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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f all the surprises of the Trump era, none is more notable than the pronounced shift toward Israel. Such a shift was not predictable from Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail; as he sought the Republican nomination, Trump distinguished himself by his refusal to express unqualified support for Israel and his airy conviction that his business experience gave him unique insight into how to strike “a real-estate deal” to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In addition, his isolationist talk alarmed Israel’s friends in the United States and elsewhere if for no other reason than that isolationism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism often go hand in hand in hand.
But shift he did. In the 14 months since his inauguration, the new president has announced that the United States accepts Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has declared his intention to build a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, first mandated by U.S. law in 1996. He has installed one of his Orthodox Jewish lawyers as the U.S. ambassador and another as his key envoy on Israeli–Palestinian issues. America’s ambassador to the United Nations has not only spoken out on Israel’s behalf forcefully and repeatedly; Nikki Haley has also led the way in cutting the U.S. stipend to the refugee relief agency that is an effective front for the Palestinian terror state in Gaza. And, as Meir Y. Soloveichik and Michael Medved both detail elsewhere in this issue, his vice president traveled to Israel in January and delivered the most pro-Zionist speech any major American politician has ever given.
Part of this shift can also be seen in what Trump has not done. He has not signaled, in interviews or in policy formulations, that the United States views Israeli actions in and around Gaza and the West Bank as injurious to a future peace. And his administration has not complained about Israeli actions taken in self-defense in Lebanon and Syria but has, instead, supported Israel’s right to defend itself.
This marks a breathtaking contrast with the tone and spirit of the relationship between the two countries during the previous administration. The eight Obama years were characterized by what can only be called a gut hostility rooted in the president’s own ideological distaste for the Jewish state.
The intensity of that hostility ebbed and flowed depending on circumstances, but from early 2009, it kept the relationship between the United States and Israel in a condition of low-grade fever throughout Barack Obama’s tenure—never comfortable, never easy, always a bit off-kilter, always with a bit of a headache that never went away, and always in danger of spiking into a dangerous pyrexia. That fever spike happened no fewer than five times during the Obama presidency. Although these spikes were usually portrayed as the consequences of the personal friction between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that friction was itself the result of the ideas about the Middle East and the world in general Obama had brought with him to the White House. In this case, the political became the personal, not the other way around.
Given the general leftish direction of his foreign-policy views from college onward, it would have been a miracle had Obama felt kindly disposed toward the Jewish state’s own understanding of its tactical and strategic condition. And Netanyahu spoke out openly and forcefully to kindly disposed Americans—from evangelical Christians to congressional Republicans—about the threats to his country from nearby terrorism and rockets, and a developing nuclear Iran 900 miles away. His candor proved a perpetual irritant to a president whose opening desire was to see “daylight” (as he said in February 2009) between the two countries. Obama caused one final fever spike as he left office by refusing to veto a hostile United Nations resolution. This appeared churlish but was, in fact, Obama allowing himself the full rein of his true and long-standing convictions on his way out the door.T
he things Trump both has and has not done should not seem startling. They constitute the baseline of what we ought to expect one ally would say and not say about the behavior of another ally. But as Obama’s disgraceful conduct demonstrated, Israel is not just another ally and never has been. It is a unique experiment in statehood—a Western country on Mideast soil, born from an anti-colonialist movement that is now viewed by many former colonial powers as an unjust colonial power, created by an international organization that is now largely organized as a means of expressing rage against it.
Historically, American leaders have had to reckon with these unique realities—and the fact that the hostile nations surrounding Israel and hungering for its destruction happen to sit atop the lifeblood of the industrial economy. The so-called realists who claim to view the world and the pursuit of America’s interests through cold and unsentimental eyes have experienced Israel mostly as a burden.
Through many twists and turns over the seven decades of Israel’s existence, they have felt that America’s support for Israel is mostly the result of short-sighted domestic political concerns for which they have little patience—the wishes of Jewish voters, or the religious concerns of evangelical voters, or post-Holocaust sympathy that has required (though they would never say it aloud) an unnatural suspension of our pursuit of the American national interest.
Israel created problems with oil countries, and with the United Nations, and with those who see the claims for the necessity of a Jewish state as a form of special pleading. As a result, the realists have spent the past seven decades whispering in the ears of America’s leaders that they have the right to expect Israel to do things we would not expect of another ally and to demand it behave in ways we would not demand of any other friendly country.
The realists and others have spent nearly 50 years propounding a unified-field theory of Middle East turmoil according to which many if not all of the region’s problems are the result of Israel’s existence. Were it not for Israel, there would not have been regional wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982—no matter who might have borne the greatest degree of responsibility for them. There would have been other conflicts, but not this one. There would have been no world-recession-inducing oil embargo in 1973 because there would have been no response to the Yom Kippur War. Were it not for Israel, for example, there would be no Israeli–Palestinian problem; there would have been some other version of the problem, but not this one.
Unhappiness about the condition of the Palestinians in a world with Israel was held to be the cause of existential unhappiness on the Arab street and therefore of instability in friendly authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel’s own pursuit of what it and its voting populace took to be their national interests was usually treated with disdain at the very least and outright fury at moments of crisis.
It was therefore axiomatic that the solution to many if not most of the region’s problems ran right though the center of Jerusalem. It would take a complex process, a peace process, that would lead to a deal—a deal no one who believed in this magical process could actually describe honestly and forthrightly or give a sense as to what its final contours would be. If you could create a peace process leading to a deal, though, that deal itself would work like a bone-marrow transplant—through a mysterious process spreading new immunities to instability in the Middle East that would heal the causes of conflict and bring about a new era.
Again, this was the view of the realists. With Israel’s 70th anniversary coming hard upon us, the question one needs to ask is this: What if the realists were nothing but fantasists? What if their approach to the Middle East from the time of Israel’s founding was based in wildly unrealistic ideas and emotions? Central to their gullibility was the wild and irrational idea that peace was or ever could be the result of a process. No, peace is a condition of soul, an exhaustion from the impact of conflict, born of a desire to end hostilities. Only after this state is achieved can there be a workable process, because both parties would already have crossed the Rubicon dividing them and would only then need to work out the details of coexistence.
There was no peace to be had. The Arab states didn’t want it. The Palestinians didn’t want it. The Israelis did and do, but not at the expense of their existence. The Arabs demanded concessions, and the Israelis have made many over the years, but they could not concede the security of the millions of Israel’s citizens who had made this miracle of a country an enduring reality. The realists fetishized “process” because it seemed the only way to compel change from the outside. And so Israel has borne the brunt of the anger that follows whenever a fantasist is forced to confront a reality he would rather close his eyes to.
That is why I think what Trump and his people have done over the past 14 months represents a new and genuine realism. They are dealing with Israel and its relationships in the region as they are, not as they would wish them to be. They are seeing how the government of Egypt under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making common cause with Israel against the Hamas entity in Gaza and against ISIS forces in the Suez. They are witness to the effort at radical reformation in Saudi Arabia under Muhammad bin-Salman—and how that seems to be going hand in hand with an astonishing new concord between Israel and the Desert Kingdom over the common threat from Iran. This is a harmonizing of interests that would have seemed positively science-fictional in living memory.
Mostly, what they are seeing is that an ally is an ally. Israel’s intelligence agencies are providing the kind of information America cannot get on its own about Syria and Iran and the threat from ISIS. Israel is a technological powerhouse whose innovations are already helping to revolutionize American military know-how. Israel’s army is the strongest in the world apart from the regional superpowers—and the only one outside Western Europe and the United States firmly locked in alliance with the West. Things are changing radically in the Middle East, and as the 21st century progresses it is possible that Israel will play a constructive and influential role outside its borders in helping to maintain and strengthen a Pax Americana.
Donald Trump is a flighty man. All of this could change. But for now, the replacement of the false realism of the past with a new realism for the 21st century seems like a revolutionary development that needs to be taken very, very seriously.
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f the making of Washington movies, there is no end. Kohelet said this in Ecclesiastes, I think. Or maybe it was Gene Shalit on the Today Show. It’s a truism in any case. Steven Spielberg’s latest entry in the genre, The Post, is for many Washingtonians the most powerful example in the long line. When the movie opened here in late December, there were reports of audiences cheering lustily and even dissolving in tears at the movie’s end, as if they were watching a speech by President Obama. The local paper ran news articles about it, along with numberless feature stories, interviews, op-eds, fact-checks, reviews, and reviews of reviews.
Which is excusable, I guess, since the movie is about the Washington Post. But then The Post is supposed to be about so many things. It’s about the First Amendment, depicting the agonies of the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee, and its owner, Katharine Graham, as they defy the Nixon administration to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers. It’s about feminism and the personal evolution of Mrs. Graham from an insecure Georgetown socialite to Master of the Boardroom. It’s the story of the lonely courage of the leaker/whistleblower/traitor (your call) Daniel Ellsberg. It is also, so I read in the Post, a warning about the imperial designs of President Trump to smother a free press. And it’s been understood as a straightforward tale of political history, though the liberties Spielberg takes with his based-on-a-true-story are so extreme as to render it useless as a guide to what happened in the summer of 1971.
Running beneath it all is the motive that animates so many Washington movies: an impatience with the stuttering, halting processes of self-government. The wellspring from which the Washington movie flows is Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The plot is familiar to everyone. Mr. Smith, a small-town bumpkin played by Jimmy Stewart—talk about stuttering and halting!—is appointed by sinister political bosses to a vacant Senate seat, on the assumption that he will be easily manipulated, like a movie audience. Instead, Smith stumbles upon an illicit land deal and exposes the Senate as a den of thieves. His filibustering floor speech rouses a populist outpouring from an army of alarmingly cute children. By the end of the movie, Mr. Smith has restored the nation to its democratic ideals.
Capra intended his movie to be a hymn to those ideals, and for nearly 80 years that’s what audiences have taken it to be. It is no such thing. Mr. Smith seethes with contempt for the raw materials of democracy: debate, quid pro quo deal-making, back-scratching compromise—all the tedious, unsightly mechanics that turn democratic ideals into functioning self-government. In Capra’s telling, democracy can be rescued only by anti-democratic means. An appointed charismatic savior (he’s not even elected!) uses a filibuster (favorite parliamentary trick of bullies and autocrats) to release the volatile pressure of a disenfranchised mob (the great fear of every democratic theorist since Aristotle). From Mr. Smith to Legally Blonde 2, the point of the Washington movie is clear: Left to its own devices, without an outside agent to penetrate it and cleanse it of its sins, self-government sinks into corruption and despotism.
Steven Spielberg is the closest thing we have to Capra’s successor. Like all his movies, The Post has many charms: a running visual joke about Bradlee’s daughter making a killing with her lemonade stand threads in and out of the heavier moments like a rope light. On the other hand, his painstaking obsession with period detail often fails: A hippie demonstration against the Vietnam War looks as if it’s been staged by the cast of Hair. The set-piece speeches are insufferable, an icky glue of sanctimony and sentimentality. What we call the Pentagon Papers was a classified history of the lies, misjudgments, and incompetence of four presidents, from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, ending in 1968. Sometimes the speechifying is directed at the malfeasance of these men, as when Bradlee bellows: “The way they lied—those days have to be over!”
Weirdly, though, the full force of the movie’s indignation is aimed at Richard Nixon. Historians might point out that Nixon wasn’t even president during the period covered by the Pentagon Papers. Intelligence officials told the president that the release of the papers would pose an unprecedented threat to national security. He ordered the Justice Department to sue to prevent the New York Times and the Post from publishing the top-secret material. In the movie’s account, this ill-judged if understandable response is equivalent to the official, strategic lies that accompanied tens of thousands of American soldiers to their deaths.
A particularly rich moment comes when Robert McNamara warns Mrs. Graham about Nixon’s capacity for evil. As Kennedy and Johnson’s defense secretary, McNamara was an early version of Saturday Night Live’s Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar: The Viet Cong are on the run! Yeah, sure, that’s the ticket! As much as anyone, McNamara, with his stupidity and dishonesty, guaranteed the tragedy of Vietnam. And yet here he is, issuing a clarion call to Mrs. Graham. “Nixon will muster the full power of the presidency, and if there’s a way to destroy you, by God, he’ll find it!” Later Bradlee compares Nixon to his predecessors: “He’s doing the same thing!”
Um, no. From his inauguration in 1969 onward, Nixon’s every move in Vietnam was intended to extricate the U.S. from the quicksand previous presidents had led us (and him) into. In this case, if in no other, Nixon was the good guy. He had nothing to lose, personally, from the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and maybe a lot to gain. After all, they demonstrated the villainy of his predecessors, not his own. (That came later.)
Yet the movie can’t entertain the possibility that Nixon could act on anything but the basest motives. He is a sinister presence. We see him through the Oval Office window, always alone, with his back turned, stabbing the air with a pudgy finger and cursing the Washington Post to subordinates over the phone. It’s actually Nixon’s voice in the movie, taken from the infamous tapes. Unfortunately, the actor’s movements don’t synchronize with the words; in such a somber thriller, the effect is inadvertently comic. It reminded me of watching the back of George Steinbrenner’s head in Seinfeld while Larry David spoke the Yankee owner’s dialogue. And Nixon was no Steinbrenner.
The most plausible explanation is that Nixon, in trying to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, was doing what he said he was doing: his job. American voters had elected him to protect national security and, not incidentally, the prerogative of the president and the federal government to determine how best to protect it, including determining whether sensitive information should be kept secret. If he didn’t do his job the way voters wanted him to, they could get rid of him next time. You know, like in a democracy.
Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, and Stephen Spielberg, not to mention those teary audiences, have no patience with such niceties. As it happens, in the end, the Pentagon Papers were a bust. The sickening detail they disclosed deepened but did not broaden the historical record, and by all accounts their impact on national security was negligible. Those facts don’t alter the creepiness of The Post’s premise—that the antagonists of an elected regime are allowed to go outside the law when it suits their view of the national interest. Charismatic saviors (and few people were more charismatic than Ben Bradlee) can save democracy from itself, but only by ignoring the requirements of democracy. Spielberg continues the tradition of the Washington movie. The Post is Capraesque—in the only true sense of the word.
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Is Harvard assaulting the rights of students to free association in the name of a diversity standard it doesn’t live up to itself?
arvard College is home to six all-male “final clubs.” Their members have access to houses in which they eat, socialize, and form bonds with their fellows. These clubs are as historic as they are renowned; most were formed in the 19th century and have had Kennedys, Roosevelts, and an endless procession of politicians, writers, and businessmen as former members. From the time of their origination, these exclusive institutions have been an object of fascination. When doors are closed, and only a small, elite group selected from an already hyper-elite campus has been invited inside, jealousy, curiosity, and frustration are sure to prevail.
The final clubs are financially independent from Harvard and have been entirely unaffiliated with the university since the 1980s, when the administration and the clubs clashed over the latter’s refusal to admit women. But that conflict, which had cooled over time, has recently resurfaced in a new and heightened manner.
In March 2016 Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, set an April 15 deadline for the final clubs, at which time they were to inform the administration whether they would change course and become co-ed. Two forces drove Khurana’s action. The first was a report by Harvard’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention released days earlier, after years of research. The report indicated that students who were involved with the final clubs were significantly more likely to have experienced some form of assault than those who were not. The second impetus was the administration’s position that the final clubs—and the ways in which they screened members—were in direct conflict with the ethos of the university.
The deadline passed without response from the clubs. On May 6, 2016, Dean Khurana wrote a letter to Harvard President Drew Faust. He proposed that, beginning with incoming freshmen who would matriculate in the fall of 2017, students who became members of what he termed “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” should be ineligible for leadership positions in Harvard organizations—meaning they could not serve as publication editors, captains of sports teams, leaders of theatrical troupes, and the like. And they would also be ineligible for letters of recommendation from the dean, necessary for many prestigious postgraduate opportunities such as the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
Khurana’s letter, and the sanctions proposed within, quickly became a cause célèbre. Harry R. Lewis, a professor of computer science and himself a former dean of the college, wrote Khurana a letter expressing his concern that “by asserting, for the first time, such broad authority over Harvard students’ off-campus associations, the good you may achieve will in the long run be eclipsed by the bad: a College culture of fear and anxiety about nonconformity.” Lewis went on to note:
The reliance on your judgement of what count[s] as Harvard’s values, and using that judgment to decide which students will receive institutional support, is a frightening prospect….The discretion exercised by the dean and his representatives will chill the activism of students in causes that might also be considered noncompliant with Harvard standards—for example, advocacy for a religion that does not allow women to be full participants, or a political party that opposes affirmative action. Such groups are excluded from your mandate, but only as a matter of your discretion. Why wouldn’t activism for such organizations color the support the College would offer their members, on the basis that such students are showing that their true colors are not pure Crimson?
Lewis also referenced the faculty’s responsibilities and noted that there was no precedent in Harvard’s Handbook for Students for the sanctions, thus suggesting that Khurana’s proposals might be outside the administration’s jurisdiction.
In September 2016, Khurana detailed the responsibilities of the “Single-Gender Social Organizations Implementation Committee.” The committee was tasked with
consulting broadly with the College community to address the following questions: 1) What leadership roles and endorsements are affected by the policy; 2) How organizations can transition to fulfill the expectations of inclusive membership practices; and 3) How the College should handle transgressions of the policy.
In addition to the committee’s work, the faculty went through several rounds of motions and debate, discussing myriad permutations of the sanctions, as well as the validity of the sanctions themselves.
In December 2017, the discussions came to a halt. Harvard’s administration flatly announced it would engage in sanctions against students who joined those “unrecognized single-gender social organizations,” or USGSOs. This ostensibly final decision has provoked renewed outrage from students, faculty, and alumni, who have grounded their varied objections in ethical, philosophical, and legal concerns.U
ntil the 1960s shattered the American elite consensus on such matters, the collegiate experience was vastly different for students. Universities used to view their role as being in loco parentis—serving in place of the parents from whom their charges had recently separated. Today, on Harvard’s enchanting campus, teenagers and twentysomethings tend to rule the roost. Students have tremendous flexibility in building their course schedules, and rare is the lecture professor who takes attendance. Undergraduates come and go as they please, to and from wherever they please, with whomever they please, from the darkest hours of the night to the earliest hours of the morning.
But from the time America’s colleges came into being in the 17th and 18th centuries until just a few decades ago, these institutions imposed rules and regulations, curtailed freedoms, and designed a microcosmic world in which young adults would—in theory—learn how to navigate the reality that awaited them after graduation. They were eased into the world in a setting that constricted their choices and where the powers that be very consciously, and intentionally, refrained from treating them like adults. This was most evident in the controls placed on contact between the sexes.
A 1989 Harvard Crimson article by Katherine E. Bliss detailed the so-called parietal rules of the 1960s. It noted that “in 1964, the primary goal of College administrators was maintaining ‘an open door and one foot on the floor’ policy for students entertaining guests of the opposite sex in their rooms.” At that time, the student body and the administration were in conflict over the right to do as they pleased in their own dorms: “Students in 1964 were concerned with lengthening the number of hours they were allowed to spend with members of the opposite sex in the privacy of their own rooms.” If this sounds quaint, consider Bliss’s next point. “Few,” she observed, “could appreciate the fact that only a decade earlier, men and women were not allowed to enter the dormitories of the opposite sex at all.”
The original parietal rules meant that the women of Radcliffe, Harvard’s sister college, could have been in the Harvard Houses only between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. Robert Watson, a Harvard dean, explained at the time: “We have to watch the mores of our students. I do not want to see Harvard play a leading role in relaxing the moral code of college youth.” Indeed, he went on to say that “the college must follow the customs of the time and the community.…We cannot have rules more liberal than a standard generally accepted by the American public.”
Is there a single standard generally accepted by the American public today? For most of the country—with exceptions in deeply religious Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities—ours is not an age that concerns itself with the amount of time that men and women spend together in solitude. But that doesn’t mean our era isn’t concerned with the moral development of our youth. On the contrary, leaders of America’s elite institutions today are as preoccupied with strengthening the souls of their charges as were the men who designed the parietal codes all those years ago. Only their aim is not sexual purity anymore, but rather social diversity. It is the heart and soul of the moral vision of our times, and administrators today are no less determined to see that students hew to that standard. But in their effort to serve in loco parentis in this fashion, educators are leaping across ethical—and possibly, legal—lines.
The fraternity-like final clubs have always been difficult to get into, much like Harvard itself. And for many years, the all-male final clubs were certainly characterized by discrimination. In a 1965 piece for the Crimson, Herbert H. Denton Jr., then an undergraduate, noted that while “the tacit ban on Jews has been relaxed in most clubs,” the “ban on Negroes is still in effect.” The same cannot be said today; while several of the final clubs are trying to retain their character by remaining single-gender organizations, they do not screen would-be members on the basis of race or religion.
Nonetheless, the administration has determined that they espouse values and ideas contrary to the Harvard spirit and must consequently be treated as an anachronistic wrong to be extirpated. In a statement issued in December, President Faust (along with William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation) declared that
the final clubs in particular are a product of another era, a time when Harvard’s student body was all male, culturally homogenous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent. Our student body today is significantly different. We self-consciously seek to admit a class that is diverse on many dimensions, including on gender, race, and socioeconomic status.
The clubs have strict rules about speaking with the press, and every member I spoke with—both former and current students—did so on the condition of anonymity. Many brought up the topic of diversity, noting that in their experience, the members of their clubs were diverse in both ethnic and socioeconomic respects. Members of multiple clubs told me about policies under which an inability to pay club dues has no bearing on whether or not a student will be accepted. Indeed, one went so far as to note that the financial-aid offer is blatantly highlighted during the initiation process, so that those lower on the socioeconomic ladder are not even temporarily burdened by the misconception that their financial status might affect their membership.
The final clubs, like Harvard itself, may indeed be a product of another era. But just as Harvard has evolved, the final clubs have changed. Faust, Lee, and all of the actors in the anti-final-clubs camp, ignore this. They also espouse a position that is as illogical as it is incoherent: Faust and Lee claim both that “students may decide to join a USGSO and remain in good standing” and that “decisions often have consequences, as they do here in terms of students’ eligibility for decanal1 endorsements and leadership positions supported by institutional resources.”
Most parents would not believe that their sons and daughters were in “good standing” if they came home from campus for winter break and told them they would be unable to be editor of the newspaper, captain of the debate team, or eligible for a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship. Yet Faust and Lee insist that “the policy does not discipline or punish the students.” It merely “recognizes that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity that are so important to our campus.” It’s hard to believe that Faust and Lee might honestly think that excluding students from leadership roles or prestigious postgrad opportunities would be construed as anything other than a punishment.
So why the insistence to the contrary? If the final clubs are, in the administration’s eyes, archaic, narrow-minded, discriminatory organizations, why not come out with an honest statement that calls for disciplining the students who dare to participate in these institutions? Lewis, the former dean, has explained this by making reference to what Faust and Lee do not mention—namely, Harvard’s Statutes—the internal bylaws governing the institution. Lewis cites part of the 12th statute, which lays out that “the several faculties have authority…to inflict at their discretion, all proper means of discipline.” He notes that “by declaring that ineligibility for honors and distinctions are ‘not discipline,’ what President Faust and Mr. Lee are saying is that the Statutes are not implicated, the matter is not one for the Faculty to decide, and no Faculty vote is needed to carry out the policy.” Indeed, Lewis notes that “it is important that the…policy not be discipline, because if it were discipline, and disciplinary action were taken against a student without a Faculty vote authorizing that policy, that student could challenge the action as not properly authorized.”
There is something else the Faust-Lee statement does not reference—and tellingly. In the beginning of the Harvard administration’s war on final clubs, concerns over sexual assault seemed to form the core of the issue. The Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention reported that 47 percent of female college seniors who were in some way involved in final clubs—either because they attend events at the male clubs, or because they themselves are members of female clubs—said they had experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college.” Since “31 percent of female Harvard seniors reported nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college,” the report said, the data proved that “a Harvard College woman is half again more likely to experience sexual assault if she is involved with a Club than the average female Harvard College senior.” But Harvard’s sexual assault survey also found that 75 percent of “incidents of nonconsensual complete and attempted penetration reported by Harvard College females” happened in…Harvard dorms.
The report is sloppy and lumps together things that are not alike. For example, the Porcellian—Harvard’s oldest final club—does not allow any nonmembers through its doors. Charles Storey, who was then the Porcellian’s graduate president, provided a statement to the Crimson in which, among other things, he claimed that the club was “being used as a scapegoat for the sexual assault problem at Harvard despite its policies to help avoid the potential for sexual assault.” The Porcellian, he said, was “mystified as to why the current administration feels that forcing our club to accept female members would reduce the incidence of sexual assault on campus.” Indeed, Storey said, “forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.”
A day later, Storey apologized for his statement. A few days after that, he resigned as the Porcellian’s graduate president. His reasoning was admittedly inelegant, as it could be interpreted to suggest that club members would be unable to restrain themselves from committing sexual assault should women enter their domain. But Storey was not incorrect in pointing out that, by definition, women could not be subjected to unwanted touching in the Porcellian clubhouse if they were not allowed inside. For a club like the Porcellian, then, where instances of male-on-female sexual assault within the house are currently nonexistent, going co-ed would inherently guarantee that the opportunity for assault would expand. And that is why it is noteworthy (Storey’s humiliation notwithstanding) that the Faust-Lee declaration eliminated the attack on the final clubs for their ostensibly heightened role in unwanted sexual conduct. And why the entirety of the case against them now rests on their failure to hew to the administration’s convictions on gender egalitarianism.
The role that final clubs play in Harvard social life has been a contentious topic for decades. The perception has long been that socially, the members of Harvard’s male final clubs have too much power. On a campus with limited space for social gathering, the final-club mansions are often the source of the college’s most sought-after nightlife. Arguments have been made consistently over time that the exclusionary practices of the clubs—they typically accept only 10 to 25 new members a year—make for unpleasant and unfair campus social dynamics. But again, this conversation is happening at Harvard, an institution that prides itself on its prestige and exclusivity, and which accepted a mere 5.2 percent of its applicants to the 2021 class.
Lewis, the former dean, is not exactly a natural ally for the clubs. He told me that he was “pretty tough with them” during his tenure, and that he was “instrumental in trying to get some of the bad behavior of some of the final clubs under control.” The issues that arose during his time as dean seem to have mostly been related to parties that grew too loud or students who became too drunk. But confronting specific problems as they arise is an approach entirely different from issuing an all-encompassing sanction on free association. At Harvard, specifically, the implications of such a policy could have long-term ramifications. “As an educational institution that, for better or worse, graduates more than its fair share of the leadership of the country, in both industry and technology, and government and law,” Lewis said, “we should not be teaching students that the way you control social problems is by creating bans and penalties against joining organizations.” His “bigger worry,” he said, is that “students will come to think it’s a reasonable thing to do.”
Beyond all these considerations lies an additional layer of complication: legality. Even as a private institution, Harvard’s autonomy may not be as absolute as it seems to believe. I spoke by phone with Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer who is currently representing the Fly, one of the clubs. He told me that “Harvard is misinformed if it has been told by its lawyers or by the office of the general counsel that it can do what it is trying to do, that is to say, punish a private off-campus club, punish Harvard students for joining a legal off-campus club, that is not on Harvard property, and over which the university has no control.” If Harvard goes forward with its plan, Silverglate noted, it will have “overstepped its legal powers.” He spoke extensively about the specific challenges that Harvard would face under Massachusetts state law, explaining that there are free-speech provisions in the Massachusetts constitution that are more protective of speech than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, Silverglate noted, the state’s supreme court has ruled in several instances that Massachusetts’s declaration of rights “limits the power of private institutions over the people it governs.”
In its desire to avoid a lawsuit, the Harvard administration—or the team of lawyers that doubtlessly advised it—carefully crafted a rule that would apply equally to men and women. Had the sanctions applied solely to male-only clubs, the university would likely have been faced with a federal lawsuit or investigation into gender discrimination. Yet despite the male final clubs being the primary target of the sanctions, they seem to have done the most harm so far to Harvard’s fraternities, sororities, and female final clubs.
One female student I spoke with is a member of one of the originally all-female final clubs that has recently gone co-ed rather than face the sanctions. She explained that within the club, there is a “feeling of resentment.” The USGSOs were all given the choice to either go co-ed or face the sanctions. “The girls clubs,” she told me, “have accepted it because they don’t have a lot of money.” While the male clubs have old and powerful alumni—and the money that comes with them—the female clubs are young and, by comparison, poor. “The boys can all sue,” she said, but “the girls clubs don’t have that privilege.” Having men in the club has certainly changed things for her. She explained: “It’s definitely different—I loved having an all-female space, and there was lots of merit to that socially and even in terms of networking.… I had this strong female network, and that was kind of eroded by going co-ed.”
Sorority members are facing similar challenges, but unlike the male and female final clubs that do not answer to a national body, they are unable to adapt as they see fit. Sororities and fraternities are unable to go co-ed without violating the rules of their national charters; the sanctions policy therefore affects their organizations most.
I spoke by phone with Evan Ribot, a Harvard alumnus from the class of 2014 who was president of the fraternity AEPI while on campus. Stressing that he could speak only for himself, and not on behalf of AEPI or the AEPI alumni network, he told me there was a “tenuous relationship between the administration and the fraternities” when he was on campus. “There was a sense that we operated in a gray zone because the university knew we existed,” he told me. “So we weren’t underground, but we also were not a recognized group.” As a result of the sanctions, AEPI at Harvard has dissolved itself and become a new organization, the gender-neutral “Aleph.” The organization is no longer affiliated with AEPI national.
“It’s a shame,” he said, “because some of my best friends were looking to join AEPI not because they wanted to be in an exclusionary single-sex organization but because they were looking for a place to fit in on a challenging campus.” The same is true for women: Ribot noted “The sororities were an avenue for women to find their own spaces—not because they were looking to exclude men but because there is an inherent value to a group of women hanging out, just like there can be an inherent value to have men hanging out.… It’s not rooted in exclusion.”
In some circumstances, it appears, Faust agrees. She herself attended Bryn Mawr—a women’s college— and serves as a special representative on the board of trustees of her alma mater. “It is impossible to figure out how Faust can reconcile helping to provide that singular experience to women while at the same time denying any portion of that experience to the women she is responsible for at Harvard,” said Richard Porteus, graduate president of the Fly Club. He graduated from Harvard in 1978 and was elected a member of the Fly Club in 1976. He spoke of the diversity of his club class and reflected that while “there were some people whose names also appeared on Harvard buildings,” he “didn’t come from wealth” and was not only elected to the club but became an officer. Porteus explained that “one’s socioeconomic standing did not matter.” All that mattered, he said, was “the potential for forming life-long friendships.”
The debate over Harvard’s final clubs would have taken place in an entirely different framework if we were still living in a time when university administrators saw their role as fill-in parents—and if that role were viewed as a comfort by the parents themselves. But today’s universities are, for better or worse, largely a free-for-all. The curtailing of certain freedoms thus becomes all the more apparent, and all the more disturbing, when measured against the backdrop of a prevailing “you do you” attitude. The core of the administration’s position seems to be reinforced by an overwhelming need to groom a student body that shares all the same beliefs and values—those that echo the principles that the administration itself espouses. If it deems single-sex social groups discriminatory, then there is no room for those students who see them not as beacons of gender exclusivity but as opportunities for friendship and support. In an educational institution, the only kind of diversity that should matter is diversity of thought. That’s a lesson the Harvard administration desperately needs to learn.
Harvard’s own questionable record on diversity is currently under harsh scrutiny—and not because of the behavior of clubs that have a tenuous connection to the university’s educational mission. Research has demonstrated that to gain entry into an institution like Harvard, Asian-American applicants must score an average of 140 points higher on their SATs than white applicants, 270 points higher than Hispanic applicants, and an astonishing 450 points higher than African-American applicants. The Justice Department has taken note and is investigating the matter. In December, the New York Times reported that the university has agreed to give the DOJ access to applicant and student records. That Harvard’s administration has become consumed with the goal of bringing an end to institutions that fail to meet a 21st-century standard for diversity is not without its savage ironies.
1 Meaning something a dean does.
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Review of 'In the Enemy’s House' By Howard Blum
Nearly a decade would pass until the FBI and NSA began to release the actual Venona transcripts in 1995. In the years since, a number of books (including several co-authored by me) have analyzed the Venona revelations, while others have mined Communist International files and the KGB archives. Virtually all the major mysteries about Soviet espionage in the United States have been resolved by these once-secret documents. In addition to confirming the guilt of the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and virtually every other person accused of spying in the 1940s by the ex-spies Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, these books have exposed several important and previously unknown agents such as Theodore Hall, Russell McNutt, and I.F. Stone. Indeed, the only accused spy who turns out to have been innocent (although he was a secret Communist almost up until the day he took charge of developing an atomic bomb) was J. Robert Oppenheimer.
A handful of espionage deniers, centered around the Nation magazine, continue to argue, against all evidence and logic, that Alger Hiss is still innocent. The Rosenberg children continue to distort their mother’s role in espionage. And some hard-core McCarthyites still demonize Oppenheimer. But in truth, the bloody battle over who spied is over.
Lamphere’s book emphasized his collaboration with the Army cryptographer Meredith Gardner in the hard work of unraveling the spy rings using the Venona cables. Employing those 1986 recollections as a template, the Vanity Fair contributor Howard Blum has now given us In the Enemy’s House, an overly dramatized but largely accurate account of the friendship between the outgoing, hard-driving, atypical G-man Lamphere and the shy, scholarly, soft-spoken Gardner as they worked together to find and prosecute those Americans who had betrayed their nation.
Blum intersperses the American hunt for spies with the recollections of Julius Rosenberg’s KGB controller, Alexander Feklisov, who ran Rosenberg in 1944 and 1945 and supervised Fuchs in Great Britain from 1947 to 1949. Feklisov watched with mounting dread as the KGB’s atomic spy networks were exposed, both because of Venona and the KGB’s own blunders—most notably because the Russians used Harry Gold, Fuch’s contact, to pick up espionage material from David Greenglass, who was Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law and part of his spy ring.
Blum also uses information from many of the scholarly accounts that have already appeared, although not always carefully. His only new source of data comes from interviews with members of the Lamphere and Gardner families and access to their personal notebooks. But while he provides a list of his sources for each chapter, Blum does not use footnotes, so that although many of the personal and emotional reactions to the investigation he attributes to people, and especially to Lamphere, presumably come from these sources, it is never clear whether they are based on contemporaneous written notes or third-party recollections of events more than 50 years in the past.
Such objections are not mere academic carping. While Blum successfully turns this oft-told story into an interesting and suspenseful narrative, his approach comes at a cost. For example: He is eager to transform Lamphere from a diligent and resourceful FBI investigator who often chafed at the bureaucracy and petty rules that governed the agency into a full-blown rebel who almost singlehandedly forced the FBI to take up the problem of Soviet espionage. To do so, Blum suggests that until the FBI received an anonymous letter in Russian in August 1943 alleging widespread spying and naming KGB operatives, the Bureau regarded the investigation of potential Soviet spies as useless because allies did not spy on each other.
This is wrong. In fact, the FBI had already mounted two large-scale investigations—one of Comintern activities in the United States undertaken in 1940 and the other of attempted espionage directed at atomic-bomb research at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, which began in early 1943. Both had unearthed information on atomic espionage. These included discomfiting details about Robert Oppenheimer’s Communist connections; efforts by Steve Nelson, a CPUSA leader in the Bay Area in contact with known Soviet spies, to obtain atomic information; and contacts between a Soviet spy and Clarence Hiskey, a chemist on the Manhattan Project.
At one point, Blum renders one of Hiskey’s contacts, Zalmond Franklin, as Franklin Zelman and mischaracterizes him as “a KGB spook working under student cover.” In fact, Franklin was a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade working as a KGB courier. In any event, the FBI neutralized this threat by transferring Hiskey from Chicago to a military base near the Arctic Circle, thereby scaring his scientific contacts (whom he had introduced to a Soviet agent) into cooperating with the Bureau.
There are other occasions where Blum demonstrates an uncertain grasp of the history of Soviet intelligence. He misstates Elizabeth Bentley’s motives for defecting; angry at being pushed aside by the Soviets, she feared she was under FBI surveillance. And he claims that only three witnesses testified against the Rosenbergs (Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law and Harry Gold), which leaves off others (Bentley, Max Elitcher, and the photographer who had taken passport photos for the family just prior to their arrests).
Blum’s account of the way the KGB encoded and enciphered its messages is oversimplified. The mistake that made it possible for American counterintelligence to break into the Soviet messages was their intelligence services’ use of some one-use-only pads a second time. Not all of the one-time pads were used twice, and only if such a pad was used twice could the FBI strip the random numbers from the message sent by Western Union. That process allowed Gardner to attempt to break the underlying code. The vast majority of the Soviet cables remained unbreakable, and many could be only partially decrypted. And most of the decrypted cables had nothing to do with atomic espionage but concerned the stealing of diplomatic, political, industrial, and other military secrets.
Partly to heighten suspense, Blum misrepresents or distorts the timelines on matters involving Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenberg ring. He harps on Lamphere’s frustration about not being able to use the decrypts in court, but the FBI had concluded it was highly unlikely that they could be legally introduced into evidence without exposing valuable cryptological techniques, a conflict Lamphere surely understood. That very problem helps explain the FBI’s inability to prosecute Theodore Hall, the youngest physicist at Los Alamos, who had been exposed as a Soviet spy. Blum mistakenly suggests that the FBI agent in Chicago who investigated Hall was unaware of Venona. But that agent did know; the problem was that when the FBI began its investigation in the spring of 1950, Hall had temporarily ceased spying. He was eventually brought in for questioning, but neither he nor his one-time courier and friend, Saville Sax, broke and confessed. Lacking independent evidence, the FBI was stymied.T he most significant flaw of In the Enemy’s House is its assertion that Ethel Rosenberg’s conviction and execution were monumental acts of injustice that disillusioned both Lamphere and Gardner, soured their sense of accomplishment, and left them consumed by guilt. It is true that Lamphere had opposed Ethel’s execution and had drafted a memo that J. Edgar Hoover sent to the judge urging she be spared as the mother of two young sons. Gardner had translated one Venona message that indicated Ethel knew of her husband’s espionage but because of her delicate health “did not work,” which Gardner interpreted to mean she was not part of the spy ring. But, as Lamphere pointed out in his own book, her brother David Greenglass had testified to her involvement in his recruitment. And KGB messages available following the collapse of the Soviet Union now make clear that Ethel had played a key role in persuading her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, to urge her husband to spy.
In The FBI-KGB War, Lamphere never evinced deep moral qualms about their fate. He expressed a more complex set of emotions. “I knew the Rosenbergs were guilty,” he writes, “but that did not lessen my sense of grim responsibility at their deaths.” And he calls claims that the case was a mockery of freedom and justice both “abominable and untruthful.” Blum insists that Gardner was “stunned” by their deaths and quotes him as saying somewhere: “I never wanted to get anyone in trouble” (which would suggest a monumental naiveté if true).
Blum’s claim that Lamphere and Gardner had condemned themselves “to another sort of death sentence” for their roles is a wild exaggeration. So, too, is his charge that Lamphere believed that in the Rosenberg case the United States “might prove to be as ruthless and vindictive as its enemies.”
Finally, Blum links Lamphere’s decision to leave the FBI for a high-level position in the Veteran’s Administration to a sense of lingering guilt. But in his own book, Lamphere attributes the move to the frustration he felt once he realized he would be stuck as a Soviet espionage supervisor for years to come. Blum links Gardner’s brief posting to Great Britain to work with its code-breaking agency as an effort to escape his guilt, but he never mentions that Gardner returned to work at the National Security Agency for many years.
Retired intelligence agents friendly with both men have no recollection of their expressing regret about their role in the Rosenberg case. It is possible that they may have made some such comment to a family member or jotted down something in a notebook, but without very specific and sourced comments, the idea that they ever regretted their work exposing Soviet spies is nonsense that mars Blum’s otherwise entertaining account.
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What we got instead was a combination of celebrity puffery and partisan cheap shots at the Trump administration. The politics of North and South Korea, and the equally complex and intricate relations between these two countries and China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, were reduced to just another amateur sport. Ignorant and supercilious reporters transposed the clichés of the electoral horse race, complete with winners, losers, buzz, and sick burns, to nuclear brinkmanship. Major news organizations could not have done Kim’s job any better for her.
A representative example was written by no less than seven CNN reporters and researchers who concluded, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics.” The lead of this news article—I repeat, news article—was the following: “If ‘diplomatic dance’ were an event at the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister would be favored to win gold.” Gag me.
Then the authors let loose this howler: “Seen by some as her brother’s answer to American first daughter Ivanka Trump, Kim, 30, is not only a powerful member of Kim Jong Un’s kitchen cabinet but also a foil to the perception of North Korea as antiquated and militaristic.” Kim’s “Kitchen Cabinet”—why, he’s just like Andrew Jackson. And how could anyone have the “perception” that North Korea is “antiquated” and “militaristic”? Sure, they might threaten the world with nuclear annihilation. But have you seen Donald Trump’s latest tweet?
New York Times reporters are either smarter or more efficient than their peers at CNN, because it took only two of them to write “Kim Jong-Un’s sister turns on the charm, taking Pence’s spotlight.” Motoko Rich and Choe Sang-Hun described Kim’s “sphinx-like smile” and “no-nonsense hairstyle and dress, her low-key makeup, and the sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks.” They contrasted the “old message” of Vice President Pence, who has no freckles, with Kim’s “messages of reconciliation.” They cited one Mintaro Oba, a “former diplomat at the State Department specializing in the Koreas, who now works as a speechwriter in Washington.” What they did not mention is that Oba worked at Barack Obama’s State Department and writes speeches for a Democratic firm. Not that he has an axe to grind or anything.
The typical Kim puff piece began with her charm, grace, poise, statesmanship, and desire for unity and peace. Then, 10 paragraphs later, the journalist would mention that oh, by the way, North Korea is a totalitarian hellscape that Kim’s family has been plundering for over half a century. For instance, describing the South Korean reaction to Kim, Anna Fifield of the Washington Post wrote,
They marveled at her barely-there makeup and her lack of bling. They commented on her plain black outfits and simple purse. They noted the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a no-nonsense style. Here she was, a political princess, but the North Korean “first sister” had none of the hallmarks of power and wealth that Koreans south of the divide have come to expect.
A political princess! It’s like Enchanted, except with gulags and famine.
Deep in Fifield’s article, however, we come across this sentence: “Certainly, Kim, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses related to her role in censoring information, was treated like royalty during her visit.” Just thinking out loud here, but maybe human-rights abuses and censorship deserve more than a glancing reference in a subordinate clause. Fifield went on to say that “Vice President Pence, who was also in South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics but studiously avoided Kim, had worried in advance that North Korea would ‘hijack’ the Olympic Games with its ‘propaganda.’” Now where could he have gotten that idea?
The fascination with Kim revealed both the superficiality and condescension of much of our press. Fifield’s colleague, national correspondent Philip Bump, tweeted out (and later deleted) a photo of Kim sitting behind Pence at the opening ceremonies with the comment, “Kim Jong Un’s sister with deadly side-eye at Pence,” as if he were being snarky about an episode of Real Housewives.
When Kim departed the Olympics, Christine Kim of Reuters wrote an article headlined, “Head held high, Kim’s sister returns to North Korea.” Here’s how it began:
A prim, young woman with a high forehead and hair half-swept back quietly gazes at the throngs of people pushing for a glimpse of her, a faint smile on her lips and eyelids low as four bodyguards jostle around her.
The Reuters piece ends this way: “Her big smiles and relaxed manner left a largely positive impression on the South Korean public. But her sometimes aloof expression and high-tilted chin also spoke of someone who sees herself ‘of royalty’ and ‘above anyone else,’ leadership experts and some critics said.” Thank goodness for the experts.
Kim Jong Un could not have anticipated more glowing coverage for his sister, for the robot-like cheerleaders he sent alongside her, or for his transparent attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its democratic allies. “North Korea has emerged as the early favorite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals: the diplomatic gold,” wrote Soyoung Kim and James Pearson of Reuters, who called Pence “one of the loneliest figures at the opening event.” Quoting on background “a senior diplomatic source close to North Korea,” Will Ripley of CNN wrote an article headlined, “Pence’s Olympic trip a ‘missed opportunity’ for North Korea diplomacy.” But who was Ripley’s source? Dennis Rodman?
What most disturbed me was the difference in coverage of Kim Yo Jong and Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died last year after being tortured and held captive in North Korea. Fred Warmbier accompanied Pence to the Olympics as a reminder of the North’s inhumanity and menace. Journalists ignored, dismissed, and even criticized this grieving man. Among many examples of thoughtlessness and callousness was a Politico tweet that read: “Fred Warmbier criticizes North Korean Olympic spirit.” He must have missed Kim’s freckles.
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba asked: “Is Otto Warmbier a symbol, or a prop?” You see, Emba wrote, “Otto’s father may want his son to be a symbol. But the nature of his escort risks turning him into a prop.” Why? Well, because “symbols stand for something” while “props are used by someone.” And “the Trump administration, which hosted Warmbier, is made up of shameless instrumentalizers who have made clear that they stand for very little.” So there you go. We should be skeptical of Fred Warmbier because Trump.
Emba’s not all wrong. There were a lot of props and tools at the Olympics. You could find them in the press box.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
was nine when I made my first trip to Israel in June of 1968, almost exactly a year after the Six-Day War. My parents had been in Italy the autumn before, and while vacationing in Rome they learned that there were inexpensive flights leaving twice a week for Tel Aviv. The whole of Israel was giddy at the time, unburdened by their insecurities for the moment with the stunning success of their having just won the Six-Day War and their having increased the total size of their young, besieged nation by more than two-thirds.
My mother finally found a use for the crumpled phone numbers of distant Israeli relatives she’d been carrying in her purse for the past several months, relatives on both her father’s and her mother’s side, Romanians all. Osnat, my mother’s second cousin once removed, had had the misfortune of remaining in Europe while the Nazis were on the move. She spoke of having spent five days hiding from the Germans in the liquid filth of an outhouse and breathing through a tube when they came near.
Meeting scores of warm and loving relatives and having been feted by them as “our dear American Mishpacha” was partly why my parents were both so taken with Israel—that and the Israeli people themselves, the Sabras, so proud and brash, and the ancient beauty of the land. With some talk of perhaps making Aliyah, or at least exploring the idea of our moving to Israel, my parents, my siblings, my first cousins, and my Grandma Rose and her younger brother, Uncle Sol, gathered up a month’s worth of warm-weather clothing and flew en masse to Tel Aviv. We were greeted at Lod Airport by a crush of relations, all of them clambering to hug and kiss us. And then as the sun descended into the Mediterranean and night fell over the coastal plain, they drove us all north in a rag-tag caravan of tiny old Fiats, Renaults, and Peugeots to the beach town of Netanya, where we stayed for the entire summer in a tiny flat just behind the home Osnat shared with her husband, Shlomo.
Days later, I’m with my father and my brother Paul at the Wailing Wall. It’s weird to think that only a week ago I was at home watching Gilligan’s Island and looking for my dad’s Japanese Playboys in the bottom drawer of his bedroom closet during the commercials. Now, I’m in Jerusalem, in the glaring sun beneath this gigantic wall of stone. When I’m sure no one’s looking, I put both hands on the wall, and then I touch my forehead to it. The stones are colder than you’d think they’d be in all this heat.
For reasons I don’t understand, I start to cry. I’d be embarrassed if my brother or my dad saw me like this, so I pretend that I’m praying. I wonder, though, am I just crying because you’re supposed to cry here? If the rabbis from the Talmud Torah had shown me pictures of some random bridge in Saint Paul from the time I was in nursery school, would I have cried at that, too?
When I look up at the wall again, I see some birds’ nests and a million pieces of paper with people’s prayers in them, all stuffed into the cracks between the stones. Everyone who comes here wants God’s attention. I’ll bet He loves all the notes. They probably make Him feel like someone gives a shit about the cool stuff He does.I
had been born a Jew in Minneapolis. Growing up Jewish there wasn’t a good or a bad thing any more than growing up with snow was good or bad. It just was. Because we Jews were so few, being one made us all feel different. It wasn’t a difference we’d asked for or earned either. It, too, just was. It was natural for us, that is, becoming somewhat Jew-centric. We were fond of staying close to one another, close to our causes and to our history, it was just a natural reaction to being the “other.”
It’s 1970 and I’m in junior high, on my way to English, when I see Nelson Gomez, Stuey Nyberg, and Craig Walner. They’re hip-checking kids into the tall metal lockers that line the hall. They are the three kings of the Westwood Junior High’s dirtball dynasty, young hoodlums who regularly and without fear skip school, smoke filter-less Marlboros, and shout “Fuck you, faggot” to students and staff members alike, save perhaps for Mr. H, the anti-Semitic shop teacher with whom they have forged an abiding friendship.
To the left and right of me, hapless students fly, body-slammed with alarming speed into the lockers by the three of them. It doesn’t escape my notice that these unfortunates have not been chosen randomly. There goes Brian Resnick. Next it’s Shelly Abramovitz and then Alvin Fishbein. As I round the corner, Stuey Nyberg grabs my second cousin, Elaine Kamel, by the shoulders and slams her face-first into her own locker. She and they were selected for no other reason than their Jewishness.
I grab Stuey by his neck with both hands and I claw at him until my fingernails pierce his pale skin and blood spurts from his jugular. Now I take the clear plastic aquarium algae scraper that I made in Mr. H’s shop class this very morning and use it to gouge out one of Nelson Gomez’s eyeballs, making sure he can see it in the palm of my hand with his remaining eye. Craig Walner tries to run, but I catch him by his mullet and shove his head into Elaine Kamel’s locker. I slam her locker door on him again and again. I don’t stop until his head is severed from his neck…
…and my daydream comes to an abrupt halt when Stuey Nyberg says, “Himmelman, it’s your turn to meet the lockers, you fucking kike.” Without a word of warning, he clouts me with a stinging jab right to my nose. It’s the first time I’ve ever been hit in the face, and while it’s agonizing, the blow is also somehow euphoric. I’m supercharged with adrenaline, I feel as if I’m on fire. But of course, I don’t hit Stuey back. God, no. I simply stand there glowering at the three of them, blood dripping from my large Jewish nose. And for the first time in my life, I feel downright heroic. I look around me and I see that, for now at least, our bitterest enemies have stopped hip-checking what feels like the entire Jewish nation.
Six months later it’s summer vacation, and we Himmelmans fly from Minneapolis to New York and connect with a nonstop to Tel Aviv. In less than two days, I’m on a towel on the beach in Netanya looking out at the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean.
As I lay on the hot sand, Mirage fighter jets with blue Jewish stars emblazoned under their wings suddenly streak so low across the water that I can smell jet fuel. As they scream overhead, the whole beach seems to shake. With a strange sense of clannish pride, I laugh and stare up at the planes as they accelerate and finally rocket out of range.
My father died, after suffering from Stage IV lymphoma for five years, in 1984. I was 25 years old. A year later, I was living in the Twin Cities working on music with my band when I received a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh. She asked if I’d be willing to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, a bona fide subversive by nature and New Age before anyone had even come up with the term, named her ursine brainchild after Baruch Spinoza, the heretical 17th-century Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was seen as harmful to, and at odds with, the views of the Jewish establishment of Amsterdam at the time. Eventually, both he and his writings were placed under a religious ban called a “cherem” by the Dutch Jewish community where he lived and worked. Aside from the fact that he was reviled for his modernist views, no one had much bad to say about him personally, except that “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”
The songs were to play off a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the soft brown fur of the bear’s stomach. A red heart-shaped knob on the bear’s chest served as the on-off switch. By today’s standards, the technology would seem crude, but at the time, with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear along with the music was issuing directly from its cheery muzzle. As to whom to hire to be the voice of Spinoza Bear, it was decided after some deliberation that not only would I write and sing the songs, I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear itself.
Each of the dozen or so cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just two years, the bear became a huge success—not as some plebeian, retail teddy, but as something greater. Spinoza Bear soon found his way into hospitals, health clinics, and centers for healing of all kinds. By holding the bear and listening closely to his stories and songs of wellness and inner light, rape victims, grief-stricken parents, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, as well as children on cancer wards all across America found it possible to relieve some of their pain and fear.
Aside from the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band, Sussman Lawrence, used to set sail for New York City in 1985.
We were five new-wave rockers in an Oldsmobile Regal Vista Cruiser wagon, and two roadies in a spanking-new Dodge cube van. The van, which we were overjoyed to discover, had been hastily christened from bumper to bumper with graffiti sometime during our 45-minute debut set at CBGBs, the legendary East Village rock-and-roll club, only days after arriving on the East Coast.
Given the high cost of living in New York City, New Jersey seemed the next best thing. As it turned out, there were very few homeowners interested in renting a house to a band. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a middle-aged real-estate agent named Carol we’d found advertising in a Bergen County newspaper. When I finally got her on the line, I explained to her that we were medical students enrolled that fall at nearby Rutgers University and in need of a quiet place to live and study.
The following morning, as the rest of the guys waited outside in the Oldsmobile, I and my cousin Jeff, our band’s gifted keyboard player, showed up at Carol’s office in suits and ties we’d purchased at a local thrift shop and carrying responsible-looking briefcases. I had boned up on some medical terms as well, orthopedic surgical techniques mostly, in case she needed proof that we were actually who we were claiming to be. But there had been no need. We had the cash and seemed honest enough—“honest enough” to let her know that a few of us were also part-time musicians and that there might be some music playing, quietly of course, from time to time, just to ease the strain of our intense studies.
Two days later, Jeff and I woke up early, signed the lease papers, and pulled our now multihued, invective-laden cube van into the driveway of 133 Busteed Drive in Midland Park, New Jersey.
Trying for as much discretion as possible, lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we backed the van up to the garage, lugged the gear up a short flight of stairs and into a large, unfurnished living room. Once upstairs, we began unloading beer-stained amplifiers, at least a dozen guitar cases, a drum set packed tightly into three large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire public-address system and lighting rig. Aside from some bad scrapes in the hardwood floor and a gaping hole or two in the walls on our way in, the load-in was accomplished with speed and efficiency. We were up and practicing by late afternoon, our new-wave rock blaring fast and loud into the New Jersey autumn night.
A month after settling in, Ruth Grosh reached me at dinnertime by long distance, in the squalor of our band-house collective. After some catching up, she gently let me know me that some psychic friends had explained to her that I had just a few months left on the planet. “What!” I said, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing, it seemed, although her nonchalance about my imminent demise didn’t make me feel any less concerned. “They asked me to find out if you’d like to come in for a free consultation,” she said. I was due to fly back to Minneapolis later that week anyway, and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving nonsense was about.
Back home, on the morning of my appointment with the psychics, I found my mother, who was normally quite composed, flitting around the kitchen and singing quietly to herself. She had agreed to a lunch date that afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony, her first since my dad had died almost two years before.
“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asked. “Be honest.”
“Yeah, it looks great,” I said.
I was uncomfortable in the extreme watching my mother dart around the house like a schoolgirl primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died, and given all that she’d been through, it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little. After all, I thought, it was just lunch. But the more I saw of this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honked. It was Ruth.
She and I rode wordlessly as Japanese New Age wooden flutes intoned from her car stereo. We arrived after twenty minutes at the northern suburb of Brooklyn Center, and Ruth parked her car near a long row of newly built town houses. A man and a woman in their mid-forties greeted us at the front door, both smiling in a scary, off-putting way. They appeared to be a kind of husband-and-wife psychic tag team, and they rushed headlong into the consultation by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I knew.
“We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” the woman said and smiled again. I thought it was just some cheesy method of showing off.
“The first names are enough,” said the man.
“Okay, let’s go with Jeff,” I said.
My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable facility, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. The two psychics were seated facing each other in cheap leather armchairs. In an instant, they were both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I recognized each of them from the names Jeff and I had given them. When Jeff’s thumbs bent downward spasmodically, we called it “Southerner.” When his palms flexed upward in a sort of hand-waving motion, we called it “Reckless Greeter.” In another, with his eyebrows pinched together, lips compressed, and eyes blinking, Jeff looked like someone who was very curious about his environment. We called that one “Curious Man.” His most frequent tic was also his most unsettling. We called that one “Round the World.” It involved his eyeballs rolling uncontrollably in their sockets. Suddenly, to my astonishment, the corners of both of the psychics’ mouths had formed narrow half smiles. Their eyebrows began squeezing together; their eyes were blinking—open-shut-open-shut—perfectly mimicking Jeff’s Curious Man.
“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman shouted in excitement. Her husband, whose hands then began a remarkable imitation of Reckless Greeter added, “Yes, good God, the music! Can’t you feel it just pouring out of him?”
I was thinking this had to be some kind of brilliant trick, albeit a devilish one. It was astonishing, yes, but I wasn’t yet convinced that they were real. Next, I said the name “Beverly,” my mother’s, and they both giggled. It’s disconcerting to see adults giggle at any time, but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, it’s triply so.
“She’s doing something she feels guilty about,” the woman offered.
“Yes,” said the man. “Something she’s afraid of doing, but it seems to us that she’s also very excited.”
Almost in unison, the psychics said, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today!”
How in hell could they have known what I’d just experienced myself for the first time in my life that very morning? If these two freaks had wanted my undivided attention, they sure as hell had it now.
The room fell silent. I didn’t dare speak. They had officially scared the living daylights out of me with their last trick. Soon, they broached the subject I’d come all this way to talk about.
“Is it your wish to leave the planet?” the woman asked, more casually than I would have imagined possible for someone questioning a fellow human being about whether he wanted to live or die.
I paused and breathed deeply for a minute or so. It was a question I stopped and thought about longer than a mentally stable person might have.
“No,” I finally told them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”
This seemed to relieve them. The man said, “The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence, and by working as single-mindedly as you have to get a record deal, with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity. You’ve been, in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and, should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.”
His wife took over: “What you need to do is uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love, rather than music you think will sell.”
By this time, tears were spilling down my cheeks. “There’s this song,” I began telling them, “that I wrote for my dad over two years ago on Father’s Day, that almost no one has heard. It’s something that was written with the sole intention of connecting with him before he died. It’s on a cassette tape, just sitting there on a shelf in my closet.”
“Why not put that song out as your next single,” the man said.
I was suddenly speechless. Why had I never thought of this? It was such a simple yet profound idea. I flew back to New Jersey, determined to release not just the one song, but an entire album dedicated to my father.
The guys picked me up in the Oldsmobile at Newark Airport the next day. We were standing around the luggage carousel waiting for my bags when I told them I was going to record a solo record, a tribute to my father, whom they all loved and respected.
My bandmates understood this was something I needed to do. They also knew it wasn’t just talk. A solo album, produced for whatever reasons, also signaled the possibility that the ethos of the band may well have been coming to an end. Nevertheless, they played their hearts out on the record and, by doing so, tacitly gave me their blessings and their assurances that whatever happened with it would be for the best.
The recording featured the song I’d written for my dad, and it eventually became my debut album, This Father’s Day, for Island Records.
Its release also became a powerful catalyst for me personally. It took me from where I had been, locked up in pain and confusion, to some other, more hopeful place. Even before my meeting with the psychics, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the hurt, that it was simply time to grit my teeth and persevere. It had been two years, after all. But I was mistaken. The process of mending broken hearts is never as pat as that. As much as I needed to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and rawness of my father’s death, I knew I’d have to face my worst fears again and again. But I felt ready. I also knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that I really didn’t want to die.
While my father was suffering in the last five years of his life, I found myself in a different state of mind from that of my friends and bandmates, who were, for the most part, blithely moving through their young lives. I’m not saying pain made me wise; it’s just that it can, for those willing to accept its hard lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s less so.
During those years I was working very hard to become famous, whatever that might have meant. I felt that I needed to reach some level of achievement before my dad died. I suppose I was conducting a search for miracles. It’s no wonder. For my family and for me at least, miracles seemed to have been in very short supply back then.
It’s miracles after all, that compel us forward, that encourage us to move with some degree of willingness into the next day. But, despite what we might believe, it’s hardly ever the big ones that truly move us. The sea can split, we can win the lottery, we can even become rock stars, and still, those phenomenal circumstances are never what matter most. In the end, the only miracle worth wishing for is the ability to be made aware of the smallest splendors, the most inconsequential truths, and the overlooked rhythms that connect us to the people and things we love.
I felt a kind of heat rising up around me in those days, a sense that what had long been static was now stuttering back into motion. There was a pleasant strangeness to the feeling, but like many things that at first strike us as unusual, it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar, either. I’d felt that same unnamable sensation, lying awake in my bed in the dark as a young child, focusing on individual moonlit snowflakes as they fell outside my window. I felt it again in Jerusalem, at nine years old, when I first touched the sunbaked stones of the Western Wall. I felt it the first time I’d snorkeled in the Red Sea and became drunk from sheer beauty. I felt it the frigid November morning we buried my father. I felt it on the evening I finally met my wife, and again, the moment when each of my children was born.
The circumstances were wildly varying, but in each instance there was a sense of being taken from one place to another, of inertia finally giving way to movement. It was as if my mundane life had cracked open and I saw, arrayed in front of me, some image of the unseen hand that forms and directs the universe.M
y first experiences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at age 27 were catalytic. A rabbi named Simon Jacobson had posed a single question and it, too, set me into motion: “Why is walking on the surface of the Earth any less miraculous than flying above it?” he’d asked.
The idea that the world is a wondrous, mysterious place—even as we are destined to walk on the mundane surface of it, even if we cannot truly fly—is both a liberating and comforting notion. Being attuned to wonder is my preferred condition. Perhaps it’s natural for each of us. But why, then, are so many moments not imbued with this sense of the miraculous? Why is there such a divide between barely sensing and deeply feeling?
What I did know in the autumn of 1987, with a certainty I hadn’t known before—perhaps couldn’t have known—was that I needed to get married. I had awakened to the idea that there was nothing I was doing with my life, not my music, not my friendships, not my finally getting that almighty record deal, more important than finding the right woman with whom to create a family and live out my days. I also knew that to do this, I would need to create a powerful forcing frame for myself, not one that would constrict or limit me, but one that would allow me to channel my outsized ego and my creative proclivities toward more productive ends than I’d ever dreamed possible.
Eventually, I made a sort of pact with myself, a silent, personal agreement. It came down to this simple declaration: The next time I sleep with a woman, it will be with my wife. This meant that I had to extricate myself from my longtime girlfriend. Though I was, and still am, extremely fond of her, I could never envision her as a lifetime partner or the mother of my children. In addition, our arrangement was somewhat nebulous, and so this new, self-imposed structure also meant that I’d have to cut off any contact with the other women with whom I was having casual sex. I had to make a fundamental cultural and emotional shift. I would need to wean myself away from years of assumptions about the very nature of what a modern relationship meant. I would have to forge a new way of looking at women, at my role as a man, and at the world at large.
It became clear to me that the freedom I had always longed for could be obtained only through the somewhat paradoxical means of setting limits, delaying gratification, and cutting away many experiences that an all-pervasive consumerist culture had been (and continues to be) hell-bent on selling. If you’ll allow me, I’ll explain this further by way of metaphor.
Music is among the most transcendent of all art forms, both for the performer and listener. Since it has no form or substance, it can easily serve as a model for the boundlessness of spirituality. But as anyone who has mastered a musical instrument knows, musical ideas are expressed almost exclusively by means of structure and restriction, words very few of us would correlate with freedom.
At first glance, this seems like a paradox. How could something as liberating and intangible as music be based on restriction? Not only is music based on restriction, I’d go so far as to say that, aside from the existence of raw sound—elemental white noise, if you will—the only other thing that allows music to take place, the only thing that differentiates it from this pure noise, is what sounds the musician chooses to leave behind. In this sense, music comes about not by choosing notes but by the elimination of notes. Take a look at the idea in this somewhat inverse manner: Only by rejecting all other sonic choices are we left with the ones we truly desire. To make music, we don’t add, we subtract.
Here’s how something as commonplace as the key signature of a particular piece of music also reflects this idea. Unless you were trying to achieve a harsh atonal musical effect, you wouldn’t want to be playing in the key of B-flat minor while your key signature called for you to be playing in A major. The ensuing “music” would sound like a chaotic racket to most people. The time signatures of compositions, along with their tempos, which require that a particular note last only so long and that it be played at a particular speed, also function with this same principle—creation by negation. Avoiding the time signature, or playing at any speed without regard for the overall tempo, is another good way to produce only noise.
It is only through adherence to the limiting factors of time and tempo that music can take shape. In that same sense, if it weren’t for the constraint of playing only certain keys on a piano, and thereby negating all other choices, you would hear only noise. Anyone who has heard his or her toddler pounding away on a piano knows exactly what this sounds like.
Most, if not all, musical instruments also work on this principle of restriction. The trumpet, for example, is based upon compression and restriction. If the air a player blows into the trumpet’s mouthpiece weren’t compressed and regulated by the embouchure, the only sound you’d be able to hear would be a soft wind-like noise passing through the horn.
As I became more and more immersed in the wisdom of Jewish thought and practice, the idea of freedom-in-structure became clearer and ever more personally relevant. If it was true for music I wondered, how much more true must it be for all of life itself? And given that human sexuality (whether or not the participants engaged in a sexual act are conscious of it) concerns the creation of life, it occurred to me that causing dissonance in that most meaningful—dare I say mystical—arena of life was something I definitely needed to avoid.
I knew I had to place a set of restrictions on myself in order to make music out of my life, as opposed to just raw sound. Although this conception of the universe felt new to me, new in the sense that it was radically different from the one I’d been acting on for so many years, it wasn’t unfamiliar. Without my knowing it, I had undergone an awakening. I became alert to a perspective I recalled vaguely, even from my earliest childhood. It was as if I could see something important forming (though what it was, was still unclear) out of a barely examined and often fleeting sliver of thought. All at once, the world around me seemed to feel very much as it did when I was a child. I could remember clearly, lying feverish in bed, waiting for sleep, with every last thing in the world unknown and unexplained.
It was frightening as an adult to feel these thoughts growing stronger and more pervasive, but it also felt safe in ways—as though there’d been a kind of revelation, one that seemed to say: “Peter, son of David, there is a purpose to everything you’ve experienced in the recent past and everything you see before you now. From this moment on, there are things you must do and ways you must act.”
The mantra to live without restrictions, which had guided me for most of my life, seemed at that point to be leading me only to chaos. I believed I could, and must, do better for myself. My most fervent wish was no longer to become a rock star; it was to create my own family, one that could become a replacement for the one I’d been missing, the one that had changed so drastically when my father died.
So, in a tour bus rolling across the American continent, I did the three most practical things I could think of: I stuck to my private pact, I dreamed, and I prayed several times a day to an unseen Deity for strength and for love.
This part of the story really begins a few months after my dad’s funeral, when I found myself in a cramped apartment in South Minneapolis auditioning some songs I’d written for a local performer named Doug Maynard. I sang him a few things and he nodded quietly. Doug wasn’t a big talker. Finally he chose one. “Man, I think I could do this justice,” he said. It was called “My First Mistake.”
You taste like pepper frosting on a granite cake.
Baby fallin’ in love with you was my first mistake…
Less than a year later, Doug was found dead in his living room, stone-drunk and drowned on his own vomit at the age of forty. Before this happened, however, he had introduced me to his manager, who had introduced me to a New York City music lawyer, who had introduced me to a record producer named Kenny Vance.
Kenny had worked with a lot of famous people and he wasn’t particularly shy about mentioning just whom. “I used to date Diane Keaton,” he told me. “I know Woody Allen—been in a couple of his films. I was the music director for Saturday Night Live.” Then he said, “Tonight I’m gonna take you to my main connection, a religious Jew in Brooklyn.”
Before long, Kenny and I were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. We arrived at an apartment in Crown Heights where Kenny’s friend, Simon Jacobson, greeted us. I liked Simon right off the bat. His eyes reflected some essential paradox, some awareness that being alive is both a source of great humor and great sadness. His wife, Shaindy, introduced herself with a gracious smile and placed glass bowls of almonds and chocolate-covered coffee beans on a yacht-sized table before excusing herself to tend to her young children. The thing I didn’t understand at first was how a big hirsute guy like Simon, in an oversize yarmulke, with a massive beard and in a white polyester button-up, was able to land such a good-looking wife. I soon learned that around these parts, it wasn’t the guy who could throw a football the farthest who got the girl. Simon had another thing going for him.
His, at the time, was to memorize every word of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Shabbos dissertations and record them on Saturday night for publication later in the week. To understand the scope of the job, it’s necessary to know that when the Rebbe spoke, it was often for four or more hours straight, without breaks, without notes, and in a manner of cyclical and increasing complexity. To make things even more challenging, the Rebbe wasn’t freestyling. Everything he taught was derived from a compendium of source materials that ranged into the tens of thousands of books. And they could not be recorded because it was the Sabbath and no electricity could be used.
When I once mentioned to Simon how awed I was at his ability to memorize this much information, he looked at me and said: “The memorization is the least of it. It’s the task of compiling it with the proper source notes that’s the real challenge. Every day I correspond with the Rebbe, and he writes me back with perfect editor’s notes. Once I wrote and said I didn’t understand a particular passage and couldn’t find the source for it. The Rebbe had a sharp sense of humor. He sent me back a markup with a big red circle, not just on the sentence I was having an issue with, but around the whole page, with the words, ‘What do you understand?’”
It was getting late. Kenny had left me there and driven back to the city. As Simon spoke to me, I kept looking up at the oil paintings of shtetl life and the Rebbe hanging on the walls. I was prodded more by fatigue than bravado when I finally asked, “What’s the deal with those pictures of the Rebbe? They seem sort of cultish to me.”
“I like the pictures,” he said, “To me, the Rebbe is like a very inspiring grandfather, and I get a lot out of reflecting on the things he says and the way he lives his life. There are people for whom there is no sense of self. People called Tzadikim, and they have no need for personal gain. A Tzadik lives only to serve others and they can do anything they wish.”
“Really,” I asked with just a hint of comic disdain. “Can they fly?”
“Understand, I’ve never seen anyone fly,” Simon answered. “But for a Tzadik, the act of flying is no greater miracle than the act of walking.”
This idea stunned me. Not because it was new. The things that move us most never are. They are things we already know, beliefs that are buried away inside us. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s absolutely no difference between the weights of the two miracles, walking and flight. It’s just that we non-Tzadikim get so tired of the one that happens all the time.
At that moment, at that table in Brooklyn, I started thinking about the little-known rhythm-and-blues singer Doug Maynard. I was remembering the sound of his voice and simultaneously considering the infinite number, the impossible number, of tiny coincidences—the tendrils, if you will, that in their unfathomable complexity, had guided me to that particular apartment on that particular night. The thought was so vivid, it was as if I could hear Doug singing again. Singing most soulfully, most truthfully about the joy, and the sweat, and the pain of this world. It wasn’t long after that I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time. He handed me a bottle of vodka and a blessing for success, and I started becoming more Jewishly observant right away: keeping Shabbos in my tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, keeping kosher, and putting on tefillin. I married Maria two years later. We’ve been married for nearly 30 years.
About a year ago my cousin Jeff asked me what it had been like to meet the Rebbe. This is exactly how I answered him.
“You know when you’ve done something you think is horrible (whatever the hell it may be) and you start going down—deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of regret? When you’re in so deep that you start to feel like the biggest loser ever born, like nothing is possible, that nothing good is ever gonna come your way, and that you can’t even face yourself in the mirror?”
“Sure,” Jeff said. “I’ve been there.”
“Well,” I said, “meeting the Rebbe was the exact opposite of what I just described.”