Thursday, February 18, 2016

This Land Was Made for You and Me

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land:

The kind of society where trust is widespread is likely to be fairly compact and quite homogenous. The most developed and successful welfare states of Europe are Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria with Germany as an interesting outlier. Most of these countries have very small populations: of the Scandinavian lands only Sweden tops 6 million inhabitants and between them all they comprise less people than Tokyo.

...But it is not just a question of size. Like New Zealand, another small country (pop. 4.2. million, even smaller than Norway) that has succeeded in maintaining a high level of civic trust, the successful welfare states of northern Europe were remarkably homogenous.

...Size and homogeneity are of course not transferable. There is no way for India or the USA to become Austria or Norway, and in their purest form the social democratic welfare states of Europe are simply non-exportable.

It was strange, I thought, that Judt brought this up in the middle of his book and then just...went back to nostalgically lamenting the loss of mid-twentieth-century American civic spirit without attempting to suggest how, indeed, a renewed vision for social democracy might surmount this formidable obstacle. I don't mean to imply a necessity for the sort of cheap "call to action" that books like this typically end with, of course. American society will continue to evolve and redefine itself while paying no heed to the manifestos, blueprints or theories of intellectuals, which exist primarily to give other intellectuals something to chatter about. But assuming that most readers are coming to this book already sympathetic to Judt's perspective, perhaps it would have been more useful for them to be confronted with harder questions about their own complicity — for instance, what does it say that those on the left who would love to see the United States transform into a social democracy are the same people who, through their dogmatic adherence to multiculturalism and the ethnic balkanization of identity politics, have done the most to undermine the possibility of a civic ethos capable of transcending the heterogeneity of over three hundred million people? If religion is a superstitious relic of a benighted age, and earnest talk about the civic creed of the American Dream only brings a cynical sneer in return, where are we to find the resources to develop the sort of cosmopolitan neighbor-love that Judt pined for? The question is never raised in these pages, and so we can only continue to wonder.