Thursday, 25 January 2018

Edge People, by Tony Judt

Tony Robert Judt (1948-2010) was an "outstanding historian", a "fearless critic of narrow orthodoxies and bullying cliques" (via), a "public intellectual". Judt died of complications of Lou Gehrig's disease which had left him paralysed in a matter of months (via)

"In the 1960s, Cambridge produced a remarkable generation of historians (...) but one name acquired a particular resonance. Well before his death at 62 from motor neurone disorder, Tony Judt flowered not only as a great historian of modern Europe, (...) but as a brilliant political commentator."
Geoffrey Wheatcroft



“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. (...)

In academic life, the word has comparably mischievous uses. Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves—thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.

As so often, academic taste follows fashion. These programs are byproducts of communitarian solipsism: today we are all hyphenated—Irish-Americans, Native Americans, African-Americans, and the like. (...)

This warm bath of identity was always alien to me. I grew up in England and English is the language in which I think and write. London—my birthplace—remains familiar to me for all the many changes that it has seen over the decades. I know the country well; I even share some of its prejudices and predilections. But when I think or speak of the English, I instinctively use the third person: I don’t identify with them.

In part this may be because I am Jewish: when I was growing up Jews were the only significant minority in Christian Britain and the object of mild but unmistakable cultural prejudice. On the other hand, my parents stood quite apart from the organized Jewish community. We celebrated no Jewish holidays (I always had a Christmas tree and Easter eggs), followed no rabbinical injunctions, and only identified with Judaism over Friday evening meals with grandparents. Thanks to an English schooling, I am more familiar with the Anglican liturgy than with many of the rites and practices of Judaism. So if I grew up Jewish, it was as a decidedly non-Jewish Jew.

(...)

I was thus neither English nor Jewish. And yet, I feel strongly that I am—in different ways and at different times—both. Perhaps such genetic identifications are less consequential than we suppose? What of the elective affinities I acquired over the years: am I a French historian?

(...)

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. One should keep one’s distance not only from the obviously unappealing “-isms”—fascism, jingoism, chauvinism—but also from the more seductive variety (...).

I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life. (...)

To be sure, there is something self-indulgent in the assertion that one is always at the edge, on the margin. Such a claim is only open to a certain kind of person exercising very particular privileges. Most people, most of the time, would rather not stand out: it is not safe. If everyone else is a Shia, better to be a Shia. If everyone in Denmark is tall and white, then who—given a choice—would opt to be short and brown? And even in an open democracy, it takes a certain obstinacy of character to work willfully against the grain of one’s community, especially if it is small.

But if you are born at intersecting margins and—thanks to the peculiar institution of academic tenure—are at liberty to remain there, it seems to me a decidedly advantageous perch: What should they know of England, who only England know? (...)

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.

(...)

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.

More/Via The New York Review of Books

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