The Wisdom of Tony Judt

Tony Judt died on August 6, 2010. He was a historian specializing in French, European and Eastern European modern history. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2008 and was paralyzed from the neck down in late 2009. In January 2010, starting with an announcement of his condition, he started to publish a series of memoirs and essays in the New York Review of Books. I started subscribing to the NYR at that time and have immensely enjoyed reading his work this last year. All of the essays since April are available online for free, as well as many earlier articles. He was a terrific writer.

One of his passions was trains. The most recent essays are about them: "The Glory of the Rails" and "Bring Back the Rails!" The latter has some great parts that I want to quote, but read the whole essay if you're interested.
Penn Station
Penn Station, New York City, 1940's
Everywhere, however, railways—the harbingers and emblems of an age of public investment and civic pride—fell victim to a dual loss of faith: in the self-justifying benefits of public services, now displaced by considerations of profitability and competition; and in the physical representation of collective endeavor through urban design, public space, and architectural confidence.
...
The urban vandalism of the age was not confined to railway stations, of course, but they (along with the services they used to provide, such as hotels, restaurants, or cinemas) were by far its most prominent victim. And a symbolically appropriate victim, too: an underperforming, market-insensitive relic of high modern values. It should be noted, however, that rail travel itself did not decline, at least in quantity: even as railway stations lost their charm and their symbolic public standing, the number of people actually using them continued to rise.
...
What we thought was late modernity—the post-railway world of cars and planes—turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950–1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. The attractions of a return to “social” calculation are becoming as clear to modern planners as they once were, for rather different reasons, to our Victorian predecessors. What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern.
The ending is worth quoting in full:
We often find ourselves asserting or assuming that the distinctive feature of modernity is the individual: the unreducible subject, the freestanding person, the unbound self, the unbeholden citizen. This modern individual is commonly and favorably contrasted with the dependent, deferential, unfree subject of the pre-modern world. There is something in this version of things, of course; just as there is something in the accompanying idea that modernity is also a story of the modern state, with its assets, its capacities, and its ambitions. But taken all in all, it is, nevertheless, a mistake—and a dangerous mistake. The truly distinctive feature of modern life—the one with which we lose touch at our peril—is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society. More precisely civil—or (as the nineteenth century had it) bourgeois—society.

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the 1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the confident civic life. It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher—who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—made a point of never traveling by train. If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.

3 comments:

omar said...

Hey,

This is Omooex over at Hyphenated Republic...it occurs to me that you are Norwegian. Yes, observant. Have you been keeping track of the cable publications at Aftenpost? I would love your take on them, and the process and any insight you have into how the cables ended up in Norway, at a paper that stopped publishing in English a year ago....

Norwegian Shooter said...

Never heard of it. I've never even been to Norway. I'm much less Norwegian than Obama is Kenyan. But I'll ask TOM to ask somebody. He's got connections.

omar said...

Ha. I thought it said somewhere here that you were Norwegian...oh well, back to the drawing board...