F. R. LEAVIS, who is widely regarded as England's most important literary critic, recently launched a violent attack on C.…
F. R. Leavis, who is widely regarded as England’s most important literary critic, recently launched a violent attack on C. P. SNOW, and in particular on Snow’s famous description of the split between the “two cultures” of science and literature. The Leavis attack provoked a more heated intellectual controversy than any England has witnessed for some time, but the issues involved extend far beyond specifically English concerns. Consequently, we invited Lionel Trilling, whom many consider to be America’s leading critic, to comment on this controversy and to discuss the various questions that arise from it. A professor of English at Columbia, Mr. Trilling is the author, among other books, of The Liberal Imagination, The Opposing Self, and A Gathering of Fugitives.
It is now nearly eighty years since Matthew Arnold came to this country on his famous lecture tour. Of his repertory of three lectures, none was calculated to give unqualified pleasure to his audience. The lecture on Emerson praised that most eminent of American writers only after it had denied that he was a literary figure of the first order. The lecture called “Numbers” raised disturbing questions about the relation of democracy to excellence and distinction. “Literature and Science” was the least likely to give offense, yet even this most memorable of the three Discourses in America was not without its touch of un-comfortableness. In 1883 America was by no means committed—and, indeed, never was to be committed—to the belief that the right education for the modern age must be predominantly scientific and technical, and Arnold, when he cited the proponents of this idea, which of course he opposed, mentioned only those who were English. Yet his audiences surely knew that Arnold was warning them against what would seem to be the natural tendency of an industrial democracy to devalue the old “aristocratic” education in favor of studies that are merely practical.
Arnold wrote “Emerson” and “Numbers” especially for his American tour, but he had first composed “Literature and Science” as the Rede Lecture at Cambridge in 1882. Its original occasion cannot fail to have a peculiar interest at this moment, for C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, around which so curious a storm rages in England, was the Rede Lecture of 1959.
Sir Charles did not mention his great predecessor in the lectureship, although his own discourse was exactly on Arnold’s subject and took a line exactly the opposite of Arnold’s. And F. R. Leavis, whose admiration of Arnold is well known and whose position in respect to the relative importance of literature and of science in education is much the same as Arnold’s, did not mention Arnold either, when, in his recent Richmond Lecture at Downing College, he launched an attack of unexampled ferocity upon the doctrine and the author of The Two Cultures.
In its essential terms, the issue in debate has not changed since Arnold spoke. Arnold’s chief antagonist was T. H. Huxley—it was he who, in his lecture on “Culture and Education,” had said that literature should, and inevitably would, step down from its preeminent place in education, that science and not “culture” must supply the knowledge which is necessary for an age committed to rational truth and material practicality. What is more, Huxley said, science will supply the very basis of the assumptions of modern ethics. In effect Snow says nothing different.
- The word “culture” had been Arnold’s personal insigne ever since the publication of Culture and Anarchy in 1867 and Huxley made particular reference to the views on the value of humanistic study which Arnold had expressed in that book.1 Arnold’s reply in “Literature and Science” could not have been simpler, just as it could not have been more temperate, although it surely did not surpass in temperateness Huxley’s statement of his disagreement with Arnold’s ideas; the two men held each other in high admiration and were warm friends. Arnold said that he had not the least disposition to propose that science be slighted in education. Quite apart from its practical value, scientific knowledge is naturally a delight to the mind, no doubt engaging certain mental temperaments more than others but holding out the promise of intellectual pleasure to all. Yet of itself science does not, as Arnold put it, “serve” the instinct for conduct and the instinct for beauty, or at least it does not serve these instincts as they exist in most men. This service, which includes the relating of scientific knowledge to the whole life of man, is rendered by culture, which is not to be thought of as confined to literature—to belles lettres—but as comprising all the humane intellectual disciplines. When Dr. Leavis asserts the primacy of the humanities in education, he refers more exclusively to literature than Arnold did, but in general effect his position is the same.
It may seem strange, and a little tiresome, that the debate of eighty years ago should be instituted again today. Yet it is perhaps understandable in view of the “scientific revolution” about which Sir Charles tells us. This revolution would seem to be one of the instances in which a change of quantity becomes a change in kind—science can now do so much more and do it so much more quickly than it could a generation ago, let alone in the last century, that it has been transmuted from what the world has hitherto known. One of the consequences of this change—to Sir Charles it is the most salient of all possible consequences—is the new social hope that is now held out to us, of life made better in material respects, not merely in certain highly developed countries but all over the world and among peoples that at the moment are, by Western standards, scarcely developed at all.
The new power of science perhaps justifies a contemporary revival of the Victorian question. But if we consent to involve ourselves in the new dialectic of the old controversy, we must be aware that we are not addressing ourselves to a question of educational theory, or to an abstract contention as to what kind of knowledge has the truest affinity with the human soul. We approach these matters only to pass through them. What we address ourselves to is politics, and politics of a quite ultimate kind, and to the disposition of the modern mind.
The two cultures has had a very considerable currency in England and America ever since its publication in 1959, and in England it was for a time the subject of lively discussion. Indeed, the general agreement in England that it was a statement of great importance, to the point of its being used as an assigned text in secondary schools, was what aroused Dr. Leavis to make his assault on the lecture this long after the first interest in it had subsided. The early discussions of The Two Cultures were of a substantive kind, but the concerns which now agitate the English in response to Dr. Leavis’s attack have scarcely anything to do with literature and science, or with education, or with social hope. These matters have now been made a mere subordinate element in what amounts to a scandal over a breach of manners. The published comments on Dr. Leavis’s attack on The Two Cultures were, with few exceptions, directed to such considerations as the exact degree of monstrousness which Dr. Leavis achieved in speaking of Sir Charles as he did; whether or not he spoke out of envy of Sir Charles’s reputation; whether or not he has, or deserves to have, any real standing as a critic; or writes acceptable English; or represents, as he claims he does, “the essential Cambridge.”
Dr. Leavis’s Richmond Lecture, “The Significance of C. P. Snow,” was delivered in the Hall of Downing College, Cambridge, on February 28 and published in the Spectator of March 9.2 In the next week’s issue of the Spectator, seventeen letters appeared, all defending Snow and most of them expressing anger at, or contempt for, Leavis. The following week brought fifteen more communications, of which eight expressed partisanship with Leavis; several of these deplored the tone of the previous week’s correspondence. Many of the correspondents who defended Snow were of distinguished reputation; of the defenders of Leavis, the only one known to me was Mr. Geoffrey Wagner, who wrote from America to communicate his belief that the attack on Snow was much needed, for, despite a parody in New Left Review in which Snow appears as C. P. Sleet, despite, too, his own adverse criticism of Snow in the Critic, “the hosannas obediently continued on this side of the Atlantic, both from the Barzun-Trilling syndrome and the Book-of-the-Month Club, the worst of both worlds, as it were.” Three of the writers of the Snow party touched upon the question of literature and science, the scientist J. D. Bernal, the historian of science Stephen Toulmin, and the literary critic G. S. Fraser. In a miasma of personality-mongering, their letters afforded a degree of relief, but they said little that was of consequence. Of the Leavis party two dons of the University of Birmingham in a joint letter touched rapidly but with some cogency on the relation between literature and science, deploring any attempt to prefer one above the other, concluding that if one must be preferred, it should be, for reasons not stated, literature.
From the Spectator letters, so many of them expressing small and rather untidy passions, there are no doubt conclusions to be drawn, of a sufficiently depressing sort, about the condition of cultural life at the moment. But no awareness that we may have of the generally bad state of intellectual affairs ought to blind us to the particular fault of Dr. Leavis in his treatment of Sir Charles Snow. Intelligent and serious himself, Dr. Leavis has in this instance been the cause of stupidity and triviality in other men.
There can be no two opinions about the tone in which Dr. Leavis deals with Sir Charles. It is a bad tone, an impermissible tone. It is bad in a personal sense because it is cruel—it manifestly intends to wound. It is bad intellectually because by its use Dr. Leavis has diverted attention, his own included, from the matter he sought to illuminate. The doctrine of The Two Cultures is a momentous one and Dr. Leavis obscures its massive significance by bringing into consideration such matters as Sir Charles’s abilities as a novelist, his club membership, his opinion of his own talents, his worldly success, and his relation to worldly power. Anger, scorn, and an excessive consciousness of persons have always been elements of Dr. Leavis’s thought—of the very process of his thought, not merely of his manner of expressing it. They were never exactly reassuring elements, but they could be set aside and made to seem of relatively small account in comparison with the remarkable cogency in criticism which Dr. Leavis so often achieved. But as they now appear in his valedictory address—for, in effect, that is what the Richmond Lecture was, since Dr. Leavis retires this year from his university post—they cannot be easily set aside, they stand in the way of what Dr. Leavis means to say.
And, indeed, our understanding of what he means to say is to be derived less from the passionate utterance of the lecture itself than from our knowledge of the whole direction of his career in criticism. That direction was from the first determined by Dr. Leavis’s belief that the human faculty above all others to which literature addresses itself is the moral consciousness, which is also the source of all successful creation, the very root of poetic genius. The extent of his commitment to this idea results in what I believe to be a fault in his critical thought—he does not give anything like adequate recognition to those aspects of art which are gratuitous, which arise from high spirits and the impulse to play. One would suppose that the moral consciousness should, for its own purposes, take account of those aspects of art and life that do not fall within its dominion. But if the intensity of Dr. Leavis’s commitment to the moral consciousness contrives to produce this deficiency of understanding, it is no less responsible for the accuracy and force which we recognize as the positive characteristics of his work. For Dr. Leavis, literature is what Matthew Arnold said it is, the criticism of life—he can understand it in no other way. Both in all its simplicity and in all its hidden complexity, he has made Arnold’s saying his own, and from it he has drawn his strength.
If, then, Dr. Leavis now speaks with a very special intensity in response to The Two Cultures, we must do him the justice of seeing that the Rede Lecture denies, and in an extreme way, all that he has ever believed about literature—it is, in fact, nothing less than an indictment of literature on social and moral grounds. It represents literature as constituting a danger to the national well-being, and most especially when it is overtly a criticism of life.
Not only because Charles Snow is himself a practitioner of literature but also because he is the man he is, the statement that his lecture has this purport will be shocking and perhaps it will be thought scarcely credible. And I have no doubt that, in another mood and on some other occasion, Sir Charles would be happy to assert the beneficent powers of literature. But there can be no other interpretation of his lecture than that it takes toward literature a position of extreme antagonism.
The two cultures begins as an objective statement of the lack of communication between scientists and literary men. This is a circumstance that must have been often observed and often deplored. Perhaps nothing in our culture is so characteristic as the separateness of the various artistic and intellectual professions. As between, say, poets and painters, or musicians and architects, there is very little discourse, and perhaps the same thing could be remarked of scientists of different interests, say biologists and physicists. But the isolation of literary men from scientists may well seem to be the most extreme of these separations, if only because it is the most significant, for a reason which Sir Charles entirely understands: the especially close though never clearly defined relation of these two professions with our social and political life.
The even-handedness with which Sir Charles at first describes the split between the two “cultures” does not continue for long. He begins by telling us that scientists and literary men are equally to blame for the separation—they are kept apart by “a gulf of mutual incomprehension,” by distorted images of each other which give rise to dislike and hostility. But as Sir Charles’s lecture proceeds, it becomes plain that, although the scientists do have certain crudities and limitations, they are in general in the right of things and the literary men in the wrong of them. The matter which causes the scales to shift thus suddenly is the human condition. This, Sir Charles tells us, is of its nature tragic: man dies, and he dies alone. But the awareness of the ineluctably tragic nature of human life makes a moral trap, “for it tempts one to sit back, complacent in one’s unique tragedy,” paying no heed to the circumstances of everyday life, which, for the larger number of human beings, are painful. It is the literary men, we are told, who are the most likely, the scientists who are the least likely, to fall into this moral trap; the scientists “are inclined to be impatient to see if something can be done: and inclined to think that it can be done, until it’s proved otherwise.” It is their spirit, “tough and good and determined to fight it out at the side of their brother men,” which has “made scientists regard the other [i.e. the literary] culture’s social attitudes as contemptible.”
“This is too facile,” Sir Charles says in mild rebuke of the scientists, by which he of course means that essentially they are right. There follows a brief consideration of a question raised not by Sir Charles in his own person but by “a scientist of distinction” whom he quotes: “Yeats, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, nine out of ten of those who have dominated literary sensibility in our time, weren’t they not only politically silly, but politically wicked? Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?” And Sir Charles in answer grants that Yeats was a magnanimous man and a great poet, but he will not, he says, defend the indefensible—“the facts . . . are broadly true.” Sir Charles in general agrees, that is, that the literary sensibility of our time brought Auschwitz nearer. He goes on to say that things have changed considerably in the literary life in recent years, even if slowly, for “literature changes more slowly than science.”
From the mention of Auschwitz onward, the way is open to the full assertion by Sir Charles of the virtues of the scientists. Although they are admitted to be sometimes gauche or stupidly self-assertive, although Sir Charles concedes of some of them that “the whole literature of the traditional culture doesn’t seem relevant to [their] interests” and that, as a result, their “imaginative understanding” is diminished, he yet finds them to be men of a natural decency; they are free from racial feelings, they are lovers of equality, they are cooperative. And chief among their virtues, as Sir Charles describes them, is the fact that they “have the future in their bones.”
Indeed, it turns out that it is the future, and not mere ignorance of each other’s professional concerns, that makes the separation between the culture of science and the culture of literature. Scientists have the future in their bones. Literary men do not. Quite the contrary—“If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing that the future did not exist.” The future that the scientists have in their bones is understood to be nothing but a good future; it is very much like the History of the Marxists, which is always the triumph of the right, never possibly the record of defeat. In fact, to entertain the idea that the future might be bad is represented as being tantamount to moral ill-will—in a note appended to the sentence I have just quoted, Sir Charles speaks of George Orwell’s 1984 as “the strongest possible wish that the future shall not exist.”
It is difficult to credit the implications of this astonishing remark and to ascribe them to Sir Charles. As everyone recalls, Orwell’s novel is an imagination of the condition of the world if the authoritarian tendencies which are to be observed in the present develop themselves—logically, as it were—in the future, the point being that it is quite within the range of possibility that this ultimate development should take place. In Orwell’s representation of an absolute tyranny, science has a part, and a polemical partisan of science might understand this as the evidence of a literary man’s malice toward science. But it is much more likely that, when Orwell imagined science as one of the instruments of repression, he meant to say that science, like everything else that is potentially good, like literature itself, can be perverted and debased to the ends of tyranny. Orwell was a man who, on the basis of actual and painful experience, tried to tell the truth about politics, even his own politics. I believe that he never gave up his commitment to socialism, but he refused to be illusioned in any way he could prevent; it lay within the reach of his mind to conceive that even an idealistic politics, perhaps especially an idealistic politics, can pervert itself. To say of such a man that he wishes that the future—the presumably good future—shall not exist is like saying that intelligence wishes that the future shall not exist.
Having characterized the culture of literature, or, as he sometimes calls it, “the traditional culture,” by its hostility to the future, Sir Charles goes on to say that “it is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.” This being so, it follows that the traditional culture must be strictly dealt with if the future is to be brought into being: what is called “the existing pattern” must be not merely changed but “broken.” Only if this is done shall we be able to educate ourselves as we should. As for the need to educate ourselves: “To say, we have to educate ourselves or perish is perhaps a little more melodramatic than the facts warrant. To say, we have to educate ourselves or watch a steep decline in our lifetime is about right.” And Sir Charles indicates our possible fate by the instance—he calls it an “historical myth”—of the Venetian Republic in its last half century. “Its citizens had become rich, as we did, by accident. They had acquired immense political skill, just as we have. A good many of them were tough-minded, realistic, patriotic men. They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had been crystallized. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.”
I quoted without comment Sir Charles’s statement of the idea on which, we may say, the whole argument of The Two Cultures is based: “It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.” It is a bewildering statement. In what way can we possibly understand it? That the Western world is managed by some agency which is traditional is of course comprehensible. And we can take in the idea that this agency may be described, for particular purposes of explanation, in terms of a certain set of mind, a general tendency of thought and feeling which, being pervasive, is hard to formulate, and that this is to be called “a culture.” But for Sir Charles, the words “traditional” and “literary” are interchangeable, and that this culture, as we agree to call it, is literary, that it bears the same relation to actual literary men and their books that what is called the “scientific culture” bears to scientists and their work in laboratories, is truly a staggering thought. The actions of parliaments and congresses and cabinets in directing the massive affairs of state, the negotiations of embassies, the movement of armies and fleets, the establishment of huge scientific projects for the contrivance of armaments and of factories for the production of them, the promises made to citizens, and the choices made by voters at the polls—these, we are asked to believe, are in the charge of the culture of literature. What can this mean?
It can of course be said that literature has some part in the management of the Western world, a part which is limited but perhaps not wholly unimportant. If, for example, we compare the present condition of industrial England with the condition of industrial England in the early 19th century, we can say that the present condition is not, in human respects, anything like what men of good will might wish it to be, but that it is very much better than it was in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. And if we then ask what agencies brought about the improvement, we can say that one of them was literature. Certain literary men raised the “Condition of England Question” in a passionate and effective way and their names are still memorable to us—Coleridge, Carlyle, Mill (I take him to be a man of letters; he was certainly a good literary critic), Dickens, Ruskin, Arnold, William Morris. They made their effect only upon individuals, but the individuals they touched were numerous, and by what they said they made it ever harder for people to be indifferent to the misery around them or to the degradation of the national life in which they came to think themselves implicated. These literary men helped materially, some would say decisively, to bring about a change in the state of affairs. This is not exactly management, but it is a directing influence such as literature in the modern time often undertakes to have and sometimes does have.
Yet in Sir Charles’s opinion this directing influence of the literary men of the 19th century deserves no praise. On the contrary, his description of their work is but another count in the indictment of the culture of literature. Speaking of the response which literary men made to the Industrial Revolution, he says, “Almost everywhere . . . intellectual persons did not comprehend what was happening. Certainly the writers didn’t. Plenty of them shuddered away, as though the right course for a man of feeling was to contract out; some, like Ruskin and William Morris and Thoreau and Emerson and Lawrence, tried various kinds of fancies, which were not much in effect more than screams of horror. It is hard to think of a writer of high class who really stretched his imaginative sympathy, who could see at once the hideous back-streets, the smoking chimneys, the internal price—and also the prospects of life that were opening out for the poor. . . .”
Nothing could be further from the truth. No great English writer of the 19th century, once he had become aware of the Industrial Revolution, ever contracted out. This is not the place to rehearse the miseries that were acquiesced in by those who comforted the world and their own consciences with the thought of “the prospects of life that were opening out for the poor.” It is enough to say that there were miseries in plenty, of a brutal and horrifying kind, by no means adequately suggested by phrases like “the hideous back-streets, the smoking chimneys, the internal price.” (Auschwitz, since it has been mentioned, may be thought of as the development of the conditions of the factories and mines of the earlier Industrial Revolution.) If the writers “shuddered away,” it was not in maidenly disgust with machines and soot; if they uttered “screams of horror,” it was out of moral outrage at what man had made of man—and of women and little children. Their emotions were no different from those expressed by Karl Marx in his chapter on the Working Day, nor from those expressed in Blue Books by the factory inspectors, those remarkable men of the middle class whom Marx, in a moving passage of Capital, praises and wonders at for their transcendence of their class feelings.
I have mentioned Matthew Arnold among those writers who made the old conditions of the Industrial Revolution ever less possible. Like many of his colleagues in this undertaking, he did entertain “fancies”—they all found modern life ugly and fatiguing and in some way false, and they set store by certain qualities which are no doubt traditional to the point of being archaic3 But Arnold’s peculiar distinction as a literary critic is founded on the strong sensitivity of his response to the modern situation. He uniquely understood what Hegel had told the world, that the French Revolution marked an absolute change in the condition of man. For the first time in history, Hegel said, Reason—or Idea, or Theory, or Creative Imagination—had become decisive in human destiny. Arnold’s argument in “Literature and Science” was the affirmation of the French Revolution; he was speaking on behalf of the illumination and refinement of that Reason by which man might shape the conditions of his own existence. This is the whole purport of his famous statement, “Literature is the criticism of life.”
That saying used to have a rough time of it, perhaps because people found the word criticism narrow and dour and wished to believe that life was worthier of being celebrated than criticized. But less and less, I think, will anyone find the ground on which to quarrel with it. Whatever else we also take literature to be, it must always, for us now, be the criticism of life.
But it would seem to be precisely the critical function of literature that troubles Sir Charles. And perhaps that is why, despite all that he says about the need to educate ourselves, he does not make a single substantive proposal about education.
If we undertake to say what the purpose of modern education is, our answer will surely be suggested by Arnold’s phrase, together with the one by which he defined the particular function of criticism: “to see the object as in itself it really is.” Whenever we undertake to pass judgment on an educational enterprise, the import of these two phrases serves as our criterion: we ask that education supply the means for a criticism of life and teach the student to try to see the object as in itself it really is. Yet when Sir Charles speaks of the need to break the “existing pattern” and to go on to a right education, he does not touch upon any such standard of judgment. Although he would seem to be the likeliest person in the world to speak intelligently about the instruction in science of students who do not intend to be scientists, actually he says nothing more on the subject than that ignorance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is equivalent to ignorance of Shakespeare, or that the Yang-Lee experiment at Columbia should have been a topic of general conversation at college High Tables.
Nor does he propose anything for the education of the scientist, except, of course, science. He does say that scientists need to be “trained not only in scientific but in human terms,” but he does not say how. Scientists—but eventually one begins to wonder if they are really scientists and not advanced technologists and engineers—are to play a decisive part in the affairs of mankind, but nowhere does Sir Charles suggest that, if this is so, they will face difficulties and perplexities and that their education should include the study of books—they need not be “literary,” they need not be “traditional”: they might be contemporary works of history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy—which would raise the difficult questions and propose the tragic complexity of the human condition, which would suggest that it is not always easy to see the object as in itself it really is.
Well, it isn’t beyond belief that a professional corps of high intellectual quality, especially if it is charged with great responsibility, should learn to ask its own questions and go on to make its own ethos, perhaps a very good one. But Sir Charles would seem to be asking for more than the right of scientists to go their own way. What he seems to require for scientists is the right to go their own way with no questions asked. The culture of literature, having done its worst, must now be supplanted and is not ever to play the part of a loyal opposition. How else are we to understand Sir Charles’s contempt for the irresponsibility of the literary mind, his curious representation of the literary culture as having the management of the Western world, that is to say, as being answerable for all the anomalies, stupidities, and crimes of the Western world, for having made the “existing pattern” which must now be broken if the West is to survive or at least not suffer steep decline? It is manifest that the literary culture has lost the right to ask questions.
No one could possibly suppose of Charles Snow that he is a man who wants to curtail the rights of free criticism. The line which he takes in The Two Cultures is so far from the actuality of his temperament in this respect that we can only suppose that he doesn’t mean it, not in all the extravagance of its literalness. Or we suppose that he means it at the behest of some large preoccupation of whose goodness he is so entirely convinced that he will seek to affirm it even in ways that would take him aback if the preoccupation were not in control of his thought. And this, I think, is the case. I believe that the position of The Two Cultures is to be explained by Sir Charles’s preoccupation—it has become almost the best-known thing about him—with a good and necessary aim, with the assuring of peace, which is to say, with the compounding of the differences between the West and the Soviet Union. It is an aim which, in itself, can of course only do Sir Charles credit, yet it would seem to have implicit in it a strange desperate method of implementing itself.
For the real message of The Two Cultures is that an understanding between the West and the Soviet Union could be achieved by the culture of scientists, which reaches over factitious national and ideological differences. The field of agreement would be the scientists’ common perception of the need for coming together to put the possibilities of the scientific revolution at the disposal of the disadvantaged of all nations. The bond between scientists, Sir Charles has told us, is virtually biological: they all have the future in their bones. Science brings men together in despite of all barriers—speaking of the way in which the very wide differences in the class origins of English scientists were overcome to make the scientific culture of England (and seeming to imply that this is a unique grace of scientists, that English men of letters never had differences of class to overcome), Sir Charles says, “Without thinking about it, they respond alike. That is what a culture means.” And in the same way, “without thinking about it,” the scientists of the West and the scientists of the Soviet Union may be expected to “respond alike.” And, since “that is what a culture means,” they will have joined together in an entity which will do what govern-merits have not done, the work of relieving the misery of the world. But in the degree to which science naturally unites men, literature separates them, and the scientists of the world cannot form this beneficent entity until we of the West break the existing pattern of our traditional culture, the literary culture, which is self-regarding in its complacent acceptance of tragedy, which is not only indifferent to human suffering but willing to inflict it, which asks rude and impertinent questions about the present and even about the future.
It is a point of view that must, I suppose, in desperate days, have a show of reason. In desperate days, it always seems wise to throw something or someone overboard, preferably Jonah or Arion, the prophet or the poet. Mr. G. S. Fraser, for example, seems to understand what Sir Charles wants, and he is rather willing to go along with him, rather open to the idea that the achievement of peace may require some adverse judgment on literature. “It does not matter,” he says, “whether we save the real Cambridge within the actual Cambridge . . . ; what we want to save is our actual human world with all the spots on it. This will not be done by teaching English at universities; men like Snow, at home both in Russia and America, and in a simple blunt way trying to teach these two blunt simple giants to understand each other may in in the end prove greater benefactors than Dr. Leavis.”
No, the world will not be saved by teaching English at universities, nor, indeed, by any other literary activity. It is very hard to say what will save the world, and pretty surely it is no one single thing. But we can be perfectly certain that the world will not be saved by denying the actualities of the world. Among these actualities politics is one. And it can be said of The Two Cultures that it communicates the strongest possible wish that we should forget about politics. It mentions national politics once, speaking of it as the clog upon the activity of scientists, as the impeding circumstance in which they must work. But the point is not developed and the lecture has the effect of suggesting that the issue is not between the abilities and good intentions of scientists and the inertia or bad will of governments; the issue is represented as being between the good culture of science and the bad culture of literature.
In this denial of the actuality of politics, Sir Charles is at one with the temper of intellectuals today—we all want politics not to exist, we all want that statement of Hegel’s to be absolutely and immediately true, we dream of Reason taking over the whole management of the world, and soon. No doubt a beneficent eventuality, but our impatience for it is dangerous if it leads us to deny the actuality of politics in the present. While we discuss, at Sir Charles’s instance, the relative merits of scientific Philosopher Kings as against literary Philosopher Kings, politics goes on living its own autonomous life, of which one aspect is its massive resistance to Reason. What is gained by describing the resistance to Reason as other than it is, by thinking in the specious terms of two opposing “cultures”?
But of course the fact is that politics is not finally autonomous. It may be so massively resistant to Reason that we are led to think of its resistance as absolute—in bad times we conceive politics to be nothing but power. Yet it cannot be said—at least not so long as politics relies in any degree upon ideology—that politics is never susceptible to such Reason as is expressed in opinion, only that it is less susceptible in some nations and at some times than in other nations and at other times. And nowhere and at no time is politics exempt from moral judgment, whether or not that judgment is effectual. But if we make believe, as The Two Cultures does, that politics does not exist at all, then it cannot be the object of moral judgment. And if we deny all authority to literature, as The Two Cultures does, going so far as to say that the great traditional agency of moral awareness is itself immoral, then the very activity of moral judgment is impugned, except for that single instance of it which asserts the Tightness of bringing the benefits of science to the disadvantaged of the world. In short, Sir Charles, seeking to advance the cause of understanding between the West and the Soviet Union, would seem to be saying that this understanding will come if we conceive both that politics cannot be judged (because it does not really exist) and that it should not be judged (because the traditional agency of judgment is irresponsible).
I Judge the two Cultures to be a book which is mistaken in a very large way indeed. And I find the failure of Dr. Leavis’s criticism of it to consist in his addressing himself not to the full extent of its error but to extraneous matters. From reading the Richmond Lecture one gains the impression that the substance of the Rede Lecture is extremely offensive to Dr. Leavis, that all his sensibilities are outraged by it: we conclude that Sir Charles wants something which is very different from what Dr. Leavis wants, and that Dr. Leavis thinks that what Sir Charles wants is crude and vulgar. But we can scarcely suppose from Dr. Leavis’s response that what Sir Charles says has a very wide reference—for all we can tell, he might have been proposing a change in the university curriculum which Dr. Leavis is repelling with the violence and disgust that are no doubt often felt though not expressed at meetings of curriculum committees. For Dr. Leavis, who has always attached great importance to educational matters, the proposed change is certainly important beyond the university. He understands it both as likely to have a bad effect on the national culture and as being the expression of something already bad in the national culture. But this, we suppose, he would feel about any change in the curriculum.
In short, Dr. Leavis, in dealing with the Rede Lecture, has not seen the object as in itself it really is, just as Sir Charles, in dealing with the culture of literature in its relation to politics, has not seen the object as in itself it really is.
An example of the inadequacy of Dr. Leavis’s criticism of The Two Cultures is his response to what Sir Charles says, in concert with the distinguished scientist, about the political posture of the great writers of the modern period. That statement, if we stop short of its mention of Auschwitz—which makes a most important modification—certainly does have a color of truth. It is one of the cultural curiosities of the first three decades of the 20th century that, while the educated people, the readers of books, tended to become ever more liberal and radical in their thought, there is no literary figure of the very first rank (although many of the next rank) who, in his work, makes use of or gives credence to liberal or radical ideas. I remarked on this circumstance in an essay of 1946. “Our educated class,” I said, “has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation, perhaps especially where Russia is in question. These beliefs do great credit to those who hold them. Yet it is a comment, if not on our beliefs then on our way of holding them, that not a single first-rate writer has emerged to deal with these ideas, and the emotions that are consonant with them, in a great literary way. . . . If we name those writers who, by the general consent of the most serious criticism, by consent too of the very class of educated people of which we speak, are thought of as the monumental figures of our time, we see that to these writers the liberal ideology has been at best a matter of indifference. Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Yeats, Mann [as novelist], Kafka, Rilke, Gide [also as novelist]—all of them have their own love of justice and the good life, but in not one of them does it take the form of a love of the ideas and emotions which liberal democracy, as known by our educated class, has declared respectable.” To which it can be added that some great writers have in their work given credence or utterance to conservative and even reactionary ideas, and that some in their personal lives maintained a settled indifference to all political issues, or a disdain of them. No reader is likely to derive political light either from the works or the table-talk of a modern literary genius, and some readers (of weak mind) might even be led into bad political ways.
If these writers are to be brought to the bar of judgment, anyone who speaks as their advocate is not, as Sir Charles says, defending the indefensible. The advocacy can be conducted in honest and simple ways. It is not one of these ways to say that literature is by its nature or by definition innocent—it is powerful enough for us to suppose that it has the possibility of doing harm. But the ideational influence of literature is by no means always as direct as, for polemical purposes, people sometimes say it is. As against the dismay of Sir Charles and the distinguished scientist at the reactionary tendencies of modern literary geniuses, there is the fact—a bald one—that the English poets who learned their trade from Yeats and Eliot, or even from Pound, have notably had no sympathy with the social ideas and attitudes of their poetical masters.
Every university teacher of literature will have observed the circumstance that young people who are of radical social and political opinion are virtually never troubled by the opposed views or the settled indifference of the great modern writers. This is not because the young exempt the writer from dealing with the serious problems of living, or because they see him through a mere aesthetic haze. It is because they know—and quite without instruction—that, in D. H. Lawrence’s words, they are to trust the tale and not the teller of the tale. They perceive that the tale is always on the side of their own generous impulses. They know that, if the future is in the bones of anyone, it is in the bones of the literary genius, and exactly because the present is in his bones, exactly because the past is in his bones. They know that if a work of literature has any true artistic existence, it has value as a criticism of life; in whatever complex way it has chosen to speak, it is making a declaration about the qualities that life should have, about the qualities life does not have but should have. They feel, I think, that it is simply not possible for a work of literature that comes within the borders of greatness not to ask for more energy and fineness of life, and, by its own communication of awareness, bring these qualities into being. And if, in their experience of such a work, they happen upon an expression of contempt for some idea which they have connected with political virtue, they are not slow to understand that it is not the idea in its ideal form that is being despised, but the idea as it passes current in specious form, among certain and particular persons. I have yet to meet the student committed to an altruistic politics who is alienated from Stephen Daedalus by that young man’s disgust with political idealism, just as I have yet to meet the student from the most disadvantaged background who feels debarred from what Yeats can give him by the poet’s slurs upon shopkeepers or by anything else in his inexhaustible fund of snobbery.
If ever a man was qualified to state the case for literature, and far more persuasively than I have done, it is Dr. Leavis. His career as a critic and a teacher has been devoted exactly to the exposition of the idea that literature presents to us “the possibilities of life,” the qualities of energy and fineness that life might have. And it is, of course, the intention of the Richmond Lecture to say just this in answer to Sir Charles’s indictment. Yet something checks Dr. Leavis. When it is a question of the defense, not of literature in general, but of modern literature, he puts into countervailing evidence nothing more than a passage in which Lawrence says something, in a wry and grudging way, on behalf of social equality. This does not meet the charge; against it Sir Charles might cite a dozen instances in which Lawrence utters what Sir Charles—and perhaps even Dr. Leavis himself—would consider “the most imbecile expressions of anti-social feeling.”
There is only one feasible approach to the anti-social utterances of many modern writers, and that is to consider whether their expressions of anti-social feeling are nothing but imbecile. It is the fact, like it or not, that a characteristic cultural enterprise of our time has been the questioning of society itself, not its particular forms and aspects but its very essence. To this extreme point has the criticism of life extended itself. Of the ways of dealing with this phenomenon, that of horror and dismay, such as Sir Charles’s, is perhaps the least useful. Far better, it seems to me, is the effort to understand what this passionate hostility to society implies, to ask whether it is a symptom, sufficiently gross, of the decline of the West, or whether it is not perhaps an act of critical energy on the part of the West, an act of critical energy on the part of society itself—the effort of society to identify in itself that which is but speciously good, the effort to understand afresh the nature of the life it is designed to foster. I would not anticipate the answer, but these questions make, I am sure, the right way to come at the phenomenon.
It is not the way that Dr. Leavis comes at the phenomenon, despite his saying that the university study of literature must take its stand on the “intellectual-cultural frontier.” Of the two D. H. Lawrences, the one who descended from the social-minded 19th century and who did, in some sort, affirm the social idea, and the other, for whom the condition of salvation was the total negation of society, Dr. Leavis can be comfortable only with the former. For the fact is that his commitment to the intellectual-cultural frontier is sincere but chiefly theoretical; he has, as is well known, sympathy with very few modern writers, and he therefore cannot in good grace come to their defense against Sir Charles’s characterization of them.
Mr. walter allen, writing in the New York Times Book Review, has accurately remarked on “the common areas of agreement” between Dr. Leavis and Sir Charles. “One would expect. . . that Snow would be sympathetic to Leavis’s emphasis on the all-importance of the moral center of literature,” Mr. Allen says. “Both have attacked experiment in literature. Neither of them, to put it into crude shorthand, are Flaubert-and-Joyce men.” The similarities go further. In point of social background the two men are not much apart, at least to the untutored American eye. Both spring from the provincial middle class in one or another of its strata, and whatever differences there may have been in the material advantages that were available or lacking to one or the other, neither was reared in the assumption of easy privilege. From these origins they derived, we may imagine, their strong sense of quotidian actuality and a respect for those who discharge the duties it imposes, and a high regard for the domestic affections, a quick dislike of the frivolous and merely elegant. Neither, as I have suggested, has any least responsiveness to the tendencies of modern thought or literature which are existential or subversive. A lively young person of advanced tastes would surely say that if ever two men were committed to England, Home, and Duty, they are Leavis and Snow—he would say that in this they are as alike as two squares.
There is one other regard, an especially significant one, in which they are similar. This is their feeling about social class. One of the chief interests of Sir Charles’s novels is their explicitness about class as a determinative of the personal life, and in this respect The Two Cultures is quite as overt as the novels—its scientists make a new class by virtue of their alienation from the old class attitudes, and Sir Charles’s identification of literary men with the traditional culture which supposedly manages the Western world implies that they are in effect the representatives of an aristocratic ruling class, decadent but still powerful. The work of Dr. Leavis is no less suffused by the idea of social class, even though its preoccupation with the subject is far less explicit. To my recollection, Dr. Leavis does not make use of any of the words which denote the distinctions of English society—he does not refer to an aristocracy, a gentry, an upper-middle or lower-middle or working class. For him a class defines itself by its idea of itself—that is, by its tastes and style. Class is for him a cultural entity. And when he conceives of class power, as he often does, it is not economic or political power but, rather, cultural power that he thinks of. It is true that cultural power presents itself to his mind as being in some way suggestive of class power, but the actualities of power or influence are for him always secondary to the culture from which they arose or to which they give rise.
And indeed, no less than Sir Charles, Dr. Leavis is committed to the creation of a new class. This, we might even say, is the whole motive of his work. The social situation he would seem to assume is one in which there is a fair amount of mobility which is yet controlled and limited by the tendency of the mobile people to allow themselves to be absorbed into one of the traditional classes. As against the attraction exerted by a quasi-aristocratic, metropolitan upper-middle class, Dr. Leavis has taken it to be his function to organize the mobile people, those of them who are gifted and conscious, into a new social class formed on the basis of its serious understanding of and response to literature, chiefly English literature. In this undertaking he has by no means been wholly unsuccessful. One has the impression that many of the students he has trained think of themselves, as they take up their posts in secondary schools and universities, as constituting at least a social cadre.
The only other time I wrote about Dr. Leavis I remarked that the Cromwellian Revolution had never really come to an end in England and that Dr. Leavis was one of the chief colonels of the Roundhead party. His ideal readers are people who “are seriously interested in literature,” and it is on their behalf that he wages war against a cultural-social class which, when it concerns itself with literature, avows its preference for the qualities of grace, lightness, and irony, and deprecates an overt sincerity and seriousness. “To a polished nation,” said Gibbon, “poetry is an amusement of the fancy, not a passion of the soul,” and all through his career it is against everything that Gibbon means by a polished nation and might mean by a polished class that Dr. Leavis has set his face. Bloomsbury has been his characteristic antagonist. But now, in Charles Snow, he confronts an opponent who is as Roundhead as himself, and as earnest and intentional.
To this confrontation Dr. Leavis is not adequate. It is not an adequate response to the massive intention of The Two Cultures for Dr. Leavis to meet Sir Charles’s cultural preferences with his own preferences; or to seek to discredit Sir Charles’s ideas chiefly by making them out to be vulgar ideas or outmoded (Wellsian) ideas; or to offer, as against Sir Charles’s vision of a future made happier by science, the charms of primitive peoples “with their marvellous arts and skills and vital intelligence.” I do not mean to say that Dr. Leavis does not know where Sir Charles goes wrong in the details of his argument—he is as clear as we expect him to be in rebuking that quite massive blunder about the Victorian writers. Nor, certainly, do I mean that Dr. Leavis does not know what the great fundamental mistake of Sir Charles’s position is—he does, and he can be eloquent in asserting against a simplistic confidence in a scientific “future” the need of mankind, in the face of a rapid advance of science and technology, “to be in full intelligent possession of its full humanity (and ‘possession‘ here means, not confident ownership of that which belongs to us—our property, but a basic living deference towards that to which, opening as it does into the unknown and itself immeasurable, we know we belong).” But such moments of largeness do not save the Richmond Lecture from its general aspect of dealing with an issue that is essentially parochial. For example, of the almost limitless political implications of Sir Charles’s position it gives no evidence of awareness. And if we undertake to find a reason for the inadequacy of Dr. Leavis’s response, we will find, I think, that it is the same as the reason which accounts for Sir Charles having been in the first place so wholly mistaken in what he says—both men set too much store by the idea of culture as a category of thought.
The concept of culture is an idea of great attractiveness and undoubted usefulness. We may say that it begins in the assumption that all human expressions or artifacts are indicative of some considerable tendencies in the life of social groups or sub-groups, and that what is indicative is also causative—all cultural facts have their consequences. To think in cultural terms is to consider human expressions not only in their overt existence and avowed intention, but in, as it were, their secret life, taking cognizance of the desires and impulses which lie behind the open formulation. In the judgments which we make when we think in the category of culture we rely to a very large extent upon the style in which an expression is made, believing that style will indicate, or betray, what is not intended to be expressed. The aesthetic mode is integral to the idea of culture, and our judgments of social groups are likely to be made chiefly on an aesthetic basis—we like or do not like what we call their life-styles, and even when we judge moralities, the criterion by which we choose between two moralities of, say, equal strictness or equal laxness is likely to be an aesthetic one.
The concept of culture affords to those who use it a sense of the liberation of their thought, for they deal less with abstractions and mere objects, more with the momentous actualities of human feelings as these shape and condition the human community, as they make and as they indicate the quality of man’s existence. Not the least of the attractions of the cultural mode of thought are the passions which attend it—because it assumes that all things are causative or indicative of the whole of the cultural life, it proposes to us those intensities of moralized feeling which seem appropriate to our sense that all that is good in life is at stake in every cultural action. An instance of mediocrity or failure in art or thought is not only what it is but also a sin, deserving to be treated as such. These passions are vivifying; they have the semblance of heroism.
And if we undertake to say what were the circumstances that made the cultural mode of thought as available and as authoritative as it now is, we must refer to Marx, and to Freud, and to the general movement of existentialism, to all that the tendencies of modernity imply of the sense of contingency in life, from which we learn that the one thing that can be disputed, and that is worth disputing, is preference or taste. The Rede Lecture and the Richmond Lecture exemplify the use to which the idea of culture can be put in shaking the old certainties of class, in contriving new social groups on the basis of taste. All this does indeed give the cultural mode of thought a very considerable authority. Yet sometimes we may wonder if it is wholly an accident that so strong an impulse to base our sense of life, and our conduct of the intellectual life, chiefly upon the confrontations of taste should have developed in an age dominated by advertising, the wonderful and terrible art which teaches us that we define ourselves and realize our true being by choosing the right style. In our more depressed moments we might be led to ask whether there is a real difference between being The Person Who defines himself by his commitment to one or another idea of morality, politics, literature, or city-planning, and being The Person Who defines himself by wearing trousers without pleats.
We can, I suppose, no more escape from the cultural mode of thought than we can escape from culture itself. Yet perhaps we must learn to cast a somewhat colder eye upon it for the sake of whatever regard we have for the intellectual life, for the possibility of rational discourse. Sir Charles envisages a new and very powerful social class on the basis of a lifestyle which he imputes to a certain profession in contrast with the life-style he imputes to another profession, and he goes on from there to deny both the reality of politics and the possibility of its being judged by moral standards. Dr. Leavis answers him with a passion of personal scorn which obscures the greater part of the issue and offers in contradiction truth indeed but truth so hampered and hidden by the defenses of Dr. Leavis’s own choice in life-styles that it looks not much different from a prejudice. And the Spectator correspondents exercise their taste in lifestyles and take appropriate sides. It is at such a moment that our dispirited minds yearn to find comfort and courage in the idea of Mind, that faculty whose ancient potency our commitment to the idea of culture denies. To us today, Mind must inevitably seem but a poor gray thing, for it always sought to detach itself from the passions (but not from the emotions, Spinoza said, and explained the difference) and from the conditions of time and place. Yet it is salutary for us to contemplate it, whatever its grayness, because of the bright belief that was once attached to it, that it was the faculty which belonged not to professions, or to social classes, or to cultural groups, but to Man, and that it was possible for men, and becoming to them, to learn its proper use, for it was the means by which they could communicate with each other.
It was on this belief that science based its early existence, and it gave to the men who held it a character which is worth remarking. Sir Charles mentions Faraday among those scientists who overrode the limitations of social class to form the “scientific culture” of England. This is true only so far as it can be made consonant with the fact that Faraday could not have imagined the idea of a “scientific culture” and would have been wholly repelled by it. It is told of Faraday that he refused to be called a physicist; he very much disliked the new name as being too special and particular and insisted on the old one, philosopher, in all its spacious generality: we may suppose that this was his way of saying that he had not overridden the limiting conditions of class only to submit to the limitations of profession. The idea of Mind which had taught the bookbinder’s apprentice to embark on his heroic enterprise of self-instruction also taught the great scientist to place himself beyond the specialness of interest which groups prescribe for their members. Every personal episode in Tyndall’s classic account of his master, Faraday as a Researcher, makes it plain that Faraday undertook to be, in the beautiful lost sense of the word, a disinterested man. From his belief in Mind, he derived the certitude that he had his true being not as a member of this or that profession or class, but as—in the words of a poet of his time—“a man speaking to men.”
No one now needs to be reminded of what may befall the idea of Mind in the way of excess and distortion. The literature of the 19th century never wearied of telling us just this, of decrying the fatigue and dessication of spirit which result from an allegiance to Mind that excludes impulse and will, and desire and preference. It was, surely, a liberation to be made aware of this, and then to go on to take serious account of those particularities of impulse and will, of desire and preference, which differentiate individuals and groups—to employ what I have called the cultural mode of thought. We take it for granted that this, like any other mode of thought, has its peculiar dangers, but there is cause for surprise and regret that it should be Sir Charles Snow and Dr. Leavis who have jointly demonstrated how far the cultural mode of thought can go in excess and distortion.
1 Arnold, of course, did not use the word in the modern sense in which it is used by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of thought and art; this is, more or less, the sense in which it is used by Snow. For Arnold, “culture” was “the best that has been thought and said in the world” and also an individual person's relation to this body of thought and expression. My own use of the word in this essay is not Arnold's.
2 In an editorial note, Dr. Leavis is quoted as saying, “The lecture was private and representatives of the press who inquired were informed that there was no admission and that no reporting was to be permitted. The appearance in newspapers of garbled reports has made it desirable that the lecture should appear in full.”
3 Emerson doesn't deserve Sir Charles's scorn on this point. His advice to the American scholar was that he should respond positively to the actual and the modern, and he was inclined to take an almost too unreserved pleasure in new forms of human energy and ingenuity. As for Thoreau, his quarrel was not with factories but with farms—and families.
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Science, Literature & Culture: A Comment on the Leavis-Snow Controversy
Must-Reads from Magazine
Preening doesn't work.
Donald Trump’s demagogic rhetoric on the media is dangerous and un-American. When he describes reporters and editors as “enemies of the people,” or when he chuckles at Rodrigo Duterte’s remark that the media are “spies,” the president wounds the dignity of his office and America’s already-infirm civic health. The question is what the media should do to check the president’s rhetorical excesses.
One answer is for America’s mainstream newsrooms to tell the American people that reporters are not, in fact, the enemy and the president should cut it out with his anti-media crusade. For all the commercial pressures they face today, American journalists are still perched by prominent windows overlooking the national public square, which means they still get a hearing from the people down below when they wish.
I suppose that was the bright idea behind Thursday’s simultaneous publication of pro-media editorials in the editorial pages of 350 newspapers across the country. Participating outlets included national papers like the New York Times (naturally) as well as scores of regional ones, plus a few magazines and professional societies. If you can bring yourself to wade through one dull editorial after another, by all means: CNN has links to all 350.
But our mostly liberal colleagues in the edit-page business are fooling themselves if they imagine that this latest national teach-in will foster greater trust in the media, especially among the millions of Americans who in 2016 registered their discontent with the country’s establishment in toto by sending a vulgarian from Queens to the Oval Office. Those Americans—and not all of them were die-hard Trumpians—had had it with a prestige press that too often saw itself as an adjunct to the liberal cause rather than the cause of truth. They had had it with the subtle and not-so-subtle biases, the servility to liberal politicians, the contempt for their cherished beliefs and condescension for their ways of life.
To regain that trust, it will not do to condemn and condescend some more.
Jesse Brenneman, a New York City radio producer, understands this perfectly. In an ongoing satirical video series posted to Twitter, Brenneman documents his mockumentary-style road trip in “Trump country.” The aim is supposedly to understand the frustrations that led to Trump. But Brenneman mostly ends up yelling at the Trumpians from his driver’s seat, as his car zooms through regions like Central Pennsylvania: “WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU VOTE FOR HIM? WHY? WHY? WHY? IS IT ABORTION? DO WE NEED TO HAVE FEWER ABORTIONS? WHY DO YOU WATCH FOX NEWS? IT’S NOT TRUE, MUCH OF IT!”
Brenneman is gently chiding his own media comrades. But the 350 editorials amount to a self-serious version of the same thing: Trust us. We’re the media. What’s wrong with you!
Regaining trust requires something else. It requires factually sound reporting and the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads. It calls for reporters who conduct themselves professionally on social media, who don’t give vent to their anti-conservative animosities at every turn. And pundits who don’t change their minds about an issue merely because they find themselves on the same side as Trump. In short, it requires a return to journalism basics.
That’s hard work. Hectoring editorials are easier.
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Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, told a stunned crowd on Wednesday that the United States of America “was never that great.” He followed that flat-footed line with a series of bromides about how America will “reach greatness” when mankind ceases to stereotype, discriminate, and degrade one another, but the damage was done. Cuomo’s primary opponent, the progressive insurgent and former actress Cynthia Nixon, mocked the governor for failing in the attempt to mimic “what a progressive sounds like.” That is a telling admission. Presumably, Nixon’s idealized “progressive” would more adroitly explain why American greatness is overstated.
You might think that President Donald Trump would take the opportunity presented by Cuomo’s faceplant to wrap himself in the flag, but he opted only to mock the Empire State’s executive for “having a total meltdown.” The president’s instincts are equally revealing. After all, the phrase “Make America Great Again” concedes that America is, at present, not all that great. This is an earnest conviction on Trump’s part.
In accepting the GOP presidential nomination, Trump painted a portrait of a country that was weak and failing. Shackled by political correctness, riddled with violent crime, beset by dangerous migrants and violent refugees, subverted by craven politicians, and plagued by a crisis of confidence in its mission; Trump’s vision of the country was best summed in the most memorable line from his first inaugural address: “American carnage.” Just 19 months later, the president insists that the nation has been made whole again, which is more a function of his competence than the national character.
These two provisory expressions of patriotism share more commonalities than distinctions. Everyone has their own definition of patriotism, and love of country should not be blind. Unwavering reverence is an expression of faith, not gratitude. Patriotism must know prudent limits, or it may come to justify venality and violence. But patriotism is distinct from an understanding of what makes the United States a great and exceptional nation.
American greatness is established in its Constitution. The nation’s founding charter endures because of two conditions that prevailed at the close of the 18th Century. First, the collection of sovereign states that hammered out a national government was careful to premise a prospective Union on decentralization and federalism. That diffusion preserves local social and legal customs and, thus, domestic harmony. Second, the Constitution’s framers operated on the assumptions espoused by the Enlightenment’s leading luminaries, among them Lockean notions of legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed. These two assumptions led James Madison to conclude in Federalist 51 that “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority” even while “all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society.”
It was also in Federalist 51 in which Madison articulated a truth about human nature that has vexed prideful technocrats since the dawn of time: Mankind is flawed. The species cannot be perfected. Thus, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The revolutionary movements that followed America’s founding held this capitulatory revelation in low esteem. They sought to create “ideal” societies in which mankind’s contradictions and baser impulses would dissolve into a new social consciousness. It is no coincidence that those “ideal” revolutionary societies eventually descended into bloodshed, oppression, and disunion while America endured.
The Constitution’s amendments are equally exceptional. With a few lamentable deviations, the amendments are a set of negative rights that proscribe governmental action rather than establish that which the government can do. That is a paradigmatic triumph; it established as America’s baseline ethos the idea that human freedoms not expressly enumerated in the Constitution are implied. They do not flow from the beneficence of some far-off potentate. They are God-granted. The concept of unenumerated rights is as revolutionary today as it was in the 18th century, and it remains an alien notion outside the Anglophonic world.
America is capable of astonishing violence and repression, but it equally adept at reconciliation and renewal. That capacity is rooted in Americans’ remarkable facility for compromise. The story of the United States is, in many ways, a story of compromise, and not all of those compromises are worthy of celebration. The facility Americans have for negotiation and concession has, however, forged a government and kept it. It is what has made the United States the most successful experiment in cultural intermixing in human history. It is what fortifies its incredible capitalist dynamism. And its commerce remains the greatest vehicle for achieving equality, meritocracy, and human flourishing ever devised.
So much of what America’s critics lament about the country’s inherent flaws—its hostility toward collectivism, the ruthlessness of its entrepreneurial spirit, its manic bouts of isolationism and extroversion on the world stage, and the tensions between old and new immigrants—are outgrowths of the traits that make it extraordinary. The nation’s commitment to pluralism, egalitarianism, and unity around shared principles rather than cultural, tribal, or subnational bonds is what makes America unique among nations. It will never stop striving to achieve the ideals of its founding; ideals are, after all, often unattainable. But its shared creed is the North Star toward which the United States has looked for a quarter millennium.
All these things that make America great are hardly immutable traits, and some careless future generation may one day abandon them. But despite America’s weakness for fad and experimentation, those fundamental tenets have proven resistant to change. As Jonah Goldberg observed in Suicide of the West, Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” cannot be improved upon. Any effort to amend that claim would be a regression to a more primitive state. That and the many other gifts that the founding generation left behind ensured that the United States was a uniquely magnificent nation on day one. Don’t let any politician tell you otherwise.
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The limits of religious liberty.
Jack Phillips once more finds himself on the sharp end of liberal “tolerance.” He was the Colorado baker at the center of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the one who in 2012 refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. A state civil-rights commission censured Phillips and ordered him to undergo ideological retraining. But a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court found that the commission had exhibited such overt hostility to Phillips’s religious views as to have violated the state’s “obligation of religious neutrality” under the First Amendment.
But it appears the commission didn’t get the message. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips in the original case, reports:
On June 26, 2017, the same day that the Supreme Court agreed to take up Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, an attorney asked Phillips to create a cake designed pink on the inside and blue on the outside, which the attorney said was to celebrate a gender transition from male to female. Phillips declined the request because the custom cake would have expressed messages about sex and gender identity that conflict with his religious beliefs. Less than a month after the Supreme Court ruled for Phillips in his first case, the state surprised him by finding probable cause to believe that Colorado law requires him to create the requested gender-transition cake.
This time, however, Phillips and the ADF are taking the fight to the state. On Tuesday, the ADF filed a lawsuit against Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and the members of the commission, alleging anti-religious bullying and harassment of Phillips aimed at ruining his business and livelihood.
Many religious conservatives see this new case as an opportunity to “firm up” the Court’s Masterpiece holding. If it makes it to the Supreme Court, especially one with a Justice Kavanaugh, there is a good chance that Americans will end up with sturdier protections against illiberal liberalism than former Justice Anthony Kennedy’s whimsical jurisprudence permitted.
But by my lights, the renewed persecution of Phillips also reveals the limits of “religious liberty” as a sword and organizing principle for the right. As I predicted when the original decision was handed down,
the inner logic of today’s secular progressivism puts the movement continually on the offensive. A philosophy that rejects all traditional barriers to individual autonomy and self-expression won’t rest until all “thou shalts” are defeated, and those who voice them marginalized. For a transgender woman to fully exercise autonomy, for example, the devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew must recognize her as a woman. People of faith and others who cling to traditional views must publicly assent to what they don’t believe.
And here we are. “Religious freedom,” without a substantive politics that offers a vision of the common good, can easily allow liberalism to frame traditional moral precepts as little more than superstitions best relegated to the private sphere of the mind. Under the banner of liberty, religious conservatives might win procedural victories here and there. But they will be cornered in the long-term.
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Whatever Donald wants, he's gonna get it.
What do Republicans believe? Whatever Donald Trump tells them they should believe, it seems.
In survey after survey, self-described Republicans—admittedly a severely truncated demographic in the Trump era—are surrendering not just principle but common sense to whatever Trump needs them to say at the moment. The positions Republicans adopt to prop up the president are often so outside the American right’s traditional credo that it’s hard to believe they’re being honest.
According to a June Axios-sponsored SurveyMonkey poll, a whopping 92 percent of Republicans believe the conventional press deliberately runs with false or misleading stories. That’s not especially surprising. Republicans have a long-standing grievance with the mainstream media, and nearly three-quarters of all respondents in this survey agree with them. What is unique and, frankly, disturbing is the apparent resolve of GOP voters to do something about it.
A Quinnipiac University survey released last week showed that a majority of Republicans agree with the Trump White House’s determination that the press is the “enemy of the people.” An Ipsos poll released around the same time confirmed that close to a majority of GOP voters believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.” That same poll showed that a significant plurality of GOP voters—43 to 36 percent—think Trump should have the expressly unconstitutional authority to shutter media outlets with which he disagrees. Or, rather, “news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” whatever that means.
The GOP base also seems generally unfazed by Donald Trump’s bizarre rhetorical deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. An Economist-backed YouGov poll in early July showed 56 percent of the GOP said that “Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is mostly a good thing for the United States,” while only 40 percent said that the United States should remain a member of the NATO alliance. In 2014, only 22 percent of Republicans thought of Russia as friendly toward or allied with the United States. Today, via Gallup, that’s up to 40 percent of Republicans.
Given that, it’s no surprise that 70 percent of self-identified Republicans broke with the vast majority of the public and gave the president high marks for his press conference alongside Putin, in which he disparaged his own Cabinet and intelligence officials and heaped praise upon the autocrat in the Kremlin.
Donald Trump’s rhetorical servility toward Putin contrasts greatly with his administration’s admirably hawkish posture toward Moscow, but don’t ask Republican voters to reconcile these contradictions. A July Fox News poll found that 57 percent of GOP voters think that Trump’s toughness toward Russia is “about right.” So, which is it?
“An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans,” Donald Trump said to the applause of Republicans as he accepted the party’s presidential nomination. Ever since, the president has occupied his time attacking law enforcement, and Republicans are with him all the way.
Seventy-five percent of Republicans in a recent poll agree with the president that the special counsel’s office established by a Trump-appointed deputy attorney general is conducting a “witch hunt” targeting him and his allies. This position concedes that the 12 Russian nationals, 13 Russian intelligence officers, and five Americans who pleaded guilty to various crimes as a result of Robert Mueller’s work retain the president’s full faith and confidence. But perhaps that conclusion takes the average Republican voter literally and not seriously.
More seriously, six in ten Republicans tell pollsters that they believe the FBI is actively trying to frame the President of the United States for a crime. Logically, then, it stands to reason that most in the GOP believe that law enforcement is a politicized institution that is waging an underhanded campaign to de-legitimize an election and carry out something akin to a coup. In February, Reuters/Ipsos found that 73 percent of Republicans believe just that. But if the coup narrative were true and an existential threat to the foundations of the Republic had been uncovered, would Republicans really behave as they are—placidly allowing Democrats to out-raise, out-organize, and out-campaign GOP candidates consistently for over 18 months?
Even in trifling matters in which the stakes are so low that they hardly merit the effort it takes to lie—like the president’s baseless claim that “between 3 million and 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election,” thus robbing Trump of a popular vote victory in 2016—a majority of Republican voters are willing to compromise themselves. And only to spare the president from the shame of trivial embarrassment.
Some contend that these results are an outgrowth of the fact that voters have deciphered the pollster’s game. Respondents are savvy enough to know when survey-takers are genuinely trying to take the public’s temperature on an issue and when they are merely seeking to exacerbate tensions within the GOP camp. Thus, this line of reasoning goes, respondents who support Trump are more likely to answer questions in a way that demonstrates their fealty toward the president even if they don’t necessarily hold that position. In other words, these are all lies. Maybe that’s true, but it’s cold comfort. The lies we tell ourselves become our truth if we tell them often enough.
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arly in the morning of July 19, after eight hours of debate, the Knesset passed by a vote of 62–55 (with two abstentions) a law codifying Israel’s status as the national home of the Jewish people. First introduced in 2011 by the centrist Kadima Party, the so-called nation-state bill joined more than a dozen “Basic Laws” that now function as Israel’s unwritten constitution. Its 11 paragraphs mostly restate long-operative principles of Israeli democracy: Hebrew is the national language, “Hatikvah” is the national anthem, the menorah is the national emblem, Jerusalem is the nation’s capital, and Israel is where the self-determination of the Jewish nation is exercised.
One might find it surprising that such generalities would provoke a global outcry. Then again, Israel and selective indignation seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Criticisms run the gamut from saying the law is unnecessary and provocative to saying it’s racist and anti-democratic. The Israeli left, in alliance with Israel’s minority Arabs and Druze, has marched in the streets. Institutions of the Jewish Diaspora have called for the law’s repeal. They have found themselves, rather uneasily, on the same side of the debate as anti-Zionists and Israel-haters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in Muslim capitals, and in the EU and UN. “The spirit of Hitler, which led the world to a great catastrophe, has found its resurgence among some of Israel’s leaders,” said Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan.
Leaving aside anti-Semites such as Erdogan, reasonable people and friends of Israel may disagree about the necessity and utility of the nation-state law. Such disagreement, however, ought to be based on facts. And facts have been sorely lacking in recent discussions of Israel—thanks to an uninformed, biased, and one-sided media. Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti–Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the Diaspora.
For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: The bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error.
On July 19, in the New York Times, David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner wrote that the Knesset’s “incendiary move” had been “denounced by centrists and leftists as racist and anti-democratic.” Why? Because the law “omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality.” But that is because other Basic Laws already have codified the democratic and egalitarian character of Israel, including two laws dealing specifically with human rights.
The nation-state law, the Times continued, also “promotes the development of Jewish communities, possibly aiding those who would seek to advance discriminatory land-allocation policies.” Put the emphasis on possibly, because there’s nothing in the law to provide such aid.
Indeed, the nation-state law contains no additional rights for Jews; nor does it promulgate fewer rights for Arabs. Halbfinger and Kershner went on to say that the law “downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a ‘special status.’” But then, far into the piece, the writers also acknowledged that “it is largely a symbolic sleight since a subsequent clause says, ‘This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.’”
A July 22 front-page article in the Times by Max Fisher was headlined “Israel Picks Identity Over Democracy. More Nations May Follow.” This was a funny way to characterize a law that had won majority support, following parliamentary procedure, of a democratically elected legislative body. Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled this piece, as well as the additional four news articles and four op-eds the Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as “results favored by the New York Times editorial board,” and Israel’s national self-understanding is in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government.
Fisher’s “Interpreter” column began with an anecdote recalling how David Ben-Gurion “emerged from retirement in July 1967” and “insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered” after repelling the invasion of three Arab armies a month earlier. Unfortunately for Fisher, this dramatic episode seems to be apocryphal. Historian Martin Kramer, after exhaustive research, concluded, “There’s no evidence that Ben-Gurion warned Israelis that their victory ‘had sown the seeds of self-destruction,’ either in July 1967 or later.” Fisher stands by his story.
The questionable claims did not stop there. “The quality of Israeli democracy has been declining steadily since the early 2000s,” Fisher continued, an era that just happens to have coincided with the rise of Israeli statesmen whose politics he and the political scientists he cites find detestable.
Fisher also mentioned a “wave of horrific violence known as the Second Intifada, which killed far more Palestinians than Israelis, [and] included shocking terrorist attacks in previously safe Israeli enclaves.” But where did this violence come from? Who committed the shocking terrorist acts? It’s left unsaid.
Denying Arab agency is a longstanding habit of Israel’s critics. And that is what’s noteworthy about these often-hysterical reactions to the nation-state law: The stories use the legislation merely as a jumping-off point for larger complaints about Israel’s Jewish character. For these writers, this isn’t a debate over the Israeli flag. It’s a debate over Jewish nationalism and a proxy for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
In a July 24 “Ideas” piece for Time, Ilene Prusher wrote, “It’s not clear that the equality outlined in the founders’ vision statement”—that’s progressive-speak for “Declaration of Independence”—“remains a goal. It’s certainly far from reality.” Prusher continued, “The new law provides legal teeth for discrimination that is currently de facto” and, citing a left-wing law professor at Hebrew University, “essentially makes discrimination constitutional.”
No, it doesn’t, actually. Rather than speculate, the nation-state bill’s opponents might try examining the actual text, which says absolutely nothing about discrimination. As Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University said during a recent episode of the Jewish Leadership Conference podcast, “Anything can be perverted—but that does not mean everything is perverse.”
The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. So are many of the values one normally associates with (egad!) the New York Times. Last I checked, Israel is the one country in the Middle East where you can attend an LGBT Pride parade. Noah Ephron, a critic of the nation-state law, points out that the proportion of women serving in the Knesset is higher than in the U.S. Congress or average EU parliament. There is universal health care. “Alone among Western democracies,” Ephron adds, “labor unions have grown bigger and stronger in Israel over the past decade.” Minority citizens are guaranteed the same rights as Jewish ones. And it is precisely these achievements that are sustained by Israel’s Jewish character and traditions.
The Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said dismissively, “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish State.