The Study of Man: Max Lerner's America
IT SEEMS clear that the amassing of new knowledge about American civilization in recent years has been accompanied by a general loss of political and scientific intelligence, a new mediocrity of taste and opinion, and a new suspicion of radical ideas and nonconformist behavior. In two and more decades of introspection we have forgotten that the radical ideas of democracy, as well as scientific and literary ideas, must be granted a measure of intellectual autonomy and respect if they are to be made effective in our lives. It has become the custom to ask, not “is this or that idea correct?” but “what will happen to me, what will it reveal about me, where will it place me, if I profess it?” We have saturated and obscured ideas with prestige and power values, or with psychiatric and sociological symbolisms. The mood of sociology has settled on the country like a blight, from Madison Avenue to the “communications media” to the universities to the Pentagon.
To be sure, we have learned a great many facts about ourselves and our culture. Yet the more facts we know about America the more bewildering and unknowable does it seem. (In reply to the social inquisitors and cultural snoops of recent times and their perpetual question, “What is America?” one is tempted to paraphrase Fats Waller, who, when asked, “What is jazz?” said, “Man, if you don’t know what it is, don’t mess with it.”) These are some of my reactions to Max Lerner’s monumental effort of the higher journalism which he calls America as a Civilization*-in which, I should add, I read Mr. Waller’s words of wisdom on the subject of jazz.
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