05 March 2012


Jennifer Homans has a powerful piece in the March 22, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books. She is the widow of the historian and public intellectual (although he himself disliked being called that) Tony Judt. In the article, she describes how he completed his last book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, while combating the increasing ravages of ALS. Of the many significant comments she makes, one in particular stood out:
Justice, inequality, good-faith politics: these had always been the touchstones of Tony’s thought, but now other ideas were crowding in, ideas that needed to be made sense of privately and emotionally, but also — because this is how Tony was and how he thought — collectively and intellectually. Humiliation, shame, fear, anger: these were not just feelings. They were political ideas.

Humiliation was the most important. Tony felt it acutely and it was a theme in his correspondence with others afflicted by ALS. Many of these people were younger than Tony and destitute or medically uninsured, with narrow if not ruined life possibilities. They needed help — practical social and medical services. Humiliation was a terrible feeling, but, as he felt strongly, it was also — and should be treated as — an ugly social fact. “Night,” his essay describing his “imprisonment without parole,” was partly for these new friends, and so, in another key, was the end of Thinking the Twentieth Century, where Tony mounted as fierce — and felt — a case as ever he had for our need to “think socially”: to make human rather than monetary gain the goal of social policy. This was not the politics of disability or special interest; it was about collective responsibility and the duty of us all to each other.
Reinforcing this is Judt's comment in his essay 'Night':
Helplessness is humiliating even in a passing crisis — imagine or recall some occasion when you have fallen down or otherwise required physical assistance from strangers. Imagine the mind’s response to the knowledge that the peculiarly humiliating helplessness of ALS is a life sentence (we speak blithely of death sentences in this connection, but actually the latter would be a relief).
I claim that the strongest element of contemporary political discourse is the expression of helplessness, the inability of most people to have any useful impact on the direction of politics, and their deep awareness of that helplessness. Following Judt, humiliation is a violation of human dignity. Ergo, helplessness leads to the violation of human dignity. Ergo, it is a responsibility of social policy reduce helplessness. This is a direction for public policy, a determination of how society can achieve real human gain. For myself, I think that education is a part of the solution, and that's the tack I'm taking.