Thursday, November 18, 2004 +

John Lukacs, A New Republic

In 1984 John Lukacs published Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century. Twenty years later, the book has a new primary title and a new chapter that brings the history up to the near present. Then and now, Lukacs’ book is dedicated to George F. Kennan.

The fate of mankind indeed seems catastrophic if Americans do not liberate themselves from the thought that they are the last hope of earth (p. 6).

The danger for the American [at the end of the Modern Age] resides in the historical condition that he has fewer defenses during the passing of the Modern Age than many Europeans have. Nothing in history passes away completely. The European man, as Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “has been ‘democratic,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘absolutist,’ ‘feudal,’ but he no longer is. This does not mean . . . that he does not in some way continue being all these things; he does so in the ‘form of having been them.’” Most Americans, on the other hand, have been only democratic, their country and their society having been born in the eighteenth century—I repeat, in the middle of the Modern Age. Therein lies the danger: for the most painful and violent troubles of society are wont to occur near the end of an age, because it is then that masses of people are constrained to change their minds about essentials; and—all of the prevalent materialist conceptions of human life to the contrary—people will a thousand times more easily discard their material goods than change their essential beliefs, not to speak of their ways of thinking (pp. 7–8);

In a best seller about the age of Jackson, published in 1945, the young historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., proclaimed that men are neither beasts nor angels—a typically moderate and liberal article of faith. To the contrary, the history of the Second World War alone should have demonstrated that men, as Pascal had said, are both beasts and angels (p. 56).

The apparent uniformity of the bland years of the fifties obscured the occurrence of changes that were profound and enduring in their consequences. We shall see—this being the main chronological theseis of this book—how many of these changes came to pass at the very same time, about 1955–56, by a curious, or perhaps not so curious coincidence. We have seen how in 1956 the so-called conservative Replublican Party proclaimed the desirability of an Amercian military presence “all around the world”; yet it was in 1956 that the decline of the United States from its position as the first super-power began, since it was then (during the crisis of the Hungarian Revolution) that the Eisenhower administration proved demonstrably unwilling to consider any alteration of the division of Europe with the Russians. It was in 1956, too, that the United States helped to force the British out of Suez, speeding up the termination of the British Empire, whereby Churchill’s lifelong design for an Anglo-American union or a confederation of some kind finally disappeared. It was during the mid-fifties that the competitive quality of American manufactures began to decrease. It was then that the cities of the nation began to deteriorate and actually to lose population. It was then that the relatively short efflorescence of an urban and bourgeois culture in the history of American civilization came to its end. It was in 1955–56 that for the first time in American (and in world) history the majority of a working population were no longer engaged in any kind of production but in “administration” and in “services,” leading to a posturban, postindustrial, posturbane, bureaucratic society. It was then that the often senseless cult of “growth” became an unquestioned American shibboleth, without any thought given to the affinity of two matters: growth and inflation. The year 1955 was the last in which the consumer price index actually dropped by a fraction of a percentage. There was a mild recession later in the decade, but prices kept rising nonetheless. In 1956 gold began to flow out of the United States; within the next fourteen years half of the nation’s gold stock was gone (p. 65).

[The] increase in the respectability, prosperity, and power of American Catholics seemed to have culminated in the election of the first American Catholic President. Yet the developments of the 1960s—as well as those of later revelations about the life of this President—showed that the outwardly rigid and conservative and dogmatic structure of belief among American Catholics withstood the temptations of worldliness and of modernization hardly better than the structure of beliefs among other American religions or among Catholic populations abroad. American Catholics, including John Fitzgerald Kennedy, were, after all, American Catholics, adherents of a faith which, for them, was rooted more in a national ethos, in national customs, and in national habits of thought than in a supranational morality with its traditional philosophy. In a questionnaire circulated among Catholic college students (by this teacher, among others) one of the questions read, “Are you an American who happens to be a Catholic, or are you a Catholic who happens to be an American?” Ninety-eight percent chose the former (p. 70).

A generation before, the report of a single intelligent American diplomat would have been sufficient to enlighten his government about the realities within Cuba. In 1961 an entire secretive bureaucracy of agents, technicians, analysts, and mercenaries armed with the most modern instruments proved incapable of ascertaining what was going on within that island. A generation before, the presence of a lone American warship would have sufficed to cow a recalcitrant Cuban tyrant into submission; now the mightiest power on earth was constrained to accept the presence of a savage inimical dictatorship a mere ninety miles from the Florida shores. In this respect, too, the Kennedy era marked the end rather than the beginning of something: the decline of real American power, obscured though that was by the enormous increase of military bureaucracy and technology (pp. 70–71).

[Quoting John Buchan, Pilgrim’s Way (London, 1940)]:

The essence of civilization lies in man’s defiance of an impersonal universe. It makes no difference that a mechanized universe may be his own creation if he allows his handiwork to enslave him. Not for the first time in history have the idols that humanity has shaped for its own ends become its master (p. 199).

The British representatives did not comprehend in the beginning—as the British ambassador in Washington in his famous conversation with Wilson about Mexico. Wilson had told him that the American purpose was to teach democracy to the Mexicans. But suppose they don’t want it? the Englishman asked. Then we shall force it down their throats, the President retorted (p. 224).

When in 1960 the Russians shot down an American spy plane that had been traversing their territory at regular intervals the American people and their President reacted with indignation, as if this had been a vicious interference with the natural order of things: Americans could fly over Russia, while the reverse was unthinkable (p. 242).

The great historian Burckhardt wrote that during the Renaissance in the beginning of the Modern Age, an important mutation occurred in the Italian attitude toward leadership:

The highly gifted man of that day thought to find it in the sentiment of honour. This is that enigmatic mixture of conscience and egotism which often survives in the modern man after he has lost, whether by his own fault or not, faith, love, hope. This sense of honour is compatible with much selfishness and great vices, and may be the victim of astonishing illusions; yet, nevertheless, all the noble elements that are left in the wreck of a character may gather around it, and from this fountain may draw new strength. . . . It is certainly not easy, in treating of the Italian of this period, to distinguish this sense of honour from the passion for fame, into which, indeed, it may easily pass. Yet the two sentiments are essentially different.

In our times, toward the end of the Modern Age, the difference—indeed, the discrepancy—between fame and honor has become so great that in the character of presidents, and in those of public figures in all kinds of endeavor, the passion for fame has well-nigh obliterated the now remote and ancient sense of honor.
There remained, too, a discrepancy betwen those who still believed in original sin and those who believed in secular progress, a discrepancy between two articles of belief: according to orthodox Christian doctrine the prince of this world is Satan; according to the kind of American doctrine that became a kind of American orthodoxy in the twentieth century, the prince of this world is the President of the United States (pp. 287–88).

“It struck me from the beginning as a remarkable fact,” wrote Hermann Keyserling in 1927, “that American radicals—the word taken in its European sense—do not seem to feel responsible: neither do they seem to take their criticism very seriously. . . . The reason is that their position in life is very much the same as the court jester in the Middle Ages. The significance of the court jester was not that he was a fool—usually he was even the wisest man at the court—but that his wisdom was without any power or influence” (p. 307).

Whereas the misery and the glory of intellectual life is latent within its unpredictability, meaning that the originality and the novelty of its creations and of its subjects spring from the authentic interests of its creators, one of the most damaging results of the bureaucratization of intellectual life has been this decrease in authenticity, whereby not only the treatment but the very selection of certain subjects become predictable. This happened not only because of the increasing influence of middleman in the commerce of ideas. It was the result of the development of generations of intellectuals whose unceasing concern with public success or academic career led them to the exemplification or representation or incarnation of ideas that had already become current—at the expense of authenticity and originality and often of personal probity itself. The development of intellectual movements of the 1960s and their involvement with publicity at least suggest the question whether able men and women knew any longer how to think for themselves or how to make up their own minds. Ezra Pound’s phrase of fifty years before, that “the artist is the antennae of the race,” and Victor Hugo’s phrase of more than one hundred years before about ideas “whose time has come,” were no longer very telling, publicity having compromised the movement of ideas to the extent that most ideas whose “time had come” were no longer any good. Evelyn Waugh stated this clearly in the 1950s. “In a democracy,” he wrote, “men do not seek authority so that they may impose a policy. They seek a policy so that they may achieve authority.” It may be significant that the Oxford English Dictionary registered the first appearance of the word “opportunism” only around 1870—almost at the same time when the noun “intellectual” became current in English (pp. 316–17).

Scratch the American conservativ1e and you’ll find a radical of sorts. . . . Most of the principal figures of the American conservative movement, which from 1955 to 1980 had grown to the extent that it helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House, have not only shared but espoused the originally Jeffersonian and Painean ideas of progress and modernism and American exceptionalism—at the expense of the kind of historical understanding that had been enunciated by Burke (p. 327 & p. 329).

The civil rights movement, its legislation, the extension of welfare, the reaction to the Vietnam War did show that the generous impulse of the American character was not yet spent. What was bankrupt were the institutionalized ideas of liberalism, very much including the modern liberal view of human nature. The realization that the liberals had contributed to—indeed, that they had vested interests in the maintenance of—bureaucracies and the institutionalized legalism that were choking free choice, obstructing freedom, and creating disorder in many American places was swimming up to the surface of consciousness in many minds (p. 336).

Jonathan Swift said, certain people “have just enough religion to hate but not enough to love.” Many American conservatives, alas, gave ample evidence that they were just conservative enough to hate liberals but not enough to love liberty. As a matter of fact, they were not really conservatives. . . . For at least two hundred years, beginning with Burke and Dr. Johnson, the commonsense argument against abstract reasoning has been the strongest and the best intellectual weapon of conservative thinkers against the celebration of modernism. Yet the admiration of the mechanical and the abstract, in the age of computerization and of nuclear international relations, seems to have had a strange and particular appeal to many American conservatives (p. 338–39).

Fifty years ago [1930] the greatest conservative thinker of the twentieth century, the Spanish José Ortega y Gasset, wrote in The Revolt of the Masses, “Liberalism—it is well to recall this today—is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest. . . . It anounces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more than that, with an enemy that is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so antinatural. Hence, it is not to be wondered at that this same humanity should soon appear anxious to get rid of it. It is a discipline too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth.” (p. 340).

[Unless the American mind matures, there may be] the floundering of the majority of the American people between two hard (and, on occasion, increasingly vicious) minorities: the so-called conservatives, enthusiastic advocates of technological “progress,” indifferent to the poisoning of the land, propagating the American (and nuclear) domination of the world; and the so-called liberals, opposed to nuclear technology while tolerant of the poisons of pornography, propagating the public and legalized abolition of personal moral restraints in every possible form, indifferent to the killing of millions unborn by abortions. This was the danger: that without a more mature conservatism the American political alternatives would be dominated by the thoughtless proponents of atomic war or by those of the suicide of the race (p. 341).

In science it is the rule that counts; in history—and surely in religious history—it is the exception. . . . The widespread antiabortion movement after 1973 showed that the convictions of some of the laity may have been stronger than that of some of the hierarchy. The appearance of the so-called Moral Majority of the late 1970s was less signficant, since its pronouncements as well as its composition were reminiscent of the fundamentalism of the twenties. What the Republic needed was moral minority, not a Moral Majority; but, then, a moral minority is always small in numbers, though it may be the leaven of greater developments in the long run. And there was such a moral minority in the country, men and women often separated by great distances, hardly aware of each other’s existences, yet more and more reminiscent of the functions of early Christians during the age of the Catacombs. The most remarkable among them were the Catholic Workers, established by Dorothy Day fifty years ago [1933], surviving the death of their founder in 1980, breathing charity into the catacombs of New York (p. 356 & p. 357).

That the decay of liberalism and materialism would eventually lead to new religious commitments and perhaps a new age of faith had become at least a plausability; of the proverbial American willingness of the heart still much could be expected. What was yet to be overcome was the mental unwillingness to recognize the contradictions between two sets of unexamined beliefs. Too often it seemed that the bitter remark of someone, uttered twenty years ago, when 96 percent of Americans polled had said that they believed in God, was true: yes, Americans believed in God except that they did not believe in His existence. Or, as the English Catholic writer Magdalen Goffin put it, “If God does not exist, the best, most unselfish, most gifted man in the world is no more than a bundle of chemicals. . . . Good works were never the justification of our Lord’s life. He believed that evil was in the first place not environmental but in men’s hearts. It is men’s hearts that have to be purified—filled with God, not self.” The roots of the American predicament may have always lain in the American unwillingness to recognize, let alone believe in, the existence of original sin—and perhaps even of free will. Contrary to the accepted idea, the Puritans themselves did not really believe in original sin. They were preoccupied with sinful behavior, obstructing those Good Works which they believed could mean the perfectability of society, in sum, with Progress. As Milton had written, “They are not skilful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin.” By Emerson’s time, as Santayana put it, “the second and native-born American mentality began to take shape. The sense of sin totally evaporated.” The Puritans’ fundamentalist successors believed (and still believe) that through conversion Man Can Be Born Again, cleansing himself of all sinfulness—but isn’t that a denial of original sin? Their progressive successors came to think, as the Reverend Shailer Matthews, the dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago said in 1930, that “the doctrine of Original Sin was a theory of human behavior adequate to the scientific knowledge of Saint Augustine’s time, but overthrown by more recent research.” The Catholic hierarchy and Catholic teaching of the United States too—all superficial and wildly inaccurate references to Irish “Jansenism” (a seventeenth-century French tendency) notwithstanding—seldom emphasized original sin in its teaching. Nor did it sufficiently emphasize the doctrine of free will, with all of its liberating sense of responsibility. But then free will, too, has been ignored or at least diluted within the American ethos, all superficial appearances to the contrary, free will being implicitly denied by scientific determinism as well as by religious fatalism, two inclinations which for a long time have suited the American mind and which—when you think of it—have much in common. Bryce thought of it, in his American Commonwealth (1888) when he mentioned “the mass fatalism of the American people.” In 1957 John F. Kennedy took Hemingway’s definition of courage, “grace under pressure,” for the motto of his book, Profiles in Courage, a phrase suggesting a compound of a bullfighter and airplane pilot, baroque-Spanish and modern-American, religious and mechanical, fatalistic and deterministic at the same time, both grace and pressure being external. He was wrong. Courage comes from inside; it is the willingness to overcome our own fear (pp. 358–59). See also Barzun: [Nonchalance] is no doubt what Hemingway had in mind when he defined courage as gace under pressure—an odd notion, since physical courage can be ungraceful, ugly, desperate. From Dawn to Decadence, 2000, p. 714.

That the world tends to recognize appearances of merit rather than merit itself is an old story, a part of human nature; but during the twentieth century it was not merely the appearance of merit but publicity given to merit that influenced the bureaucratic meritocracy. If a celebrity was someone who was famous for being well-known, not being well-known often meant being ignored by one’s peers. (Indeed, not being well-known suggests the literal meaning of the word “infamous.”) Examples of this kind of intellectual corruption are many. They involved not only the publicly current ideas but the very method and language of books. Eventually these corruptive influences obstructed not only the commerce of ideas but the spirit of artists. In 1960 Norman Rockwell, of all people, writing in The Saturday Evening Post about himself, described the governing idea of one of his most famous paintings: “In 1951, for the Thanksgiving issue of The Post, I painted a cover showing an old woman and a small boy saying grace in a shabby railroad restaurant. The people around them were staring, some surprised, some puzzled, some remembering their own childhood; but all were respectful. If you actually saw such a scene, some of the staring people would have been indifferent, some insulting and rude, and perhaps a few would have been angry. . . .” The italics are mine. How could Rockwell be sure of that? Here was another sad revelation of how the publicly expressed optimism of certain Americans was the result not of naïveté but of a corroding and perhaps even despairing cynicism (pp. 364–65).

A century ago Samuel Butler accused people who gave or left money to institutions[:] “because they did not see merit where they should have seen it, people, to express their regret, will go and give a lot of money to the very people who will be the first to throw stones at the next person who has anything to say and finds a difficulty in getting a hearing. These foundations of colleges and scholarships are just as bad as the foundations of monasteries and religious houses in the middle ages. . . . What a beast a man must be too who leaves his money in this way. I wonder he is not ashamed to tell the world that he has died without having seen one person whom he has loved well enough to let him have his money when he can no longer use it himself. . . .” (pp. 386–87).

Tocqueville saw [lawyers] as representatives of a generally conservative force, as an implicity and typically American aristocracy of a kind. But he knew too (as had Burke), that often the law may sharpen the mind only to narrow it, and that, as he would later write in the Ancien Régime, “even a mediocre usurper will easily find legal advisers to prove that Terror is Law, that Tyranny equals Order, that Servitude means Progress.” (pp. 390).

“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” If so, this would involve the United States “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars and interests and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” These were the words of John Quincy Adams, the greatest of America’s Secretaries of State, in his Fourth of July speech in 1821. In 1995 George F. Kennan, perhaps the greatest but surely one of the most principled American patriots of the twentieth century, wrote that Adams’s statement was as timely as it had been 174 years before. What we have seen since, and what stares in our faces now, is a total repudiation of Adams’s warning by an American President and his government, by the leading American political party, by the most vocal of America’s public intellectuals calling themselves “conservatives, with at least the tacit support of a majority of conservative” Americans (p. 434).