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Parting Words 

A British historian's final work encapsulates the problem with America.

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The distinguished British historian and essayist Tony Judt died last August, having succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Quadriplegic near the end of life, Judt still managed to complete, by voice recording, one final book. He called it Ill Fares the Land.

Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford and former Conservative Party chairman — who himself disagrees with some of what Judt argues — wrote of Ill Fares the Land:

“Judt’s book asks most of the better sort of questions about modern politics. How should we define the role of the state without assuming that the state itself should do everything? How can we restore an argument about values to political debates, which partly because of our straitened circumstances are usually simply about costs and utilitarian benefit? (Look at the present disgraceful treatment by the government of the humanities at our universities.) How can we engage younger citizens in politics, given how much the baby-boomer generation of leaders has discredited what was once seen as an honorable pursuit? Tony Judt himself encourages dissent from conformity, for which there is much to be said. Blessed are the troublemakers.”

If you don’t read another book during our long winter of 2011, read Ill Fares the Land. You may come away thinking that Judt is too hard on Thatcher and Reagan, or, for that matter Blair and Clinton, or the ’60s generation, or that he fails to deal with some of the emerging realities presented by globalization. But surely most will agree that his clarion call for a renewed civic life and narrative, for what he terms social democracy, is both timely and important.

Judt argues that the problem of civic malaise isn’t new to America. While it has worsened over the past 30 years, driven by virulent materialism, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming 170 years ago. Our French visitor wrote: “As one looks deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: How much money will it bring in?” If their early rhetoric is indicative, our new House of Representatives will only stoke the fires of America’s cultural bias: “Civic” will be out. “National” will become an even worse word. “Collective goods” will be viewed as synonymous with socialism. “Progressive” policies: unconstitutional.

Oh yes, the word “inequality.” That will disappear from the official rhetoric. Inequality? What inequality? Despite the most plutocratic income distribution pattern since 1929, House Republicans will tell you there is no such thing. Remember, greed is good. The idea tha inequality exists is just another socialist Trojan horse.

The bogey man du jour? The usual suspect: If only we could get rid of all that “waste, fraud and abuse.”

Expect their politics to play out mostly in the form of symbolic gestures. They will bring out the pitchforks in an attempt to destroy the tiny NPR budget, because NPR is “liberal,” aka “civic,” “collective,” and, well “national.” (Who cares that KBPX has graced our community for more than 30 years? You know, that radical Terry Gross — she has to go. And Performance Today — just part of an elitist, socialist plot).

While they prepare to stick those pitchforks into all things civic, swinging wildly at “national” anything, they have already announced their intention to protect defense spending. And isn’t this ironic? They’re standing tall for the military-industrial complex, half a century after Dwight Eisenhower delivered his famous farewell address in which he warned against just this. (By the way, defense spending has tripled since 2000.)

Oh, and let’s not forget their favorite “bring back the America we once knew” bit of anti-civic nonsense. I’m referring to their expected attack on health care reform. It begins, of course, with the unsupported assertion that “America has the best health care system in the world.” A collective good? No, they tell us. Health care isn’t even an “interstate” — let alone public — matter. Nor is it even a matter of intergenerational concern.

Case in point to the contrary: Last summer, our son had a very serious, life-threatening accident. He was taken to Harborview in Seattle. In his trauma care room were three other patients — one had a broken neck, another a broken back, and the third had attempted suicide. I’d bet that not one of these three had health insurance. Our son’s bill, for surgery and overnight stay, came to approximately $20,000. The insurance company paid almost all of it — we have an expensive policy.

These other three patients, who would spend much more time in the hospital? Somehow their costs will be passed on. And that’s not a collective concern? Not a civic problem? Not a justification to require that all contribute? Not a legitimate national issue? Oh yes, our collective premiums are going up 15 percent this coming year.

Judt might have written that this case provides further evidence that we are in desperate need of civic renewal, for discussions that get beyond demagogic symbol-mongering. We need to recognize, as does Judt, that while government isn’t always the solution, neither is the private sector, wedded as it is to the insupportable idea that self-interest is everything. This idea has bequeathed to us a destructive civic dogma, which a dying Tony Judt urged us to take on before it’s too late.

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