Friday, January 8, 2010

Tony Judt: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

The Guardian has a great profile of historian Tony Judt. Here's an excerpt but I recommend you read the whole thing. And don't miss the video:

A few weeks ago the English historian Tony Judt delivered a speech at his home in New York University (NYU). More than 1,000 people turned up, and few left disappointed. What they heard was classic Tony Judt: the lecture, a plea for the positive virtues of social democracy, was as erudite as might be expected from the author of Postwar, his epic portrait of Europe since 1945, and as politically pointed as his controversial writings on the Middle East.

The Judt they saw that night, however, was anything but expected. He rolled on to the stage in an electric wheelchair, a blanket wrapped around his body so that all could be seen was his neck and head, to which a breathing tube was attached like a bit of facial Tupperware. "The last time anyone had seen me in public I'd been bouncing around the stage full of fitness and energy," Judt says. "Now they saw this quadriplegic with plastic on his face."

He was concerned about how his audience would react to the new-look him, and tried hard to make them feel at ease. It worked, and at the end of the speech he received a standing ovation.

It was only afterwards that Judt suffered the intense irritation of being accosted by someone who seemed unaware of the difference between physical and mental incapacity. "I'd just delivered this long lecture completely by memory, no notes, for an hour and 15 minutes. Someone comes up to me and says 'TTTTOOOOOONNNNYYYYY. DOOOOOO YOOUUUUUU REMEEEEMMMMBER MEEEE?'" Judt mimics the person in an exaggerated drawl, as though he were talking to a baby in a buggy. "I thought, 'You stupid bitch! Of course I remember you. I know your name, I know where you teach, I know everything about you!'"

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