Intellectual history: A Twitter passage by George Monbiot, two good books by Tony Judt, and you can hear a pin drop in New Gahania.


George Monbiot “is a British writer known for his environmental and political activism.”

The following thoughts by Monbiot as expressed at Twitter this week seem almost certain to fall on deaf ears in New Albany.

“We are born in total ignorance of everything, and we die in total ignorance of almost everything. Acquiring useful knowledge requires determined study. Yet we no longer have a culture of public learning. This makes us vulnerable to every charlatan who stands for election.

“The charlatans seek to keep us in ignorance. When they deride “elites”, they don’t mean people like themselves – the rich and powerful. They mean teachers and intellectuals. They are creating an anti-intellectual culture, to make people easier to manipulate.

“Bring back the workers’ education movements. Bring back a rich public culture of learning and intellectual self-improvement, open to everyone. Knowledge is the most powerful tool in politics.”

Earlier tonight at Pints&union a few of us were talking about European post-war history. I recommended the late historian Tony Judt’s masterful Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, but not to neglect Judt and co-writer Timothy Snyder’s 2012 book, Thinking the Twentieth Century.

Here’s the closing passage from my column of October 30, 2014.

ON THE AVENUES: Does New Albany even have an intellectual history?

Judt’s and Snyder’s book takes the form of several loosely themed conversations, as transcribed by Snyder. At the time of the book’s preparation, Judt was immobilized by ALS, the disease that subsequently killed him. As with Stephen Hawking, Judt’s mind was mightily sharp, and the two historians tackle topics beneath an umbrella term many New Albanians might find frightening, pretentious or both: The “intellectual history” of the past century.

In short, how did ideas and systems of thought play a role in European society, art, politics and history during this era? I’ve already mentioned some ‘isms,” as in capitalism, communism and fascism. What about socialism? How is it that I persist in identifying my core political persuasion as resembling European-style Social Democracy rather than conforming to an American version of Democrat or Republican?

There are numerous other examples, as in the case of Zionism. What is the pathway of a Jewish separatist movement rooted in fin de siècle Vienna, as it leads toward a post-Holocaust consolidation of the modern Israeli state? How did rural and urban Jewish societies in Europe differ in the first place? And so on.

Reading and thinking about this wonderful overview of intellectual history have been tremendously exciting for me. I needed a stimulating “break” after so many months of concentration on specific matters of local, personal and business interest – from lane widths to commercial kitchens, from the death of a house cat to Silvercrest, and from 800-lb gorillas to shrubbery.

Judt and Snyder’s engaging scholarship has helped bring me back, full circle, to the time when I was advised to register for an Introduction to Philosophy class only because (a) it’s easy, and (b) I’d need humanities credits, anyway. But I was abruptly awakened by a vibrant world of thoughts and ideas, which high school simply didn’t prepare me to fathom or discover. The book reminds me of what changed my life so very long ago … and continues to do so today.

Yes, I persist in a belief that certain of these ideas and doctrines, some more so than others, still preface daily living in a place like New Albany. Ideas and words matter, as in a comment recently passed along to me:

“Before we talk about transportation we have to ask what city we want and how we want to live.”

I want to live thinking.

Without it, my quality of life suffers.