Tony Judt on our Uncertain Future

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.

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