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Historian Tony Judt (1948 - 2010)

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The historian Tony Judt died last Friday, August 6, of complications of Lou Gehrig's disease, an illness he had written about in a series of pieces for the New York Review of Books during the last year of his life. Over the past few days, the world's newspapers and magazines have published many tributes to Judt, each outlining the events of his life as public intellectual and professor at New York University, author, critic of Zionism, and advocate for social democracy. Among these, the Guardian newspaper republished one of Judt's last essays, using a line from the work as its headline: "If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have."

In this essay, named "Words" when it was first published, Judt recounts the role of language in life, and the ways in which words have delighted and served him. He ends with some observations about the way language is used now--especially in texts, Tweets and Facebook updates-- and examines how our habit of communicating in an abbreviated style is connected to a reduced ability to think deeply and develop ideas. He points out that, "Today, 'natural' expression—in language as in art—is preferred to artifice. We unreflectively suppose that truth no less than beauty is conveyed more effectively thereby." 
An excerpt:

Cultural insecurity begets its linguistic doppelgänger. The same is true of technical advance. In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.

In recent years, Judt added, he had become more aware than ever, "how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means."

"Words" was published months before Sarah Palin invented the word "refudiate" in an admittedly unambiguous (in intent) tweet that few have forgotten. Just this week, Ashton Kutcher, known for having one of the largest followings in the Twitter universe, banged out this message from his mobile phone, presumably from Israel: "The morning light of mercy is washing over The Wholly Land. I only hope that I can deliver on it's promise. Wholly=1=love." Moved to speak about another world event, Kutcher two days ago tweeted: "Sending love to Moscow! Put out the anger to inside to end the fire outside."

Celebrities and politicians are only the most-quoted offenders when it comes to broadcasting empty or garbled messages, of course. The biggest debates of our time, those shaping history, are debated by dueling text and tweet messages that are often vague or simply nonsensical. Likewise, most adults are guilty of using technology to say nothing at all dozens of times a day. This blog post, too, is an attempt to squeeze into a "nutshell" a few ideas from a beautifully written essay about the importance of communicating without any space or commercial constraints. A better idea: read Judt's full essay, here.
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