To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s major thesis [“The Idea of Crisis” November 1970] is that the “crisis-mongering” that characterizes much social criticism of late, although often masquerading as something else, is actually a means (whether conscious or unconscious) of manipulating us emotionally toward some form of police-state. In other words, those who might describe apocalyptically our movement toward totalitarianism, our loss of certain freedoms, and the rapid erosion of other freedoms, are in fact themselves bringing about the nightmare that they prophesy. Now this is an arguable although somewhat strange position, but Mr. Podhoretz’s presentation nullifies any genuine intellectual consideration of the issues at hand. . . .
Some questions come to mind, and Mr. Podhoretz deals with none of them adequately: 1) Is there a real crisis in our society? 2) If it is partly or wholly in our minds, does that make it unreal (e.g., the relationship between a loss of confidence in the economy and the deterioration of the economy)? 3) When there is a crisis in society, is it always registered in the mind (e.g., Mr. Podhoretz’s own lack of awareness)? 4) Most important, how is it known that those who “harp” on crisis cause demands for extraordinary action? Nowhere does Mr. Podhoretz explain this. He claims only that somehow by calling the system into question we open, perhaps unwittingly, the door to a closed society. Questioning our democracy, to Mr. Podhoretz, is akin to opening Pandora’s box. To call a system antiquated (not that the authors of this letter do) is not necessarily to suggest a closed society as an alternative; it is rather, as in Robert Paul Wolff’s case, to suggest that ours is not as open as it pretends. Would Mr. Podhoretz place a moratorium on all such political and social discussions? . . .
If there were a crisis in American democracy, he would never know because he is up to his neck (perhaps over his head) in his own ideology.
C. D. Epstein
Steven R. Cusulos
Norman Podhoretz writes:
As I tried to make clear in answer to several letters about “The Idea of Crisis” which appeared in these columns in January, my concern was, and is, to expose the political nature of the idea of crisis in itself and apart from whatever substantive content might be found at any particular moment to give it plausibility. I have also been trying in various ways to suggest that the political purpose of this political idea is to persuade us that extraordinary measures must be taken if our problems are to be dealt with effectively. Such extraordinary actions are not necessarily those tending toward a police-state or a totalitarian government; they may merely involve the transformation of our pluralistic democratic polity into a Gaullist-type regime or a species of modified oligarchy. Gaullism is not fascism and oligarchy is not totalitarianism, but neither are they democratic pluralism. And democratic pluralism, imperfect but nevertheless real and functioning, is what I believe we enjoy in this country and what I believe many criers of crisis hate and wish to undo. Many, not all, for some also cry crisis as a means of furthering the cause of one out-of-power faction or another within the Democratic or Republican parties.
Now to the specific questions posed by Messrs. Epstein and Cusulos: 1-2) I think our society has problems, some of them very serious, but I do not believe we are suffering, at least not yet, from a political crisis. If the word crisis applies at all, it applies in my view to our spiritual or cultural condition. Such a crisis by definition exists primarily in our minds (or souls) but that does not make it any the less real than any of the external conditions for which vulgar materialists exclusively reserve the designation “real.” 3) Yes, I suppose it is possible for a crisis in society to go unnoticed, but in our society, it is far more likely that crises will register in the mind where only problems or troubles exist. 4) Surely the answer is obvious: If there is a crisis, then (again by definition) ordinary action has proved itself inadequate and extraordinary action is either explicitly or implicitly called for.
I have no wish to place a moratorium on any discussion of any kind, wearisome though I admittedly think some discussions have recently grown. I do wish to criticize reasoning that seems to me false and to call attention to ideas that seem to me dangerous in their political implications. The idea (echoed by Messrs. Epstein and Cusulos) that our freedoms have been eroded in recent years is an example of the former; the idea of crisis is an example of the latter.