As we mentioned two weeks ago, Tony Judt, a prominent historian and public intellectual, has been grappling with ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) since 2008. With the disease now taking its toll, Judt has gone more public and started publishing with more urgency. On Monday, he was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air (listen below, here or on iTunes). Of the many items discussed, one particularly struck me. When Gross asked whether history still mattered deeply to him, the historian answered: yes, but:
I think now, I’m more worried about the future. The past is always going to be a mess. It’s going to be a mess because it was mess and because people are going to abuse it, get it wrong and so on. But I’m reasonably confident that with each generation of historians, we keep fighting hard to get it right again. But we could get the future very seriously wrong, and there it’s much harder to get it right… I’m encountering the first generation of young people in colleges and schools who really do not believe in the future, who don’t think not just that things will get evidently and permanently better but who feel that something has gone very badly wrong that they can’t quite put their finger on, but that is going to spoil the world that they’re growing up into.
Whether it’s climate change or political cynicism or overreaction or lack of reaction, to external challenges, whether it’s terrorism or poverty, the sense that it’s all got out of control, that they, the politicians and so on, media people, are neither doing anything nor telling us the truth. That sense seems to have pervaded the younger generation in ways that were not true in my experience.
Maybe the last time that might have been true was in the 1920s, where you had the combination of shock and anger from World War I, the beginnings of economic depression and the terrifying realization that there might very well be a World War II. I don’t think we’re on the edge of World War III or IV. But I do think that we are on the edge of a terrifying world. That’s why I wrote the book [Ill Fares the Land].
The first chapter of Ill Fares the Land is now available (for free) on The New York Times website, and it will give you a quick feel for the issues that Judt thinks we need to confront. The complete Fresh Air interview ranges much more broadly, going into Judt’s personal experience with ALS, and I’d encourage you to give it your time. (Stream below.) Also please visit Move For ALS to contribute to a new campaign affiliated with Tony Judt to fund ALS research.