Commentary Magazine


The Fears of the Intelligentsia:
The Present Slough of Despond

There is by now overwhelming testimony to the fact that many Americans, and perhaps especially those in the academic and intellectual professions, believe themselves to be living in a “climate of fear.” Robert E. Fitch asks: How afraid are they? Are their fears justified? And—most important—how has it happened that so many Americans seemingly have come to believe that the proper response to a dangerous situation is to make a parade of one’s fear?

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“The people of X. . . . . . have assiduously been excited to declare their loyalty, and to mark every man as obnoxious who is not ready to sign the Shibboleth of the constitution. Money is raised by voluntary subscription to defray the expense of prosecuting men who shall dare to promulgate heretical opinions, and thus to oppress them at once with the authority of government, and the resentment of individuals. . . . Every man, if we may believe the voice of rumor, is to be prosecuted, who shall appeal to the people by the publication of any unconstitutional paper or pamphlet; and it is added, that men are to be punished for any unguarded words that may be dropped in the warmth of conversation and debate. . . . It is to be tried whether an attempt shall be made to suppress the activity of mind, and put an end to the disquisitions of science.”

The country is England. The time is about one hundred and fifty years ago. The writer is William Godwin, in the preface to his Political Justice. But the situation described in the paragraph just cited has a familiar ring to a citizen of the United States in the mid-20th century. Indeed, we are assured by assorted reputable authorities—Robert Hutchins, Walter Reuther, Professor John K. Norton of Teachers College at Columbia University, Professor Paul L. Lehmann of Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Carrol Newson of the New York State Commission for Education, Dr. Harold Benjamin of George Peabody College for Teachers, and others—that the free spirits today are being crushed by a “creeping miasma of intimidation.” We are told that “the intellectual tone of student and faculty life is subdued and muted” by the repressive measures now in force; that freedom of inquiry is being smothered in an “atmosphere of tiny criticism, of indecision, of uncertainty, of nagging, of caution”; that the whole life of the mind in this country is sicklied o’er by a “philosophy of fear.”

While there are interesting resemblances between Godwin’s situation and ours, there are also differences. The significant difference lies in the mood of courage or of fear. Having described the worst of it, Godwin declared that “they will not be able to shake his tranquillity”; for, said Godwin later on, “it is the property of truth to be fearless.” But today we have no such tranquillity. Not only are the intelligentsia frightened, but it seems that they are proud to proclaim their fears.

This extraordinary and unique feature of the contemporary situation invites us to ask some plain questions. Just who is it that is afraid? Are there any objective grounds for this fear? In what degree are these fears complicated by factors that are personal or professional? Why do those who are afraid wallow in their fears? And at last the fundamental question: is it seemly to be afraid or to yield to fear?

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Just who is afraid?

Let us begin by dismissing a bit of nonsense. This is the assumption that the great majority of the intelligentsia have always been bold prophets of the Lord, “sticking out their necks” (this phrase now has the highest academic sanction) in behalf of unpalatable truths. The exact opposite is the case. In the course of twenty-one years of teaching in colleges and universities, I attended meetings of the American Association of University Professors in New York, in Texas, in Oregon, in California. Whatever local differences might obtain, there was always a common factor. No chapter of the AAUP ever appeared to represent the greater part of the faculty; and at almost every meeting complaint would be made about the cowardice or irresponsibility of the many persons who failed to participate in the proceedings.

We must therefore recognize the ancient lineage of many of the sad cases that are now suddenly thrust before our attention. When, as reported by Benjamin Fine in the New York Times, President Harold Taylor cites “the case of a member of his faculty who refused to speak before a service group luncheon on the subject of China for fear of saying something that might be misinterpreted,” or President Carter Davidson points to “professors who declined to speak on radio or appear on television programs, for fear that they might unwittingly get into a controversy that would put a label on them,” let us greet these pathetic professors as old, old acquaintances. One remembers them under the Republican ancien régime. One also remembers them, hiding in an opposite corner, during the interregnum of the New Deal. There is no reason to be surprised at their presence under the Republican restoration. The timorous and the time-serving, or the selfish and the indifferent—these have always been with us, and have always made up a large portion of any vocational or professional group whatsoever. It is not these who are the fresh victims of some new climate of fear.

Nor can the company of the fearful be thought to include those who are most vocal about these fears. Those who are frightened are always a mysterious “they”—a certain professor, a particular journalist, an actor, a preacher, a research scholar, a librarian. Certainly it is not Harold Taylor who is afraid, nor Henry Steele Commager, nor Robert Hutchins, nor Professor Lehmann, nor any of the other spokesmen listed. With their valor in the fray, with their bold and slashing attacks on the foe, they do great honor to themselves, in respect to courage at least, even though they do not do honor to their colleagues whom they assign to the cohorts of cowardice.

Indeed, one begins to suspect that the true picture may be the very reverse of what it is alleged to be. I should like to register my own agreement with Sidney Hook’s judgment “that teachers today are more aroused and more active in behalf of academic freedom than they have ever been,” and with his more specific analysis—“the facts are that no professor who was in the habit of speaking up five years ago has been silenced, many who were silent five years ago are speaking up, while those who were silent five, ten, fifteen years ago and are still silent cannot be regarded as victims of a reign of terror.”

If Sidney Hook’s picture is the correct one, then the intelligentsia are entitled to more self-respect and to more respect from others than they themselves claim for themselves. But the unique and shameful feature of the contemporary situation remains. It is not just the being afraid; it is not just the frank acknowledgment of fear; it is the actual wallowing in fear. Why is it that we are invited to this sudden compassion for cowardice? What is this new martyrology we have—not of the brave who fought for an ideal, but of the frightened who ran away at the first sign of the foe?

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Are there any objective grounds for fear?

Certainly there is plenty, both in the present temper and in the present practice of the American people, to provide grounds for fear—if one is resolved to be afraid.

There is no use denying that there has been a mood of hysteria in this nation since the end of World War II. Whatever may have been the origins of the national neurosis, its intensity has grown in recent years. The tensions of the cold war, the fear of inflation or depression, the dread of the hydrogen bomb, the menace of Communism, the resurgence of a native American fascism, the threat of a holocaust in a third world war: all these have been contributing factors. Even as I write there comes to me in the mail a reprint from the Congressional Record of a speech by the Hon. Usher L, Burdick of North Dakota. Its title is “The Great Conspiracy to Destroy the United States.” It seems that the focal point of the conspiracy is the United Nations, the charter of which was written by “the Russian Communists and Alger Hiss.” The “most dangerous, the most dastardly undertaking” of the UN is UNESCO, which has its “malicious and cowardly element” in that it is directed to the school children of the nation. I cite this document, not as proof, but as token of a temper existing in many sections of the populace which such men as Burdick are able to exploit for their purposes. Certainly there are many citizens who are convinced that there is a “Great Conspiracy to Destroy the United States”—more than this, a great conspiracy to destroy their lives, their liberties, their very souls, which they are able to react to only by increasing fear. To some extent the intelligentsia, articulating their own fears, are simply reacting to the fears of the nation.

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The principal evidences of this hysteria are two. One is our inordinate passion for panaceas, both spiritual and temporal. The peddling of peace of mind is currently one of the most lucrative rackets in the country, both for the religious and for the secular. The Reader’s Digest, which has always known the taste of the public, reflects this situation in its issue for August 1954. By its own editorial report we find here articles which tell “how rainmakers are working wonders with the weather,” give us “little tricks of breathing” that can aid us in surprising ways, provide “new hope for high blood pressure,” point out the “one road to lasting peace” in the world of the H-bomb, enable you by increasing your word power to “increase your self-confidence, your prestige, even your earning power,” advise us how to make old folks happier, report the “mother’s advice” that gave strength to Estes Kefauver, explain how Red China can be hamstrung “without American ground forces,” and also provide a condensed discourse on “Man’s Unconquerable Mind.” Reinhold Niebuhr used to speak of the “easy conscience of modern man”—his complacency in himself and his confidence in having all the answers. But I wonder if the easy conscience has not already changed to an uneasy conscience, which reaches desperately after panaceas precisely because it has lost faith in itself and in its own devices.

The other evidence of hysteria lies in the repressive and punitive measures that are directed against freedom of speech, press, and conscience in our society. This is not to deny that there have been subversion and conspiracy in our midst. There have been, in sad plenty, and there are today. But it is to assert that many of the measures taken against conspiracy have exceeded the bounds of efficiency, of common sense, of due process of law, and of moral decency. The rise and spread of loyalty oaths (now imposed even on churches in California), the legislative adoption of fantastic devices of censorship, the use by investigating committees of inquisitorial devices that come close to pronouncing sentence before the trial is fairly held, the easy accrediting of suspicions that are not supported by evidence, these all help to feed the terror they would subdue. It is certain that in this orgy of recrimination innocent persons have been smeared, weak persons have been crushed, and men and women of integrity and ability have been shut out from public service.

The smirking symbol of this spiritual malaise of the American people is the junior Senator from Wisconsin. Alan F. Westin, writing in the July 1954 issue of COMMENTARY, has aptly characterized Senator McCarthy as “a cunning and brutal politician fighting gutter-style to preserve the shadow empire of terror and power which he has carved out of the insecurity of a nation. . . .” Gathered into this one focus, for a part of the nation, is the fear of Communism; gathered into the same focus, for another part of the nation, is the fear of fascism.

If then one has a will to be afraid, the seasons are auspicious. One might wonder, though, why the class which claims to be the special guardian of the wisdom and virtue of the nation—the intelligentsia—might not rise above these fears. Is this not a time for their trumpet to speak with a voice more clear and more compelling?

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What personal factors complicate the fears of the intelligentsia?

A bad conscience is one factor. This arises naturally from the character of the Communist enticement of the intellectual. Unlike the Nietzschean and Nazi revolution, with its frank reversal of all values, Communism has always appealed to the moral idealism of man. In Karl Marx the cry for social justice is an authentic part of the impulse. In Soviet Communism, which follows Machiavelli more than Marx, the moral idealism becomes part of a deliberate device of hypocrisy. All the fine phrases—peace, liberation, democracy, justice—are retained, although their meanings in application are the exact opposite of the historic meanings. Naturally some members of the intelligentsia were deceived by this program for a while, as were many excellent folk in all walks of life.

The best way to purge a bad conscience is through repentance and confession. No doubt there have been many undramatized cases of honest men and women who, having cleansed themselves of the impurity, have become whole again through a realistic but critical faith in democracy. Unfortunately there have been others, of a romantic temper, who had to wash away their sins in public, heightening the iniquity of their former ways that the glory of their redemption might be the greater, and smearing with suspicion a multitude of others so that their own victory over the hosts of evil might be the more spectacular. There have also been those, of a more rational disposition, who, having rejected the fundamentalism of the left, have merely succumbed to the orthodoxy of the right, meanwhile retaining intact their fondness for a narrow creedalism and their passion for persecuting all those who differ with them in one iota. So to repent and to confess, however, has served not only to put such converts from Communism beyond the pale as members of the intelligentsia, but to put repentance and confession into disrepute among the respectable.

A more respectable device for coping with a bad conscience is an intensified self-righteousness. One may acknowledge in secret that one has been in error, and one may have actually moved on to new ways that are clear and clean. But it is impossible publicly to confess to error, then or now, so the intelligentsia believe, rightly or wrongly. So they take another course: any criticism of one’s conduct, any allegation of grave mistakes of judgment, is to be met with outraged cries about the violation of civil liberties and the attack on integrity of conscience. This shabby kind of performance we have surely witnessed more than once. It springs from a deep instinct of self-preservation within the breasts of the intelligentsia. For there is one sin to which the professionally intelligent person may not confess without losing caste, without shearing off his own self-respect and the respect due him from others—stupidity!

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A resolute self-righteousness is also useful in accounting for the failure of one’s activities that have come to a natural end, but which can now be blamed on the evil machinations of others. Thus Professor Lehmann, in his pamphlet on Your Freedom Is in Trouble, quotes at length and with approval an editorial from the University of Minnesota Daily. The title of the editorial reads: “One by one minority voices are being silenced by fear.” There is then a listing of various organizations that have recently disappeared from the campus, or that are soon to disappear. These include the Student Action Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Student Fellowship of Reconciliation, University Village Women for Peace, Students for Democratic Action, Young Progressives of America, American Youth for Democracy. The list does not mention the Young Republicans or the Young Democrats, which, in my observation, are apt to be even more transitory in their tenure of campus favor.

Now I happen to have been a faculty adviser on an undergraduate campus to some of these groups. I remember well their passing from our campus, and from neighboring campuses. In some instances this might be due to a regrettable lapse in social idealism. In most instances it was simply due to the sudden irrelevance of the program and the ideals of the group. In at least one instance it was due to dishonesty in the motives and to treachery in the tactics of the organization. In no instance was the organization “silenced” by anything except student apathy or disgust. Certainly in no instance was it silenced “by fear.” If every time one of our pet projects—whether heroic or half-baked—lapses from public favor, we can attribute the outcome to a silencing by fear, we have lost the capacity for intelligent self-criticism.

Another sign of the bad conscience, when it will not acknowledge itself, is a tightening of the lines which define the elite, and a more rigorous exclusion, from the inner circle, of contradictory opinions. One of the curious items in Sidney Hook’s Heresy, Yes—Conspiracy, No is a footnote in which he points to a certain fact about free discussion in the American Association of University Professors: “Up to the time this is written no article critical of the position of Committee A has been accepted for publication by the editor of the Bulletin of the AAUP, although such articles have been submitted. No speaker critical of the position of the AAUP has been permitted to address the annual meetings.” This phenomenon is not confined to university professors. It is familiar to anyone who has worked extensively with liberal groups. Those who are most vocal in defending civil liberties in society at large can be either smugly or fiercely intolerant of contradiction within their own ranks.

The simple fact is that, when the intelligentsia are on the defensive due to an unacknowledged bad conscience, they tend to develop a party line. Any slightest departure from the line is deviationism, and is punished accordingly. While they denounce, quite properly, the fanatical negativism that anti-Communism can become, they develop a fanatical negativism of their own directed against those who threaten their security. While they protest against indiscriminate character assassination on the part of others, they practice a sort of reverse smear of their own, branding as McCarthyism whatever varies from their approved doctrine. While they object to guilt by association, they exercise against those who show the least disposition toward internal criticism of the group the much more effective and intolerant device of guilt by disassociation : he that is not with us 100 per cent is against us!

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What professional factors complicate the fears of the intelligentsia?

It is obvious that a bad conscience ministers to fear and to insecurity. But what if, besides having stood on bad ground in the past, one is persuaded that all ground is treacherous and unstable? What if there be no such thing as good ground? When the rains descend, and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat upon the house, must it not fall if it rests only on shifting sands?

For a little over a quarter of a century the American intelligentsia have been per suading themselves that there is nothing but sand underfoot. A study of the presidential addresses of the American Historical Association makes it possible to date almost exactly the point at which historians turned from a belief in law in history to the belief in subjectivism. Whether we speak with the historians of historical relativism, or with the anthropologists of cultural relativism, or with the moralists of ethical relativism, we are just saying the same thing in different company. The formula for this outlook on life, which denies all objective and universal standards and values, all intrinsic power toward reason or righteousness or harmony, whether rooted in God, or in nature, or in man, can be put quite briefly: for the good, relativism; for the true, skepticism; for the beautiful, impressionism.

This sweeping generalization may with justice be resented by some persons. But as a characterization of a gross trend I am prepared to defend it. My own observation would be that, at this moment, this trend is increasingly weaker on the East Coast, that it gains good momentum in the Middle West, and that it presides as a sort of imperial orthodoxy on the West Coast. The philosophic expression of it is called positivism, in which reality is rigorously limited to “observable fact.” There are two magical formulas in this cult. If any question is asked about the nature and destiny of man, it is dismissed as a “meaningless question.” If any answer is offered to the question about our nature and destiny, it is dismissed as a “meaningless proposition.” With these two formulas one can exorcise from his consciousness all the critical issues of truth and beauty and goodness that have ever profoundly disturbed the spirit of man. The positivists will not see that what they call meaningless questions are to any human concern the most deeply meaningful. They are spared from knowing that, if there is anything meaningless in our world, it is the empty precision, the inane perfection of their own trivialities. They have left off digging the good earth and are content to engage in meticulous dissections on the sterile sands of the seashore.

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The best proof of the prevalence of this temper of mind is found among those who are resolved to purge themselves of it, but obviously do not yet know what to put in its place. For instance: Harold Taylor, in his book On Education and Freedom, comes out in favor of a long list of admirable values, but then vitiates this with a doctrine of “private truths” which makes impossible any objective basis for his faith. Henry Steele Commager, in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, asks what is loyalty, but is much more eloquent on what loyalty is not; and, even when he offers some rather specific answers to his question, makes all his values turn fuzzy at the edges through his inordinate contempt for absolutes and his passion for nonconformity. Ralph Linton, in his chapter in Goals of Economic Life, explicitly repudiates the cultural relativism held by many anthropologists. He speaks in behalf of what he calls “thematic” or universal values. But these soon lose their character through entanglement with “instrumental” values, and, in any case, turn out to be little more than a statement of the lowest common denominator of human behavior in all societies.

Here we must resist the temptation to discuss relativism on its own merits, or to ask if there may be a third constructive position between dogmatism and skepticism. Our problem here is solely to inquire into what must be the role of an intelligentsia within a frame of reference which exalts relativism, skepticism, and impressionism concerning all the great values of life. I can see only two possible roles.

One role is that of court chaplain. It does not matter whether the chaplain be a clergyman, or whether, as in Hellenistic society or in the Age of Reason, he should have the ostensible character of a philosopher. His function is always the same. That function is to articulate the ideology of the society in which he moves, and to provide the spiritual gloss upon its activities. Since there is no higher law than the law of the society or of the court, it is actually supererogatory to invoke any laws of God or of Nature. It may nevertheless be appropriate to invoke such higher laws provided they are clearly in conformity with the local laws of the court. The philosopher or the chaplain of this court may have all the culture and the wisdom available in such a society; but, since he utters no independent and eternal truth, he remains at best an elegant and pampered parasite in the society which tolerates him.

The other role is that of court jester. The jester differs from the chaplain principally in having less dignity and in being more of a buffoon. His duty is to enact a perpetual comédie-larmoyante for the catharsis of his patrons. He peddles laughter and pathos. No small achievement is it to play such a fool. To fill the role adequately might require much learning and many academic degrees. Of course there have been odd fools in history and in literature—like the Fool in Lear, or like a Swift, or a Voltaire—whose laughter sprang from some transcendent source, and so at times became too serious for seemly entertainment. Should our court jester so far forget himself as to assume, even for a moment, this more serious character, there can be nothing for it but to give him a good whipping, and make him go without his dinner, until he has improved his manners.

And what are the rights and dignities of the court chaplain or the court jester? There are no inherent rights. Certainly there can be no natural rights, no divine rights. Any so-called right is simply the gift-on-loan of the society which chooses to tolerate and to exploit him. And what could be more silly than for the hired philosopher and the hired fool, all at once seized with a sense of their own importance, to begin to declaim about their truth, their liberty, their conscience? They are the very ones who have told us that there are no such values. At this point their wisdom and their folly are one.

Could it be that, if the intelligentsia today have lost that “property of truth” which is “to be fearless,” the reason is that they are no longer acquainted with truth? Could it be that, if they lack the courage of their convictions, it is because they no longer have any great convictions? Is this why the intellectual tone of student and faculty life is “subdued and muted”?

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Why do they wallow in their fears?

Existentialism is the disease in the soul of modern man, as positivism and relativism are the disease in his mind. It is a disease the symptoms of which both religious and secular valetudinarians are happy to celebrate together. It is the romantic analogue of a rational skepticism. What it does is to bring the nerves and the emotions into play with our insecurities. Actually what it talks about in the formal sense is little different from what John Dewey, in a more restrained mood, used to call the life-situation, or the problematic-situation.

But existentialism has no desire to transform the situation, or to solve the problem. Such a desire would be both wicked and impossible of fulfillment. Existentialism therefore invites us to wallow in our “predicament,” with its “tensions” and its “anxieties.”

The hothouse quality of this mood is incarnate in the person and in the writings of a Kierkegaard. He could rebel against smugness, but he could never win through to a true serenity. So he delighted in the problem for its own sake—rejoicing in the writhing, the squirming, the grappling, and the striving which it entailed. Living on a private income, without social obligations or commitments, he was free to cultivate his Angst with the best of the spiritual voluptuaries. His concern for “existence,” for “life,” for “love,” was the romantic yearning of one who is still distant from all of these things, and has obviously never known any of them. He paid court to his god the way he paid court to his girl, in the certainty that he would never come into creative relationships with the one or with the other. Nothing, indeed, would have terrified him more than actually to have possessed, or been possessed by, his god or his girl. That would have led to a “predicament” which neither his flesh nor his spirit could support.

There has, of course, been a healthy existentialism throughout the history of the human race. It has been a sort of instinctive empiricism, a distrust of formal categories and rational abstractions, a resolve to stay close to the realities of experience. In this sense the great Hebrew prophets, a Saint Paul, a Martin Luther, a Nietzsche were robust existentialists. A Reinhold Niebuhr with his insistence on the “contradictions” of life, a Winston Churchill with his “blood, sweat, and tears” also belong to the great tradition. But a Niebuhr, or a Nietzsche, or a Churchill, or a Jeremiah, knows better than to wallow in his “predicament.” Each of these, according to his several capacities, has the talent for faith and for heroic action.

The modern existentialist, however, finds it his glory forever to be bathed in blood, forever to reek with sweat, forever to be drenched in tears, without these things at last being turned to a significant consummation. He is Christian, in Bunyan’s great fable, who has made a stop at the Slough of Despond, and will go no farther, being persuaded that his chief duty now is to thrash about in every direction, to flail his arms violently, to cry out in despair, and to spatter mud on all others—so to celebrate, for all men to see, his own importance and humility in maiorem Dei gloriam!

If then life offers nothing more than a “predicament,” what more have we to do than to wallow in our “predicament”? It was an error which taught that the mark of the man is faith and courage. Now we know that the mark of the man is “fear and trembling.” And it is a sufficient sign of the times that, when John Foster Dulles called for a review of our foreign policy, it must of course be an “agonizing reappraisal.” If even an austere Calvinist like our Secretary of State can succumb to the prevailing Angst, what hope is there for others?

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When a soldier prepares himself to go into battle, he is afraid. So are his comrades afraid. But they do not celebrate their fears. They do not pause in pathetic compassion for those who dare not fight. When the moment comes, they go forward. They gather strength at least from a confidence in their friends who are with them. They gather a greater strength from a belief in the justice of their cause. Though at first in fear and trembling, finally they confront the enemy in faith and courage.

It is not of the essence whether the triumph must be soon and certain, or consummated only in a promised land which we can see from afar but which we may not ourselves enter. William Godwin could believe that, besides fearlessness, it is also a “property of truth . . . to prove victorious over every adversary,” and he could look forward with confidence to the “calm period of reason” which would succeed the false frenzies of the moment. Henry George, writing his Progress and Poverty almost a hundred years later, could not share this facile optimism. Said he: “The truth that I have tried to make clear will not find easy acceptance. . . . But it will find friends—those who will toil for it; suffer for it; if need be, die for it. This is the power of Truth.” So a Henry George was no more afraid than a William Godwin. In spite of errors in doctrine and follies in practice, each drew a deep content from his loyalty to excellence and to truth.

There is nothing new in the ordeal that we face now. Indeed, I think it is demonstrable that the trial through which we pass is a lighter one than others before us have known. The very fact that we can take time to celebrate our fears and anxieties and tensions is proof in itself that not all our energies have been turned to the grim business of survival. Few of us now confront anything like the lions’ den, or the fiery furnace, the Bastille, or the Inquisition, the hemlock, or the Cross. In years past in this land of ours humble men and women, in simple faith and courage, have dared hurl defiance at any monstrous and infamous thing, whether they thought to overwhelm it or be overwhelmed by it. Whether we are confronting the forces of international Communism, Russian or Chinese, or those of a native fascism, we should show the same courage and determination.

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