Tony Judt, 1948-2010

British historian and essayist dies.

Several news sources, including New York magazine, are reporting that the English historian and essayist Tony Judt has died. In November 2008, Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, a neuro-degenerative condition that very quickly left him paralysed from the neck down. He continued to write almost until the end, however, even delivering the 2009 Remarque Lecture at New York University (where he had taught for many years) in a wheelchair and from inside the prison of a body that permitted him to do little else but speak and breathe (and this only with the help of a machine).

That lecture, entitled "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy", was turned (with astonishing speed, bearing in mind his condition) into a book, Ill Fares the Land, in which Judt offered -- for the benefit, he said, of "young people on both sides of the Atlantic" -- both an account of what he saw as the corruption of our moral sentiments (he borrowed the phrase from Adam Smith, whom he rightly took to have abhorred the "uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake") and a vision of what political discourse used to be like -- not in the distant past, but in his own lifetime, during the postwar heyday of social democracy.

It was a period, Judt wrote, in which there was a "moralised quality to policy debates", when questions such as unemployment and inflation were regarded not just as economic issues, but also as "tests of the ethical coherence of the community".

Ill Fares the Land was both a threnody (for a language of the common good that Judt thought we had carelessly misplaced) and the expression of a certain kind of political temperament:

Social democrats are characteristically modest -- a political quality whose virtues are overestimated. We need to apologise a little less for our shortcomings and speak more assertively of achievements. That these were always incomplete should not trouble us.

If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unravelling and destablising them: this should make us much angrier than we are . . .

Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand. (Ill Fares the Land, pp. 224-25)

Much of the scholarly work with which Judt made his academic reputation (books such as Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 and The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century), before gaining wider acclaim (and, it has to be said, notoriety) on the strength of his literary journalism for the New York Review of Books, was devoted to the terrible seductions of the "perfect answer" in politics and to the irresponsibility (and irrelevance) of intellectuals who insist that nothing less than perfection will do.

What that passage from his last book shows, however, is that Judt also knew that a sober recognition of the limits of politics is not the same as a quietistic and defeated abandonment of them. He will be greatly missed.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear