Marcuse has caught up with his following. "An Essay on Liberation" is a love-letter written to the young, and to…
Marcuse has caught up with his following. An Essay on Liberation1 is a love-letter written to the young, and to the blacks too. But there was a time when Marcuse was above that sort of thing, his intellectualism proudly impervious to movements whose salient traits are, when viewed dogmatically, good looks and good intentions. He had a strict conception of what counted as serious. And the young and the blacks, if they were mentioned at all, were not treated as though they were serious or could matter very much. Indeed, Marcuse suggested that the young, anyway, were really working for the system by working against it. In the last two or three years, however, Marcuse’s line has been changing. The change is systematized in An Essay on Liberation. The book is thus a revision of his general theory. At the same time, because of other things it contains, it can be seen as a provisional completion of his general theory. Altogether, its publication provides an occasion for looking at some main elements in the body of his work.
A distinguished body of work it is—there can be no doubt about that. To those who observe with delight a rich mind move slowly, but move purposively, over an almost impossibly difficult field, Marcuse’s writings come as a precious gift. At a time when there is so much silliness and drunken rhetoric on the Left, Marcuse’s arduousness is, in contrast, almost startling—though he does not need the contrast to win praise. After years of comparative neglect he now exerts considerable influence on serious writers, Left, left-liberal, and liberal. This influence will grow. On the other hand, he has become a figure of publicity: venerated by students who, as Marcuse himself says, have not read him; made into a symbol of all radicalism by the press; and denounced by the Pope and by the chief ideologue of the East German government (who, in their denunciations do not indicate that they have read him either), and by others as well, Left, Right, and Center, capitalist and Communist. Ignorance fuels the love and hate. The love and hate have no objective correlative. It is as if Marcuse’s fate illustrates the very tendencies of the mass age he diagnoses. The dénouement of the farce was the recent threat on his life (signed by the Ku Klux Klan, but thought by Marcuse to be the work of others).
We must close our ears to all this noise and try to hear what Marcuse is saying. I think that his analysis—as presented in Eros and Civilization (1955), Soviet Marxism (1958), One-Dimensional Man (1964), An Essay on Liberation (1969), and in a number of articles—can be reduced to five theses.2 There are uncertainties, ambiguities, a few inconsistencies, vagueness of reference, and some changes. But at this point it would seem to me that Marcuse believes that:
- advanced industrial society, or the affluent society, in the West, with the United States farthest along, is preponderantly evil, both for the harm it does and the good it prevents, internally and externally;
- on balance, and internally, the Soviet Union is worse in actuality, better in potentiality, but with no guarantee that it will in fact become better;
- the evil of each system is not correctable peacefully, by those in control or by their likely heirs;
- in the abstract, revolution may therefore be justifiable;
- we may be witnessing the emergence of certain forces that could perhaps bring about qualitative, genuinely revolutionary changes in the West, while developments in the Soviet bloc are, if anything, more problematic.
It is clear that anyone who propounded these theses would not have many friends. Marcuse’s characteristic tone of voice is condemnatory, and the scope of his condemnation is almost universal. Still, those who hate him usually misrepresent him. Pope Paul, a generally careful scholar and a brilliant reactionary, wrongly charges Marcuse with advocating uninhibited sexuality. Soviet-bloc theoreticians abuse him unjustly for claiming that the capitalist and Communist worlds are becoming ever more alike. I am not saying that if they read him, or read him more carefully, they would hate him less. They would simply have to hate him for reasons other than the ones they give. As for those who love him, they too would have to adjust their emotion after reading him. Even at his most indulgent to the young, as in An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse is austere, complex, and full of doubt. No, his thought is too delicate for the rough hands of the world. He is a philosopher, and should be approached as any other philosopher: with respect, not idolatry; with skepticism, not blunt dislike. Above all, he should not be approached with a literal mind. His ideal reader is the conscientious liberal, who is either happy in his liberalism, but shouldn’t be; or unhappy in it, but doesn’t quite know why.
Let us try to understand the reasoning behind Marcuse’s beliefs. The first thesis is the most important: Advanced industrial society is preponderantly evil. One does not cheapen Marcuse’s thought by saying that he is predisposed to condemn, that he is inclined to hold an apocalyptic vision. He has been proudly and grandly in the Marxist tradition since his early days in Germany, though he is certainly not orthodox. And for all the severity of his philosophizing, he is a romantic: the romanticism keeps breaking through in lyrical passages, such as those in Eros and Civilization and An Essay on Liberation, on the qualities of desirable life. Who can say which comes first, the Marxism or the romanticism? In any case, the combination conduces to intellectual rebelliousness. When that rebelliousness meets continuous disappointment—the failure of the European Left after the First World War, the Stalinization of the Russian Revolution, the coming of Fascism and Nazism, the successes of American capitalism after the Second World War—despair is natural. From despair comes rage, which gets transmuted—or sublimated, as Marcuse would say—into a total radical rejection. The rejection is not sullen, it is not rancorous; but it is unremitting and may, after a while, appear to others, even those sympathetic, as exaggerated, almost, almost, mad.
Marcuse’s starting-point is the view that we live in a time of emergency.
. . . the whole society is in the situation of the theater audience when somebody cries: “fire!” It is a situation in which the total catastrophe could be triggered off any moment, not only by a technical error, but also by a rational miscalculation of risks, or by a rash speech of one of the leaders. . . . The whole post-fascist period is one of clear and present danger.
Even without nuclear destruction, the present order contains the possibility for “the advent of a long period of ‘civilized’ barbarism.”
Nuclear war, then, is Marcuse’s deepest anxiety, as it must be that of any sane person. He is aware, of course, that no one now in power wants to wage nuclear war, at least not against another nuclear power. (He does say that it “seems” that in Vietnam only American “fear of the other nuclear powers has so far prevented the use of nuclear or seminuclear weapons against a whole people and a whole country.”) The matter is more complicated. “The efforts to prevent such a [nuclear] catastrophe overshadow the search for its potential causes in contemporary industrial society.” Marcuse contends that advanced industrial society, epitomized by America, is in its essence a militarist, bellicose, aggressive society. It lives on the preparations for war, the tensions of the threat of war, and the waging of war. It is driven into an imperialist career. Though the war in Vietnam may have begun, as it were, accidentally, it “has become a test case for the productivity, competitiveness, and prestige of the whole.” Given that tendency, America permanently confronts the world with the chance that its inner drives will one day get so far out of hand as to plunge the world into nuclear calamity. (I know this transition sounds weak, but it’s the best I can make of what Marcuse says.) Russia is not blameless. Marcuse knows that. But he seems to be saying that the United States is by far the biggest source of danger. I think he would subscribe to the Chinese assertion that the United States is the greatest enemy of the peoples of the world.
There is no doubt that the war in Vietnam has made Marcuse’s opinions much more pointed. Before that war, however, Marcuse worried about America’s proneness to militarism. In that respect, he built on the work of C. Wright Mills, among others.
Why is war the essence of the advanced industrial system of America? Marcuse’s answer to this question of questions is not completely clear. Sometimes he stresses economic considerations, following the lead of earlier Marxist writers like Lenin, Hilferding, and Rosa Luxemburg. Sometimes he offers a psychological explanation which relegates economic compulsions to a decidedly secondary position. It is not that over time he abandoned one theory for another: both exist in uncertain relation throughout his writings.
The economic theory seems to me much less compelling. No one can deny that there are economic interests—as there are personal, partisan, and bureaucratic interests—that need war and the threat of war to thrive. But Marcuse is not much concerned with particular interests (he is characteristically not concerned with particularities of any sort). His analysis is of wholes. He gives no room to accident. His aim is to indict a system and foreclose the notion of significant, partial amelioration. So that it is not simply a matter of Presidential vanity, party rivalry over a good reputation for patriotism, the courting of ethnic and religious minorities, the desire of the military for larger rather than smaller budgets and for an arena in which to gain honor and experiment with weapons, the avarice of the aerospace industries. Not even the “military-industrial complex” casts a wide enough net. The system as a whole is to blame: to the degree to which we all benefit from it, we are all implicated in its evil. Its evil is fated, not contingent.
Though he does not attain clarity, Marcuse avoids crudity. He says, “. . . the classical concept of imperialism is outdated; there are certainly no basic United States economic interests that would explain the war in Vietnam.” What then of an economic nature would explain that war, and prepare us to expect others like it or worse than it? First of all, there is the apparent necessary link between American prosperity and the maintenance of military expenditures. Marcuse refers to the “permanent defense economy,” and to the Welfare-Warfare or “Welfare-through-Warfare State.” The premise is that war creates demand and thus helps to sustain a high standard of living, and that in the absence of this grotesque artificiality there would be recession or depression. Marcuse does not develop that point. I suppose he thinks that it stands in no need of elaboration, that it has passed into the conventional wisdom, that everybody knows it to be true even though some try to ignore or lie about it.
But the fact is that it would be hard to find any economist who would agree with the bare proposition that there could be no general prosperity without a “permanent defense economy.” To be sure, a rapid demilitarization of the American economy would produce terrible strains; equally true, there are sectors of the American economy that have grown to have a vested interest in war. But if these particularities were left aside, important as they are, economists would go on to point to other, non-military ways of creating demand, preserving full employment, and sustaining a high standard of living: some mixture of lower taxes, deficit spending, and public expenditure for civilian purposes. For America, at least, there is no impediment a priori to a permanent peace economy of general prosperity. The decisive factor would be the political will to create such a condition. Marcuse would be ready to declare that such a political will could never emerge. He may be right. Nevertheless, he would still have to distinguish economic necessity from political impotence. At this stage in the argument he would have to see that it is not capitalism as such that needs war to solve its contradictions. In our present and future reality war may intensify them. Vietnam may teach that lesson, even to those who rule. Only once, and in passing, does Marcuse perceive that. He says, “Corporate capitalism is not immune against economic crisis. The huge ‘defense’ sector of the economy not only places an increasingly heavy burden on the taxpayer, it also is largely responsible for the narrowing margin of profit.”
One’s confidence in Marcuse’s economic thought is not increased by some other remarks. He says that the weakness of capitalism derives from “the constant danger of overproduction in a narrowing world market”; and that Western capitalism has long since passed the stage where “it could grow on its own resources . . . market, and on normal trade with other areas.” So if Marcuse thinks, from one point of view, that war is made to prime the economic pump, he also thinks, from another point of view, that war is the servant of the exploitation of others, those in the Third World. The “classical concept of imperialism” is reintroduced. In the very passage where he calls it “outdated,” he writes:
In fighting against the wars of liberation, the affluent society fights for its future, for its potential of raw materials, cheap labor and investment. . . . Vietnam has to be seen in the global context: a triumph of the national liberation movement there may well be the signal for the activation of such movements in other areas of the world—areas far closer to home where basic economic interests are indeed involved.
More than that, defeat in Vietnam may be a signal for “rebellion at home.” Marcuse knows he is accepting some version of the “domino” theory. Nor does he depart from the classical concept of imperialism when he insists that capitalism is a global system, and that what is physically external to it—the backward countries—is in fact intrinsic to its functioning.
Without examination, Marcuse adheres to the assumption that the capitalist world stands in an exploitative position in relation to the backward countries. Yes, of course, American and Western European investments are great absolutely—if not relative to their total investments, or relative to the needs of the backward countries themselves. And, yes, America and Western Europe practice an often cruel neo-colonialism, up to and including subversion of governments and military intervention, when indigenous forces threaten foreign interests. But questions remain. Is it true to say that America will always intervene to defend these interests? Is not intervention the exception rather than the rule? And when there is intervention, is it certain that the motivation is primarily economic, and not political or even, sincerely though foolishly, ideological? The test cases, in recent times, are American involvement in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. Do we find here the economic motivation at work, even in the indirect and extended sense Marcuse mentions? I do not believe the answer is yes. Furthermore, is it not true that foreign investments in the Third World are not only, not importantly, exploitative, but in effect better for those countries than no investments, better than nothing? Isn’t the tragedy more one of neglect than exploitation? Marcuse himself acknowledges that the backward countries “depend, for the capital requirements of primary accumulation, on the advanced industrial societies and their imperial interests.” We must say that the Western world helps to solidify the control of sometimes loath-some indigenous elites; that America is pathologically, stupidly, afraid of leftist movements in backward countries. But is it only evil this country has done abroad? I would be willing to say that no amount of good could morally outweigh the evil perpetrated in Vietnam. The evil perpetrated there, however, does not cancel the good done elsewhere. It only means that we cannot be forgiven the evil because of the good. But though the source of good is self-interested, and, even worse, morally infected, the recipients of the good are better off.
In sum, I do not think that Marcuse has demonstrated conclusively that Vietnam is the perfect exemplification of the policies the directors of the American economic system must follow if they are to keep it alive. In addition, I do not think that Marcuse has shown the roots of nuclear war are to be found in the advanced industrial system of capitalism. It may seem a paltry thing to say what I have just said. But I only wish to trace out the presuppositions and deductions of Marcuse’s thought: nothing more.
I have already said that Marcuse also offers a psychological explanation of America’s proclivity to militarism and war. Perhaps some other word than “psychological” would be more appropriate—say, “sociological,” or whatever. The term does not matter, except to convey the sense that there is present in Marcuse’s writings another theory which is analytically independent from “the classical concept of imperialism.” This other theory resembles nothing so much as the rationale for the three superstates in Orwell’s 1984. (In places Marcuse refers to the Orwellian nature of the modern world.) The tendency to make a whole system out of preparing for war, threatening it, and periodically waging it, is attributed to the wish to preserve the prevailing relations of domination. We must notice that Marcuse does not spare the Soviet Union from the same attribution. I think it is correct to say, however, that America is more on his mind than the Soviet Union: because of its greater wealth and strength, America leads in all evil tendencies. He writes, “Neither the growing productivity nor the high standard of living depend [sic] on the threat from without, but their use for the containment of social change and perpetuation of servitude does.” We do indeed move from “the classical concept of imperialism,” if that concept assumes imperialism as a derivative of the quest for higher profits. What is at stake is not profits, or not profits alone, but power, power above everything else. Whose power? It would seem the power of the capitalists (in America). But the fact that Marcuse can so easily transfer his analysis to the Soviet Union must indicate that something like C. Wright Mills’s “power elite”—made up of capitalists, the military, and the upper reaches of the executive branch of government—is the object of Marcuse’s speculation. His description needs a larger base than the group of “monopoly capitalists.” I think Marcuse moves in Mills’s direction, and then goes past him, when he says, “. . . non-destructive full employment . . . requires the elimination of the particular interests which stand in the way of its fulfillment. Today, they include capital and labor, city and countryside politics, Republicans and Democrats. . . .” That is, nearly everybody; or, at least, the plural leaderships, those who manage what Marcuse calls the “subdued pluralism” of American life.
In Marcuse’s view, the regime of war maintains the prevailing relations of domination by doing three things. It calls into being the Enemy as a device of social cohesion; it wastes resources that could otherwise contribute to the decline in the need for domination, through the amelioration of life; and it provides a sanctioned release for an internally harmless way of discharging the aggressiveness built up unceasingly by life in advanced industrial society. (Some of Marcuse’s most brilliant writing is on the build-up and explosion of aggressiveness in modern life.) “The senseless war is . . . of the essence of the system.”
Marcuse says, “One can dispense with the notion of an innate ‘power-drive’ in human nature. This is a highly dubious psychological concept and grossly inadequate for the analysis of societal developments.” Yet I do not see how Marcuse can dispense with some form or other of this notion if his analysis is to be coherent. He cannot rest content with the view that the taste for domination is elicited only under the conditions of modern industrial life. Such a view would fly in the face of the historical record. The point is not to make the notion of a “power-drive” do too much work in social analysis, not to see all political behavior as the automatic outcome of one aspect of human nature. It turns out that Marcuse uses the notion of a power-drive. The only question is whether he uses it fruitfully.
Central to Marcuse’s theory is that the exercise of power at home, by American and Russian leaderships, is comparatively bland. The power is there, and is enjoyed. But it meets little resistance: most people are almost unaware that they are ruled. The feeling of power, the sharp pleasure power affords, is not produced at the expense of the immediate subjects of it. “Looking at the facts, geographical and otherwise, I would say that mobilization is carried out and war is actually waged against (and among) semi-colonial and formerly colonial peoples, backward peoples, and have-nots, Communist or not.” The Third World is therefore the victim of a ceaseless desire for power after power. The “have” nations share this common interest, while America, as usual, is the most blatant in pursuit of that interest:
The (objective) rationale for the global struggle is, not the need for immediate capital export, resources, surplus exploitation; it is rather the danger of a subversion of the established hierarchy of master and servant, top and bottom, a hierarchy that has created and sustained the have-nations, capitalist and communist.
The irony is that—and here, once again, I can only make an inference, at the risk of misstating Marcuse’s position—without the assault on the Third World, the internal position of the leaderships in the First and Second Worlds would be threatened. Though a high standard of living helps to appease the masses, its psychological cost could not be endured without the factitious creation of an enemy, and the release of pent-up aggressiveness against him. Furthermore, societies in the Third World may one day be created that do not have the same relations of domination as the First and Second Worlds, and hence would by their example jeopardize these relations. Marcuse is thinking of Cuba, China, and North Vietnam.
Foreign policy flows from peculiar domestic considerations as it does under “the classical concept of imperialism”; but in the light of Marcuse’s alternative, these considerations are not narrowly economic. And where Marcuse used to think that the Enemy for America was Russia, he now transfers the designation to the Third World (without dismissing altogether the rivalries between America and Russia). “Is the Enemy still communism per se? I think not.” We must say, however, that for Marcuse to continue to believe that we live in a period of “clear and present danger,” he would have to see in the wars against the Third World the source of a possible nuclear war between the great powers. Unless, that is, the “clear and present danger” comes from elsewhere—the suicidal impulse. In a tentative but dark sentence, he says.
If Freud’s theory is correct, and the destructive impulse strives for the annihilation of the individual’s own life no matter how long the “detour” via other lives and targets, then we may indeed speak of a suicidal tendency on a truly social scale, and the national and international play with total destruction may well have found a firm basis in the instinctual structure of individuals.
Let it be clear that Marcuse charges no conspiracy. He rejects the suggestion that those in power consciously follow this scheme for perpetuating their domination. In that regard Marcuse’s picture of the world is somewhat less sinister than Orwell’s. It is also more cloudy. On the one hand, Marcuse says that he does not refer to
. . . individually experienced social needs, and consciously inaugurated policies; they may be thus experienced and inaugurated or they may not. I rather speak of tendencies, forces which can be identified by an analysis of the existing society and which assert themselves even if the policy makers are not aware of them. . . . These objective tendencies become manifest in . . . supraindividual needs and goals in the different social classes, pressure groups, and parties.
On the other hand, he says, “Social engineering, scientific management of enterprise and human relations, and manipulation of instinctual needs are practiced on the policy-making level and testify to the degree of awareness within the general blindness.”
I do not think I understand Marcuse’s meaning when he speaks of “objective tendencies” working independently of the conscious plans of the policy-makers. I do know that he feels he finds warrant for such a conception in the thought of Hegel and Marx on the philosophy of history: the meaning of developments is unknown to political actors, and becomes clear only after the pattern of action is completed. In Hegel and Marx, no reference is made to unconscious human motives: rather, political actors are seen as the playthings of some larger purpose, again not clearly named or defined. It would seem to me that all Marcuse accomplishes with these metaphysical ideas is to exonerate men from responsibility for their actions. At its most extreme, Marcuse’s theory thus gives a lurid interpretation of the world while absolving those whose behavior supposedly makes the world open to a lurid interpretation. Even worse, if Marcuse is confronted with the charge that his description of American policy simply does not accord with the facts, he can too easily reply that he is not describing, he is interpreting. But where does that leave us? At the mercy of our feelings: we agree with Marcuse if we want to believe the worst, or we dismiss him because we cannot bear to believe the worst, though it may be true. I would say that the degree of deliberateness in, the nature of the intentions of, American policy is a matter of supreme importance. It should not be disposed of by reference to anything “supraindividual.” Nor should we disable ourselves from perceiving that the most routine intentions may issue in the most awful consequences, so preposterous has the scale of political power become, and yet so closed off from the reality of what they do are the ordinary mortals who wield that power. It is satisfying to the imagination to believe that motives are commensurate with results; but that sadly or happily may not be the case. Just once Marcuse shows he is alert to this consideration. He says, “. . . the affluent society itself hardly notices what it is doing. . . .”
But however adequate we may find Marcuse’s analysis of the “clear and present danger,” we must go on to see what he has to say on the conditions that help to keep the danger alive. Why do people put up with a structure of power that is so malign in its deeds and so portentous in its future possibilities? What is the life lived in advanced industrial society?
In brief, Marcuse’s answer, often repeated, is that advanced industrial society “delivers the goods” for those who inhabit it. There is an astonishing standard of living for most of the people. From their point of view, the system works, life has never been better, life must keep on getting even better. The goose that lays the golden eggs should not be killed. The capitalist capacity to produce far exceeds the limits set it by Marx. The working classes have not become progressively more miserable. The reverse is true. That would seem a sufficient answer.
But Marcuse is not willing to rest there. In One-Dimensional Man, and elsewhere, he undertakes to expose the falseness of mass contentment. He wants to show that the goods delivered are, some of them at least, false goods; that the goods give false satisfaction; that underneath the satisfaction are terrible but repressed impulses; and that if the proper alternative to capitalism were to emerge, there could be real goods, real satisfaction, and few if any terrible impulses that had to be repressed. “There can be societies which are much worse—there are such societies today.” But the affluent society is more than bad enough (even leaving aside its cost to those outside it), and in comparison to what it could be—the only philosophically valid standard—it is systematically evil.
If Marcuse’s vision of the international situation is nearly Orwellian, his vision of the domestic situation in advanced industrial society approaches that of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Marcuse makes much of planned obsolescence, waste, superfluous gadgets and luxuries, bloated abundance. These are the false goods. The indictment is familiar. Familiar though it is, it can stand repetition. And Marcuse dwells on the horror of sustaining such an expense of matter in a waste of shame. There is the pollution of the environment, the depletion of the inheritance of resources. And yet more awful, “The still prevailing impoverishment of vast areas of the world is no longer due chiefly to the poverty of human and natural resources but to the manner in which they are distributed and utilized.” The contrast of overindulgence and underdevelopment is morally abhorrent. On these subjects, Marcuse speaks directly and eloquently to the affluent conscience. (One can say this, however, and still think that the envisaged redistribution of the world’s wealth, if ever it could take place, would still leave enormous numbers uncared for, and create new problems of material sufficiency of a Malthusian sort.) A curse is on the bread we eat. May it be that none should be full unless all are? Marcuse helps to remind us, at a minimum, of the unconscious cruelty of health in the face of misery.
But I think, for all that, that Marcuse has overlooked some things in his rush to condemn. Are most of the goods false? Does not Marcuse grossly exaggerate the quantities at the disposal of the large majority in the affluent society? I do not speak of the poor, only of the great mass neither rich nor poor; say, 70 per cent of the whole. They live in luxury compared with most other people now alive or who have ever lived. But do they live in such a way that no obstacles stand in the way of a full realization of their will? Is it a matter of having every fancy, whim, caprice catered to? Is it not rather a matter of having a few more things than one needs; perhaps a few more things than one wants; a few things that one would not miss if one were to lose them? The society as a whole is affluent beyond the fantasies of early Utopia. But look at the daily life of the millions. How much really could be taken away without the return of a stingy bleakness? Marcuse hates “healthy and robust poverty, moral cleanliness, and simplicity.” But he thinks that a substantial diminution in the standard of living would only amount to a “reduction of overdevelopment.” Surely that is a miscalculation.
Then, too, some portion of the wealth has gone into more education and the spread of culture throughout the society. Marcuse takes a complex view of this phenomenon: I shall come to it shortly. It is sufficient to say at this point that affluence has made possible a qualitative change in the level of awareness, of sophistication, of cultivation. This is not all, or mostly, an increase in shallowness or glibness. It is not all vulgarity. The cultural goods are not typically false, and huge sums of money are spent on them. Marcuse makes the admission grudgingly: “. . . wide access to the traditional culture, and especially to its authentic oeuvres, is better than the retention of cultural privileges for a limited circle on the basis of wealth and birth.” From this wider access has come the youthful rebelliousness in which Marcuse now places so much trust.
Lastly, there is an aesthetic argument for denying that the goods are false. The affluent society has its own unique and novel beauty. There has never been as much sensory richness as there is today, never as much facility of movement and connection, never as much remoteness from nature, never as much fluidity and plasticity, never as much rapidity of alteration in the surface of life, never as many temptations, never as many capacities, never as much actual surrealism, never as many breathtaking juxtapositions, never as many possibilities of experience. Marcuse knows it. These achievements are “. . . tokens of human ingenuity and power beyond the traditional limits of imagination.” He concedes that “the willful play with fantastic possibilities, the ability to act with good conscience, contra naturam, to experiment with men and things, to convert illusion into reality and fiction into truth, testify to the extent to which Imagination has become an instrument of progress.” But all Marcuse sees is abuse of these powers, the “obscene merger of aesthetics and reality.” “It is with a new ease that terror is assimilated with normality, and destructiveness with construction.” This judgment will not do. To say that the aesthetic defense of the affluent society is not sufficient is not to say that an aesthetic argument is irrelevant. Indeed, the aesthetic argument is more consolation than defense. But the affluent society has conquered regions of experience hitherto unknown or unexplored. The human record has been added to, in defiance of the pessimism of “eternal recurrence.” There is something new under the sun, which only advanced industrial society has made possible. It is the over-rich soil in which beautiful, horrible flowers have grown. Without that soil, no flowers like these. Sometimes decadence has an unimpeachable fineness. If Norman Mailer, our best poet of technology, has done nothing else, he has made us understand that.
We must now ask why Marcuse thinks the goods give false satisfaction. The answer is that people are manipulated into wanting and liking what they buy; and into wanting more and more insatiably. The entire instinctual basis of people is formed for them; and it is formed in such a way as to make consumption compulsive, irrational, and inhuman. Marcuse lays great stress on the role of the mass media in constantly arousing desire, teasing it into renewed dissatisfaction, and sending it on the vain search for lasting satisfaction. Profits depend on this steady Tantalus-like pattern. And not just the profits of this or that interest, but the profitability of the system as a whole. The chase for goods keeps the people enslaved to the prevailing structure of domination. “We may distinguish both true and false needs. ‘False’ are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice.” Whatever else may or may not be the result of conscious effort on the part of the leaderships, the maintenance of men in bondage to consumption is most definitely so.
I do not know how one settles the issue Marcuse has raised. We know about the pervasiveness of advertising, conspicuous consumption, the wildly trivial forms consumer sovereignty takes. We know that titanic energies go into the packaging and marketing of goods, into making people think that great differences exist among products that are substantially the same. We know that we memorize jingles, and jest in the slogans thought up by highly paid traffickers in human irrationality. We love our brands, while knowing we are conned. But is that the whole story, or even the important part?
I would suggest that Marcuse has perhaps taken the racket too seriously. I find he makes no reference to empirical studies on the actual impact of manipulative efforts on the minds of those allegedly manipulated. How does Marcuse know that the masses are taken in? Has he not accorded the media the awe they claim for themselves, without trying to ascertain whether or not they deserve it? I also find no reference to the powerful cynicism that is so marked a trait of American life. Marcuse wants too desperately to believe the worst. Furthermore, I think that Marcuse has failed to distinguish between manipulated wants and wants that would, as it were, naturally arise in any society that had a fair amount of money in its pockets. Men do not have to be manipulated into taking pleasure in consumption. The love of objects, of novelty, of convenience, of foolish expenditure is not a creation of advanced industrial society. The consumer’s paradise is an age-long dream. Disgusting it is in some of its more extreme manifestations; but it is the paradise most men crave. Once some approximation of it has been attained, men will live in it gladly. Those outside would seize it, if it were offered, and not ask too many questions. What has held this country of immigrants together if not the fact that it is so truly in congruence with universal aspiration? Prosperity kills many fine things, but does so not through artifice.
The consumer’s paradise is not a violation of human instincts. But some deliberate alternative to it would be. Think of the Chinese example. In the abstract, a case could perhaps be made for such violation, but violation it still would be. There is no cause for amazement, no need to look for complicated explanations of American behavior. It is in continuity with all human striving. Once basic needs are satisfied, other needs are felt; and if they too are satisfied, they come to be felt as basic themselves. The very satisfaction of needs generates new needs. The only way of quieting the dynamism of the appetites is to live in a meager world that forecloses all hope of material change, or to make the world one Sparta: permanent poverty or universal terror.
But what of the human cost? The people have “. . . innumerable choices, innumerable gadgets which are all of the same sort and keep them occupied and divert their attention from the real issue—which is the awareness that they could both work less and determine their own needs and satisfactions.” Much labor is idiotic, alienated, boring, repetitive. Reality is determined by the “performance principle.” It creates deep unhappiness and resentment; it promotes feelings of aggressiveness. It is all the more unforgivable because it goes to sustain needless consumption. Though consumption is not perceived as needless, owing to manipulation, the nature of the labor done is perceived for what it is. And even manipulated consumption in the affluent society does not suffice to reconcile men to their labor. Yet they must labor. The system will not support them otherwise; the capitalist economy cannot function in any other way. It perpetuates an excessive need for labor.
The system reacts by stepping up the production of goods and services which either do not enlarge individual consumption at all, or enlarge it with luxuries—luxuries in the face of persistent poverty, but luxuries which are necessities for occupying a labor force sufficient to reproduce the established economic and political institutions. To the degree to which this sort of work appears as superfluous, senseless, and unnecessary while necessary for earning a living, frustration is built into the very productivity of this society, and aggressiveness is activated.
Because the aggressiveness is satisfied vicariously for the most part, through machines rather than direct personal and physical contact, and because the machines are at the disposal of seemingly impersonal collectivities rather than individuals, aggressiveness is not truly satisfied after all. Under advanced capitalism, “. . . the more powerful and ‘technological’ aggression becomes, the less is it apt to satisfy and pacify the primary impulse, and the more it tends toward repetition and escalation.”
Marcuse’s psychological description is internally coherent. As a display of imaginative power it is stunning. But how true is it? Grant that many workers dislike or hate their labor; do they feel it as senseless, or as greatly in excess of the requirements for maintaining a decent life? Do they feel that they are paying a high and unnecessary cost? Does aggressiveness then build up as the direct result of this feeling? Or does it come about for other causes, some intrinsic to man, some intrinsic to all labor, some intrinsic to industrial life under any system of political economy, some intrinsic to mass society under any system of political economy, some intrinsic to civilized life under any system of political economy? The conclusion seems irresistible: the elimination of capitalism would not eliminate the mortal play of aggressive impulses. As long as men must labor, frustration and aggressiveness are inevitable. Indeed, the elimination of labor may make the problem of aggressiveness worse. Marcuse says, “. . . the ‘abolition of labor’ does not seem to be the problem of the future, but rather how to avoid the abolition of labor. . . .” The specter is boredom. Marcuse seems to see boredom as a problem only for the future of societies as we know them. I think this is an illicit circumscription. In any case, to talk of the elimination of labor, or even a drastic reduction of it, is beside the point. The material problems of the world will demand labor for as long a time as we can foresee.
All in all, I believe that Marcuse’s attempt to undermine the legitimacy of mass contentment in the consumer society is largely unsuccessful. There is too much plain assertion, too much easy pessimism, too many tenuous connections in the development of the argument. The deficiencies peculiar to capitalism, though great, are in my opinion minor when compared to the terrors of modern life: the existence of nation-states, the existence of nuclear weapons, the growth in population, the misery of great numbers of people, the desecration of the environment in behalf of mere survival, the perniciousness of some technological tendencies, the powers and problems that accrue to ordinary human beings who must be extraordinarily good if they are to be adequate. At one point Marcuse acknowledges the obvious: “. . . even the most authentic socialist society would inherit the population growth and the mass basis of advanced capitalism.” But he is not stayed by this observation. He hurries on. Capitalism intensifies some of these problems, just as it alleviates others. It has evils besides, which Marcuse does not explore. But it is not the Enemy he is looking for Beyond that, the expanded political-economic concept of advanced industrial society does not locate the Enemy. By using it, Marcuse does not demonstrate with a large enough degree of certainty that there is an unbreakable tie between the internal structure of America and little or nuclear wars, or between it and an impulse toward mass suicide.
All that I say could be right, however, and still not touch upon the other aspect of Marcuse’s indictment. Advanced industrial society is preponderantly evil not only for the harm it does but also for the good it prevents. Its knowledge and wealth are used, at least partly deliberately, to block the creation of a great good, the Good Life. The Good Life could be had, or efforts toward reaching it could be made, if the present system did not stand in the way. Marcuse has a utopian vision to go with his apocalyptic vision. His writings contain the extremes of affirmation as well as of negation. We should look briefly at what he loves. The major texts are Eros and Civilization and An Essay on Liberation.
Marcuse thinks that a demand for specific blueprints of the new society is meaningless. The new society will be created by liberated men, and no one can prophesy how they will create. It is more profitable to determine what is not conducive to a free and rational society than to determine its content in advance. Still, Marcuse is willing to anticipate in a tentative manner. He is convinced that the rational use of techniques and resources on a global scale would end “poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future.” But that is only a beginning, and the goal is not reached with the addition of workers’ controls over the means of production. Domination and exploitation would remain in the form of a “bureaucratic welfare state.” The world has advanced, however, to the point where the means are on hand not only to do away with poverty and scarcity, and with inequalities of power, but also with “surplus repression.” A genuinely free life is potentially available to all. The improvement of life is only a step on the way to the transformation of life.
The transformation of life would consist in the creation of an aesthetic reality, a reality in which relations between men and men and between men and things are permeated with the erotic, though not in the sense of genital sexuality. Sexuality would be less intense but more diffuse: it would be “polymorphous.” There would be an increase in the feminization of life. There would be a “pacification of life.” The image of man is “. . . the determinate negation of Nietzsche’s superman: man intelligent enough and healthy enough to dispense with all heros [sic] and heroic virtues, man without the impulse to live dangerously, to meet the challenge; man with the good conscience to make life an end-in-itself, to live in joy a life without fear.” In the eighth chapter of Eros and Civilization, “The Images of Orpheus and Narcissus,” Marcuse produces his most beautiful passages, climaxed by this cry:
The Orphic Eros transforms being: he masters cruelty and death through liberation. His language is song, and his work is play. Narcissus’ life is that of beauty, and his existence is contemplation. These images refer to the aesthetic dimension as the one in which their reality principle must be sought and validated.
Art would no longer be a separate segment of life, more beautiful than life, condemning life by its beauty while consoling men with its beauty. The art would be the life. Imagination would exhaust itself in conduct and in material creation, and not seek refuge in the intangible, the abstract, and the unrealizable. Art as we know it would be abolished because reality as we know it would be abolished.
Marcuse respects certain limits. In his critique of Norman O. Brown (originally published in COMMENTARY3), he insists that some kind of property must exist in the good society; that human otherness cannot be wholly effaced, and that Brown is wrong to dream of its effacement; that pleasure cannot be conceived of as a constant state:
To be sure, alle Lust will Ewigkeit, but this Eternity can only be that of ever returning moments of joy, of the ever-returning solution of tension. Tension can be made nonaggressive, nondestructive, but it can never be eliminated, because (Freud knew it well) its elimination would be death. . . .
Elsewhere he goes so far as to say that “‘Alienation’ is the constant and essential element of identity . . . and not, as it is made to appear today, a disease, a psychological condition.” But these remarks do not detract much from Marcuse’s joyous affirmation.
To those who have read him, especially among the young, Marcuse’s utopianism may very well be the element they find most compelling. Imprecise though it may be, this utopianism catches the often unuttered longings of many hearts. It is not for me to take issue with another man’s Utopia, or to try to persuade those under its influence to forsake it. All that would be a futile endeavor, even if I were inclined to make it. The only question it is seemly to ask is: Does Marcuse’s Utopia prefigure a reality attainable if the present reality were somehow dismantled, or is it only a Utopia? I ask a political question. As we have seen, part of Marcuse’s indictment is that a great good is now blocked. If Marcuse’s definition of that great good were only an impossible fantasy, some of the force of Marcuse’s indictment would be lost. Room would of course be left for other definitions. But for our discussion they do not count.
The heart of the matter is whether the world could ever have the material basis to sustain the quality of life Marcuse desires. Are there the resources? Would so little labor be required that large amounts of “free time” would be at the people’s disposal? That is, can poverty and scarcity be abolished for everyone in the world, and abolished despite a shortening of the work-day? Such questions cannot be answered, even roughly, without much more scientific inquiry than Marcuse or anyone else has made. These are the questions Marcuse forces on his reader. They cannot be met with mere assertion or with wishful thinking. I certainly cannot answer them myself. But my suspicion is that if global political and economic arrangements were more rational, some small progress in the alleviation of the poverty and scarcity of the Third World, and of sectors in the other two, could be made. But it would be made at the expense of the majority in the more advanced portions of the earth. And it could not be made if labor-time were cut. I feel sure that Marcuse has grossly inflated the potentialities of science and technology. Or, to put it the other way, he has grossly underestimated the actual misery of the world, the intractability of its most elemental problems. I am simply reinforcing the points I tried to make when discussing Marcuse’s analysis of the relations between the Third World and the rest of the world, and of the standard of living in advanced industrial society.
Marcuse’s optimism is supported by two considerations. The first is faith in automation; the second is the view that the good life could be had without the kind of abundance now supposedly present in the advanced parts of the world. For Marcuse, automation means that mental energy will almost completely replace physical energy in the processes of production: “The workers would cease to be the ‘principal agents’ of material production, and become its ‘supervisors and regulators.’” It may be that the need for physical labor will decrease significantly in the industrial sector. But what about the other sectors? More important, would mental and supervisory work be free from tensions and frustrations? Would it take up appreciably less time than work now does? Marcuse vacillates before these questions. At times he says that any sort of labor, except artistic and philosophical labor, must be alienated, must be unfree and unsatisfactory. The aim is to lessen it as much as possible, and reserve liberation for free-time. At other times he distinguishes between labor and work (non-alienated labor). Work can become play, and the imperative to lessen work as much as possible vanishes. “Thus it is the purpose and not the content which marks an activity as play or work. A transformation in the instinctual structure . . . would entail a change in the instinctual value of the human activity regardless of its content.” But I think he vacillates between equally unsatisfactory conjectures. The conjecture of greatly lessened labor-time does not square with the necessities of material production. The conjecture of the transformation of work into play does not square with the near certainty that whatever the spirit in which work is done, work will remain work, and rarely become play.
Similarly, he vacillates on the question of abundance:
The material as well as mental resources of civilization are still so limited that there must be a vastly lower standard of living if social productivity were redirected toward the universal gratification of individual needs: many would have to give up manipulated comforts if all were to live a human life. . . . The reconciliation between pleasure and reality principle does not depend on the existence of abundance for all.
Yet he also says, “Non-repressive order is essentially an order of abundance: the necessary constraint is brought about by ‘superfluity’ rather than need. Only an order of abundance is compatible with freedom.” I do not find that he ever decides the issue for himself. I think he is caught in a self-defeating cycle: there can be no liberation without abundance, but there can be no abundance without alienation. The means for abundance hurt the ends for which abundance is itself the means. Talk about the possibility of liberation without abundance seems to me radically inconsistent. Talk about non-alienated work seems to me terribly unrealistic.
The Soviet system is worse in actuality, but better in potentiality. The major text on this theme is Soviet Marxism. To read it is to understand why theoreticians in the Soviet bloc ought to loathe Marcuse. The few pronouncements of theirs I have seen, however, are off the mark. They claim that Marcuse’s point is that the capitalist and Communist systems will one day “converge,” and must do so because they are essentially two variants of the same thing: industrial economy. Now it is true that Marcuse thinks that the Soviet bloc could very well come to the same end as the Western system; but he would also seem to think that the more natural tendency would be for the Soviet system to develop in a more acceptable direction than the West. Indeed, it would take a calculated and monstrous act of will on the part of the Soviet leadership to choke off that tendency. They may wish to make that act, and they may succeed. It is impossible to say with any certainty. But Marcuse is convinced that conditions are more favorable in the East than in the West for the coming of a liberated society.
But the actuality under Lenin, Stalin, and their successors is something else again. It is worse than the West. Quite simply, “With all its limitations and distortions, democratic tolerance is under all circumstances more humane than an institutionalized intolerance which sacrifices the rights and liberties of the living generations for the sake of future generations.” And,
Still, for the administered individual, pluralistic administration is far better than total administration. One institution might protect him against the other; one organization might mitigate the impact of the other; possibilities of escape and redress can be calculated. The rule of law, no matter how restricted, is still infinitely safer than rule above or without law.
And, the culture of Eastern Europe under socialism is “gray-on-gray.” Speaking on a specific matter, Marcuse says that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is a “brutal expression” of Soviet power policy, and “one of the most reprehensible acts in the history of Socialism.”
In addition to these remarks, there is the thorough analysis in Soviet Marxism. What is amazing about this book is that it is a proving-ground for the arguments Marcuse later turns against advanced industrial society in One-Dimensional Man. There is of course no step-by-step repetition of the pattern. The many differences between systems would preclude that. The American system is far more affluent; its history is significantly dissimilar; its institutional life rests on other norms; it is capable of a more aggressive foreign policy; its global influence is altogether greater. Though the two systems share some qualities, especially some evils, the fact is each has some peculiar evils. Or, they pervert the same sorts of things differently.
If language is vulgarized, made into an instrument of public lies, infected by the manipulations of the behavioral sciences, and enslaved to empirical reality in the West, it is changed into magic, into ritual incantation in the East. The Soviets systematically confuse what is with what ought to be: they speak as if what is, is already what ought to be. If Western reality destroys art by exceeding it in everyday reality, and by spreading it cheaply to the masses, Soviet “socialist realism” kills off the power of art to challenge imperfect reality. If the West subjects men to the bondage of unnecessary labor in order to preserve the power structure, the Soviets hold out the promise of a society in which all men are converted into technicians and engineers, and thus renege on the hopes of Marxist humanism. The Soviet “competitive work morality” is proclaimed “with a rigidity surpassing that of bourgeois morality.” Common to both systems is the spread of the idea that security is better than freedom. Common to both systems is the “socialization of privacy,” where the private space of the individual is invaded by the noise, the clamor, the oppressive values of the mass. More strongly present in the Soviet system is the “politicalization of ethics,” which means that the realm of the individual conscience is repressed, and replaced by the authority of centralized leadership. By doing that, by trying to cancel the very possibility of a conflict between the individual and the state, the Soviets threaten to end “dual morality,” and with it, “an entire period of civilization.”
It is a staggering indictment. And one would think that having said all this, Marcuse would simply write off the Soviet bloc. But he clings to hope. The main source of his hope turns out to be the main source of his fear: the international rivalry between the two power blocs. Marcuse’s reasoning is complex. Its premise is that “The history of Soviet society seems to be fatefully linked to that of its antagonist.” The peril, real or imagined or invented, from the Soviet Union has made the West stronger and more cohesive. It has allowed the growth of a war economy and thus saved capitalism from its inner weaknesses. It has facilitated the spread of American control over the capitalist economies of other Western countries. It has given America its Enemy. At the same time, the Western threat strengthens the entrenched bureaucracies in the Soviet system, by giving them a pretext for keeping power totalitarian and for diverting productivity to military uses, and away from a free, or more free, life. But there are pressures in the Soviet Union to “catch up” with the West: the pressures come from quasi-Marxist ideology, and from the desire to show that state socialism is superior to advanced capitalism. The very “backwardness” of the Soviet economy militates against expenditures for waste and destruction. The nationalized economy offers fewer obstacles to a rational economy. But to catch up, the Soviets must try to thaw the cold war, and therefore lay the basis for greatly increased civilian productivity. And by trying to thaw the cold war, the Soviets also contribute to the undermining of the Western system. The Western system would be undermined by internal economic contradictions, which would be heightened in conditions of peace, and by the “contagion” of successful socialism. But there is nothing in Marcuse’s analysis to suggest that he thinks the West will cooperate in its own demise: “. . . as long as the East-West conflict remains a determining economic and political factor, it precludes the decisive transformation. . . .” Because of the weight of the international situation, Marcuse calls his hopes for the Soviet system “eschatological” and “utopian.” He nevertheless feels he must utter them.
The only comment I wish to make about Marcuse’s indictment of the Soviet system is that for all its harshness, it may not be harsh enough. It seems to me that in his allocation of blame for the existence of a totalitarian system in the Soviet bloc, he overplays the role of the West. I have no doubt that the Western threat has been, and still is, perceived as genuine. But how important has this threat been as a cause of totalitarianism? How important is it to the continuation of totalitarianism? Is there any evidence for believing that the Soviet system would become more civilized if it had less dangerous enemies? Is there not some inner momentum that accounts for the totalitarian record? Surely state and party controls have always been far in excess of the security needs of the Soviet system. Surely cruelty has been made normal. By now, may it not be that totalitarianism has become ingrained, and that no change in the international situation would seriously alter it?
The systems are not self-correcting. It must be obvious from all that we have seen so far that Marcuse does not believe that peaceful evolution will lead to the elimination of radical evil or to the introduction of real good. To the contrary, the prospects are that eventually the evil will become even greater: the thrust to war is the natural thrust of established society. And the presence of spurious good, and its likely growth, help to ward off the emergence of real good. To say it again, both West and East are implicated in the horror, though not quite equally.
Without violent alteration, Marcuse sets very narrow limits to what can be done merely to ameliorate life, to achieve a net increase in unambiguous good. He does not adhere to the view that in all cases the worse things get, the better the chances for revolutionary upheaval. He is aware that unexpected crisis in America may, without prior enlightenment and organization, lead to an even worse life than the one we have now: “. . . the most immediate force of rebellion may be defeated, or become the mass basis of counterrevolution.” No, real suffering could very well be stopped by the peaceful workings of the two systems. In America, poverty could be abolished, and the opposition may finally end the war in Vietnam; and certain humanistic values could be taken care of. In Russia, a reduction in personal private unhappiness could be achieved. All these things are positive advantages: only a nihilist could think otherwise. But the systems can go no farther. The cost of their benefits is insanely exorbitant.
If it were only a matter of the leaderships, and of vested minority interests, the situation would be a good deal less frightening. But it is Marcuses cardinal point that the masses in both nations accept their systems. If the Soviet system is totalitarian in the conventional sense, it still is true that terror does not by itself hold the system together. It is possible that repressions from above may meet repression from below. “The Soviet system would then repeat and reproduce that determinism which Marx attributed to the basic processes of capitalist society.”
In America, and potentially in other Western capitalist societies, the process of acceptance is more thorough. Marcuse speaks of a new sense of the word “totalitarianism” which applies to America. “For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.” We have already dwelt on Marcuse’s analysis of the way in which instincts and mind are controlled in advanced industrial society. We must now see why he thinks such control is so pervasive that “totalitarian” is suitable to describe it.
There is a growing passivity of the materially satisfied people. But “. . . there is at the same time a growing dependence of the elected leaders on the electorate which is constituted by a public opinion shaped by the predominant political and economic interests. Their dominion appears as that of productive and technological rationality.” The social machine works so smoothly that it would be mistaken to think that the great mass must make a conscious effort of adjustment. “Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual. . . . The result is not adjustment but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with society as a whole.” The social bonds of primitivity reappear at the highest level of technical sophistication. While the role of the stern father has declined in the family, other authorities also assume a bland exterior. When they are not hidden they appear all too publicly to retain their aura. Because authorities are depersonalized, they no longer provoke and punish the desire to revolt. The individual ego “. . . has shrunk to such a degree that the multiform antagonistic processes between id, ego, and superego cannot unfold themselves in their classic form.” The majority is “. . . ‘closed,’ petrified; it repels ‘a priori’ any change other than changes within the system.” Only the universities are reformable from within. By practicing “repressive tolerance,” democracy “would appear to be the most efficient system of domination.” Intolerance is felt only by those marginal groups that actively threaten the system. Those who are merely critical or eccentric are tolerated, and for good reason: they strengthen the system by making it appear that the system is more humane and more open to change than it really is. They provide diversion and entertainment for the mass. The worst aspect of “repressive tolerance” is that the great majority tolerate the system which, unknown to them as manipulated creatures, threatens and deprives them. Marcuse is trying to show that the very things on which the democratic system most prides itself work to the most deadly effect. The background conditions of inequality and legal violence deprive freedom of its substance, and make it largely formal—a charade. All is infected at the source, and appears in a distorted or perverted form.
If one were to confine oneself to the evil of nuclear war, one could probably agree with Marcuse, and say that a peaceful evolution to a world free of nuclear peril is not likely. On that score, there is ample warrant for the deepest despair; the systems do not seem to be self-correcting. (Who can imagine any way out? There is no precedent for our danger.) But on other matters, is it right to think that America, anyway, is incapable of some changes beyond the limits set by Marcuse’s analysis? He did not—no one else did either—predict the civil-rights movement, the peace movement, the urge to more participatory democracy, the youthful cultural revolution, the radicalization of the young. All these things he praises after the fact; and only very recently has his praise become warm.
More than that, these things have arisen out of the same conditions that Marcuse finds ripe only for a new totalitarianism. He never traces the origins of what he admires. He loves the dialectic, but he has never applied it to middle-class life. If these late developments are not organically related to the middle class, whence have they come? They have come from affluence, from middle-class domesticity, from middle-class liberalism, from the new instruments of mass culture. They have not been imposed from without. They are not simply defiance or rejection: nothing as mechanical as that. The middle class has prepared the way for them both by its shortcomings and by its strengths. And as no one predicted their coming, so no one can predict their destination. Who knows what the future holds for American culture? Things may get worse, but they may get better. And the worse and the better may be symbiotically dependent. I do not see how, at this time, the maxim, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, could possibly be taken as the key to the future. Now, less than ever. The rigidity of Marcuse’s theory is truly oppressive.
Revolution may be justifiable. Revolution, in Marcuse’s opinion, is necessary if the time is to be redeemed. This is a preliminary proposition. It does not necessarily follow that revolution is justifiable: the evil of violence may be even greater than the evil of acquiescence. Revolution not only kills, uproots, corrupts, breaks ties with the past, and removes good with bad; it also is unpredictable in its effects. It may fail. To say, therefore, that revolution may be justifiable is to take a further step. Only after an anguished examination, and one that is, in the nature of the case, highly speculative, can one be prepared to hazard the contention that revolution may be justifiable.
Marcuse undertakes the anguished examination, and, I believe, concludes that revolution may be justifiable. To put it better: Marcuse seems to believe that revolution is morally justifiable in the abstract, despite its awfulness. He nowhere makes the flat assertion; but I do not see how any other inference can be drawn. At the very least, his sympathies are strongly with all forces seeking a break with the present. The main text is an essay called “Ethics and Revolution,” and there are some relevant passages in “Repressive Tolerance.” When writing on this subject, Marcuse is free from a historicism that would sanction any atrocity in the name of progress. He drops his Marxism—to put it crudely and ungenerously—and speaks like a bourgeois rationalist. The argument is painstaking, and contains, as it must, a perplexed and unsteady movement.
He takes it for granted that in the Third World, revolution against oppressive regimes is not morally problematic: the evil endured is too palpable for any alternative to be worse. As far as Russia is concerned, the scale of the revolution would be smaller. He says, “. . . the ruling strata are themselves separable from the productive process—that is, they are replaceable without exploding the basic institutions of society.” But the transition to a free society would still have to come about by revolutionary means, “even on the foundation of a fully nationalized and planned economy.”
His main argument deals with revolution in America and Western Europe. “The proposition ‘the end justifies the means’ is indeed, as a general statement, intolerable—but so is, as a general statement, its negation.” Marcuse lets that tension dominate his thought. He is aware that if all life is held sacred, the entire revolutionary enterprise is morally indefensible. But he seems unwilling to make the injunction against the taking of life into an absolute. He takes refuge in the fact that historically men have not acted on the principle of the sacredness of life. Furthermore, the established order sacrifices life daily. Would the lives lost in revolution be more than those lost in the normal operations of the established order? Yet the calculus of sacrifice is “inhuman.” It is odious to quantify death, and lesser suffering. But what other method of reasoning is possible?
Then, too, it is certain that the established order not only works intolerable evil, it also forecloses the attainment of positive good. Should not that positive good be included in the calculus? “What seems to me most important in the European New Left is the deep conviction that unless a socialist society is essentially different from the established society, no matter how good it may be it is not worth fighting for.” Yet the comparison of present evil and future good is just as odious as the comparison of the sacrifice exacted by the present and that exacted by the forces working for the future.
These considerations can never justify the exacting of different sacrifices and different victims on behalf of a future better society, but they do allow weighing the costs involved in the perpetuation of an existing society against the risk of promoting alternatives which offer a reasonable chance of pacification and liberation.
But no revolutionary situation can justify “arbitrary violence, cruelty, and indiscriminate terror.” These means kill the ends for which revolution is made. The Soviets went beyond the rational requirement for coercion: the Moscow trials, the permanent terror, the concentration camps, and the dictatorship of the party over the working classes cannot be justified. Yet where would civilization be without such violent movements as the English Civil War, and the American and French Revolutions? On balance, a revolutionary movement “would, in terms of the calculus, allow the presumption of historical justification.” But that is only a presumption; and it is “subject to correction” as events unfold.
I think it could be rightly said that Marcuse has given us the more or less correct form that any argument in behalf of revolution must take. He has asked the right questions, and pondered the excruciating dilemmas. Two things, however, must be said. First, Marcuse’s position is acceptable only if one accepts his premise that the prevailing system is in fact preponderantly evil, and is not self-correcting. This is an obvious point. Second, the notion of preponderant evil must itself be examined. It is my view that Marcuse gives too much weight to the good prevented in his moral calculus. I think that the old utilitarian precept that pain is the more important category than pleasure is sound; it means that the infliction of pain on some to give or enhance the pleasure of others is morally unacceptable. The proper reckoning is pain against pain, suffering against suffering—the suffering (present and future) under the present system weighed against the suffering created by violent revolution. Insofar as the good life means more than the absence of radical suffering, it cannot be used as a main reason to support revolution in the abstract. Involved in revolution are not small sufferings—inconveniences, annoyances, petty frustrations. Death and destruction are involved, not only for the “guilty” but for the innocent as well. The good life does not justify death and destruction, unsatisfactory though present life may be. Marcuse would have to confine himself to the comparison of pains if his argument, formally, were to be not more or less correct, but simply correct.
There are emergent forces that give hope. Central to Marcuse’s concept of revolutionary action is that a revolution, to be morally acceptable, must be made by men who are, up to a point, already liberated. They must feel a vital need to live in a liberated society, and they must be free of present vested interests. In our time, revolutionary groups must, before they act, possess a consciousness of the possibility of a non-repressive existence:
. . . the consciousness of this possibility, and the radical transvaluation of values which it demands, must guide the direction of such a change from the beginnings, and must be operative even in the construction of the technical and material base. Only in this sense is the idea of a gradual abolition of repression the a priori of social change—in all other respects, it can only be the consequence.
Without such a prior liberation the system will go on as those who control it want it to; or it will be overturned by men who bear the deforming characteristics of the system they overturn, and thus be replaced by a new system of oppression. Revolution demands organization, but if it is to achieve a morally acceptable result, it cannot be the work of an elite who are only the reverse image of the masters, and who manipulate an unprepared, an unfree mass. The revolutionaries need not, however, be a majority: “Once the chain is broken, the majority would be in a state of flux, and, released from the past management, free to judge the new government in terms of the new common interest.” Marcuse concedes that there has never been a revolution in accordance with the pattern he sets out.
Until fairly recently Marcuse saw little reason to hope. One-Dimensional Man was written by a man who “vacillated” between despair over the imperviousness of the systems in the East and West, and in the Third World as well, to qualitative change, and the tendencies that moved toward breaking the domination. Actually the predominant tone of the book was pessimistic. So much was dependent on events in advanced industrial society; yet the rigidity was greatest there. In a forlorn conclusion he referred to the “substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable.” He failed to see in any of them a revolutionary consciousness.
But since that time his hopes have risen. They have risen with the Vietnam war: both the resistance of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese and the radicalization of American youth have encouraged him. (The events of May 1968 in France took place after the composition of his last book, An Essay on Liberation.) I do not know of any writing in which Marcuse discusses the Cultural Revolution in China, but I would be surprised if that, too, did not contribute to the diminishment of his gloom. He is now prepared, in any case, to join a number of elements and see in them a considerable revolutionary potentiality—though he certainly makes no prediction of ultimate success. Among these elements are: 1) the national liberation movements; 2) the new strategy of the labor movement in Europe; 3) the underprivileged (but especially the activated blacks) in the affluent society; and 4) the “oppositional intelligentsia” in the Western world.
It is evident that in his new hope, Marcuse places the greatest emphasis where he has always placed it: on developments in advanced industrial society. The other elements are, in the long run, more important. They after all comprise millions of men. But I think Marcuse is saying that they must await the proper conditions in America, especially. The “oppositional intelligentsia” of this country are the indispensable “catalytic” agent. In the forefront of the oppositional intelligentsia are the students.
In Marcuse’s eyes students are not themselves the revolutionary class—there can be no revolution without the workers—but its prefigurement. They answer, however, to the requirements Marcuse holds out for a revolutionary class: they are, or are on the way to becoming, liberated. Their very instincts rebel against the manipulation and overdevelopment of life in advanced industrial society. In their language, their music, their dress, and their consciousness, they have broken with the society in which they live. Their clownishness is itself weighted with philosophical meaning. They are, as it were, biologically different, new; “protest and refusal are parts of their metabolism.” Marcuse even extends his indulgence to the intrusion of politics into the university, the one domain he had hitherto held sacred.
At the beginning of the present youth movement Marcuse was skeptical. The “hot” and the “cool” life, though liberating to those who led them, were vehicles “of stabilization and even conformity.” They left “the roots of the evil untouched”; and they testified “to the personal liberties that are practicable within the framework of general oppression.” Worse, private release weakened the intellect and thus prevented the perception of the terror of the whole system. Liberation should express itself as greater self-repression. But from roughly 1966 on, Marcuse has changed. The conversion does not seem to stem only from a desperate urge to find something to believe in, but also from an engagement of affections and sympathies. To be sure, Marcuse still indicates that a purely private release from the prevailing standards leaves the system intact, even stronger. He is ironic about “the wild ones” and the “non-committed, the escapists into all kinds of mysticism, the good fools and the bad fools. . . .” He knows that liberation can become faddish pseudo-liberation or can be exploited by the market. But when personal liberation does not destroy political activism, as it may, but is joined to political activism, the ideal blend has been reached.
What then is to be done? Should the oppositional intelligentsia strive for an “educational dictatorship,” a “dictatorship of intellectuals”? Marcuse is tempted. He argues that an elite already rules, and that its replacement by another, non-repressive one would not make things worse. But he says that a terrible risk is involved. Dictatorship is dictatorship. To say that an educational dictatorship would not be more harmful than the present elite is to offer a “weak excuse” for it. “. . . The alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy.” The struggle for a real democracy means the struggle to break “the tyranny of public opinion and its makers in the closed society.”
How then is that to be done? Marcuse advocates something he calls “liberating tolerance” or “discriminating tolerance,” the contrasting terms to repressive tolerance. This includes the use of demonstrations, confrontations, extra-legal resistance, as well as the attempt to enlighten consciousness by teaching, writing, spreading the word. Words are deeds, deeds are words. The aim should be to deny tolerance to all advocacy of war and of the resistance to helping the poor, and to deny it by coercion. The distance between advocacy and act is so small today, that certain advocacies must be repressed, if their “clear and present danger” is not to materialize. Toleration is justified by the contribution it makes to the truth, where truth is defined as that which conduces to the pacification and amelioration of life. To permit the toleration of all views is to permit the toleration of untruth: there are not two sides to every question. To accept tolerance for the truth while permitting tolerance for untruth is, in the present, to accept the triumph of untruth over truth. The system is immeasurably stronger than its adversaries: it rests on an indoctrinated, unfree majority. The Left must slant information to break indoctrination. Of course, in some realms like private life, the academy, science, religion, there must be total tolerance. But not in the public realm. “. . . Within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game.” And, “the democratic process . . . is discredited to such an extent that no part of it can be extracted which is not contaminated.” Illegal and extra-parliamentary tactics are therefore morally defensible. And they alone can bring a shift in the prevailing distribution of power. A conspiracy does not exclude the Left from a powerful voice: it is simply too small and poor. It must make its impact in any way it can, in the hope that one day it will create a “subversive majority.”
Marcuse’s theory of toleration is the most notorious part of his work. Both for the way in which he reduces the system’s tolerance to another and covert form of manipulation, and for the way in which he redesignates apparent intolerance as real tolerance, he has earned a reputation for verbal sleight of hand and, more seriously, for preaching the very totalitarianism he claims to hate. He is thought to contribute to a cynicism about one of the few unmistakably good features of contemporary life; a feature, further-more, that has been bought with blood over the past three centuries. He adds defamation to injury when he seeks the cover of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty for views that Mill could not possibly have sanctioned. The case becomes all the more appalling when it is remembered that Marcuse is a refugee from a kind of systematic intolerance he has never had to face in the country that took him in and gave him refuge.
I think that the attack on Marcuse’s theory is just. There have never been social conditions in which total toleration has been practiced that fit Marcuse’s scheme. Mill disliked majority opinion in Victorian England no less than Marcuse dislikes our majority opinion. Mill saw in the power of custom as relentless a foe to liberation as Marcuse sees in the technological creation of the mass mind. Mill worried about the majority impulse to punish deviation as much as Marcuse does. Mill no more thought that the majority wanted to be liberated than Marcuse now does. Mill viewed his political system much as Marcuse views ours: Mill did not think that the English political system worked by impartial reason, but by the clash of equally partisan, selfish, and narrowminded interests, each with a fragment of the truth, but among whom, for all their passion, no truly radical disagreements were apparent. Mill wrote against the same background of inequality and legal violence that Marcuse does. All Mill sought was the sufferance of the homogeneous majority for the gifted minority. Though he did not value toleration only for its social utility, he did think that the gifted minority would make an indispensable contribution to progress.
I do not see how Marcuse can invoke Mill’s name. As an abstract theory of toleration, which Mill’s was, Marcuse’s deserves the abuse it has received. It is laughable. But I think it must be said that because of the manner in which he has chosen to present his views, he has disguised his true intention. He writes about toleration when he really means to write about the moral justifiability of revolution against a democratic political order he does not really think democratic. And he writes, as I have said, with the burning conviction that we live in so dangerous a time that the established system cannot be allowed to continue much longer. Naturally, if he writes for an audience accustomed to revere the principle of toleration, he must weaken that principle in order to shed legitimacy on the illegal opposition. It is a matter of clumsy rhetorical strategy, not a matter of producing a philosophical treatise on the nature of toleration. If you think that there is a “clear and present danger” you will not care about toleration; if you do not think so, you will find Marcuse’s theory of toleration sophistical.
It is a great burden, then, that Marcuse puts on the radical young. By their exertions they are to take a non-revolutionary but pre-revolutionary situation and bring it to a head. They are the vanguard. Their natural allies are the blacks. If automation and temporary peace combine to generate a crisis, then perhaps workers will be on their side. Perhaps the technicians will more and more feel the absurdity of the system which their skills keep going. In any case, for the great problems of the world to be faced, advanced industrial society must be profoundly altered. The Third World movements can come to fruition only if the capitalist order begins to disintegrate. “The chain of exploitation must break at its strongest link.”
* * * *
Marcuse gives us a vision of the modern world. It is not sufficient to score easy points off him, or to dismiss him as hysterical. He raises all the issues every conscientious man must care about. The only adequate answer to him is another vision. I do not have one. In concluding, all I can do is offer a few assertions to go with the criticisms I have made.
The deepest ills of the world—nuclear danger, overpopulation, human misery—do not come from affluent capitalism. The nuclear danger would exist no matter what the system of political economy was, as long as there were not a unitary world state. There are no revolutionary forces working to create such a state. The tension that aggravates the danger has little to do with capitalist economics, but rather derives from human interests and motivations that are not economic in nature. Affluent capitalism does not create overpopulation. Its waste would not be nearly enough to remedy the misery of the Third World. By tracing ills to affluent capitalism, Marcuse tries to prove them corrigible. They may not be corrigible. The world may be, probably is, in worse shape than even Marcuse says it is. In the face of its greatest problems, the whole world is blameless and hopeless.
On a lower level, there is no certainty that little wars must be perpetually fought. There are emergent tendencies—some of them praised by Marcuse—that may, just may, make a repetition of Vietnam unlikely for some time to come. The American system has possibilities for good which Marcuse does not wish to see, or does not wish to explain as emanating from that system itself. The American young are American young. They have attained some liberation. Some of them represent an extraordinarily high human type. If they engaged in coercive action they would forfeit their liberation, they would become corrupt. The tyranny of action is that cruel. They would have little to show for their corruption. To urge them to coercive action is to lead them to failure whether they made a revolution or not. They would experience the failure of failure or the failure of success.
1 Beacon Press, 91 pp., $5.95.
2 A list of Marcuse's writings up to 1967 is found in Kurt H. Wolff and Barrington Moore, Jr., eds., The Critical Spirit: Essays in Honor of Herbert Marcuse (Beacon Press, 1967) . I have quoted from the above-mentioned books by Marcuse, and from the following articles by him: Preface (1961), Soviet Marxism; Prefaces (1961, 1966), Eros and Civilization; “Repressive Tolerance,” 1965, and Epilogue, 1968; “Remarks on a Redefinition of Culture,” 1965; “Socialist Humanism?” 1965; “Ethics and Revolution,” 1966; “The Obsolescence of Marxism,” 1967; “The Individual in the Great Society,” 1968; “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” 1968; “Varieties of Humanism,” 1968. Some of Marcuse's early and late essays are reprinted in Negations (Beacon Press, 1968). Some of Marcuse's remarks at a symposium are printed in the New York Times Magazine, May 26, 1968. Portions of an interview with Marcuse are printed in the New York Times Magazine, Oct. 27, 1968.
In English, the following writings on Marcuse are most helpful: David Spitz, “Pure Tolerance,” Dissent, Sept.-Oct. 1966; Richard Greeman, “A Critical Re-examination of Herbert Marcuse's Works,” New Politics, Fall 1967; Allen Graubard, “One-Dimensional Pessimism,” Dissent, May-June 1968; Maurice Cranston, “Herbert Marcuse,” Encounter, March 1969; Peter Clecak, “Marcuse: Ferment of Hope,” the Nation, June 16, 1969; Paul A. Robinson, The Freudian Left (Harper & Row, 1969); and Richard Poirier, review of Robinson, the New York Times Book Review, Oct. 26, 1969.
3 “Love Mystified,” February 1967.
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The Political Thought of Herbert Marcuse
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.