Tony Judt on the way things are and how they might be

By | March 25, 2010

About politicians and courage:

Courage is always missing in politicians. It is like saying basketball players aren’t normally short. It isn’t a useful attribute. To be morally courageous is to say something different, which reduces your chances of winning an election. Courage is in a funny way more common in an old-fashioned sort of enlightened dictatorship than it is in a democracy. However, there is another factor. My generation has been catastrophic. I was born in 1948 so I am more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it, and many names could be added. It is a generation that grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political. There were no wars they had to fight. They did not have to fight in the Vietnam War. They grew up believing that no matter what choice they made, there would be no disastrous consequences. The result is that whatever the differences of appearance, style and personality, these are people for whom making an unpopular choice is very hard.

On Europe and the EU:

… Europe is a cultural space, which does not necessarily overlap with the EU as a physical space; otherwise there would be endless Israeli-style debates about where the frontiers should be. The EU is different, as it started its life as the European Economic Community with the idea that it was an open entity. Anyone could join if they conformed to the rules, the norms and the regulations. This was very easy to say in 1958 because most of Europe was in prison. You didn’t have to worry about whether you would have to take in Slovakia, because there was no risk, no prospect of that, thanks to the Russians. All you had to worry about were the wealthy countries of the West: either small, wealthy countries like Austria or big ones like Italy or Spain. After 1989 all this fell apart. The EU became legally, culturally and institutionally committed to expanding and accepting anyone who wanted to join from a space that could be recognised as Europe. Since no one defined that space, there was no limit. Turkey at the time was not a problem: first because in those years it was mostly a military dictatorship; and second, because it was on the other side of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, and those two were not about to come into the EU.

Today we live in a very different situation. Europe is defined by the rules of the EU and its willingness to take in new countries. But already in the mid-1990s it was clear that no matter what anyone said in public, in private Brussels wanted to slow this process down, and if possible bring it to a stop. The reasons were very good, because the EU succeeded on the basis of genuine interstate co-operation, in which wealthy states or regions helped poor ones, and small new members could be forced to behave well. This was fine as long as the overwhelming majority of members were big and wealthy and the only likely new members were small, and either wealthy, or if poor, very small. When this changed in the 1990s, you started to hear people saying: ‘Wait a minute, Europe must be defined culturally, it must consider heritage: spiritual, architectural and linguistic heritage.’ This was simply a way of saying: ‘We can’t take in Muslims.’ Now, I did hear the Catholics say that Orthodox Christians can’t be accepted either. People would say this in Poland, in Croatia, to some extent in Hungary, but what they were really talking about were the Russians, the Serbs and the Romanians, not the Orthodox Christians in general. However, this could not be said openly, so once again the language was misused.

The concluding paragraph:

I think what we need is a return to a belief not in liberty, because that is easily converted into something else, as we saw, but in equality. Equality, which is not the same as sameness. Equality of access to information, equality of access to knowledge, equality of access to education, equality of access to power and to politics. We should be more concerned than we are about inequalities of opportunity, whether between young and old or between those with different skills or from different regions of a country. It is another way of talking about injustice. We need to rediscover a language of dissent. It can’t be an economic language since part of the problem is that we have for too long spoken about politics in an economic language where everything has been about growth, efficiency, productivity and wealth, and not enough has been about collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour. We have thrown away the language with which to do that. And until we rediscover that language how could we possibly bind ourselves together? We can’t come together on the basis of 19th or 20th-century ideas of inevitable progress or the natural historical progression from capitalism to socialism or whatever. We can’t believe in that anymore. And anyway, it can’t do the work for us. We need to rediscover our own language of politics.

The full article, in the London Review of Books, is here.

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