Matthew Arnold's "Culture and Anarchy" was published one hundred years ago. In an inaugural lecture, Roy Fuller, the Professor of…
The present article is adapted from an Adelphi University Theology Lecture
Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy was published one hundred years ago In an inaugural lecture, Roy Fuller, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, reminds us that “Sweetness and Light,” the first chapter, was Arnold's final lecture when he was Professor of Poetry “Hebraism and Hellenism” is another chapter
There is a difficulty in assessing great men, an irony that will out, but the irony may tell us more about ourselves than about its objects Who has not written that Philosophy I term paper demolishing Hegel? The temptation is old, and the description of it is old Not completely, but yet in some stubborn part of ourselves we would rather forget that if we are taller than our predecessors, maybe it is because we stand on their shoulders And when a man's name is linked to “sweetness and light”—never mind what it actually meant for him, and for Swift before him—the temptation to patronize him becomes all the stronger. Arnold respected Goethe, and Goethe may have something to tell us No man is a hero to his valet; true, but perhaps more because the valet is a valet than because no man is a hero
Is Arnold relevant to us? He refused to be relevant even to his contemporaries, in the terms in which they understood relevance Relevant or not, he can be useful
- We are solemnly approving of the individualist mob Arnold says “Thinking by batches of fifties is . . . as fatal as thinking by batches of thousands”
- For us “nonconformity” is good and “establishment” bad Arnold on nonconformity and establishment does not give us a final, full truth, but how many truths are final and full? He says
- Another good word for us is “dissent.” If I am not mistaken, the founders of Dissent had in mind, favorably, a phrase of Arnold's, “the Dissidence of Dissent” He did not coin that phrase “The Dissidence of Dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion” was the slogan of a journal of the English Nonconformists a hundred years ago For Arnold the Nonconformists' “Dissidence of Dissent” expressed all that was cranky, Philistine, “hole-in-corner ”
- And last, for archeological interest.
The great works by which, not only in literature, art, and science generally, but in religion itself, the human spirit has manifested its approaches to totality, and to a full, harmonious perfection, and by which it stimulates and helps forward the world's general perfection, come, not from Nonconformists, but from men who either belong to Establishments or have been trained in them. . . Milton, Baxter, Wesley
I remember my father [Thomas, of Rugby], in one of his unpublished letters written more than forty years ago, when the political and social state of the country was gloomy and troubled, and there were riots in many places, goes on, after strongly insisting on the badness and foolishness of the government, and on the harm and dangerousness of our feudal and aristocratical constitution of society, and ends thus “As for noting, the old Roman way of dealing with that is always the right one, flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders from the Tarpeian Rock!”
(Arnold withdrew this crusty remembrance from later editions)
for the sake of the present, but far more for the sake of the future, the lovers of culture are the opposers of anarchy
Thus can Arnold be relevant by his very irrelevance, by the shock of his strangeness, by—a word he would not have welcomed—his nonconformity And he did believe that “the men of culture are the true apostles of equality.”
Arnold defines culture, or rather enumerates its elements, astutely Making culture pretty nearly the sum of all good things, he takes care that it will be if not impossible, then difficult to show that his idea of culture is defective, lacking in some essential He is as clever as we, knowing we will look for exposed salients to attack, he strengthens them He defines culture, or inventories it, positively Yet his “culture” affects us not altogether differently from the Polish Marxist philosopher Kolakowski's “socialism” Kolakowski's “What is Socialism?” tells us what socialism is not For instance, it is not a system
in which a person who has committed no crime sits at home waiting for the police. In which there are more spies than nurses and more people in prisons than in hospitals In which one is forced to resort to lies and compelled to be a thief In which the philosophers and writers always say the same thing as the generals and ministers, but always after them
And so on There are seventy-two things that socialism is not “But now listen attentively, we will tell you what socialism is—well, then, socialism is a good thing ” Kolakowski enumerates negatively and Arnold positively, but like Kolakowski's socialism, Arnold's culture is a Good Thing
What G K Chesterton says of Christianity, many socialists say of their religion it has not failed, it has never been tried Matthew Arnold redivivus would say culture has not failed, it has never been tried For culture is Arnold's real religion To him it is more or less what before his revolutionary times, the 19th century, religion proper had been to the great mass of mankind He sees the human spirit, and more particularly the Western spirit, as having not one but two parts, Hebraism as well as Hellenism—“the governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness, that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience”—but he gives the lion's share to Hellenism
Hellenism is the specifically Greek tradition Arnold was not one who mocked “culture ! a smattering of the two dead languages of Greek and Latin ”How could you be a Hellenist, Hellenic, if you could not read the Greek authors in their own words? But more generally, Hellenism is mind, intellect—a free mind and a free intellect, resistant to cant and prejudice, connected with imagination and emotion, open to all excellence, past, present, and future It is mind and intellect flexible and self-correcting, the enemy of fanaticism, rigidity, and one-sidedness Therefore culture is largely Hellenic Culture is the best that has been known and thought, the best that has been thought and said in the world, a stream of thought upon everything, the study of perfection, that power which enables us to see things as they really are Or rather, Hellenism is that power Those predicates can be assigned almost indifferently to either Hellenism or culture as their subject
On the other hand, “to Hebraise. is, to sacrifice all other sides of our being to the religious side it leads to a narrow and twisted growth of our religious side itself, and to a failure in perfection”
What has struck many Jews in such definitions or descriptions of Hebraism is that Arnold was not talking about, was in fact not concerned to talk about, the Jews and the Jews' religion, character, ways of being Since the Maccabees, the Jewish tradition itself has insisted on the distinctness of Hebraism from Hellenism, but Arnold was defining the spirit, as he understood it, of sectarian Protestantism in 19th-century England His Hebraism keeps pointing to sectarian Protestant bibliolatry—the doctrine of the open Bible carried to a kind of democratic extreme In that doctrine anyone can read his Bible as well as anyone else, and can understand it as well.
Bibliolatry is not Jewish Classically, how a Jew read and understood the Bible was regulated by the learned, rabbinical tradition No ignorant Jew, in Spain or Germany or Poland, could pretend, even to himself, that he understood the very Hebrew or Aramaic of the Bible or Talmud as well as a learned Jew Why then did Jews never demand an open—i e, vernacular—Bible with nearly the same vehemence as Christians? I think the answer is to be found in this that many Christians were persuaded that the priests kept the Bible in Latin to keep it from the people, a priestly monopoly, while Jews knew that at least in principle, it was the ideal and the effort of Jewish society that every (male) Jew should be taught all the sacred literature he could master—and, along the way, the Hebrew and Aramaic in which it was written When modern Jews began to rebel against Hebrew in favor of the vernacular, that was not because they resented a rabbinical monopoly What modern Jews resented, in fact, was that the rabbis wanted Hebrew not to be a monopoly The rebels thought that their time, and their children's time, was being wasted by rabbis who wanted everyone to be rabbinically learned, or almost (Actually, the scholars tell us that the first full-length translation of any kind was Jewish the Hebrew Bible into Greek In traditional Jewish Bible editions, the Aramaic version has pride of place next to the Hebrew text It alone shares with the text the distinction of being vocalized, and in square characters)
Some years ago Isaiah Berlin revived Archilochus's saying. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows One Big Thing Hellenism is fox, Hebraism is hedgehog Among the many things that the fox knows—that Arnold, ondoyant et divers, the foxy Hellenist, knows—is the necessity of hedgehog Hebraism Looking about him, Arnold sees an excess of Hebraism and an insufficiency of Hellenism heavy mid-Victorian England is too Hebraic and insufficiently Hellenic. He tries to right the imbalance. At other times in history, he says, there was too little Hebraism and too much Hellenism If he had lived then, he would have tried to right that imbalance But in England, with its Barbarian aristocracy, Philistine middle class, and unknown, half-frightening, half-appealing Populace, his duty is to recall his countrymen to more Hellenism and less Hebraism
He is telling the truth That is how he sees his England But beneath his estimate of what his England needs, there is something more general Arnold believes that while it is possible to have too much Hellenism, it is easy to have too much Hebraism
Only three years after Culture and Anarchy the work of a young man, of a genius greater though darker than Arnold's, was published—the Birth of Tragedy. Arnold's Hellenism stands under the sign of Apollo, Nietzsche's under the sign of Dionysus For Arnold the great figure of Hellenism, actual as well as symbolic, is Socrates he invokes Socrates in what we may call the peroration of Culture and Anarchy For Nietzsche, Socrates is a fake
Arnold's Hellenism is like Freudian ego, his Hebraism like superego. He wants to lighten the burden of Hebraic superego, letting in Hellenic ego The ego is the guardian of the reality principle, and one definition that Arnold gives of Hellenism is that it helps us to see things as they really are. Nietzsche agrees that Hebraism is superego Much more than Arnold, he wants us liberated from Hebraic superego But for Nietzsche the liberation is not in the name of ego It is in the name of id—passion, instinct, primal force
The god of ego is Apollo, the god of id Dionysus. Apollo is “ordre et beauté,/Luxe, calme, et volupte” (especially if we are not vulgar about luxe and volupte) Dionysus is orgy, ecstasy—etymologically “ecstasy” is standing outside one's self—derangement of the senses, blood, lawlessness Dionysus is the horse, Apollo the bit and bridle It is quite clear which is primary and which secondary. Roy Campbell says:
You praise the firm restraint with
which they write—
I'm with you there, of course
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where's the bloody horse?
That is, id-Dionysus first and ego-Apollo a long way second.
Is it to be guilty of an it-is-no-accident, Leninist kind of argument to recall that Campbell was a fascist—called himself a fascist—and fought in Spain for Franco? A spokesman for Dionysian theater (the producer, in fact, of Dionysus in 69), a man of the Left rather than the Right, has said: “Ecstasy doesn't come cheap. You pay for it in blood” He has written. “The hidden fear I have about the new expression is that its forms come perilously close to ecstatic fascism”
Who are, or should be, the chief custodians of Hellenism? Professors of Greek When Arnold thought of professors of Greek, he was likely to think of his friend Jowett, priest of the Church of England, translator of Plato, Master of Balliol, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford But so was Nietzsche a professor of Greek, and so is or was Norman O Brown From Jowett to Brown—that is the history of Hellenism since Arnold If Arnold were our contemporary, he might say that the balance had tipped again and had to be redressed again, particularly since the preponderant Hellenism of our time is not at all what he had in mind
As a cozy, even endearing specimen of our Hellenism, consider the Beatles' Yellow Submarine The Blue Meanies are the enemy, cruel, destructive For them, “yes” is a dirty word When an inferior clicks his heels and salutes his superior, he does not say, ”Yes, sir “A Blue Meanie says, “No, sir”
The submarine, as a phallic symbol, is a symbol of life The submarine's element is the ocean: the ocean is the womb, it is the mother of all living things, the origin of life Yellow is life the sun is yellow, it nurtures life
Blue is coldness, gloom, death, laws that forbid pleasure are blue laws, blue Monday is suicide Monday In the middle of the film a throwaway line, apparently unmotivated, is spoken: “That's funny, you don't look blueish ”It makes no difference how this was intended trust the tale, not the teller Blueish, Jewish; blue is Hebraism.
Yellow is Hellenism The end of the film is an insistent yellow flashing Yes, love, yes, love, yes, love It celebrates the victory of yellow and yes and love over their enemies, blue and no and—what is the enemy of love? Hate? Death?
Celebrating yes is rather more highbrow than this may suggest Nietzsche praises the yea-sayers and dispraises the nay-sayers Joyce's Ulysses ends much as Yellow Submarine does In that famous soliloquy of Molly Bloom's, she says yes, yes, yes—to life, to love; to adultery
And indeed, Hebraism has a way of saying no and not The preeminent sequence of Hebraic noes and nots is in the twentieth chapter of Exodus (with a variant m the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy):
I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage Thou shalt have no other gods before Me Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them nor serve them, for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. Thou shalt not murder Thou shalt not commit adultery Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife nor anything that is thy neighbor's
Is Yellow Submarine exoteric, public propaganda for Dionysian Hellenism? How could it be? It is pleasant not ecstatic, calm not violent, tranquil not lawless On the surface it is even sexless. At most, Dionysianism is hinted at—in its “yes,” with its recollection of Molly Bloom, and its “love,” which is ambiguous The Hellenism that Yellow Submarine exemplifies for us and commends to us may well be Apollonian Which leads to a supposition There is a play about an extraordinary physician, Dr Knock, who has discovered that un homme bten portant est un malade qui s'ignore—a well man is a sick man unaware. In like manner, and from one point of view, perhaps, Apollonian Hellenism is sometimes Dionysian Hellenism unaware, or without the courage to be aware.
We come now to a difficult question, the question of woman, the womanly Routinely, the neo-femimsts of our time condemn the Jewish tradition for subordinating women. Less is said about the Greek tradition—Sparta, even Periclean Athens; or Plato.
Matthew Arnold considers himself to be a disciple of Spinoza, but it is with Nietzsche that Spinoza joins hands, in hostility to woman and the womanly. We know what Nietzsche says about woman, and about Hebraism. For Nietzsche, Hebraism—Judaism and Christianity—is the resentment and revenge of the weak: women and slaves. Spinoza, contemptuous of the moral and psychological state of the Jews, says that the foundations of their religion have effeminated their character. That is, Judaism has made the Jews womanish For Spinoza, pity is muliebris misericordta, womanish pity—not in praise of woman but in dispraise of pity.
Though etymologies prove nothing, they can suggest something Greek hystera means “womb,” as in surgical words like “hysterectomy”; but its best-known derivative is “hysteria”: Hellenically, the womb generates hysteria. From Hebrew rehem, “womb,” derives rahamim, “pity”. Hebraically, the womb generates pity. Hellenism has something anti-woman, anti-womanly, misogynist; and so has our culture, high or low, under Apollo's sign or Dionysus'. The eponymous Marquis de Sade, a hero for our time, was homosexual. One picks up a newspaper and sees a review of an edition of Oscar Wilde's criticism. The review quotes the editor as recalling for us that André Gide, having read Wilde first, says he has found Nietzsche less exciting than he would have been otherwise; and that for Thomas Mann many of Nietzsche's aphorisms might have been expressed by Wilde, and vice versa. It was because Wilde was what he was, the reviewer goes on to say, that he linked art with lawlessness and criminality, and independently of Nietzsche was moved to transvalue all values.
Surely Arnold never heard of his older, Italian Jewish contemporary Samuel David Luzzatto, but Luzzatto also thought a great deal about Hellenism and Hebraism—which he called Atticism and Judaism/Abrahamism Like Arnold, Luzzatto recognizes the necessity of both; but unlike Arnold, he gives priority to Hebraism. Luzzatto cannot forgive Spinoza that muliebris misericordta. Luzzatto prefers the Rabbis' “He who feels no pity is not of the seed of Abraham”; and quotes the 19th-century German classicist Bockh, “Mercy is no Hellenic virtue.” (What I know about Luzzatto I owe to Shalom Spiegel's Hebrew Reborn.)
Not long ago the rabbi of my congregation preached on the unpromising lesson in Leviticus (Shemini) about clean and unclean foods Conceding the force of the jokes about stomach religion and of the arguments for a concern with higher things than hooves and cuds, fins and scales, he said only that Judaism—the Jewish tradition—is a unitary, a whole regimen. The Rabbis, serious about what is kosher and what is not, legislated, in what he insisted was the same spirit, about other things as well. He cited Tosefta Avodah Zarah:
Whoever sits in the stadium [where gladiators fight] is a murderer [sharing the guilt, with the others there, for encouraging gladiatorial combat] But R. Nathan says it is permitted, for two reasons because he [sc, a Jew in the stadium] can shout [for mercy, when the victorious gladiators ask whether to spare or to kill the defeated] and thereby save lives; and by testimony can help a woman to be remarried.
The last parts needs explanation: A Jew who has been in the stadium can testify that he has seen the woman's husband die—a Jewish captive of the Romans sent as a gladiator to the arenas. Then, known to be a widow, she is allowed to remarry.
So for those most Hebraic of Hebrews, the Rabbis, helping a woman to remarry was a motive not unworthy of mention with saving lives. Womanish. As Edmund Wilson has just reminded us, Tacitus called the Jews enemies of the human race because, among other reasons, they were uncivilized—un-Hellenic—in that they refused to practice infanticide. (Infanticide means killing babies, usually girls—in the ancient world the popular means of keeping children few enough to prevent the parceling of estates.) The blues have been saying no for a long time, even to such sensible, pleasurable, useful, or civilized things as gladiatorial shows and infanticide.
Maybe Yellow Submarine, in indicting blueness and meanness, lacks the courage, the honesty, to admit to itself what the worship of Dionysus requires. Nietzsche did not lack courage or honesty. He was explicit about what follows once we say—as he says—that the God of Hebraism is dead. What follows is that we recognize Jewish (or Jewish and Christian) mercy, and kindred notions, to be nothing more than the restraints that the envious weak, women and slaves, try to impose on the strong; and the duty of the strong—aristocratic, heroically hard—to throw off those restraints. Nietzsche said he would believe only in a god who could dance. Like its original, the Bacchae of Euripides, Dionysus in 69 is about dancing, and the producer (a Jew), who knows about ecstatic fascism and about blood as the price of ecstasy, is described as rejecting Judeo-Christian culture. At least he is candid: “If you dance with Dionysus you kill Pentheus—that is the action of the play.”
For her “Temptations of Cultural Fascism” (Wiener Library Bulletin, Winter 1968-69), Renee Winegarten takes the title from Saul Bellow: Herzog's “cultural fascism.” She is interested in writers who are liberals, or radicals, or Jews, yet are culturally Dionysian:
The fact that a man really belongs with those who would be the first victims of the Dionysian urge does nothing to lessen the fascination, just as the fact that he is neither aristocratic nor heroic does little to prevent the exaltation of the reader's imagination at the idea of an elite of noble and remarkable souls to which he can fancy he belongs. . . .
Until very recently, for the majority of students and lovers of literature (as Lionel Trilling pointed out), there was no accord between what stirred them in books and practical political life: aristocrats in fancy, they remained democrats or radicals in fact. Yet that disruptive and subversive element in literature which served many readers merely as a stimulant for the imagination has now descended into the streets, in the United States, in France and Germany, even in England. The aristocratic outlook of the exceptional individual or the rare elite has been adopted by those for whom it was never intended: the dissatisfied, half-educated mass of the young. . . . [There] are tokens of a new kind of cultural fascism (emanating from the Left instead of the Right).
An English poet and painter has described the “ambience of tenderness, intelligence, total licence and crackling undercurrents of a kind of sad cruelty” in the Dionysian milieu he used to frequent. From the visitors' graffiti at a Happening he staged, he learned that “what was hell to puritans was heaven to sadistic fetishists.”
For Yellow Submarine, it is the puritan Blue Meanies who are sadistic; and in a Catholic and ecumenical journal of religious thought, a Presbyterian theologian publishes a “Manifesto for a Dionysian Theology,” introduces it by citing Nietzsche's dancing god, and then is silent about killing Pentheus, and ecstatic fascism, and mercy as womanish, slave morality. Wholesome anti-uptightness—that seems to be what he wants to suppose Dionysianism is, and wants us to suppose.
Why should we keep paying the homage of embarrassment or hypocrisy to traditional religion's virtue? For moderns the dominant religion, the religion that has superseded religion, is a cross between Arnold's culture and Nietzsche's art. Obedient to Nietzsche, we faithfully assert the primacy of the aesthetic: let me, as the lawyers say, incorporate by reference Trilling's Beyond Culture. I would only mention a further resemblance between traditional and modern religion. When the God of religion was pronounced dead, the god of art was proclaimed. That god—or one of his persons—was beauty, but in no time at all “beauty” became just as quaint as “God,” just as otiose and shy-making. Where the central principle of the new religion was, a void now is.
In the old religion, God created. In the new, man—especially the artist—creates. The characteristically modern, Nietzschean insistence is on art as the creative act and element above all others. May this not be in part, as some have suggested, masculine protest, womb-envy? (If so, it is probably truer of the appreciators, the Berensons, than of the artists themselves, who tend to be earthy, not given to mooning about Creativity.) Is “creative” to be taken seriously, has it to do with “create,” is it more than just another OK word, interchangeable with our “relevant” and “meaningful” and with yesterday's “dynamic”? Then, since life is what it is, willy-nilly we have to recognize the womanly—the maternal—as most nearly creative, simply. When Judah Ha-levi said of Greek culture that it bore flowers but no fruit, he knew Greek culture (in Arabic). He meant that it was intellectual and aesthetic rather than moral; but he also knew about traditional Mediterranean forms of masculine protest.
Before we leave the theme of woman and the womanly, a final irony at Arnold's expense is unavoidable. A man so severe about bathos—he thought it characteristically Philistine—should himself stay clear of bathos. In the matter of marriage with a deceased wife's sister, he did not stay clear. That was not, as we may think, only comic stuff for W. S. Gilbert and Bernard Shaw. By Church of England law, marriage with a deceased wife's sister was forbidden. Non-Anglican reformers adduced the licitness of such marriage in Leviticus, among other arguments. Knowing what Arnold knew about Sparta and Athens (“the race which invented the Muses”) and Rome, scourge that he was of the bathetic, he yet allowed himself this:
. . . who, that is not manacled and hoodwinked by his Hebraism, can believe that, as to love and marriage, our reason and the necessities of our humanity have their true, sufficient, and divine law expressed for them by the voice of any Oriental and polygamous nation like the Hebrews? Who, I say, will believe, when he really considers the matter, that where the feminine nature, the feminine ideal, and our relations to them, are brought into question, the delicate and apprehensive genius of the Indo-European race, the race which invented the Muses, and chivalry, and the Madonna, is to find its last word on this question in the institutions of a Semitic people, whose wisest king had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines?
(“Indo-European race” was the science of his day.) Naturally, Arnold's Hebraic-Hellenic dualism is not original with him. In the early Christian centuries Tertullian asked, Quid Athenis cum Hierosolymis, what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? In Arnold's time Ernest Renan, whom he thought well of, addressed a “Prayer at the Acropolis” to Apollo, god of clarity, reason, and harmony, begging forgiveness for having bothered so much with unclear, unreasonable, and discordant Semitic things But, as Trilling suggests, it is Jews who are most conscious of the dualism Not only Trilling's Heine and Borne, and not only Talmud, Judah Ha-levi, and Luzzatto, but also, in this century, Hermann Cohen and (in COMMENTARY) Leo Strauss1
Arnold cites Heine as a Jew who, because he is modern, prefers Hellenism to Hebraism (In Heine's later years he was to say that being Greek is a young man's game, immature, one ages into being a Jew) There have also been the Jewish Nietzscheans Chernikhovsky's “Before the Statue [= idol, pesel] of Apollo” is even more anti-Hebraic than the title suggests, because that Apollo looks remarkably Dionysian Like the philosophical since antiquity, the poet takes for granted that man creates gods in his image The passionate, warrior Israelites had the passionate, warrior god YHWH, Chernikhovsky says, but then alas! they became Jews, “and bound him in phylactery thongs” And so Babel, with his Cossacks For a Jewish Nietzschean, the Jews were not so virtuously chaste (peace-loving, etc) as they liked to believe They were only eunuchs, self-made womanish
Arnold speaks of the miracles of the rise and spread of Christianity, but if only as an admirer of Spinoza he does not really believe in miracles Neither do we, of course It is less that we have disproved miracles than that we have defined them away By definition, for us, there can be no such thing, especially since our very science is statistical and probabilistic If a miracle is not fraud or delusion, or suggested by superstition and ignorance, it is merely statistically unusual. as, if this table were to fly upward at my command; or a voice were to speak to Moses out of a bush that burned but was not consumed For Arnold as for us, “miracle” is what it was at the beginning—“marvel” is from the same root One gapes, one stares at miracle and marvel.
A rereading of Arnold must make a Jew realize how the old Jewish sentiment of being (or of ancestors having been) caught up in miracle has come to life again In spite of miracle's low standing, in spite of its nonexistence by definition, our renewed consciousness of miracle—of miraculous things done to and through Jews—has brought about a curious reversal Arnold, who knows of the “cultivated and philosophical Jews,” commends their Socinian-like estimate of Jesus to Christians Jews of that sort have also been cultivated and philosophical about God, and miracle. Today they may find it less difficult than Christians, similarly cultivated and philosophical, to imagine the God of history (and of tradition) present and active
Not that Arnold paid much attention to the Jews and Judaism of his time Why should a Victorian Englishman in his position have noticed the Jews and their Judaism otherwise than incidentally? That is almost the best Jews can expect. Even incidentally, it would have been easy for him, natural, to say harsh things Both in what he says and in what he does not say, Arnold is kind to us By the standards of the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th centuries, he is a friend.
Certainly he was more a friend than his father. Liking plural establishments rather than disestablishment, Matthew Arnold approved the establishment of the synagogue, as in France Thomas Arnold, who insisted on the harm and dangerousness of a feudal and aristocratical constitution, clearly was not illiberal, but Trilling's Matthew Arnold has this to say of him.
. . . with Jews he was intransigent, believing that they should be barred from the universities and from citizenship He held that citizenship required an almost mystic homogeneity, which was supplied in the modern world by religion He denounced “that low Jacobinical notion of citizenship, that a man acquires a right to it by the accident of his being littered [human beings are born, animals are littered—MH] inter quattuor maria [on the nation's soil], or because he pays taxes” England, he said, was the land of Englishmen, not of Jews, and “lodgers” had no claims to more than an honorary citizenship
he dreaded the possibility of examining a Jew in history at the University of London . . . and of having to avoid calling Jesus the Christ
From Cecil Roth we learn that, though Jews fared much better in England than almost anywhere else, well into the 19th century
it was possible to maintain in the courts Lord Coke's doctrine that the Jews were in law perpetual enemies, “for between them, as with the devils, whose subjects they are, and the Christian there can be no peace”
What is the lexicographical evidence, in the Oxford English Dictionary? (We will no doubt find worse if we consult OED's German or even French counterpart) OED's first definition of “Jew” is. “A person of Hebrew race, an Israelite “So much for adherence to a faith, identification with a history, practice of a ritual, study of a culture, or Jonah. “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” OED's second definition is more interesting still: “transf. As a name of opprobrium or reprobation, spec applied to a grasping or extortionate moneylender or usurer, or a trader who drives hard bargains or deals craftily” Thus Coleridge “Jacob is a regular Jew, and practices all sorts of tricks and wiles.” Coleridge! “Jew-bail” is insuffificient bail, and Captain Marryat's “Jew carts” carry stolen goods As a verb (“colloq”) it means “To cheat or overreach, in the way attributed to Jewish traders or usurers,” teste Dante Gabriel Rossetti “But as to his doing and jawings and jewings, William brought me the news”
This sort of thing could have only one effect on Jews who wanted European culture to be theirs and took its standards as theirs Rahel Varnhagen writes of “what was so long the greatest shame, the bitterest sorrow and suffering to me, my Jewish birth” In one of his moods Heine says that Judaism is not a religion, it is a misfortune; being a Jew is like being a hunchback
In good Franz Josef's time, two Jews in a Viennese cafe are arguing about Dr Herzl's idea Neither can convince the other A third Jew has been listening attentively, and they ask him to judge He says he is not a proper, impartial judge. he regards himself as a follower of Dr Herzl's—a Zionist, if you will—though, to be sure, with three reservations. Will he be kind enough to explain? Gladly
First, why Hebrew? Everybody who is anybody speaks German Besides, reviving Hebrew is a mad, utopian scheme Patiently the great Semitist Renan has reminded the half-baked enthusiasts that Hebrew has long been dead, and that in all of human history not one dead language has ever been brought to life again, to be spoken by children and shopgirls as well as the learned
Second, why Palestine? You would have to look hard to find another place so infertile, rocky, and eroded, with such desert and insalubrious marsh, such a lack of natural resources, harbors, and navigable waterways Besides, people are already living there, the Arabs Israel Zangwill is right. we should accept the British government's offer of Uganda It is fertile, and the natives will give no trouble for hundreds and hundreds of years
Third, Dr Herzl's idea is a great idea It needs a great people And whom do you waste it on? Jews!
As an example of usage for a new edition of OED—the present one stops at the 20th century—I submit an order of the day by Lieut General Sir Evelyn Barker, G O C Palestine, after the explosion in the King David Hotel.
you will put out of bounds to all ranks all Jewish establishments, cafes, restaurants, shops, and private dwellings. No British soldier is to have any social intercourse with any Jew. the troops will be punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt for them
That was in 1946, and by one British military authority In 1967 the Institute for Strategic Studies, in London, had other things to say of “the race” Predicting that the 1967 war would be “studied in staff colleges for many years to come,” the Institute for Strategic Studies said that “the performance of the Israeli Defense Force” was “like the campaigns of the younger Napoleon.” (For Napoleon it was the English who were a nation of shopkeepers)
When the Saturday Review asked Harold Macmillan whether Great Britain should try to be like Athens or like Sweden, he ruled out Athens—living on slavery, imperialist, warlike, and overtaken by decay and death He continued
It may well be that Britain will someday follow in the footsteps of Sweden, but if so I'm glad I won't be here to see it
No, the future I hope for Britain is more like that of Israel In the time of Elizabeth we were only two million people, in the time of Marlborough only five or six million, in the time of Napoleon only ten million. The other day, while the world debated, Israel's three millions imposed their will on their enemies They had what any great people need—resolution, courage, determination, pride. These are what really count in men and nations
The new OED may have to enter a new definition
For a modern Jew this is miraculous A modern Jew is a man whose outlook has been apt to be the one we find in OED—and Heine's equation, and the Viennese joke Some of the most significant modern Jews, native neither to England nor to English culture, have looked upon England and English ways as models Freud, Chaim Weizmann, even Ahad Ha'am. Now comes Macmillan—of the line of Churchill, Gladstone, Wellington—and says what he says With our eyes we see and with our ears we hear the fulfillment of the promise thrice made to Abraham, that the nations of the earth would bless themselves by him and his descendants How long we have been accustomed to the fulfillment of other prophecies, that the nations would curse themselves by us!
Here is unexpectedness, improbability, uniqueness That so many are unimpressed does not mean it is unimpressive Aesthetically almost, as a spectacle if as nothing else, it should impress When Toynbee, who is supposed to have a historical imagination, applies to Israel a canting, shabby substitute for thought—“neo-colonialism”—he only shows us that Goethe's valets are numerous and diverse
On the Sabbath of Passover the Torah lesson is read in which the Lord, complementing His redemption of the children of Israel, vouchsafes a revelation of Himself to Moses—or, rabbinically, reveals His “thirteen attributes” “. . . compassionate and gracious, slow to anger,” etc The Prophetical lesson, from Ezekiel, is also about redemption, but future rather than past—redemption that is at the same time revelation
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He set me down in the midst of a valley, and it was full of bones . . . very many . . . and . . . very dry And He said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered O Lord God, Thou knowest Again He said to me Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord Thus says the Lord God to these bones Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and ye shall live and ye shall know that I am the Lord So I prophesied as I was commanded and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet Then He said to me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel Behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are clean cut off Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people, and I will bring you home into the land of Israel And I will put my Spirit within you, and ye shall live then ye shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord
Jewish triumphalism, some will say, chauvinism, or actually militarism (of megalomaniacal would-be Napoleons)—even some Jews will say that Not so Over all lies the shadow of 1939-1945 Unable to bear thinking of 1939-1945, I appeal to Wittgenstein “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should not speak.” Dissatisfaction with God's justice is as old with the Jews as Abraham, but after the crematoria, theodicy—arguing for God's justice—is more difficult than arguing for His existence, difficult as that is
If there is any answer at all, if there is any answer for Jews, its elements must be in that chapter from Ezekiel that is read in the synagogue on the Sabbath of Passover The dry bones are the bones of the dead It is only figuratively that the dead live again, nothing can cancel out their deaths Yet there has also been redemption (Hatikvah—not a good poem but, as an anthem, informative—echoes Ezekiel The despair Ezekiel quotes, “Our hope is lost,” is ave-dah tiqwatenu The refrain of Hatikvah is ‘od lo’ avedah tiqwatenu, “our hope is not yet lost”) In Isaiah the Savior God of Israel, a God who conceals Himself, shapes light and creates darkness, makes weal and creates woe It should be possible to mourn darkness and woe, and to rejoice over light and weal
For the religion of culture and art, theodicy is an even more nearly impossible enterprise than for the older religion The religion of culture and art is a religion of salvation If salvation has any meaning not twisted by perverseness and heartlessness, then it is the god of that religion who has failed most completely and who is, or should be, dead Among an infinity of possible citations, this, mild, is from Ralf Dahrendorf's Society and Democracy in Germany
thousands of alumni of German Gymnasia did not let the cultivated humanism of their intellectual formation prevent them from stamping out people like ants whom one may not notice because one is so busy looking up to the stars that one does not watch the streets.
“Cultivated humanism” is Apollonian Hellenism What might a Dahrendorf not have had cause to say if those Gymnasia had been largely Dionysian? (Let this be said for Apollo, that of all the—it goes without saying, non-Hebraic—gods, he is the least given to drinking blood)
For modern Jews now, the status of Hellenism may be lower than at any time since we became modern, and if only for that reason—though I think not only—the status of Hebraism may be correspondingly higher Ezekiel was Hebraic simply He called Renan's and Chernikhovsky's statue-idols wood and stone, reproved our lust to worship wood and stone, as the nations do; and swore in the Lord's name that with mighty arm and outstretched hand (with which He had redeemed and led Israel forth from the Egyptian house of bondage) He would be King over us For us, now, that Hebraism is still insufficient Even Luzzatto would agree, and so testify even the miracles we have seen But if by itself Hebraism is insufficient, and too simple, yet now, more than in many years, we truly hold it to be essential, and its necessary proportion to be high.
Hebraism and Hellenism
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Can it be reversed?
Writing in these pages last year (“Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” July/August 2016), I described this surge of intemperate politics as a global phenomenon, a crisis of illiberalism stretching from France to the Philippines and from South Africa to Greece. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I argued, were articulating American versions of this growing challenge to liberalism. By “liberalism,” I was referring not to the left or center-left but to the philosophy of individual rights, free enterprise, checks and balances, and cultural pluralism that forms the common ground of politics across the West.
Less a systematic ideology than a posture or sensibility, the new illiberalism nevertheless has certain core planks. Chief among these are a conspiratorial account of world events; hostility to free trade and finance capital; opposition to immigration that goes beyond reasonable restrictions and bleeds into virulent nativism; impatience with norms and procedural niceties; a tendency toward populist leader-worship; and skepticism toward international treaties and institutions, such as NATO, that provide the scaffolding for the U.S.-led postwar order.
The new illiberals, I pointed out, all tend to admire established authoritarians to varying degrees. Trump, along with France’s Marine Le Pen and many others, looks to Vladimir Putin. For Sanders, it was Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where, the Vermont socialist said in 2011, “the American dream is more apt to be realized.” Even so, I argued, the crisis of illiberalism traces mainly to discontents internal to liberal democracies.
Trump’s election and his first eight months in office have confirmed the thrust of my predictions, if not all of the policy details. On the policy front, the new president has proved too undisciplined, his efforts too wild and haphazard, to reorient the U.S. government away from postwar liberal order.
The courts blunted the “Muslim ban.” The Trump administration has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend treaty partners in Europe and East Asia. Trumpian grumbling about allies not paying their fair share—a fair point in Europe’s case, by the way—has amounted to just that. The president did pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but even the ultra-establishmentarian Hillary Clinton went from supporting to opposing the pact once she figured out which way the Democratic winds were blowing. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into being nearly a quarter-century ago, does look shaky at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it won’t survive in some modified form.
Yet on the cultural front, the crisis of illiberalism continues to rage. If anything, it has intensified, as attested by the events surrounding the protest over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president refused to condemn unequivocally white nationalists who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Trump even suggested there were “very fine people” among them, thus winking at the so-called alt-right as he had during the campaign. In the days that followed, much of the left rallied behind so-called antifa (“anti-fascist”) militants who make no secret of their allegiance to violent totalitarian ideologies at the other end of the political spectrum.
Disorder is the new American normal, then. Questions that appeared to have been settled—about the connection between economic and political liberty, the perils of conspiracism and romantic politics, America’s unique role on the world stage, and so on—are unsettled once more. Serious people wonder out loud whether liberal democracy is worth maintaining at all, with many of them concluding that it is not. The return of ideas that for good reason were buried in the last century threatens the decent political order that has made the U.S. an exceptionally free and prosperous civilization.F or many leftists, America’s commitment to liberty and equality before the law has always masked despotism and exploitation. This view long predated Trump’s rise, and if they didn’t subscribe to it themselves, too often mainstream Democrats and progressives treated its proponents—the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn—as beloved and respectable, if slightly eccentric, relatives.
This cynical vision of the free society (as a conspiracy against the dispossessed) was a mainstay of Cold War–era debates about the relative merits of Western democracy and Communism. Soviet apologists insisted that Communist states couldn’t be expected to uphold “merely” formal rights when they had set out to shape a whole new kind of man. That required “breaking a few eggs,” in the words of the Stalinist interrogators in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Anyway, what good were free speech and due process to the coal miner, when under capitalism the whole social structure was rigged against him?
That line worked for a time, until the scale of Soviet tyranny became impossible to justify by anyone but its most abject apologists. It became obvious that “bourgeois justice,” however imperfect, was infinitely preferable to the Marxist alternative. With the Communist experiment discredited, and Western workers uninterested in staging world revolution, the illiberal left began shifting instead to questions of identity. In race-gender-sexuality theory and the identitarian “subaltern,” it found potent substitutes for dialectical materialism and the proletariat. We are still living with the consequences of this shift.
Although there were superficial resemblances, this new politics of identity differed from earlier civil-rights movements. Those earlier movements had sought a place at the American table for hitherto entirely or somewhat excluded groups: blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and so on. In doing so, they didn’t seek to overturn or radically reorganize the table. Instead, they reaffirmed the American Founding (think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s constant references to the Declaration of Independence). And these movements succeeded, owing to America’s tremendous capacity for absorbing social change.
Yet for the new identitarians, as for the Marxists before them, liberal-democratic order was systematically rigged against the downtrodden—now redefined along lines of race, gender, and sexuality, with social class quietly swept under the rug. America’s strides toward racial progress, not least the election and re-election of an African-American president, were dismissed. The U.S. still deserved condemnation because it fell short of perfect inclusion, limitless autonomy, and complete equality—conditions that no free society can achieve given the root fact of human nature. The accidentals had changed from the Marxist days, in other words, but the essentials remained the same.
In one sense, though, the identitarians went further. The old Marxists still claimed to stand on objectively accessible truth. Not so their successors. Following intellectual lodestars such as the gender theorist Judith Butler, the identity left came to reject objective truth—and with it, biological sex differences, aesthetic standards in art, the possibility of universal moral precepts, and much else of the kind. All of these things, the left identitarians said, were products of repressive institutions, hierarchies, and power.
Today’s “social-justice warriors” are heirs to this sordid intellectual legacy. They claim to seek justice. But, unmoored from any moral foundations, SJW justice operates like mob justice and revolutionary terror, usually carried out online. SJWs claim to protect individual autonomy, but the obsession with group identity and power dynamics means that SJW autonomy claims must destroy the autonomy of others. Self-righteousness married to total relativism is a terrifying thing.
It isn’t enough to have legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. via judicial fiat; the evangelical baker must be forced to bake cakes for gay weddings. It isn’t enough to have won legal protection and social acceptance for the transgendered; the Orthodox rabbi must use preferred trans pronouns on pain of criminal prosecution. Likewise, since there is no objective truth to be gained from the open exchange of ideas, any speech that causes subjective discomfort among members of marginalized groups must be suppressed, if necessary through physical violence. Campus censorship that began with speech codes and mobs that prevented conservative and pro-Israel figures from speaking has now evolved into a general right to beat anyone designated as a “fascist,” on- or off-campus.
For the illiberal left, the election of Donald Trump was indisputable proof that behind America’s liberal pieties lurks, forever, the beast of bigotry. Trump, in this view, wasn’t just an unqualified vulgarian who nevertheless won the decisive backing of voters dissatisfied with the alternative or alienated from mainstream politics. Rather, a vote for Trump constituted a declaration of war against women, immigrants, and other victims of American “structures of oppression.” There would be no attempt to persuade Trump supporters; war would be answered by war.
This isn’t liberalism. Since it can sometimes appear as an extension of traditional civil-rights activism, however, identity leftism has glommed itself onto liberalism. It is frequently impossible to tell where traditional autonomy- and equality-seeking liberalism ends and repressive identity leftism begins. Whether based on faulty thinking or out of a sense of weakness before an angry and energetic movement, liberals have too often embraced the identity left as their own. They haven’t noticed how the identitarians seek to undermine, not rectify, liberal order.
Some on the left, notably Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, are sounding the alarm and calling on Democrats to stress the common good over tribalism. Yet these are a few voices in the wilderness. Identitarians of various stripes still lord over the broad left, where it is fashionable to believe that the U.S. project is predatory and oppressive by design. If there is a viable left alternative to identity on the horizon, it is the one offered by Sanders and his “Bernie Bros”—which is to say, a reversion to the socialism and class struggle of the previous century.
Americans, it seems, will have to wait a while for reason and responsibility to return to the left.T
hen there is the illiberal fever gripping American conservatives. Liberal democracy has always had its critics on the right, particularly in Continental Europe, where statist, authoritarian, and blood-and-soil accounts of conservatism predominate. Mainstream Anglo-American conservatism took a different course. It has championed individual rights, free enterprise, and pluralism while insisting that liberty depends on public virtue and moral order, and that sometimes the claims of liberty and autonomy must give way to those of tradition, state authority, and the common good.
The whole beauty of American order lies in keeping in tension these rival forces that are nevertheless fundamentally at peace. The Founders didn’t adopt wholesale Enlightenment liberalism; rather, they tempered its precepts about universal rights with the teachings of biblical religion as well as Roman political theory. The Constitution drew from all three wellsprings. The product was a whole, and it is a pointless and ahistorical exercise to elevate any one source above the others.
American conservatism and liberalism, then, are in fact branches of each other, the one (conservatism) invoking tradition and virtue to defend and, when necessary, discipline the regime of liberty; the other (liberalism) guaranteeing the open space in which churches, volunteer organizations, philanthropic activity, and other sources of tradition and civic virtue flourish, in freedom, rather than through state establishment or patronage.
One result has been long-term political stability, a blessing that Americans take for granted. Another has been the transformation of liberalism into the lingua franca of all politics, not just at home but across a world that, since 1945, has increasingly reflected U.S. preferences. The great French classical liberal Raymond Aron noted in 1955 that the “essentials of liberalism—the respect for individual liberty and moderate government—are no longer the property of a single party: they have become the property of all.” As Aron archly pointed out, even liberalism’s enemies tend to frame their objections using the rights-based talk associated with liberalism.
Under Trump, however, some in the party of the right have abdicated their responsibility to liberal democracy as a whole. They have reduced themselves to the lowest sophistry in defense of the New Yorker’s inanities and daily assaults on presidential norms. Beginning when Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year, a great deal of conservative “thinking” has amounted to: You did X to us, now enjoy it as we dish it back to you and then some. Entire websites and some of the biggest stars in right-wing punditry are singularly devoted to making this rather base point. If Trump is undermining this or that aspect of liberal order that was once cherished by conservatives, so be it; that 63 million Americans supported him and that the president “drives the left crazy”—these are good enough reasons to go along.
Some of this is partisan jousting that occurs with every administration. But when it comes to Trump’s most egregious statements and conduct—such as his repeated assertions that the U.S. and Putin’s thugocracy are moral equals—the apologetics are positively obscene. Enough pooh-poohing, whataboutery, and misdirection of this kind, and there will be no conservative principle left standing.
More perniciously, as once-defeated illiberal philosophies have returned with a vengeance to the left, so have their reactionary analogues to the right. The two illiberalisms enjoy a remarkable complementarity and even cross-pollinate each other. This has developed to the point where it is sometimes hard to distinguish Tucker Carlson from Chomsky, Laura Ingraham from Julian Assange, the Claremont Review from New Left Review, and so on.
Two slanders against liberalism in particular seem to be gathering strength on the thinking right. The first is the tendency to frame elements of liberal democracy, especially free trade, as a conspiracy hatched by capitalists, the managerial class, and others with soft hands against American workers. One needn’t renounce liberal democracy as a whole to believe this, though believers often go the whole hog. The second idea is that liberalism itself was another form of totalitarianism all along and, therefore, that no amount of conservative course correction can set right what is wrong with the system.
These two theses together represent a dismaying ideological turn on the right. The first—the account of global capitalism as an imposition of power over the powerless—has gained currency in the pages of American Affairs, the new journal of Trumpian thought, where class struggle is a constant theme. Other conservatives, who were always skeptical of free enterprise and U.S.-led world order, such as the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell, are also publishing similar ideas to a wider reception than perhaps greeted them in the past.
In a March 2017 essay in the Claremont Review of Books, for example, Caldwell flatly described globalization as a “con game.” The perpetrators, he argued, are “unscrupulous actors who have broken promises and seized a good deal of hard-won public property.” These included administrations of both parties that pursued trade liberalization over decades, people who live in cities and therefore benefit from the knowledge-based economy, American firms, and really anyone who has ever thought to capitalize on global supply chains to boost competitiveness—globalists, in a word.
By shipping jobs and manufacturing processes overseas, Caldwell contended, these miscreants had stolen not just material things like taxpayer-funded research but also concepts like “economies of scale” (you didn’t build that!). Thus, globalization in the West differed “in degree but not in kind from the contemporaneous Eastern Bloc looting of state assets.”
That comparison with predatory post-Communist privatization is a sure sign of ideological overheating. It is somewhat like saying that a consumer bank’s lending to home buyers differs in degree but not in kind from a loan shark’s racket in a housing project. Well, yes, in the sense that the underlying activity—moneylending, the purchase of assets—is the same in both cases. But the context makes all the difference: The globalization that began after World War II and accelerated in the ’90s took place within a rules-based system, which duly elected or appointed policymakers in Western democracies designed in good faith and for a whole host of legitimate strategic and economic reasons.
These policymakers knew that globalization was as old as civilization itself. It would take place anyway, and the only question was whether it would be rules-based and efficient or the kind of globalization that would be driven by great-power rivalry and therefore prone to protectionist trade wars. And they were right. What today’s anti-trade types won’t admit is that defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a proposed U.S.-European trade pact known as TTIP won’t end globalization as such; instead, it will cede the game to other powers that are less concerned about rules and fair play.
The postwar globalizers may have gone too far (or not far enough!). They certainly didn’t give sufficient thought to the losers in the system, or how to deal with the de-industrialization that would follow when information became supremely mobile and wages in the West remained too high relative to skills and productivity gains in the developing world. They muddled and compromised their way through these questions, as all policymakers in the real world do.
The point is that these leaders—the likes of FDR, Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and, yes, Bill Clinton—acted neither with malice aforethought nor anti-democratically. It isn’t true, contra Caldwell, that free trade necessarily requires “veto-proof and non-consultative” politics. The U.S., Britain, and other members of what used to be called the Free World have respected popular sovereignty (as understood at the time) for as long as they have been trading nations. Put another way, you were far more likely to enjoy political freedom if you were a citizen of one of these states than of countries that opposed economic liberalism in the 20th century. That remains true today. These distinctions matter.
Caldwell and like-minded writers of the right, who tend to dwell on liberal democracies’ crimes, are prepared to tolerate far worse if it is committed in the name of defeating “globalism.” Hence the speech on Putin that Caldwell delivered this spring at a Hillsdale College gathering in Phoenix. Promising not to “talk about what to think about Putin,” he proceeded to praise the Russian strongman as the “preeminent statesman of our time” (alongside Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan). Putin, Caldwell said, “has become a symbol of national self-determination.”
Then Caldwell made a remark that illuminates the link between the illiberalisms of yesterday and today. Putin is to “populist conservatives,” he declared, what Castro once was to progressives. “You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.”
Whatever his excesses, indeed.T
he other big idea is that today’s liberal crises aren’t a bug but a core feature of liberalism. This line of thinking is particularly prevalent among some Catholic traditionalists and other orthodox Christians (both small- and capital-“o”). The common denominator, it seems to me, is having grown up as a serious believer at a time when many liberals—to their shame—have declared war on faith generally and social conservatism in particular.
The argument essentially is this:
We (social conservatives, traditionalists) saw the threat from liberalism coming. With its claims about abstract rights and universal reason, classical liberalism had always posed a danger to the Church and to people of God. We remembered what those fired up by the new ideas did to our nuns and altars in France. Still we made peace with American liberal order, because we were told that the Founders had “built on low but solid ground,” to borrow Leo Strauss’s famous formulation, or that they had “built better than they knew,” as American Catholic hierarchs in the 19th century put it.
Maybe these promises held good for a couple of centuries, the argument continues, but they no longer do. Witness the second sexual revolution under way today. The revolutionaries are plainly telling us that we must either conform our beliefs to Herod’s ways or be driven from the democratic public square. Can it still be said that the Founding rested on solid ground? Did the Founders really build better than they knew? Or is what is passing now precisely what they intended, the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment universalism that they planted in the Constitution? We don’t love Trump (or Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, etc.), but perhaps he can counter the pincer movement of sexual and economic liberalism, and restore a measure of solidarity and commitment to the Western project.
The most pessimistic of these illiberal critics go so far as to argue that liberalism isn’t all that different from Communism, that both are totalitarian children of the Enlightenment. One such critic, Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, summed up this position in a January essay in First Things magazine:
The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped [under liberalism] without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.1
I share Vermeule’s despair and that of many other conservative-Christian friends, because there have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.
Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives. Are coercion and conformity targeting people of faith under liberalism? To be sure. But these don’t take the form of the gulag or the concentration camp or the soccer stadium–cum-killing field. Catholic political practice knows well how to draw such moral distinctions between regimes: Pope John Paul II befriended Reagan. If liberal democracy and Communism were indeed “twins” whose distinctions are “glib,” why did he do so?
And as Pascal Bruckner wrote in his essay “The Tyranny of Guilt,” if liberal democracy does trap or jail you (politically speaking), it also invariably slips the key under your cell door. The Swedish midwives driven out of the profession over their pro-life views can take their story to the media. The Down syndrome advocacy outfit whose anti-eugenic advertising was censored in France can sue in national and then international courts. The Little Sisters of the Poor can appeal to the Supreme Court for a conscience exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. And so on.
Conversely, once you go illiberal, you don’t just rid yourself of the NGOs and doctrinaire bureaucrats bent on forcing priests to perform gay marriages; you also lose the legal guarantees that protect the Church, however imperfectly, against capricious rulers and popular majorities. And if public opinion in the West is turning increasingly secular, indeed anti-Christian, as social conservatives complain and surveys seem to confirm, is it really a good idea to militate in favor of a more illiberal order rather than defend tooth and nail liberal principles of freedom of conscience? For tomorrow, the state might fall into Elizabeth Warren’s hands.
Nor, finally, is political liberalism alone to blame for the Church’s retreating on various fronts. There have been plenty of wounds inflicted by churchmen and laypeople, who believed that they could best serve the faith by conforming its liturgy, moral teaching, and public presence to liberal order. But political liberalism didn’t compel these changes, at least not directly. In the space opened up by liberalism, and amid the kaleidoscopic lifestyles that left millions of people feeling empty and confused, it was perfectly possible to propose tradition as an alternative. It is still possible to do so.N one of this is to excuse the failures of liberals. Liberals and mainstream conservatives must go back to the drawing board, to figure out why it is that thoughtful people have come to conclude that their system is incompatible with democracy, nationalism, and religious faith. Traditionalists and others who see Russia’s mafia state as a defender of Christian civilization and national sovereignty have been duped, but liberals bear some blame for driving large numbers of people in the West to that conclusion.
This is a generational challenge for the liberal project. So be it. Liberal societies like America’s by nature invite such questioning. But before we abandon the 200-and-some-year-old liberal adventure, it is worth examining the ways in which today’s left-wing and right-wing critiques of it mirror bad ideas that were overcome in the previous century. The ideological ferment of the moment, after all, doesn’t relieve the illiberals of the responsibility to reckon with the lessons of the past.
1 Vermeule was reviewing The Demon in Democracy, a 2015 book by the Polish political theorist and parliamentarian Ryszard Legutko that makes the same case. Fred Siegel’s review of the English edition appeared in our June 2016 issue.
How the courts are intervening to block some of the most unjust punishments of our time
Barrett’s decision marked the 59th judicial setback for a college or university since 2013 in a due-process lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault. (In four additional cases, the school settled a lawsuit before any judicial decision occurred.) This body of law serves as a towering rebuke to the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
Beginning in 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a series of “guidance” documents pressuring colleges and universities to change how they adjudicated sexual-assault cases in ways that increased the likelihood of guilty findings. Amid pressure from student and faculty activists, virtually all elite colleges and universities have gone far beyond federal mandates and have even further weakened the rights of students accused of sexual assault.
Like all extreme victims’-rights approaches, the new policies had the greatest impact on the wrongly accused. A 2016 study from UCLA public-policy professor John Villasenor used just one of the changes—schools employing the lowest standard of proof, a preponderance of the evidence—to predict that as often as 33 percent of the time, campus Title IX tribunals would return guilty findings in cases involving innocent students. Villasenor’s study could not measure the impact of other Obama-era policy demands—such as allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, discouraging cross-examination of accusers, and urging schools to adjudicate claims even when a criminal inquiry found no wrongdoing.
In a September 7 address at George Mason University, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated that “no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.” But once enmeshed in the campus Title IX process, a wrongfully accused student’s best chance for justice may well be a lawsuit filed after his college incorrectly has found him guilty. (According to data from United Educators, a higher-education insurance firm, 99 percent of students accused of campus sexual assault are male.) The Foundation for Individual Rights has identified more than 180 such lawsuits filed since the 2011 policy changes. That figure, obviously, excludes students with equally strong claims whose families cannot afford to go to court. These students face life-altering consequences. As Judge T.S. Ellis III noted in a 2016 decision, it is “so clear as to be almost a truism” that a student will lose future educational and employment opportunities if his college wrongly brands him a rapist.
“It is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking in wisdom or compassion.” So wrote the Supreme Court in a 1975 case, Wood v. Strickland. While the Supreme Court has made clear that colleges must provide accused students with some rights, especially when dealing with nonacademic disciplinary questions, courts generally have not been eager to intervene in such matters.
This is what makes the developments of the last four years all the more remarkable. The process began in May 2013, in a ruling against St. Joseph’s University, and has lately accelerated (15 rulings in 2016 and 21 thus far in 2017). Of the 40 setbacks for colleges in federal court, 14 came from judges nominated by Barack Obama, 11 from Clinton nominees, and nine from selections of George W. Bush. Brown University has been on the losing side of three decisions; Duke, Cornell, and Penn State, two each.
Court decisions since the expansion of Title IX activism have not all gone in one direction. In 36 of the due-process lawsuits, courts have permitted the university to maintain its guilty finding. (In four other cases, the university settled despite prevailing at a preliminary stage.) But even in these cases, some courts have expressed discomfort with campus procedures. One federal judge was “greatly troubled” that Georgia Tech veered “very far from an ideal representation of due process” when its investigator “did not pursue any line of investigation that may have cast doubt on [the accuser’s] account of the incident.” Another went out of his way to say that he considered it plausible that a former Case Western Reserve University student was actually “innocent of the charges levied against him.” And one state appellate judge opened oral argument by bluntly informing the University of California’s lawyer, “When I . . . finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was, ‘Where’s the kangaroo?’”
Judges have, obviously, raised more questions in cases where the college has found itself on the losing side. Those lawsuits have featured three common areas of concern: bias in the investigation, resulting in a college decision based on incomplete evidence; procedures that prevented the accused student from challenging his accuser’s credibility, chiefly through cross-examination; and schools utilizing a process that seemed designed to produce a predetermined result, in response to real or perceived pressure from the federal government.C olleges and universities have proven remarkably willing to act on incomplete information when adjudicating sexual-assault cases. In December 2013, for example, Amherst College expelled a student for sexual assault despite text messages (which the college investigator failed to discover) indicating that the accuser had consented to sexual contact. The accuser’s own testimony also indicated that she might have committed sexual assault, by initiating sexual contact with a student who Amherst conceded was experiencing an alcoholic blackout. When the accused student sued Amherst, the college said its failure to uncover the text messages had been irrelevant because its investigator had only sought texts that portrayed the incident as nonconsensual. In February, Judge Mark Mastroianni allowed the accused student’s lawsuit to proceed, commenting that the texts could raise “additional questions about the credibility of the version of events [the accuser] gave during the disciplinary proceeding.” The two sides settled in late July.
Amherst was hardly alone in its eagerness to avoid evidence that might undermine the accuser’s version of events; the same happened at Penn State, St. Joseph’s, Duke, Ohio State, Occidental, Lynn, Marlboro, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
Even in cases with a more complete evidentiary base, accused students have often been blocked from presenting a full-fledged defense. As part of its reinterpretation of Title IX, the Obama administration sought to shield campus accusers from cross-examination. OCR’s 2011 guidance “strongly” discouraged direct cross-examination of accusers by the accused student—a critical restriction, since most university procedures require the accused student, rather than his lawyer, to defend himself in the hearing. OCR’s 2014 guidance suggested that this type of cross-examination in and of itself could create a hostile environment. The Obama administration even spoke favorably about the growing trend among schools to abolish hearings altogether and allow a single official to serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in sexual-assault cases.
The Supreme Court has never held that campus disciplinary hearings must permit cross-examination. Nonetheless, the recent attack on the practice has left schools struggling to explain why they would not want to utilize what the Court has described as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” In June 2016, the University of Cincinnati found a student guilty of sexual assault after a hearing at which neither his accuser nor the university’s Title IX investigator appeared. In an unintentionally comical line, the hearing chair noted the absent witnesses before asking the accused student if he had “any questions of the Title IX report.” The student, befuddled, replied, “Well, since she’s not here, I can’t really ask anything of the report.” (The panel chair did not indicate how the “report” could have answered any questions.) Cincinnati found the student guilty anyway.1
Limitations on full cross-examination also played a role in judicial setbacks for Middlebury, George Mason, James Madison, Ohio State, Occidental, Penn State, Brandeis, Amherst, Notre Dame, and Skidmore.
Finally, since 2011, more than 300 students have filed Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging mishandling of their sexual-assault allegation by their college. OCR’s leadership seemed to welcome the complaints, which allowed Obama officials not only to inspect the individual case but all sexual-assault claims at the school in question over a three-year period. Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has estimated that during the Obama years, colleges spent between $60 million and $100 million on these investigations. If OCR finds a Title IX violation, that might lead to a loss of federal funding. This has led Harvard Law professors Jeannie Suk Gersen, Janet Halley, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Nancy Gertner to observe in a white paper submitted to OCR that universities have “strong incentives to ensure the school stays in OCR’s good graces.”
One of the earliest lawsuits after the Obama administration’s policy shift, involving former Xavier University basketball player Dez Wells, demonstrated how an OCR investigation can affect the fairness of a university inquiry. The accuser’s complaint had been referred both to Xavier’s Title IX office and the Cincinnati police. The police concluded that the allegation was meritless; Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters later said he considered charging the accuser with filing a false police report.
Deters asked Xavier to delay its proceedings until his office completed its investigation. School officials refused. Instead, three weeks after the initial allegation, the university expelled Wells. He sued and speculated that Xavier’s haste came not from a quest for justice but instead from a desire to avoid difficulties in finalizing an agreement with OCR to resolve an unrelated complaint filed by two female Xavier students. (In recent years, OCR has entered into dozens of similar resolution agreements, which bind universities to policy changes in exchange for removing the threat of losing federal funds.) In a July 2014 ruling, Judge Arthur Spiegel observed that Xavier’s disciplinary tribunal, however “well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault.” Soon thereafter, the two sides settled; Wells transferred to the University of Maryland.
Ohio State, Occidental, Cornell, Middlebury, Appalachian State, USC, and Columbia have all found themselves on the losing side of court decisions arising from cases that originated during a time in which OCR was investigating or threatening to investigate the school. (In the Ohio State case, one university staffer testified that she didn’t know whether she had an obligation to correct a false statement by an accuser to a disciplinary panel.) Pressure from OCR can be indirect, as well. The Obama administration interpreted federal law as requiring all universities to have at least one Title IX coordinator; larger universities now employ dozens of Title IX personnel who, as the Harvard Law professors explained, “have reason to fear for their jobs if they hold a student not responsible or if they assign a rehabilitative or restorative rather than a harshly punitive sanction.”A mid the wave of judicial setbacks for universities, two decisions in particular stand out. Easily the most powerful opinion in a campus due-process case came in March 2016 from Judge F. Dennis Saylor. While the stereotypical campus sexual-assault allegation results from an alcohol-filled, one-night encounter between a male and a female student, a case at Brandeis University involved a long-term monogamous relationship between two male students. A bad breakup led to the accusing student’s filing the following complaint, against which his former boyfriend was expected to provide a defense: “Starting in the month of September, 2011, the Alleged violator of Policy had numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual interactions with me. These interactions continued to occur until around May 2013.”
To adjudicate, Brandeis hired a former OCR staffer, who interviewed the two students and a few of their friends. Since the university did not hold a hearing, the investigator decided guilt or innocence on her own. She treated each incident as if the two men were strangers to each other, which allowed her to determine that sexual “violence” had occurred in the relationship. The accused student, she found, sometimes looked at his boyfriend in the nude without permission and sometimes awakened his boyfriend with kisses when the boyfriend wanted to stay asleep. The university’s procedures prevented the student from seeing the investigator’s report, with its absurdly broad definition of sexual misconduct, in preparing his appeal. “In the context of American legal culture,” Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos later argued, denying this type of information “is crazy.” “Standard rules of evidence and other protections for the accused keep things like false accusations or mistakes by authorities from hurting innocent people.” When the university appeal was denied, the student sued.
At an October 2015 hearing to consider the university’s motion to dismiss, Saylor seemed flabbergasted at the unfairness of the school’s approach. “I don’t understand,” he observed, “how a university, much less one named after Louis Brandeis, could possibly think that that was a fair procedure to not allow the accused to see the accusation.” Brandeis’s lawyer cited pressure to conform to OCR guidance, but the judge deemed the university’s procedures “closer to Salem 1692 than Boston, 2015.”
The following March, Saylor issued an 89-page opinion that has been cited in virtually every lawsuit subsequently filed by an accused student. “Whether someone is a ‘victim’ is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning,” Saylor wrote. “If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.” Saylor concluded that Brandeis forced the accused student “to defend himself in what was essentially an inquisitorial proceeding that plausibly failed to provide him with a fair and reasonable opportunity to be informed of the charges and to present an adequate defense.”
The student, vindicated by the ruling’s sweeping nature, then withdrew his lawsuit. He currently is pursuing a Title IX complaint against Brandeis with OCR.
Four months later, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals produced an opinion that lacked Saylor’s rhetorical flourish or his understanding of the basic unfairness of the campus Title IX process. But by creating a more relaxed standard for accused students to make federal Title IX claims, the Second Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Columbia carried considerable weight.
Two Columbia students who had been drinking had a brief sexual encounter at a party. More than four months later, the accuser claimed she was too intoxicated to have consented. Her allegation came in an atmosphere of campus outrage about the university’s allegedly insufficient toughness on sexual assault. In this setting, the accused student found Columbia’s Title IX investigator uninterested in hearing his side of the story. He cited witnesses who would corroborate his belief that the accuser wasn’t intoxicated; the investigator declined to speak with them. The student was found guilty, although for reasons differing from the initial claim; the Columbia panel ruled that he had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward the [accuser] over a period of weeks,” leaving her unable to consent on the night in question. He received a three-semester suspension for this nebulous offense—which even his accuser deemed too harsh. He sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Jesse Furman.
Furman’s opinion provided a ringing victory for Columbia and the Obama-backed policies it used. As Title IX litigator Patricia Hamill later observed, Furman’s “almost impossible standard” required accused students to have inside information about the institution’s handling of other sexual-assault claims—information they could plausibly obtain only through the legal process known as discovery, which happens at a later stage of litigation—in order to survive a university’s initial motion to dismiss. Furman suggested that, to prevail, an accused student would need to show that his school treated a female student accused of sexual assault more favorably, or at least provide details about how cases against other accused students showed a pattern of bias. But federal privacy law keeps campus disciplinary hearings private, leaving most accused students with little opportunity to uncover the information before their case is dismissed.
At the same time, the opinion excused virtually any degree of unfairness by the institution. Furman reasoned that taking “allegations of rape on campus seriously and . . . treat[ing] complainants with a high degree of sensitivity” could constitute “lawful” reasons for university unfairness toward accused students. Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education detected the decision’s “immediate and nationwide impact” in several rulings against accused students. It also played the same role in university briefs that Saylor’s Brandeis opinion did in filings by accused students.
The Columbia student’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, appealed Furman’s ruling to the Second Circuit. The stakes were high, since a ruling affirming the lower court’s reasoning would have all but foreclosed Title IX lawsuits by accused students in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. But a panel of three judges, all nominated by Democratic presidents, overturned Furman’s decision. In the opinion’s crucial passage, Judge Pierre Leval held that a university “is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.” Before the Columbia decision, courts almost always had rebuffed Title IX pleadings from accused students. More recently, judges have allowed Title IX claims to proceed against Amherst, Cornell, California–Santa Barbara, Drake, and Rollins.
After the Second Circuit’s decision, Columbia settled with the accused student, sparing its Title IX decision-makers from having to testify at a trial. James Madison was one of the few universities to take a different course, with disastrous results. A lawsuit from an accused student survived a motion to dismiss, but the university refused to settle, allowing the student’s lawyer to depose the three school employees who had decided his client’s fate. One unintentionally revealed that he had misapplied the university’s own definition of consent. Another cited the importance of the accuser’s slurring words on a voicemail, thus proving her extreme intoxication on the night of the alleged assault. It was left to the accused student’s lawyer, at a deposition months after the decision had been made, to note that the voicemail in question actually was received on a different night. In December 2016, Judge Elizabeth Dillon, an Obama nominee, granted summary judgment to the accused student, concluding that “significant anomalies in the appeal process” violated his due-process rights under the Constitution.niversities were on the losing side of 36 due-process rulings when Obama appointee Catherine Lhamon was presiding over the Office for Civil Rights between 2013 and 2016; no record exists of her publicly acknowledging any of them. In June 2017, however, Lhamon suddenly rejoiced that “yet another federal court” had found that students disciplined for sexual misconduct “were not denied due process.” That Fifth Circuit decision, involving two former students at the University of Houston, was an odd case for her to celebrate. The majority cabined its findings to the “unique facts” of the case—that the accused students likely would have been found guilty even under the fairest possible process. And the dissent, from Judge Edith Jones, denounced the procedures championed by Lhamon and other Obama officials as “heavily weighted in favor of finding guilt,” predicting “worse to come if appellate courts do not step in to protect students’ procedural due process right where allegations of quasi-criminal sexual misconduct arise.”
At this stage, Lhamon, who now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, cannot be taken seriously when it comes to questions of campus due process. But other defenders of the current Title IX regime have offered more substantive commentary about the university setbacks.
Legal scholar Michelle Anderson was one of the few to even discuss the due-process decisions. “Colleges and universities do not always adjudicate allegations of sexual assault well,” she noted in a 2016 law review article defending the Obama-era policies. Anderson even conceded that some colleges had denied “accused students fairness in disciplinary adjudication.” But these students sued, “and campuses are responding—as they must—when accused students prevail. So campuses face powerful legal incentives on both sides to address campus sexual assault, and to do so fairly and impartially.”
This may be true, but Anderson does not explain why wrongly accused students should bear the financial and emotional burden of inducing their colleges to implement fair procedures. More important, scant evidence exists that colleges have responded to the court victories of wrongly accused students by creating fairer procedures. Some have even made it more difficult for wrongly accused students to sue. After losing a lawsuit in December 2014, Brown eliminated the right of students accused of sexual assault to have “every opportunity” to present evidence. That same year, an accused student showed how Swarthmore had deviated from its own procedures in his case. The college quickly settled the lawsuit—and then added a clause to its procedures immunizing it from similar claims in the future. Swarthmore currently informs accused students that “rules of evidence ordinarily found in legal proceedings shall not be applied, nor shall any deviations from any of these prescribed procedures alone invalidate a decision.”
Many lawsuits are still working their way through the judicial system; three cases are pending at federal appellate courts. Of the two that address substantive matters, oral arguments seemed to reveal skepticism of the university’s position. On July 26, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit considered a case at Boston College, where the accused student plausibly argued that someone else had committed the sexual assault (which occurred on a poorly lit dance floor). Judges Bruce Selya and William Kayatta seemed troubled that a Boston College dean had improperly intruded on the hearing board’s deliberations. At the Sixth Circuit a few days later, Judges Richard Griffin and Amul Thapar both expressed concerns about the University of Cincinnati’s downplaying the importance of cross-examination in campus-sex adjudications. Judge Eric Clay was quieter, but he wondered about the tension between the university’s Title IX and truth-seeking obligations.
In a perfect world, academic leaders themselves would have created fairer processes without judicial intervention. But in the current campus environment, such an approach is impossible. So, at least for the short term, the courts remain the best, albeit imperfect, option for students wrongly accused of sexual assault. Meanwhile, every year, young men entrust themselves and their family’s money to institutions of higher learning that are indifferent to their rights and unconcerned with the injustices to which these students might be subjected.
1 After a district court placed that finding on hold, the university appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
Review of 'Terror in France' By Gilles Kepel
Kepel is particularly knowledgeable about the history and process of radicalization that takes place in his nation’s heavily Muslim banlieues (the depressed housing projects ringing Paris and other major cities), and Terror in France is informed by decades of fieldwork in these volatile locales. What we have been witnessing for more than a decade, Kepel argues, is the “third wave” of global jihadism, which is not so much a top-down doctrinally inspired campaign (as were the 9/11 attacks, directed from afar by the oracular figure of Osama bin Laden) but a bottom-up insurgency with an “enclave-based ethnic-racial logic of violence” to it. Kepel traces the phenomenon back to 2005, a convulsive year that saw the second-generation descendants of France’s postcolonial Muslim immigrants confront a changing socio-political landscape.
That was the year of the greatest riots in modern French history, involving mostly young Muslim men. It was also the year that Abu Musab al-Suri, the Syrian-born Islamist then serving as al-Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe, published The Global Islamic Resistance Call. This 1,600-page manifesto combined pious imprecations against the West with do-it-yourself ingenuity, an Anarchist’s Cookbook for the Islamist set. In Kepel’s words, the manifesto preached a “jihadism of proximity,” the brand of civil war later adopted by the Islamic State. It called for ceaseless, mass-casualty attacks in Western cities—attacks which increase suspicion and regulation of Muslims and, in turn, drive those Muslims into the arms of violent extremists.
The third-generation jihad has been assisted by two phenomena: social-networking sites that easily and widely disseminate Islamist propaganda (thus increasing the rate of self-radicalization) and the so-called Arab Spring, which led to state collapse in Syria and Libya, providing “an exceptional site for military training and propaganda only a few hours’ flight from Europe, and at a very low cost.”
Kepel’s book is not just a study of the ideology and tactics of Islamists but a sociopolitical overview of how this disturbing phenomenon fits within a country on the brink. For example, Kepel finds that jihadism is emerging in conjunction with developments such as the “end of industrial society.” A downturn in work has led to an ominous situation in which a “right-wing ethnic nationalism” preying on the economically anxious has risen alongside Islamism as “parallel conduits for expressing grievances.” Filling a space left by the French Communist Party (which once brought the ethnic French working class and Arab immigrants together), these two extremes leer at each other from opposite sides of a societal chasm, signaling the potentially cataclysmic future that awaits France if both mass unemployment and Islamist terror continue undiminished.
The French economy has also had a more direct inciting effect on jihadism. Overregulated labor markets make it difficult for young Muslims to get jobs, thus exacerbating the conditions of social deprivation and exclusion that make individuals susceptible to radicalization. The inability to tackle chronic unemployment has led to widespread Muslim disillusionment with the left (a disillusionment aggravated by another, often glossed over, factor: widespread Muslim opposition to the Socialist Party’s championing of same-sex marriage). Essentially, one left-wing constituency (unions) has made the unemployment of another constituency (Muslim youth) the mechanism for maintaining its privileges.
Kepel does not, however, cite deprivation as the sole or even main contributing factor to Islamist radicalization. One Parisian banlieue that has sent more than 80 residents to fight in Syria, he notes, has “attractive new apartment buildings” built by the state and features a mosque “constructed with the backing of the Socialist mayor.” It is also the birthplace of well-known French movie stars of Arab descent, and thus hardly a place where ambition goes to die. “The Islamophobia mantra and the victim mentality it reinforces makes it possible to rationalize a total rejection of France and a commitment to jihad by making a connection between unemployment, discrimination, and French republican values,” Kepel writes. Indeed, Kepel is refreshingly derisive of the term “Islamophobia” throughout the book, excoriating Islamists and their fellow travelers for “substituting it for anti-Semitism as the West’s cardinal sin.” These are meaningful words coming from Kepel, a deeply learned scholar of Islam who harbors great respect for the faith and its adherents.
Kepel also weaves the saga of jihadism into the ongoing “kulturkampf within the French left.” Arguments about Islamist terrorism demonstrate a “divorce between a secular progressive tradition” and the children of the Muslim immigrants this tradition fought to defend. The most ironically perverse manifestation of this divorce was ISIS’s kidnapping of Didier François, co-founder of the civil-rights organization SOS Racisme. Kepel recognizes the origins of this divorce in the “red-green” alliance formed decades ago between Islamists and elements of the French intellectual left, such as Michel Foucault, a cheerleader of the Iranian revolution.
Though he offers a rigorous history and analysis of the jihadist problem, Kepel is generally at a loss for solutions. He decries a complacent French elite, with its disregard for genuine expertise (evidenced by the decline in institutional academic support for Islamicists and Arabists) and the narrow, relatively impenetrable way in which it perpetuates itself, chiefly with a single school (the École normale supérieure) that practically every French politician must attend. Despite France’s admirable republican values, this has made the process of assimilation rather difficult. But other than wishing that the public education system become more effective and inclusive at instilling republican values, Kepel provides little in the way of suggestions as to how France emerges from this mess. That a scholar of such erudition and humanity can do little but throw up his hands and issue a sigh of despair cannot bode well. The third-generation jihad owes as much to the political breakdown in France as it does to the meltdown in the Middle East. Defeating this two-headed beast requires a new and comprehensive playbook: the West’s answer to The Global Islamic Resistance Call. That book has yet to be written.
resident Trump, in case you haven’t noticed, has a tendency to exaggerate. Nothing is “just right” or “meh” for him. Buildings, crowds, election results, and military campaigns are always outsized, gargantuan, larger, and more significant than you might otherwise assume. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote 30 years ago in The Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
So effective, in fact, that the press has picked up the habit. Reporters and editors agree with the president that nothing he does is ordinary. After covering Trump for more than two years, they still can’t accept him as a run-of-the-mill politician. And while there are aspects of Donald Trump and his presidency that are, to say the least, unusual, the media seem unable to distinguish between the abnormal and significant—firing the FBI director in the midst of an investigation into one’s presidential campaign, for example—and the commonplace.
Consider the fiscal deal President Trump struck with Democratic leaders in early September.
On September 6, the president held an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Pence, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, and congressional leaders of both parties. He had to find a way to (a) raise the debt ceiling, (b) fund the federal government, and (c) spend money on hurricane relief. The problem is that a bloc of House Republicans won’t vote for (a) unless the increase is accompanied by significant budget cuts, which interferes with (b) and (c). To raise the debt ceiling, then, requires Democratic votes. And the debt ceiling must be raised. “There is zero chance—no chance—we will not raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in August.
The meeting went like this. First House Speaker Paul Ryan asked for an 18-month increase in the debt ceiling so Republicans wouldn’t have to vote again on the matter until after the midterm elections. Democrats refused. The bargaining continued until Ryan asked for a six-month increase. The Democrats remained stubborn. So Trump, always willing to kick a can down the road, interrupted Mnuchin to offer a three-month increase, a continuing resolution that will keep the government open through December, and about $8 billion in hurricane money. The Democrats said yes.
That, anyway, is what happened. But the media are not satisfied to report what happened. They want—they need—to tell you what it means. And what does it mean? Well, they aren’t really sure. But it’s something big. It’s something spectacular. For example:
1. “Trump Bypasses Republicans to Strike Deal on Debt Limit and Harvey Aid” was the headline of a story for the New York Times by Peter Baker, Thomas Kaplan, and Michael D. Shear. “The deal to keep the government open and paying its debts until Dec. 15 represented an extraordinary public turn for the president, who has for much of his term set himself up on the right flank of the Republican Party,” their article began. Fair enough. But look at how they import speculation and opinion into the following sentence: “But it remained unclear whether Mr. Trump’s collaboration with Democrats foreshadowed a more sustained shift in strategy by a president who has presented himself as a master dealmaker or amounted to just a one-time instinctual reaction of a mercurial leader momentarily eager to poke his estranged allies.”
2. “The decision was one of the most fascinating and mysterious moves he’s made with Congress during eight months in office,” reported Jeff Zeleny, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, and Jeremy Diamond for CNN. Thanks for sharing!
3. “Trump budget deal gives GOP full-blown Stockholm Syndrome,” read the headline of Tina Nguyen’s piece for Vanity Fair. “Donald Trump’s unexpected capitulation to new best buds ‘Chuck and Nancy’ has thrown the Grand Old Party into a frenzy as Republicans search for explanations—and scapegoats.”
4. “For Conservatives, Trump’s Deal with Democrats Is Nightmare Come True,” read the headline for a New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman. “It is the scenario that President Trump’s most conservative followers considered their worst nightmare, and on Wednesday it seemed to come true: The deal-making political novice, whose ideology and loyalty were always fungible, cut a deal with Democrats.”
5. “Trump sides with Democrats on fiscal issues, throwing Republican plans into chaos,” read the Washington Post headline the day after the deal was announced. “The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.” Yes, the negotiations were upended. Then they made a deal.
6. “Although elected as a Republican last year,” wrote Peter Baker of the Times, “Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” The title of Baker’s news analysis: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.” One hundred and fifty years? Why not 200?
The journalistic rule of thumb used to be that an article describing a political, social, or cultural trend requires at least three examples. Not while covering Trump. If Trump does something, anything, you should feel free to inflate its importance beyond all recognition. And stuff your “reporting” with all sorts of dramatic adjectives and frightening nouns: fascinating, mysterious, unexpected, extraordinary, nightmare, chaos, frenzy, and scapegoats. It’s like a Vince Flynn thriller come to life.
The case for the significance of the budget deal would be stronger if there were a consensus about whom it helped. There isn’t one. At first the press assumed Democrats had won. “Republicans left the Oval Office Wednesday stunned,” reported Rachael Bade, Burgess Everett, and Josh Dawsey of Politico. Another trio of Politico reporters wrote, “In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal.” Republicans were “stunned,” reported Kristina Peterson, Siobhan Hughes, and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal. “Meet the swamp: Donald Trump punts September agenda to December after meeting with Congress,” read the headline of Charlie Spiering’s Breitbart story.
By the following week, though, these very outlets had decided the GOP was looking pretty good. “Trump’s deal with Democrats bolsters Ryan—for now,” read the Politico headline on September 11. “McConnell: No New Debt Ceiling Vote until ‘Well into 2018,’” reported the Washington Post. “At this point…picking a fight with Republican leaders will only help him,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal. “Trump has long warned that he would work with Democrats, if necessary, to fulfill his campaign promises. And Wednesday’s deal is a sign that he intends to follow through on that threat,” wrote Breitbart’s Joel Pollak.
The sensationalism, the conflicting interpretations, the visceral language is dizzying. We have so many reporters chasing the same story that each feels compelled to gussy up a quotidian budget negotiation until it resembles the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, and none feel it necessary to apply to their own reporting the scrutiny and incredulity they apply to Trump. The truth is that no one knows what this agreement portends. Nor is it the job of a reporter to divine the meaning of current events like an augur of Rome. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a deal is just a deal.
Remembering something wonderful
Not surprisingly, many well-established performers were left in the lurch by the rise of the new media. Moreover, some vaudevillians who, like Fred Allen, had successfully reinvented themselves for radio were unable to make the transition to TV. But a handful of exceptionally talented performers managed to move from vaudeville to radio to TV, and none did it with more success than Jack Benny, whose feigned stinginess, scratchy violin playing, slightly effeminate demeanor, and preternaturally exact comic timing made him one of the world’s most beloved performers. After establishing himself in vaudeville, he became the star of a comedy series, The Jack Benny Program, that aired continuously, first on radio and then TV, from 1932 until 1965. Save for Bob Hope, no other comedian of his time was so popular.
With the demise of nighttime network radio as an entertainment medium, the 931 weekly episodes of The Jack Benny Program became the province of comedy obsessives—and because Benny’s TV series was filmed in black-and-white, it is no longer shown in syndication with any regularity. And while he also made Hollywood films, some of which were box-office hits, only one, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), is today seen on TV other than sporadically.
Nevertheless, connoisseurs of comedy still regard Benny, who died in 1974, as a giant, and numerous books, memoirs, and articles have been published about his life and art. Most recently, Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has brought out Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, the first book-length primary-source academic study of The Jack Benny Program and its star.1 Fuller-Seeley’s genuine appreciation for Benny’s work redeems her anachronistic insistence on viewing it through the fashionable prism of gender- and race-based theory, and her book, though sober-sided to the point of occasional starchiness, is often quite illuminating.
Most important of all, off-the-air recordings of 749 episodes of the radio version of The Jack Benny Program survive in whole or part and can easily be downloaded from the Web. As a result, it is possible for people not yet born when Benny was alive to hear for themselves why he is still remembered with admiration and affection—and why one specific aspect of his performing persona continues to fascinate close observers of the American scene.B orn Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894, Benny was the son of Eastern European émigrés (his father was from Poland, his mother from Lithuania). He started studying violin at six and had enough talent to pursue a career in music, but his interests lay elsewhere, and by the time he was a teenager, he was working in vaudeville as a comedian who played the violin as part of his act. Over time he developed into a “monologist,” the period term for what we now call a stand-up comedian, and he began appearing in films in 1929 and on network radio three years after that.
Radio comedy, like silent film, is now an obsolete art form, but the program formats that it fostered in the ’20s and ’30s all survived into the era of TV, and some of them flourish to this day. One, episodic situation comedy, was developed in large part by Jack Benny and his collaborators. Benny and Harry Conn, his first full-time writer, turned his weekly series, which started out as a variety show, into a weekly half-hour playlet featuring a regular cast of characters augmented by guest stars. Such playlets, relying as they did on a setting that was repeated from week to week, were easier to write than the free-standing sketches favored by Allen, Hope, and other ex-vaudevillians, and by the late ’30s, the sitcom had become a staple of radio comedy.
The process, as documented by Fuller-Seeley, was a gradual one. The Jack Benny Program never broke entirely with the variety format, continuing to feature both guest stars (some of whom, like Ronald Colman, ultimately became semi-regular members of the show’s rotating ensemble of players) and songs sung by Dennis Day, a tenor who joined the cast in 1939. Nor was it the first radio situation comedy: Amos & Andy, launched in 1928, was a soap-opera-style daily serial that also featured regular characters. Nevertheless, it was Benny who perfected the form, and his own character would become the prototype for countless later sitcom stars.
The show’s pivotal innovation was to turn Benny and the other cast members into fictionalized versions of themselves—they were the stars of a radio show called “The Jack Benny Program.” Sadye Marks, Benny’s wife, played Mary Livingstone, his sharp-tongued secretary, with three other characters added as the self-reflexive concept took shape. Don Wilson, the stout, genial announcer, came on board in 1934. He was followed in 1936 by Phil Harris, Benny’s roguish bandleader, and, in 1939, by Day, Harris’s simple-minded vocalist. To this team was added a completely fictional character, Rochester Van Jones, Benny’s raspy-voiced, outrageously impertinent black valet, played by Eddie Anderson, who joined the cast in 1938.
As these five talented performers coalesced into a tight-knit ensemble, the jokey, vaudeville-style sketch comedy of the early episodes metamorphosed into sitcom-style scripts that portrayed their offstage lives, as well as the making of the show itself. Scarcely any conventional jokes were told, nor did Benny’s writers employ the topical and political references in which Allen and Hope specialized. Instead, the show’s humor arose almost entirely from the close interplay of character and situation.
Benny was not solely responsible for the creation of this format, which was forged by Conn and perfected by his successors. Instead, he doubled as the star and producer—or, to use the modern term, show runner—closely supervising the writing of the scripts and directing the performances of the other cast members. In addition, he and Conn turned the character of Jack Benny from a sophisticated vaudeville monologist into the hapless butt of the show’s humor, a vain, sexually inept skinflint whose character flaws were ceaselessly twitted by his colleagues, who in turn were given most of the biggest laugh lines.
This latter innovation was a direct reflection of Benny’s real-life personality. Legendary for his voluble appreciation of other comedians, he was content to respond to the wisecracking of his fellow cast members with exquisitely well-timed interjections like “Well!” and “Now, cut that out,” knowing that the comic spotlight would remain focused on the man of whom they were making fun and secure in the knowledge that his own comic personality was strong enough to let them shine without eclipsing him in the process.
And with each passing season, the fictional personalities of Benny and his colleagues became ever more firmly implanted in the minds of their listeners, thus allowing the writers to get laughs merely by alluding to their now-familiar traits. At the same time, Benny and his writers never stooped to coasting on their familiarity. Even the funniest of the “cheap jokes” that were their stock-in-trade were invariably embedded in carefully honed dramatic situations that heightened their effectiveness.
A celebrated case in point is the best-remembered laugh line in the history of The Jack Benny Program, heard in a 1948 episode in which a burglar holds Benny up on the street. “Your money or your life,” the burglar says—to which Jack replies, after a very long pause, “I’m thinking it over!” What makes this line so funny is, of course, our awareness of Benny’s stinginess, reinforced by a decade and a half of constant yet subtly varied repetition. What is not so well remembered is that the line is heard toward the end of an episode that aired shortly after Ronald Colman won an Oscar for his performance in A Double Life. Inspired by this real-life event, the writers concocted an elaborately plotted script in which Benny talks Colman (who played his next-door neighbor on the show) into letting him borrow the Oscar to show to Rochester. It is on his way home from this errand that Benny is held up, and the burglar not only robs him of his money but also steals the statuette, a situation that was resolved to equally explosive comic effect in the course of two subsequent episodes.
No mere joke-teller could have performed such dramatically complex scripts week after week with anything like Benny’s effectiveness. The secret of The Jack Benny Program was that its star, fully aware that he was not “being himself” but playing a part, did so with an actor’s skill. This was what led Ernst Lubitsch to cast him in To Be or Not to Be, in which he plays a mediocre Shakespearean tragedian, a character broadly related to but still quite different from the one who appeared on his own radio show. As Lubitsch explained to Benny, who was skeptical about his ability to carry off the part:
A clown—he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian—he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.
To Be or Not to Be also stands out from the rest of Benny’s work because he plays an identifiably Jewish character. The Jack Benny character that he played on radio and TV, by contrast, was never referred to or explicitly portrayed as Jewish. To be sure, most listeners were in no doubt of his Jewishness, and not merely because Benny made no attempt in real life to conceal his ethnicity, of which he was by all accounts proud. The Jack Benny Program was written by Jews, and the ego-puncturing insults with which their scripts were packed, as well as the schlemiel-like aspect of Benny’s “fall guy” character, were quintessentially Jewish in style.
As Benny explained in a 1948 interview cited by Fuller-Seeley:
The humor of my program is this: I’m a big shot, see? I’m fast-talking. I’m a smart guy. I’m boasting about how marvelous I am. I’m a marvelous lover. I’m a marvelous fiddle player. Then, five minutes after I start shooting off my mouth, my cast makes a shmo out of me.
Even so, his avoidance of specific Jewish identification on the air is noteworthy precisely because his character was a miser. At a time when overt anti-Semitism was still common in America, it is remarkable that Benny’s comic persona was based in large part on an anti-Semitic stereotype—yet one that seems not to have inspired any anti-Semitic attacks on Benny himself. When, in 1945, his writers came up with the idea of an “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because . . . ” write-in campaign, they received 270,000 entries. Only three made mention of his Jewishness.
As for the winning entry, submitted by a California lawyer, it says much about what insulated Benny from such attacks: “He fills the air with boasts and brags / And obsolete, obnoxious gags / The way he plays his violin / Is music’s most obnoxious sin / His cowardice alone, indeed, / Is matched by his obnoxious greed / And all the things that he portrays / Show up MY OWN obnoxious ways.” It is clear that Benny’s foibles were seen by his listeners not as particular but universal, just as there was no harshness in the razzing of his fellow cast members, who very clearly loved the Benny character in spite of his myriad flaws. So, too, did the American people. Several years after his TV series was cancelled, a corporation that was considering using him as a spokesman commissioned a national poll to find out how popular he was. It learned that only 3 percent of the respondents disliked him.
Therein lay Benny’s triumph: He won total acceptance from the American public and did so by embodying a Jewish stereotype from which the sting of prejudice had been leached. Far from being a self-hating whipping boy for anti-Semites, he turned himself into WASP America’s Jewish uncle, preposterous yet lovable.W hen the bottom fell out of network radio, Benny negotiated the move to TV without a hitch, debuting on the small screen in 1950 and bringing the radio version of The Jack Benny Program to a close five years later, making it one of the very last radio comedy series to shut up shop. Even after his weekly TV series was finally canceled by CBS in 1965, he continued to star in well-received one-shot specials on NBC.
But Benny’s TV appearances, for all their charm, were never quite equal in quality to his radio work, which is why he clung to the radio version of The Jack Benny Program until network radio itself went under: Better than anyone else, he knew how good the show had been. For the rest of his life, he lived off the accumulated comic capital built up by 21 years of weekly radio broadcasts.
Now, at long last, he belongs to the ages, and The Jack Benny Program is a museum piece. Yet it remains hugely influential, albeit at one or more removes from the original. From The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Danny Thomas Show to Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Larry Sanders Show, every ensemble-cast sitcom whose central character is a fictionalized version of its star is based on Benny’s example. And now that the ubiquity of the Web has made the radio version of his series readily accessible for the first time, anyone willing to make the modest effort necessary to seek it out is in a position to discover that The Jack Benny Program, six decades after it left the air, is still as wonderfully, benignly funny as it ever was, a monument to the talent of the man who, more than anyone else, made it so.
Review of 'The Transferred Life of George Eliot' By Philip Davis
Not that there’s any danger these theoretically protesting students would have read George Eliot’s works—not even the short one, Silas Marner (1861), which in an earlier day was assigned to high schoolers. I must admit I didn’t find my high-school reading of Silas Marner a pleasant experience—sports novels for boys like John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Tomkinsville were inadequate preparation. I must confess, too, that when I was in graduate school, determined to study 17th-century English verse, my reaction to the suggestion that I should also read Middlemarch (1871–72) was “What?! An 800-page novel by the guy who wrote Silas Marner?” A friend patiently explained that “the guy” was actually Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819, died in 1880. Partly because she was living in sin with the literary jack-of-all-trades George Henry Lewes (legally and irrevocably bound to his estranged wife), she adopted “George Eliot” as a protective pseudonym when, in her 1857 debut, she published Scenes from Clerical Life.
I did, many times over and with awe and delight, go on to read Middlemarch and the seven other novels, often in order to teach them to college students. Students have become less and less receptive over the years. Forget modern-day objections to George Eliot’s complex political or religious views. Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) were too hefty, and the triple-decked Middlemarch and Deronda, even if I set aside three weeks for them, rarely got finished.
The middle 20th century was perhaps a more a propitious time for appreciating George Eliot, Henry James, and other 19th-century English and American novelists. Influential teachers like F.R. Leavis at Cambridge and Lionel Trilling at Columbia were then working hard to persuade students that the study of literature, not just poetry and drama but also fiction, matters both to their personal lives—the development of their sensibility or character—and to their wider society. The “moral imagination” that created Middlemarch enriches our minds by dramatizing the complications—the frequent blurring of good and evil—in our lives. Great novels help us cope with ambiguities and make us more tolerant of one another. Many of Leavis’s and Trilling’s students became teachers themselves, and for several decades the feeling of cultural urgency was sustained. In the 1970s, though, between the leftist emphasis on literature as “politics by other means” and the deconstructionist denial of the possibility of any knowledge, literary or otherwise, independent of political power, the high seriousness of Leavis and Trilling began to fade.
The study of George Eliot and her life has gone through many stages. Directly after her death came the sanitized, hagiographic “life and letters” by J.W. Cross, the much younger man she married after Lewes’s death. Gladstone called it “a Reticence in three volumes.” The three volumes helped spark, if they didn’t cause, the long reaction against the Victorian sages generally that culminated in the dismissively satirical work of the Bloomsbury biographer and critic Lytton Strachey in his immensely influential Eminent Victorians (1916). Strachey’s mistreatment of his forbears was, with regard to George Eliot at least, tempered almost immediately by Virginia Woolf. It was Woolf who in 1919 provocatively said that Middlemarch had been “the first English novel for adults.” Eventually, the critical tide against George Eliot was decisively reversed in the ’40s by Joan Bennett and Leavis, who made the inarguable case for her genuine and lasting achievement. That period of correction culminated in the 1960s with Gordon S. Haight’s biography and with interpretive studies by Barbara Hardy and W.J. Harvey. Books on George Eliot over the last four decades have largely been written by specialists for specialists—on her manuscripts or working notes, and on her affiliations with the scientists, social historians, and competing novelists of her day.
The same is true, only more so, of the books written, with George Eliot as the ostensible subject, to promote deconstructionist or feminist agendas. Biographies have done a better job appealing to the common reader, not least because the woman’s own story is inherently compelling. The question right now is whether a book combining biographical and interpretive insight—one “pitched,” as publishers like to say, not just at experts but at the common reader—is past praying for.
Philip Davis, a Victorian scholar and an editor at Oxford University Press, hopes not. His The Transferred Life of George Eliot—transferred, that is, from her own experience into her letters, journals, essays, and novels, and beyond them into us—deserves serious attention. Davis is conscious that George Eliot called biographies of writers “a disease of English literature,” both overeager to discover scandals and too inclined to substitute day-to-day travels, relationships, dealings with publishers and so on, for critical attention to the books those writers wrote. Davis therefore devotes himself to George Eliot’s writing. Alas, he presumes rather too much knowledge on the reader’s part of the day-to-day as charted in Haight’s marvelous life. (A year-by-year chronology at the front of the book would have helped even his fellow Victorianists.)
As for George Eliot’s writing, Davis is determined to refute “what has been more or less said . . . in the schools of theory for the last 40 years—that 19th-century realism is conservatively bland and unimaginative, bourgeois and parochial, not truly art at all.” His argument for the richness, breadth, and art of George Eliot’s realism—her factual and sympathetic depiction of poor and middling people, without omitting a candid representation of the rich—is most convincing. What looms largest, though, is the realist, the woman herself—the Mary Ann Evans who, from the letters to the novels, became first Marian Evans the translator and essayist and then later “her own greatest character”: George Eliot the novelist. Davis insists that “the meaning of that person”—not merely the voice of her omniscient narrators but the omnipresent imagination that created the whole show—“has not yet exhausted its influence nor the larger future life she should have had, and may still have, in the world.”
The transference of George Eliot’s experience into her fiction is unquestionable: In The Mill on the Floss, for example, Mary Ann is Maggie, and her brother Isaac is Tom Tulliver. Davis knows that a better word might be transmutation, as George Eliot had, in Henry James’s words, “a mind possessed,” for “the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.” No data-accumulating biographer, even the most exhaustive, can account for that “incalculable . . . mystery.”
Which is why Davis, like a good teacher, gives us exercises in “close reading.” He pauses to consider how a George Eliot sentence balances or turns on an easy-to-skip-over word or phrase—the balance or turn often representing a moment when the novelist looks at what’s on the underside of the cards.
George Eliot’s style is subtle because her theme is subtle. Take D.H. Lawrence’s favorite heroine, the adolescent Maggie Tulliver. The external event in The Mill on the Floss may be the girl’s impulsive cutting off her unruly hair to spite her nagging aunts, or the young woman’s drifting down the river with a superficially attractive but truly impossible boyfriend. But the real “action” is Maggie’s internal self-blame and self-assertion. No Victorian novelist was better than George Eliot at tracing the psychological development of, say, a husband and wife who realize they married each other for shallow reasons, are unhappy, and now must deal with the ordinary necessities of balancing the domestic budget—Lydgate and Rosamund in Middlemarch—or, in the same novel, the religiously inclined Dorothea’s mistaken marriage to the old scholar Casaubon. That mistake precipitates not merely disenchantment and an unconscious longing for love with someone else, but (very finely) a quest for a religious explanation of and guide through her quandary.
It’s the religio-philosophical side of George Eliot about which Davis is strongest—and weakest. Her central theological idea, if one may simplify, was that the God of the Bible didn’t exist “out there” but was a projection of the imagination of the people who wrote it. Jesus wasn’t, in Davis’s characterization of her view, “the impervious divine, but [a man who] shed tears and suffered,” and died feeling forsaken. “This deep acceptance of so-called weakness was what most moved Marian Evans in her Christian inheritance. It was what God was for.” That is, the character of Jesus, and the dramatic play between him and his Father, expressed the human emotions we and George Eliot are all too familiar with. The story helps reconcile us to what is, finally, inescapable suffering.
George Eliot came to this demythologized understanding not only of Judaism and Christianity but of all religions through her contact first with a group of intellectuals who lived near Coventry, then with two Germans she translated: David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1,500-page Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835–36) was for her a slog, and Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity (1841) was for her a joy. Also, in the search for the universal morality that Strauss and Feuerbach believed Judaism and Christianity expressed mythically, there was Spinoza’s utterly non-mythical Ethics (1677). It was seminal for her—offering, as Davis says, “the intellectual origin for freethinking criticism of the Bible and for the replacement of religious superstition and dogmatic theology by pure philosophic reason.” She translated it into English, though her version did not appear until 1981.
I wish Davis had left it there, but he takes it too far. He devotes more than 40 pages—a tenth of the whole book—to her three translations, taking them as a mother lode of ideational gold whose tailings glitter throughout her fiction. These 40 pages are followed by 21 devoted to Herbert Spencer, the Victorian hawker of theories-of-everything (his 10-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy addresses biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics). She threw herself at the feet of this intellectual huckster, and though he rebuffed her painfully amorous entreaties, she never ceased revering him. Alas, Spencer was a stick—the kind of philosopher who was incapable of emotion. And she was his intellectual superior in every way. The chapter is largely unnecessary.
The book comes back to life when Davis turns to George Henry Lewes, the man who gave Mary Ann Evans the confidence to become George Eliot—perhaps the greatest act of loving mentorship in all of literature. Like many prominent Victorians, Lewes dabbled in all the arts and sciences, publishing highly readable accounts of them for a general audience. His range was as wide as Spencer’s, but his personality and writing had an irrepressible verve that Spencer could only have envied. Lewes was a sort Stephen Jay Gould yoked to Daniel Boorstin, popularizing other people’s findings and concepts, and coming up with a few of his own. He regarded his Sea-Side Studies (1860) as “the book . . . which was to me the most unalloyed delight,” not least because Marian, whom he called Polly, had helped gather the data. She told a friend “There is so much happiness condensed in it! Such scrambles over rocks, and peeping into clear pool [sic], and strolls along the pure sands, and fresh air mingling with fresh thoughts.” In his remarkably intelligent 1864 biography of Goethe, Lewes remarks that the poet “knew little of the companionship of two souls striving in emulous spirit of loving rivalry to become better, to become wiser, teaching each other to soar.” Such a companionship Lewes and George Eliot had in spades, and some of Davis’s best passages describe it.
Regrettably, Davis also offers many passages well below the standard of his best—needlessly repeating an already established point or obfuscating the obvious. Still, The Transferred Lives is the most formidably instructive, and certainly complete, life-and-works treatment of George Eliot we have.