Friday, March 6, 2015

When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010 by Tony Judt, Jennifer Homans

Tony Judt is a name Europeanists (historians of Europe) regularly encounter.  "Postwar" has almost become a standard text in many ways.  As with many historians in their own right, Judt has opinions on many issues, events, and personalities (whether they are part of his main concentration or not) and shares them with aplomb, for the most part.  This collection of book reviews, essays, and a few personal tracts written after the deaths of three well-known and respected historians are an interesting foray into the life of Judt, his ideas and the stances he took on a variety of contemporary topics.  The book is split into five parts. The first is entitled '1989: Our Age'; 'Israel, the Holocaust, and the Jews'; '9/11 and the New World Order'; 'The Way We Live Now'; and 'In the Long Run We Are All Dead.' These titles are mainly self-explanatory but personally I found one review and one lecture to be the stand outs.

The review of Norman Davies's 'Europe: A History' is absolutely phenomenal.  This is a hack of an historian who has received undeserved praise for reasons that I cannot even begin to fathom and yet his shoddy work is some of the worst drivel I've seen published in the past few decades.  Judt takes him to task for the mediocrity he is and the numerous mistakes, omissions, and worthless excuses for arguments he makes (his more recent 'No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945' is no better).  As well, 'What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?' was a lecture Judt gave at New York University in 2009 that deals with issues we've recently witnessed revolving around debates about economics, private vs. public, the role of government, etc.  Judt is very much of the opinion that what was done in the wake of the First and Second World Wars throughout Europe and America has slowly been undone since the Thatcher-Reagan era and has caused numerous problems for our society today, which will only continue to get worse.  One argument discussed how corrupt and inefficient publicly run municipalities/works fail to improve when sold to private entities as these sales include large commissions for banks and are a result of selling at a loss.  Additionally they are only approved when these private institutions are assured that in the case of their own failure the tax-payers will bare the burden while the private sector continues to reap any and all rewards.  The numerous safety nets created by governments come at a price, one that we as a society should be happy to pay and to see that others take up a similar cause when we are in need and suffering.  But in a society reared on 'An Army of One' that kind of mentality falls on deaf ears as 'crony capitalism' and 'greed' have created an image in people's minds where the government can do nothing right and corporations are people too.  While these were the most interested pieces, I also found his stance on the issue of where this country was going after 9/11, the usefulness of the UN, and the use of torture worth reading as well.

While the above are some of the more interesting and poignant pieces offered, there are some weaknesses, at least in my opinion. The sections on Israel are rife with contempt for Israeli policies, whether deserved or not, but wholly omit the responsibilities of the other side in this equation.  Judt makes it seem as if Israel has consistently held all the cards in the situation it has found itself in without any agency being given to the Palestinians or their various representatives, nor is any mention made of the numerous states that surround Israel and the role they have played when it comes to both Israeli security and the evolution of terrorism.  Although this collection is entitled 'When The Facts Change' it seems that some facts do not change for Judt when it comes to Israel.  Finally, much of the information presented is fascinating and one begins to crave more, but foot/endnotes are few (partly explained by the fact that these were, again, book reviews, essays and lectures).  Even so, considering there was an editor to this collection, a greater number of citations could have resulted in a better resources for those interested in some of the topics discussed.

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