Tony Judt on the World We Have Lost and Are Losing

Twentieth century go to sleep, really deep. We won’t blink.

R.E.M., “Electrolite”

Welcome to the Roaring Twenties. Two decades into this horrible century, things look bleak. Australia is about to burn down completely, turned into a Mephistophelean charnel house, and the sociopathic Chance the Gardener in the White House appears to be bumbling into a new and more epically symphonic conflagration in the Middle East, for no particular reason except for simple spite and ignorance.

The twentieth century was, of course, the century of the Holocaust and napalm; of the Cambodian killing fields, Japanese internment, forced sterilization and lynchings, mass famines in the Soviet Union and China, the disappeared in Latin America, and Friends. As the late, great historian Tony Judt wrote in 2008:

The twentieth century is thus on the path to becoming a moral memory palace: a pedagogically serviceable Chamber of Historical Horrors whose way stations are labeled “Munich” or “Pearl Harbor,” “Auschwitz” or “Gulag,” “Armenia” or “Bosnia” or “Rwanda,” with “9-11” as a sort of supererogatory coda, a bloody postscript for those who would forget the lessons of the century or who never properly learned them. The problem with this lapidary representation of the last century as a uniquely horrible time from which we have now, thankfully, emerged is not the description–the twentieth century was in many ways a truly awful era, an age of brutality and mass suffering perhaps unequaled in the historical record. The problem is the message: that all of that is now behind us, that its meaning is clear, and that we may now advance–unencumbered by past errors–into a different and better era.

Tony Judt, “The World We Have Lost,” in Reappraisals (2008)

Judt was soon to succumb to the uniquely brutal and remorseless disease ALS, but he pushed on writing as he could. And in his waning years, he could see how his fellow humans were sallying forth with the unwise notion that the worst was behind them. The events of 2001-2020 should effectively dispute this supposition, and we have no idea what awaits us now.

But what Tony Judt meant in his essay was that remembering the 20th century just as a catalog of horrors flattens what actually happened — that the century was one of struggle and conflict, as people nearly everywhere fought against colonialism, systems of oppression such as Jim Crow and Apartheid rose and fell, and capitalism and Communism vied to achieve different visions of the human future. Simply totting up the numbers of dead and murdered doesn’t tell us much. As Judt insisted, we have to remember that something actually happened — something was at stake in all this mayhem, and people fought and killed and gave their lives for it. Looking at the score forgets the game. Tony Judt knew, as you and our other readers know, that history is not over — not even close, “not even past,” as they say.

Here is our first best-of-the-week reading list for 2020:

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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