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Tony Judt’s Liberalism

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NYU historian Tony Judt died last week. I knew him only vaguely as a participant at academic seminars and conferences, but over the last months I have read with complete fascination his biographical contributions to the New York Review of Books, which chronicle not only his own intellectual development but also that of his entire generation, as well as his marvelous last book, Ill Fares the Land. I can’t say that I feel particularly close to Judt’s politics, what he termed “universalist social democracy,” but who could fail to be impressed by his rigorous honesty and his splendid prose? At the heart of Judt’s scholarship was the principle that, whether you agree or disagree with the ideas you are discussing, you owe your readers and students scrupulous honesty in portraying them. Judt puts these skills to most effective use writing about French intellectual history in the last century, giving us masterful portraits of complex figures like Albert Camus and Raymond Aron.

Judt’s contribution to the current New York Review of Books, “Meritocrats,” discusses his experiences at King’s College, Cambridge, in the late sixties and seventies. One compelling passage stands out:

My greatest debt, though I did not fully appreciate it at the time, was to [John] Dunn, then a very young college Research Fellow, now a distinguished professor emeritus. It was John who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.

That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum. No doubt such tolerant intellectual breadth was not confined to King’s. But listening to friends and contemporaries describe their experiences elsewhere, I sometimes wonder. Lecturers in other establishments often sounded disengaged and busy, or else professionally self-absorbed in the manner of American academic departments at their least impressive.

This is also Tony Judt’s liberalism—and it reflects what I observed of him in an academic setting. He was a careful, patient listener, who would come back and engage a speaker on the speaker’s own terms. Those precious skills are in short supply in our society. He will be sorely missed.

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