Saturday, August 20, 2011


Last week in my post about the Berlin Wall, I remarked how the world of the Cold War era had more in common with the world of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries than with the present (despite the short lapse of time). I also opined that, while the “lessons” of that recent history should never be automatically or uncritically applied to the present, our current amnesia about history may be even more problematic. That all reminded me of some wise observations by the late Tony Judt in his 2008 essay “The World We Have Lost” (the Introduction to his final published collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century).
The key word in that title is "Forgotten." Reflecting on our contemporary alienation from history, Judt wrote [pp. 4-5]: “Whatever the shortcomings of the older national narratives once taught in school … they had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience. Traditional history, as taught to generations of schoolchildren and college students, gave the present a meaning by reference to the past. … In our time, however, this process has gone into reverse. The past now has no agreed narrative shape of its own. It acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting present concerns. … What is significant about the present age of transformation is the unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not just the practices of the past … but their very memory. A world just recently lost is already half forgotten.”
It’s not just the Cold War, of course, that’s been virtually forgotten. There are people alive today who have never actually heard a dial tone. Our alienation from the recent past seems almost as complete as our alienation from the pre-industrial world Peter Laslett recalled in his 1965 classic (also provocatively titled The World We have Lost). It’s not technological change per se that is the issue, however, but rather the changed way we have come to experience the world. In the process, we seem to have forgotten fundamentals about why Western 20th-century societies organized themselves the way they did.
Of particular importance, because it seems so relevant to our present political malaise, is what (for lack of any more elegant term) I’ll call the 20th century nation-state’s democratic reconstruction of society. In that same 2008 essay, Judt observed [p. 21]: “We may discover, as [our 20th-century predecessors] did, that the collective provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity.”

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