AT THE PEAK OF HIS CAREER and in the full ripeness of his abundant talents, the intellectual historian Tony Judt was struck down by Lou Gehrig's disease. He died before his 63rd birthday. Judt was someone America needed in these rancid times: a superbly trained intellect, magnificently informed, passionate about the truth and fearless in speaking it to power. With his 2005 book Postwar he had come about as close to reaching the mass market as is possible for a genuine scholar in the age of Dan Brown. It is painful to consider how Judt, had he lived, might have enriched the ridiculous circus that is public discourse in the United States today, and what sort of impact he could have had as he went about the lonely business of exposing the holes in the prevailing popular wisdom.
We Americans seem no longer able to keep the kinds of people we most need — even in cases when they aren't felled by incurable diseases. When the state of New York gives rise to a governor willing to challenge the buccaneers of Wall Street, he quickly self-immolates via a blazing sex scandal. When, in the sewer that the U.S. Senate has become, one man somehow keeps himself clean and clear-headed through a miraculous three terms, even casting the only vote against the Patriot Act, the voters of Wisconsin (supposedly and ironically burning with rage at the Washington Establishment) replace him with a nonentity summoned to public service by the big money. And if two genuinely progressive members of Congress survive in the rust belt of northern Ohio, count on the state legislature to amuse itself by throwing them together into the same new district so that, no matter what the voters want, only one can possibly survive.
So perhaps we should be grateful not only that Tony Judt lasted as long as he did, but that he wrote and spoke as much as he did and received at least a measure of attention while what looks increasingly like a new dark age descended upon us. In a nation capable of swallowing Newt Gingrich's claims of being a "historian" (and to have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by a mortgage company for his services in that capacity), a real historian as substantial as Judt never had much chance of being more than a ghost at the feast. A culture befuddled enough to heap fame and riches on charlatans as mean-minded as Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter should not be expected to have much honor to spare for a genuinely prophetic figure bearing unwelcome news.
What made Judt special — what made him possible, innate brainpower and integrity aside — was his remarkable life story. Born in London in 1948 to immigrant Jewish parents whose roots were in various parts of Russia's czarist empire, he grew up in a household where the tenets of Marxism (not to be confused with Stalinism) were accepted as obviously and importantly true. In early adolescence he became an ardent Zionist, spending long periods on kibbutzim in the fledgling state of Israel. But by the end of his undergraduate years at King's College, Cambridge (which he attended on a scholarship), Judt had absorbed and discarded both Marxism and Zionism alike. The academic career that followed seems almost to have been arranged by fate to prevent him from settling into even the most respectable kind of rut: a doctorate in French history (conferred by Cambridge, but earned on the continent under the guidance of Parisian mentors)...