing [Judt] was an idealist about was serious public debate.”

Democracy for Judt could never be a panacea: its “genetic shortcomings” make it susceptible to corruption and prevent it from being “the solution to the problem of unfree societies.” Only in conjunction with the guarantee of “constitutionality, rule of law, and the separation of powers” can democracy become something like the “best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives.” The public intellectual, then, plays the role of democracy’s conscience by ensuring democratic actors, processes and actions properly reflect and safeguard the integrity of the whole.

Among Tony Judt’s powerful final words were: “Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically, if you like. … They corrode because most people don’t care very much about them. … The difficulty of sustaining voluntary interest in the business of choosing the people who will rule over you is well attested. And the reason why we need intellectuals, as well as all the good journalists we can find, is to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors.”

Grace Pollock

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