'In a Starving, Bleeding, Captive Land'

Some thoughts on Tony Judt's opus Postwar
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I'm thoroughly enjoying Tony Judt's Postwar. "Enjoying" is really too small of a word. The art that sticks with me, the art I truly love, is the art in which I find a piece of myself. I think about Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence a lot, because it a courageous work of art created by someone with the mental stamina to mount a conservative defense of the old order, by exploring all of that order's limitations. I hope to do something like that from time to time. I have opinions, and that's all well and good. But more interesting to me is the limits and implications of those opinions. I don't want to spend my time on earth performing, yelling "Look At Me" or "Confirm My Humanity, Please" in various tongues. I have problems of my own.

As does everyone. There are a great many of these problems in Judt's post-Hitler Europe and almost no satisfying answers. There are human beings taken into Germany, during the War, as slave laborers who do not wish to return, lest they fall behind the Iron Curtain. There are "Germans" who've lived outside of Germany for centuries who are kicked out and forced to return to a home they scarcely regard as such. There is the incomplete attempts to bring justice to Europe after Hitler's death. One is almost tempted to say that the Nazis "got away with it." It puts my own frustration with Reconstruction in perspective. Post-war justice anywhere seems really trying. That it would be more so in a country which shares certain foundational beliefs—like intelligence and morality are directly related to continental descent—makes sense. 

There are many lines in this book that strike me, but here is a quote from the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Dilas that will live with me for a long time. Dilas is discussing the partisan resistance against the Axis during World War II. Judt makes clear that fighting for, or against, the Nazis or Fascists can't—in and of itself—make one villainous or heroic. In Yugoslavia , the War quickly became fraternal. Dilas observes:

For hours both armies clambered up rocky ravines to escape annihilation or to destroy a little group of their countrymen, often neighbors on some jutting peak six thousand feet high, in a starving, bleeding, captive land. It came to mind that this was what had become of all our theories and visions of the workers’ and peasants’ struggle against the bourgeoisie.’

I think of our own Revolution and its hollow exultations toward freedom. I think of my own lineage and Bunchy Carter and Huey Newton. I think of August Wilson's Two Trains Running:

Niggers killed Malcolm. Niggers killed Malcolm. When you want to talk about Malcolm, remember that first. Niggers killed Malcolm.

I think we all see our "theories and visions" come to dust in the "starving, bleeding, captive land" which is everywhere, which is politics.

There is a cutting moment in one of the debates between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X. Rustin largely avoids sanctimonious defenses of America and moralizing around nonviolence. Instead he compliments Malcolm on his fierce denunciations of American racism, and hails him as an important voice articulating the anger of "the American Negro." But then he begins dissecting the Nation of Islam's nationalism and their desire for a separate black homeland. Who will govern this "homeland?" Will Rustin, Christian (and gay though he doesn't explicitly say it) be welcome there? Will Elijah Muhammad be its president? If you know anything about Elijah Muhammad, the idea of "Elijah, President of the Blacks" is chilling. The thought of any man—including my hero Malcolm X—assuming such a perch chills me. Rustin's critique is cutting because instead of mocking and laughing at the NOI's nationalism, instead of dismissing it as crazy, he follows its reasoning to its logical, disagreeable conclusions.

It seems that it is one thing to correctly name a ruling order as corrupt. It is all another to overthrow that order in some honorable fashion. And it is another still to replace that order with some honorable government. Only in the past 50 years has this country even begun to consider grappling with that last task. That is not because America is uniquely evil, so much as it is because America is the work of humans. One wishes we would dispense with the entire industry of "shining cities" and admit to this.

Postwar is a rejection of the kind of moralizing tidiness which marked my own early education about Europe, World War II and its aftermath. Judt has the courage to look dead-eyed at ideology and all its limitations without lapsing into nostalgia or cynicism. The writer Jake Lamar once called this "ice-water vision." If I could cultivate any intellectual quality, outside of curiosity, it would be Judt's "ice-water vision." I am often asked for solutions to many of the problems I raise. Almost as often I demur. That is because I am increasingly convinced that my particular great problems don't actually have solutions, that the ultimate answer is "Game Over: You Lose" or more specifically "Race War: Whites Win. Again.

This is not an inducement to anarchy. If I am not convinced that there is a "solution," I am even less convinced that the only reason to live one's life honorably is to contribute to a "solution." I will not determine my ultimate worth by the direction of people whom I do not know. Whatever happens to my people, whom I hope rise, prosper and then promptly disappear into America, whatever happens to white supremacy, which I hope falls, perishes and then is ever etched as a warning to the world, these explorations and efforts were worth it because they were mine.  

I was improved. I hope the world was too. But that was never really up to me.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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