"Liberalism" vs. Liberalism
To the Editor:
The basic disagreement between your correspondents and myself about my review of Gentleman’s Agreement is, I think, a significant one, involving more than a difference of opinion about this particular book. Mr. Middlebrook accuses me of an animus against Mrs. Hobson’s novel, of being bored by liberalism, and in general of talking nonsense. Miss Lapides accuses me of grudging praise to a work of obviously good social and political intention. It seems to me clear, however, that what really disturbs both writers is the fact that my review submitted a “liberal” document—and, specifically, a document in defense of the Jews—to the kind of examination which they feel would be better reserved for the other, the reactionary or anti-Semitic, side. This point of view, which regards “liberalism” and all good causes as a kind of sacrosanctity, not to be criticized or questioned, is so prevalent nowadays among people of good will that I could scarcely have been unprepared for exciting it against me when I wrote about Mrs. Hobson’s book as I did.
You will note that I will be careful in this letter to distinguish between the word “liberal” in quotation marks and the word liberal without quotation marks. The precaution is a nuisance but a semantic necessity. Quotation marks are my dull device for indicating that I use the term, not in its honorific historical sense, but in a strictly contemporary sense—with the possibility of an uncomplimentary connotation. There was a time when liberalism referred quite simply to an attitude toward life which was characterized by the free play of the intellect and by the refusal to be guided in one’s social and political opinions by prejudice, preconception, or any form of special interest. This is no longer so. Quite the contrary of denoting the free spirit of inquiry, it now describes a definite set of mind, an attitude toward life which operates upon a whole series of preconceptions and imperatives. When I said in my review, “Surely no totalitarian ideal has ever projected a more complete regimentation of the psychic life of a nation than our present-day liberal ideal,” and, in the space at my disposal, listed some few of the tests of this regimentation—attitudes toward sex, marriage, child-rearing etc.—that could be applied to Mrs. Hobson’s book, I was defining and anatomizing what I consider to be a very important section of contemporary opinion. I should, however, for the sake of clarity, have put the quotation marks around the word “liberal.”
That this set of mind and these formulations of thought have been determined by highly moral considerations must naturally command our sympathy. Nevertheless, if only because objective situations are constantly changing and we need to be elastic to meet these changes, I think it is as urgently necessary to combat “liberal” dogmatism as it is to combat other, less sympathetic, substitutions for thought. In the degree that “liberalism,” whatever its good intentions, finds more virtue in conformity to its own preconceptions than it does in the free play of the mind, it must be understood as a potentially dangerous movement in the direction of authoritarianism.
I recognize that this is strong language to use of an attitude that has grown up in our society precisely to oppose the rising tide of authoritarianism. It will be objected, I know, that here we are in the midst of a life-and-death struggle between reaction and progress, between fascism and democracy, and that I, instead of turning my fire against the powers of darkness—against imperialism, against anti-labor sentiments, against anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism (how easy it is to name them!)—stop to criticize my comrades on the side of light. But need one do more than point to Russia in instance both of the way in which one’s comrades on the side of light can gradually become quite something else, and of the close connection between freedom of thought and political freedom? The right to question those who are not on our side is only a relative privilege compared to the right to question those who are on our side. It is the absence of the latter that truly determines a totalitarian regime. When “liberalism” begins to deny us this freedom or even asks us to show the passport of our good will before we cross the frontiers of its authority, surely it is asserting its own little totalitarianism. It is learning to behave as we are told long-time prisoners of the Nazis often behaved: they began to ape their jailers.
But your correspondents are specifically concerned with my questioning of a “liberal” document about the Jews. As Miss Lapides asks of Mrs. Hobson’s effort to fight anti-Semitism: “If it helps in this good cause with the tens of thousands of people it seems likely to reach doesn’t it deserve some praise, and the author some credit?” My answer is yes, it deserves some credit—and I thought I gave this credit when I spoke of the book’s “highly commendable purpose.” But beyond this I think it deserves, not credit, but the compliment of being taken with the greatest seriousness—of being analyzed for its full social, political, and cultural consequences.
Especially it must be taken with such full seriousness in a magazine like COMMENTARY, whose audience can be expected to have advanced beyond the primer stage of political education. I daresay my approach to Mrs. Hobson’s novel would have been different had I been reviewing it for, say, a small-town reactionary newspaper. I agree with Miss Lapides that there are probably many people who will derive some benefit from Gentleman’s Agreement and, indeed, I said as much in my review. These people are not, however, the large majority of readers of COMMENTARY.
Quite the contrary of believing that the readers of COMMENTARY can be benefited by Mrs. Hobson’s novel, I believe that they might well be harmed by it. For instead of encouraging them to think freshly and complexly about the complex Jewish problem, it encourages them in dangerous oversimplifications. For instance, by portraying only a single kind of Jew, the acculturated Jew, it encourages us in the snobbery (which is itself a latent form of anti-Semitism) of supposing that the cause of the Jews is the cause only of ourselves and our acculturated friends. Or again, by proposing that there are no differences between Jews and Gentiles except the differences caused by religious discrimination, it suggests that all differences between people are undesirable—which in turn suggests that differences in art-forms, in dress, in diets, in all cultural manifestations, are undesirable. Reflecting upon the cultural uniformity that Mrs. Hobson seems to ask for, one’s mind naturally turns to that specialist in the standard American product, Hollywood, and one wonders how Gentleman’s Agreement would be cast for the movies. Mrs. Hobson’s logic would obviously demand that Van Johnson play Dave Goldman and that Lionel Barry-more play Professor Lieberman. But would that represent a real social advance over Hollywood’s one exception to racial type-casting—its care not to cast Jews so that they will be recognizable as Jews?
Further, to read Gentleman’s Agreement with less than full seriousness, to give it—in a magazine like this one—less than full credence (and credence, I think, is rather more important than credit) would be to make some very false assumptions. It would be to assume that the Jewish problem is an isolated problem in our society—in other words, that general cultural criteria do not affect Jews as they do Gentiles. It would be to assume that there is really no significant connection between art and politics—in other words, that the quality of our thinking can be separated from the quality of our social actions. Finally and most important, it would be to assume that any one call to battle against anti-Semitism is just as good as any other—in other words, that the cause of the Jews is so hopeless that it doesn’t matter how it is fought.
Since I refuse to make any of these assumptions, I must refuse Mrs. Hobson’s book an easy “liberalistic” acceptance, and instead must examine it as freely as I can—not as a token of its author’s conscience, but as a whole view of life. And this view of life I find, as I said in my review, a grievously limited and sterile one. I am convinced that Mrs. Hobson’s good intentions will not take me where I want to go. And the faults of Gentleman’s Agreement as a social-political document I find identical with its faults as a work of art. It has no freshness of perception and no directness of observation; it permits no distinctions between human beings and no distinction to human being; it is tolerant of only one way of looking at Jews and it is therefore guilty of its own form of intolerance. All of this adds up to an unsatisfactory work of the imagination and, by extension, to the projection of an unsatisfactory world. Some of the faults are explicit; more of them are implicit in the book’s tone and characterizations.
I know that not only Mrs. Hobson, but also your magazine and all its readers, are profoundly opposed to the creation of a Jewish social and political ghetto. But I am afraid that admirers of Gentleman’s Agreement fail to realize that its kind of thinking, like the thinking or lack of thinking of PM to which I related it, is helping to create something just as bad—an intellectual ghetto for both Jews and Gentiles. By encouraging its readers to hug their grievances and cherish their emotions of social virtue, to close the windows of their minds against any fresh currents of idea lest they chill the hot issue, PM is becoming the perfect organ of a new ghetto of opinion. Certainly it is the organ par excellence of contemporary “liberalism.” It could never have been the organ of classic liberalism. For liberalism, as it once existed, prided itself on being more intelligent, more boldly imaginative, than its enemies. It would have scorned to use the pressure from the opposition as an excuse for not examining its own premises. It hated non-thought as it hated all other infringements of liberty.
I do not believe that the condition of American democracy or of American Jews demands, I do not believe the condition of world democracy or world Jewry is served by, this present-day retreat from thinking into “liberalistic” dogma. As a matter of fact, I think just the opposite, that the salvation of the Jews and of mankind rests in the freest possible interplay of highly distinguishable individuals, groups, and opinions, and in the free spirit of inquiry— that it rests, in short, with an older form of liberalism, the kind that required no quotation marks.
New York City