Column on That Terrible “We” Again

That Terrible "We" Again

Tibor R. Machan

Tony Judt is a constant presence in The New York Review of Books, sometimes with very fine, sensitive essays, sometimes with really annoying screeds. This last is what I found in a recent issue, with the title "Ill Fares the Land" (4/29/2010).

The article, taken from a book he is writing, is mostly a lament about how much lack of equality there is in America. Since I am not at all interested in equality–I cannot fathom anyone other than someone mired in envy worrying about it all the time–I was looking at it mostly with indifference except that from the beginning something about the essay didn’t ring right at all. I’ll reproduce the very first paragraph so as to illustrate what I am talking about:

"Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once agains to pose them."

By Judt’s lights all this began in the 1980s. But, I was around then, even before then, and he is not only dead wrong but very confused. Mostly Judt’s confusion stems from his indiscriminate, sloppy use of the "we" throughout his essay, just as in these opening sentences.

Just check out what he says above. Who is he talking about? Is it you? It certainly isn’t me, nor any of my friends or members of my family, or colleagues. None of my students, either, for over 45 years of college teaching fit the bill. Most people have a whole collage worth of concerns, goals, interests and desires, with just some focused on their material self-interest. (And since when has trying to live decently, preparing to earn an income that can support one’s hopes for family and social life, amount to materialism?)

Sure many people I know are concerned with their economic situation, especially over the last couple of years. But who wouldn’t be, what with the recent evidence mounting that all the government meddling in the country’s commercial life since the early 1900s has produced little else than irresponsible government plans and, recently, endless purchases of homes, massive deficits and debts, and whatever else can go wrong with a macroeconomic system.

None of this is about you and me–any kind of "we"–but about quite specific people, officials in various parts of the federal and state governments, parts where politicians and bureaucrats basically spend other people’s resources and take it upon themselves to rearrange the world guided by their own murky utopian vision.

And think of it–the major ideological impetus to all the mismanagement that’s been going on has been, you guessed it, egalitarianism. Government has been urged on by the likes of Mr. Judt to make it possible for everyone to own a home, a pretty plush one at that, regardless of whether they had the money to buy it. Instead, everyone was supposed to be able to borrow, at ridiculously low interest rates and with hardly any attention to whether the money lent them is likely to be paid back!

So for a champion of economic equality like Mr. Judt to bellyache about how we are all mired in materialist sentiments is poppycock. And none of it has been selfish, actually, but pure altruism or, rather, redistributionist from start to finish. What is most disturbing to me, however, is how readily Mr. Judt makes use of the "we" in the entire essay, as if he had gone around the country and did serious surveys and found out some basic truth about what motivates us all. But he hasn’t done any such thing. He is merely blowing smoke, shooting in the dark, venting to his heart’s content. And all of that is made possible by referring to us all at once, collectively, with no evidence at all about what any of us actually believes and wants. Declarations such as "Today’s schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job" go unsupported by any evidence but some vague reference to surveys done in England in 1949! (This, by the way, isn’t England, just in case Mr. Judt is geographically quite impoverished!)

This envious, nasty, and sloppy screed, thrust at us with all the anger of an evangelical minister waiving his finger and lamenting our sinning, might be set aright if there were but a bit of concern for facts, for what individuals actually believe and want, instead of what Mr. Judt is imagining about everyone. But with all that anger in him about some people doing better than others, how could that ever be achieved by this author?

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