What is it? A sense of unease, perhaps, some persistent feeling, as the century slips into the darkness, that the…
What is it? A sense of unease, perhaps, some persistent feeling, as the century slips into the darkness, that the larger structures of scientific thought and sentiment are disembodied, disorderly somehow. The feeling is familiar, like the taste of tea. A long moment in our collective experience is coming to an end.
The British novelist (and physicist) C.P. Snow argued in the golden 1950’s that contemporary culture had acquired two contentious heads, the one scientific, the other humanistic, each unable to understand the other and both committed to commandeering the conversation. Snow’s diagnosis exacerbated the disease: intellectual life seemed suddenly to divide along a fissure separating those who understood the second law of thermodynamics from those who did not. There ensued a period of comical soul-searching, as literary critics in particular realized with dismay that, just as Snow had suggested, they were incapable of following a rudimentary scientific argument. Viewed from the perspective of the present, the whole episode takes on an ineffable air of poignancy, the 1950’s comprising perhaps the last years in which educated men retained the capacity to be embarrassed by their ignorance.
Today the rich fruity preposterous discourse of the academic Left would seem to suggest that Snow’s bifurcated culture has become flamboyantly fractured. Like a glass pane struck a sharp blow, the large project of the physical sciences has been shown at last to be socially regressive, or politically hegemonistic, or hopelessly gendered, or ethnically contaminated, or simply anachronistic. Quantum mechanics, after all, was anticipated—so we are told—by proud African warriors, men who in the Sudan or the marshes of the Nile conveyed Schrödinger’s wave equation as an oral tradition.
The contemporary American philosopher John Searle has struck a countervailing note. Having heard out Indian philosophers convinced that in past lives they had been Pakistanis, or were destined in future lives to become Pakistanis once again, Searle affirmed magisterially that the “contemporary scientific world view is simply not up for grabs.” The Darwinian theory of evolution and the atomic theory of matter are irrefragable.
It is wonderful that Searle should think to uphold two 19th-century theories that could both vanish into the void without affecting the contemporary scientific world view in the slightest. Still, he is right in his larger purpose. It is one culture that we now inhabit, and not two or ten thousand. Some part of the ache that today affects the human heart arises, indeed, from a kind of intellectual claustrophobia, a sense that a single and perhaps alien system of thought has somehow preempted the possibilities for the description of the universe, the consolation of the soul.
Re-creation and Revelation
Sometime in the 17th century, the dry tinder of discovery, struck profitlessly throughout so many long centuries, blazed suddenly into life. The physical sciences came into creation. That is the common view, and it is completely correct. Before the 17th century there was nothing, and afterward, everything.
Myth places the miracle at the moment Isaac Newton conceived the idea that gravity might control both the fall of objects toward the center of the earth and the movement of the planets in the night sky. But the miracle was in fact divided, one half physical, the other mathematical, and it was the mathematical miracle that struck the deeper. Before the laws of nature could be revealed and then recorded, the real world had to be re-created in terms of the real numbers.
The real numbers—not only the natural, or counting, numbers but zero, the negative numbers, the fractions, and the irrational numbers as well—entered the Western imagination in the 16th and 17th centuries, the creation of ebullient Italian geometers and mathematicians. Creation is the right word, signifying as it does a spontaneous intellectual act, one that brings something into being. But whatever their origins, the real numbers also have a workaday identity, one that is expressible in terms of their infinite decimal expansion. The square root of two may thus be expressed as 1.41421356 . . . , with the dots indicating a continuously evolving identity as ever more numbers are added to the list. With these strange rich numbers in place, the number system is in a certain sense complete. The thing is contained in itself. It is whole. There are no gaps where the numbers simply lapse.
The introduction of the real numbers allowed the landscape of mathematical analysis to be suffused with a thrilling light, one akin in its own way to the light that may be seen or sensed in the great Renaissance paintings. In that lit-up landscape, the infinite was, for the first time in history, charmed into compliance. Men gained the eerie power to ask of certain processes: suppose they go on forever, what then?
Within the scheme of thought known as the calculus, discovered almost simultaneously by Gottfried Leibniz and Newton, they found an entirely comprehensible answer. Relationships between and among numbers could be expressed by the flexible and finely geared instrument of a function, an invention that permitted mathematicians to describe numerical patterns as if they were living processes. The concept of a limit made its first appearance on the mathematical stage, denoting the place where certain things tend and then accumulate. (As the fractions get smaller and smaller, for example, they tend inexorably toward a limit at zero.) Sequences were given voice, and strange series contemplated; hidden for centuries from human sight, an array of mathematical operations and processes became for the first time visible.
The creation of the real number system and its perfection in the calculus represented an inward explosion, one that took place against the backdrop of a larger, outward explosion: the realization by the great natural philosophers of the 17th century that these same real numbers might be assigned to physical magnitudes such as force, mass, and distance, thus creating an essentially quantitative representation of the world. To be sure, human beings since time immemorial had used the numbers to count and to measure and to reckon. As the animals trooped aboard the ark, Noah, no doubt, ticked them off on his fingertips, two by two. But the representation of the real world in terms of the real numbers was different. It was a richer and more compelling representation, one that for the very first time allowed some ineffable abstract aspect of things to be localized on a computational canvas.
It was change under the aspect of continuity, the very mutability of matter, that was captured on that canvas. Continuity is a manifestation of seamlessness: continuous processes do not break, or snap, or interrupt themselves. And continuity is a physical as well as a mathematical property. It lights up the night sky as the stars crawl solemnly across the heavens. The undulating quantum wave occupying all portions of an infinite dimensional Hilbert space is continuous, and so is the great worm of time that humps and slithers its way through the theory of relativity.
The calculus is humanity’s great meditation on the theme of continuity, and the concentration on continuous change is what mysteriously lends to the calculus its diamond-hard edge, its uncanny powers of specificity.
The Representation that mathematics affords of the real world is not complete—no symbolic instrument is ever fully adequate to reality—but it is larger and more spacious and more commanding than any before discovered. Still, a representation can only do so much, namely, re-convey an aspect of reality, the familiar world finding itself peeping from an unfamiliar mirror. The larger promise of the physical sciences has always been that some striking revelation lies behind the new, the odd and unfamiliar representation, some way of coordinating appearances and enforcing a sense of order on the vagaries of things.
The world, the physical sciences affirm, is not merely depictable, but comprehensible. It has a rational structure. It is animated by a great plan. The catalogue of its facts may be compressed into a few infinitely pregnant laws. There is a form of words adequate to the complexity of experience.
These words mathematics does not in itself provide. They arise when the detritus of experience is sifted by a profound physical imagination—Newton, for example, discovering that all objects in the material universe attract one another in proportion to their mass and in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between them. In the tide of time, there have been only four absolutely fundamental physical theories: Newtonian mechanics; Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and quantum mechanics. They stand in history like the staring stone statues on Easter Island, blank-eyed and monumental.
Each theory is embedded in a continuous mathematical representation of the world; each succeeds in amalgamating far-flung processes and properties into a single, remarkably compressed affirmation, a tight intellectual knot. The supreme expression of each theory is a single mathematical law, one expressed as an equation: a statement in which something that is unknown is specified by contingencies arranged in a certain way. And each of the great theories contains far more than it states, the laws of nature fantastically compressed, as if they were quite literally messages from a timeless intellect.
The Conquest of Time
Entertaining faint impressions from the far side of the cosmos, where the dust-clouded galaxies wink and shine forlornly, the human eye can convey a human being to the raveled edge of space. But looking anxiously into time and forever asking, when—when shall I find love, when happiness, when God?—the soul is shrouded, its basilisk eye unseeing. The past lies fixed and frozen back there somewhere; the future is not only indeterminate and incomplete but opaque, the horizon lit up by only a few large and gloomy certainties: death, taxes, feminism. Human beings are suspended between the unknowable and the inevitable, the place they have always occupied and the place, one suspects, they will always occupy.
The great physical theories provide an exception to this depressing human condition; they are given over to the conquest of time. Under their influence, the universe becomes temporally transparent, at least in part. The conquest of time is written into the symbolic instruments of the physical sciences, their very way of describing things. The laws of nature specify processes in the world, as when (say) a philosopher dropped from a great height accelerates toward the center of the earth, his position changing at every passing moment.
The instruments of discovery within the physical sciences are differential equations. Like equations everywhere, they express a relationship but conceal an unknown. Solving the equation is, just as in elementary algebra, a matter of uncovering the unknown, and the extraordinary feature of the calculus is that it clears a way in which such equations may in general be solved.
The result is an instrument of remarkable power. Galileo’s law of falling bodies, for example, gives direction not only to the philosopher flying downward but to objects in free fall everywhere. That philosopher having commenced his descent by slipping (so I imagine) on a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, one left carelessly on a narrow mountain ledge, Galileo’s law controls events thereafter, predicting precisely where the philosopher will be at every subsequent moment, the law unraveling forward in time like film thread moving over sprockets, the philosopher flash-frozen frame by frame, from the moment of his initial spastic efforts to regain his balance to his comic cartwheeling in space and thence to the final ignominious wet plop some seconds later when he becomes one again with the Platonic forms which in life afforded him such satisfaction.
Nice, eh? The law of nature, I mean; and nice in the way it reveals in miniature how the physical sciences penetrate the future: by the successful combination of local circumstances—he started out here—with universal and deterministic processes-Galileo’s law. The laws of nature are general. A local flash ties them to place and time, the contingent circumstances of the real world, whereupon they acquire prophetic powers, the specification of the particular acting as a flare illuminating an ancient text.
The predictable future is the exuberant manifestation of the Western scientific imagination. Eyebrows waggling and bony fingers pointing, the great scientists stand and control the flow of time, investing their calculations with a retrospective sense of inevitability, if not of moral urgency. So entrenched by now is this notion of the predictable future that it has become a category of consciousness and discourse, a familiar intellectual fixture, one derived from the very nature of description itself.
In contemporary culture, to be sure, prophecy is a debased currency, the prophets bunched up on television where they may be found offering astrological advice on love and work. But the mathematical sciences are entirely different. In physics, prophecies command a degree of accuracy that must be reckoned miraculous. Quantum electrodynamics penetrates the very heart of matter to something like twenty decimal places. It is as if, in determining the distance from New York to Los Angeles, theory and measurement would diverge by no more than the width of a single human hair.
The great theories, singular in so many ways, are singular in this as well: no other intellectual accomplishment exhibits their prophetic powers. In them, pure thought and physical experience coincide to a degree never achieved in any other domain of intellectual or practical life—coincide, that is, to a degree unparalleled in the entire experience of the race, enabling human beings to achieve a specification of points and places in the future utterly at odds with our habitual inability to say where our keys may have been misplaced, or our hearts lost.
Chaos, Randomness, Complexity
But now it is undergoing dissolution, the predictable future. Quantum mechanics served long ago to introduce a note of alien doubt into the deterministic scheme, countenancing a view of the subatomic world in which quanta bounce around for no good reason whatsoever and measurements are bound by an iron collar of uncertainty. But quantum mechanics has long been recognized as unfathomable, its formulas a series of vatic inscriptions no one can read without going blind. Current corrosives are simpler; they have nothing directly to do with the quantum world. They are chaos, randomness, and complexity.
Chaos first. The idea is very simple. Certain systems may be both deterministic and unstable. An example is a baseball bat balanced on its end. Left unperturbed, it may remain upright until the end of time. This is one of its destinies. Given a tiny tap, it falls over promptly, thus embracing a quite different destiny. Chaos arises when the bat is embedded in the flow of time. From where it is, there is no real saying where it is going.
More than 90 years ago, the French mathematician Henri Poincaré observed that simple but nonlinear systems might well exhibit chaotic behavior. And he drew the correct conclusion that Such systems, even though governed by deterministic equations, were inherently unpredictable. His ideas were left unperturbed for a time but, given a tap in the 1940’s and 1950’s, became a part of common scientific currency by means of an unusual route.
The weather, Edward Lorenz suggested in 1963, might be essentially unpredictable (a conclusion many of us have come to on our own). Certain physical regimes—like certain households—are intrinsically chaotic; small changes in their initial states lead over time to dramatic and unsettling changes in their evolution. Beating its delicate and translucent wings in Borneo, a butterfly might bring about a tornado in Toledo. Like an upright bat, the earth’s atmosphere is a system sensitively dependent on its initial conditions.
Having been read and chuckled over by a dozen or so professionals, Lorenz’s paper sank promptly from sight. In the 1970’s it underwent a spectacular resurrection; it is now widely regarded as prescient. Evidence of chaos has been discerned in phenomena ranging from planetary astronomy to nerve excitation in the giant squid. Outside of science as well, chaos has become an immensely fashionable term of diagnosis, an explanation for every living shambles. And why not? Both ordinary language and ordinary life seem hideously sensitive to small perturbations. An errant hiccup might have induced Gavrilo Princip to miss the Archduke entirely at Sarajevo, with Bosnia-Herzegovina becoming, over the placid decades since 1914, the Switzerland of Southern Europe.
Chaos is a cultural corrosive, one dissolving the tight connection between a deterministic mathematical model and the delivery of a predictable future. In a chaotic system, the very act of measurement induces uncertainty, for no measurement is entirely accurate; imperceptible errors grow exponentially, cascading along the system until the real world and the measured world seem utterly unlike. Chaos introduces something novel in the physical sciences, a pragmatic sense of inescapable error; it compromises the miracle of quantitative prediction, and returns the imagination to an older view of life and experience. The future is clouded. We do live amid ineradicable uncertainty.
If chaos is one corrosive, randomness is another. A trite and a tired concept, randomness denotes a statistical property of sequences, but one that is difficult to discern and even more difficult to define. The morganatic cousin of meaninglessness in French movies—as when a breathless hoodlum, ending his one chance for happiness, whimsically shoots a policeman—randomness has received a revivifying interpretation in recent years, thanks to the great Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov and to the American mathematician Gregory Chaitin. Influenced no doubt by morphic resonance, Kolmogorov and Chaitin observed a sympathetic current running between randomness and the concept of complexity. The juxtaposition yields an extraordinary idea, one that captures something long sensed but never quite specified.
Here is an illustration. A painting by Jackson Pollock is complex in the sense that nothing short of the painting conveys what the painting itself conveys. As I look at those curiously compelling, variegated, aggressive streaks and slashes, words fail me. In order to describe the painting, I must display it. An Andy Warhol painting, by way of comparison, subordinates itself to a verbal formula: just run that soup can up and down the page, Andy.
This, however, is to remain within the realm of rhetoric. The mathematician attends not to paintings but to binary sequences—strings of O’s and 1 ‘s. Now a computer program is itself a string of symbols (binary numbers, in fact). A given string is simple, Chaitin and Kolmogorov argued, if the string may be generated by a computer program significantly shorter than the string itself; otherwise, it is complex.
This tight little declaration begins to explain the large irrelevance that now envelops the mathematical sciences. The laws of nature—those compressed and gnomic affirmations—pertain, on the one hand, to the largescale structures of space and time and, on the other hand, to the jiggling fundaments of the quantum world. Simplicity reigns amid the very large and the very small, and it is there that things may be mathematically described. And yet most strings and thus most things are not simple but complex. They cannot be more simply conveyed; they are what they are, insusceptible of compression. And this is an easily demonstrated, an indubitable, mathematical fact.
It is the world’s complexity that is humanly interesting. What do we see when we look elsewhere? Stars blazing glumly in the night sky, the moons of Jupiter hanging like so many testicles, clouds of cosmic dust, an immensity of space, a spare but irritating sound track consisting of the infernal chatter of background radiation. The evidence seems inescapable that the Creator wrought the simple structures in the universe with a few swift strokes of an instrument much like a cosmic trowel. In our own corner of the composition, by contrast, He apparently set to work with a sable-tipped paintbrush, patiently fashioning a blue planet, a lush garden, creatures utterly unlike anything else in the universe, sensuous, moving, alive.
We live within the confines of that canvas. Complexity is everywhere, whether created or contrived, and compression hard to come by—in truth, the human world cannot be much compressed at all. The most we can typically do, a few resolute morals or maxims aside, is to watch the panorama unfold, surprised as always by the turbulent and unsuspected flow of things, the gross but fascinating cascade of life.
A Polytheistic Universe
The Calculus is the great idealization of Western science; from within its crabbed formulas comes the master plan of equation-and-solution that makes the physical sciences possible. Yet the investiture of mathematics in things and processes weakens as one moves along the intellectual chain of command. This is a curious and disabling fact. Material objects on the quantum level may be explained as roiling waves of probability. By contrast, the attempt to discern the outlines of a coherent system of mathematical thought in the structure of biological objects—protozoa, rock stars, human beings—has been a failure.
From one perspective, the conceptual landscape of biology resembles a range of ancient foothills folded against the mathematician’s high alpine peaks. The biologist employs a scheme immeasurably simpler than the one adopted by the mathematical physicist. It is, that scheme, discrete, finite, and combinatorial. No mathematics beyond finger counting.
Living systems may be understood in terms of the constituents that make them up, and of these, there are only finitely many. The dissection complete, what remains is a master molecule, DNA, which functions as a code, and the complicated proteins that it organizes and controls. No continuous magnitudes; no real numbers; no rich body of mathematical analysis. No laws, not in the sense in which physics contains laws of nature; no fantastically pregnant, compressed, and quantitative apothegms. Molecular biology should be comprehensible to someone who knows nothing of modern science, continuity, or the calculus, and who can reckon only to powers of ten—a Harvard graduate, say.
Despite the often vulgar language in which they are expressed, the concepts that animate molecular biology are old, familiar, haunting: system, information, code, language, message, organization. They often affirm a message already known: “one generation passeth away and another generation cometh.” They are magical in their nature and effect. DNA, in particular, functions as a kind of biochemical demiurge, something that brings an entire organism into existence by a process akin to a casting of spells. They are often inconsistent: the role attributed to DNA is at odds with the obvious fact that the information resident in the genome is inadequate to specify the whole of a complex organism. Like a rubber band under tension, the concepts of molecular biology seem always to snap back to some earlier way of describing life, one in which purpose and design come prominently into focus.
And they seem, these concepts, often to mark the very margins of our own intellectual inadequacy. Nowhere in nature do we ever observe purely mechanical forces between large molecules giving rise to self-contained, stable, and autonomous structures like a frog or a fern, something able to carry on as a continuous arc from first to last, a physical object changing over time but remaining the same object at every stage, some set of forces endowing its identity with permanence so that variations remain bounded and inevitably return the object to the place from which it started. Nothing but a living system exhibits this extraordinary combination of plasticity and stability, a fact we are barely able to describe and entirely unable to explain.
Molecular biology is immune to the great idealization that marks the physical sciences; and what is more, it seems retrograde to the grand metaphysical assumptions on which the physical sciences rest. Those assumptions have passed directly into popular culture. The world, the physical sciences affirm almost with one voice, is physical and not spiritual, numinous, or mental. It is a world of matter. The doctrine of consideration in contract law and the bright bubble of consciousness are illusions. Reality contains only atoms and the void.
But if, by “physical,” physical scientists mean concepts like the concepts found in physics, then the conclusion is irresistible that molecular biology is not a physical science at all, but a discipline struggling to express the properties of living systems in a vocabulary and by means of concepts unlike those needed elsewhere. What we see when we look at the observable universe is that one god like dark Pluto rules the quantum underworld; quite another, the biological macromolecules.
Physicists reject such a frankly polytheistic view, of course. The laws of physics are controlling, they say, and in the end everything will be made clear. That is what they always say; it is their destiny to say it. But in truth the grand vision of all of human knowledge devolving toward mathematical physics is no longer taken seriously, even by physicists who take it seriously.
“The most extreme hope for science,” the physicist Steven Weinberg has written (in his Dreams of a Final Theory, 1993), “is that we will be able to trace the explanation of all natural phenomena to final laws and historical accidents” (emphasis added). Machiavelli used the word fortuna to describe the inexplicable adjurations of fate; it is a word that communicates a certain grave mockery. How has mathematical physics informed the human heart if the explanation for the way things are involves an appeal to fundamental laws and to something like a Neapolitan shrug?
Mind Over Matter
An uneasy sense prevails—it has long prevailed—that the vision of a purely physical universe is somehow incomplete. We are creatures with rich and various mental experiences. We live in a world of purpose, belief, intention, and meaning. We bring the future into being by the free exercise of our will, a circumstance that mathematical physics is unable to describe, let alone explain. And we are conscious, we have minds.
The great body of continuous mathematics has played no role in the explanation or description of the human mind (however much its very existence may express the powers of that mind). But within living memory a bright new world has been organized to rival the old cunning and continuous world of the physical sciences. Gone is Freud’s model of the mind as a haunted house (superego/ego/id); it has been replaced by the powerful image of the mind as a computational device. Careers have been fashioned to accommodate and exploit that image. Unpleasant young people proclaim themselves weird or wired, involve themselves in trendy little magazines, and sprawl over the Internet. The descriptive resources of the English language have been altered, often to risible effect, the term “digital” emerging from the proctologist’s vernacular to become a general adjective of choice. “Life is just bytes and bytes of digital information,” the biologist Richard Dawkins writes obligingly in River Out of Eden (1995). “Pure information,” a reviewer adds loyally.
The foundations of the new view were laid more than 60 years ago by a congregation of chalky logicians: the great Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church, Emil Post, and, of course, the odd and utterly original A.M. Turing, whose lost spirit seems to roam anxiously over the second half of the 20th century like one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sad young men. (Fortuna, again.)
Turing’s simple model of a computing machine is the first of humanity’s intellectual artifacts. The machine itself is a device for the manipulation of symbols, and since symbols are abstract, a Turing machine may be realized in any medium in which symbols can be inscribed. Given symbols as input, a Turing machine returns symbols as output, reading, writing, and erasing them on an infinitely extended tape. In a sense, of course, that is what lovers and lawyers do as well, the lover using his warm breath, the lawyer foolscap, each making his point by means of an inscription or exchange of symbols.
A Turing machine undertakes its transformations by means of a program: a fixed set of rules setting out what it may do and when it may do it. These rules are formal, in the sense that they make no appeal to the machine’s emotions or thoughts, but they also reflect the ineliminable purposes of the system’s programmer, enabling the machine to realize his aims or ends.
The essential elements of a Turing machine are the symbols it manipulates, the tape on which it writes, the mechanism by which it sees, and the program by which it acts; indeed, these are the essentials of the computational act itself, the process by which intelligence records its thoughts. The extraordinary, spine-chilling, contrary-to-intuition thing is that this imaginary object not only led historically to the construction of the digital computer itself—a striking example of thought bringing matter into existence—but also in some sense exhausts the very concept of rule-governed behavior. Whatever may be done by a discrete system moving in steps may be done by a Turing machine.
To the question of how best to describe change, the answer provided by the physical sciences over the course of 300 years has been a system of mathematical equations. Another answer, one new in our experience, is a program. The difference between the two is profound. A program does what an equation describes. Equations are indirect, they must be solved. A program is direct, it must be executed. Equations are continuous; programs discontinuous. Equations are infinite; programs finite. The elements of an equation are numbers; the elements of a program are words. An equation penetrates the future; a program does not.
As these distinctions suggest, the vision of the mind as a computational object is—no less than molecular biology—retrograde to the great movements of mathematical physics. In the physical sciences, time and space are represented by the real numbers and (therefore) have a continuous structure. A computer, by contrast, inhabits a world in which time, represented by the ordinary integers, has lost its pliant seamlessness and moves forward in jerky integral steps. A stern series of renunciations is in force. No differential equations. No connection backward to the calculus. No world-defining symmetries of space and time. No analytic continuation, as when the laws of nature conduct the physicist from the present into the future. No quantitative miracles. No miracles at all—provided one excepts the ordinary achingly human ones.
For under this new conceptual order, the prevailing direction of scientific thought has been altered and reversed. Within mathematical physics, things move dissectively, toward the fundamental objects and their fundamental properties and laws. The physical universe itself remains meaningless. The arena controlled by the fundamental laws, though vast, is sterile, the whole thing rather like a fluorescent-lit bowling alley where balls the size of quarks forever ricochet off one another in the hot and soundless night. Down there, no human voices may be heard.
But up here, things are different; they have always been different. Invoking a rich system of meaning and interpretation, human beings explain themselves to themselves in terms of what they wish and what they believe, the immemorial instincts of desire and conviction being sufficient to bring a world into being. That world is suspended in space by the chatter of human voices. A path through the chatter is not dissective, but almost always circular. A man believes that alfalfa sprouts are a cure for shingles; this is reflected in what he says, in what he does, in what he believes, and in what he wishes, each reflection explaining the one that has gone before, the circle beginning to bend back on itself.
There is no way to break the circle to reach a bedrock of physical fact, for there are no physical facts to reach. How could there be? To enter the circle, any purely physical feature of the world must be interpreted and given meaning. Once given meaning, it is no longer purely a physical feature of the world. Under the computational theory of mind, the conceptual circle is not emptied or evacuated, it is enlarged, the formal objects taking their place like guests at a wedding asked to join the dance. The states of a computer carry a significance that goes beyond physics; like words, they play a role in the economy of meaning. And meaning appears only in the reflective and interpretive gaze of human beings.
This point is evident in the simplest of devices. Call twice for the numeral “2” on a calculator and the machine returns a neoned “4.” Considered simply as a physical object, the machine is shuttling among shapes, configurations of light, which it realizes by means of the way in which it is constructed: it is capable of nothing else. What makes the charming show of light an answer is the fact that someone has been provoked to ask a question. Question and answer belong to the circle of human voices. A purely physical process has been invested with significance, those winking ruby lights given form and content as symbols, representations. Whether the representation is made in terms of light or by the modulation of a woman’s voice, the process is always the same. Some feature of the world has been made incandescent.
Streaming in from space, light reaches the human eye and deposits its information on the stippled surface of the retina. Directly thereafter I see the great lawn of Golden Gate Park; a young woman, nose ring twitching; a panting puppy; a rose bush; and beyond, a file of cars moving sedately toward the western sun. A three-dimensional world has been conveyed to a two-dimensional surface and then reconveyed to a three-dimensional image.
This familiar miracle suggests, if anything does, the relevance of algorithms to the actual accomplishments of the mind; indeed, the transformation of dimensions is precisely the kind of activity that might be brought under the control of a formal program, a system of rules cued to the circumstances of vision as it takes place in a creature with two matched but somewhat asymmetrical eyes. David Marr, for example, provides (in Vision, 1982) an extraordinary account of the complex transformations undertaken in the mind’s cockpit in order to allow the eyes to see things stereoptically.
In a charming book entitled Descartes’ Error (1994), Antonio R. Damasio writes of the mind as a place where neural representations, or images, arise. Having concluded correctly, say, that a football is heading toward one’s nose, the mind signs off on the formal portion of its visual deliberations by means of a vibrant image (and signals the head to duck). This language of representations and images is general throughout the cognitive sciences. The mind, apparently, stores the stuff in various places and then hauls down a representation or two when the need arises.
But wait a minute. Representations? Images? As in, something seen? In the mind? But seen by whom? And just who is doing the representing?
These questions reverberate with a loud, flat, embarrassing bang, their innocence utterly at odds with die sophistication of the various theories they subvert. Is the mind computational? It is. Does it proceed by an application of determinate rules? It does. Very well, consider this: at the conclusion of its computations, the mind bursts into a vivid, light-enraptured awareness of the world. I open my eyes and my eyes are filled. There is a panorama to which my eyes may be partial, but it is my eyes that are filled, my experiences possessing both an experiencing subject—me—and the contents of that experience, the scene and its surveyor bound inseparably together as fragments in a figure.
The persistence in theory of a certain embarrassing imbroglio—the mind suddenly opens an arena in which images are thoughtfully examined, or representations are mysteriously made to represent—is evidence of the enormous difficulty entailed in accommodating consciousness within any computational view of the mind’s operations.
Although most analytic philosophers have remained materialists, it is consciousness that is now on everyone’s lips. Employing an argument prematurely discarded by logicians, the distinguished mathematician Roger Penrose has concluded that consciousness cannot be computational: a reformation of quantum theory is required to set the matter right, the transmutation of thought into action taking place in the microtubules of the cell.1 Elsewhere, unorthodox quantum physicists have argued for the ubiquity of mind throughout the cosmos, with even the atoms having a say in the scheme of things.2 An enterprising academic, Colin McGinn, has concluded that the problem of consciousness must forever be insoluble and has made his discovery the foundation of a far-reaching philosophical system. A few philosophers have even been observed administering discreet kicks to the corpse of mind/body dualism: get up, you fat fool, I need you.
Do I have anything better? Of course not. “You could not discover the limits of soul,” Heraclitus wrote, “not even if you traveled down every road. Such is the depth of its form.”
It is a fact. Among the physicists, the old quiet confidence is gone. Men with black burning eyes roam the corridors of thought. They talk of theories that will explain absolutely everything and like barroom drunks fasten on anyone to unburden themselves: It’s strings, that’s what it is, I’m telling you. There are physicists (like Stephen Hawking or Paul Davies) convinced that they are shortly to know the Mind of God, or that they have seen in the firmament secrets of a cosmic code, or discovered in the dense inaccessible equations of general relativity living proof of the Christian resurrection.3
But even as physicists add to their great creation myths, questions follow assertions in a never-ending spiral. Why do the early galaxies show so much structure? How can the universe be younger than its oldest stars? Did space and time have a beginning? A beginning? A beginning in what? Are you saying that time is relative? Then what is that business about the first three minutes? Just what are they relative to? At the margins of speculation, strange numerical coincidences haunt the imagination. And there are singularities at the beginning and end of time, places where the laws of physics simply deform themselves and then collapse.
Mathematical physics, it is sometimes said, is the cathedral constructed by our culture. The image is apt. Messy, disorganized, ideologically confused but inescapably compelling, contemporary physics resembles nothing so much as one of those strange structures designed by Antoni Gaudí. There the spooky structure sits in the somber Spanish moonlight, bats flitting about the crenellated belfry, fantastic and odd, with its thousand-and-one idiosyncratic touches, its radically asymmetrical towers, quantum mechanics on the one side, general relativity on the other, its wealth of poorly understood details set amid fearfully difficult and rébarbative mathematics, portions of the great structure incomplete, the workmen having left their tools in stupefaction, the entire glorious edifice bearing in every way the marks of its many creators, the thing deeply moving, intensely human.
It has been the hope of the physical sciences that everything might be explained by an austere, impersonal, abstract, consistent, and complete set of mathematical laws. The hope has acquired the aspect of a faith. Within the closed coffin of academic science and analytic philosophy, things are as they always were; but no one who shares a delusion, as Freud memorably remarked, ever recognizes it as such. Elsewhere, confidence is leaking from the most profound and ambitious system of secular thought ever created. Everyone feels that this is so. And everyone is right.
The prevailing world of thought is like some frozen sea, heaving and cracking, with a trickle of shy life rushing beneath its surface, carrying fragrant memories of what has long been forgotten, a world beyond the world of matter. Human beings will always need to interpret themselves in ancient and familiar terms, the intentional circle enlarging but never breaking; for the way things are, they will never find an explanation so complete and so compelling as to make their transcendental urges irrelevant. Something is going and something is gone; some aspect of conviction has been broken. In return, there is something familiar and something recaptured. For lo, the winter is past. The rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; The time of singing is come. And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
1 The Emperor's New Mind (Oxford, 1990) and Shadows of the Mind (Oxford, 1994). The first of these books was reviewed in COMMENTARY by Jeffrey Marsh (June 1990), the second by Adam Schulman (April 1995).
2 Nick Herbert, Elemental Mind (Plume, 1994).
3 See F. J. Tipler, Physics and Immortality (Doubleday, 1994). The generally favorable critical reception accorded this inadvertently hilarious book is itself a remarkable sign of divine grace.
The Soul of Man Under Physics
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A foreign-policy approach based in security and pragmatism is now characterized by retrenchment and radicalism
And yet realism is currently in crisis.
Realism was once a sophisticated intellectual tradition that represented the best in American statecraft. Eminent Cold War realists were broadly supportive of America’s postwar internationalism and its stabilizing role in global affairs, even as they stressed the need for prudence and restraint in employing U.S. power. Above all, Cold War–era realism was based on a hard-earned understanding that Americans must deal with the geopolitical realities as they are, rather than retreat to the false comfort provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
More recently, however, those who call themselves realists have lost touch with this tradition. Within academia, realism has become synonymous with a preference for radical retrenchment and the deliberate destruction of arrangements that have fostered international stability and prosperity for decades. Within government, the Trump administration appears to be embracing an equally misguided version of realism—an approach that masquerades as shrewd realpolitik but is likely to prove profoundly damaging to American power and influence. Neither of these approaches is truly “realist,” as neither promotes core American interests or deals with the world as it really is. The United States surely needs the insights that an authentically realist approach to global affairs can provide. But first, American realism will have to undergo a reformation.
The Realist Tradition
Realism has taken many forms over the years, but it has always been focused on the imperatives of power, order, and survival in an anarchic global arena. The classical realists—Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes—considered how states and leaders should behave in a dangerous world in which there was no overarching morality or governing authority strong enough to regulate state behavior. The great modern realists—thinkers and statesmen such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger—grappled with the same issues during and after the catastrophic upheaval that characterized the first half of the 20th century.
They argued that it was impossible to transcend the tragic nature of international politics through good intentions or moralistic maxims, and that seeking to do so would merely empower the most ruthless members of the international system. They contended, on the basis of bitter experience, that aggression and violence were always a possibility in international affairs, and that states that desired peace would thus have to prepare for war and show themselves ready to wield coercive power. Most important, realist thinkers tended to place a high value on policies and arrangements that restrained potential aggressors and created a basis for stability within an inherently competitive global environment.
For this very reason, leading Cold War–era realists advocated a robust American internationalism as the best way of restraining malevolent actors and preventing another disastrous global crack-up—one that would inevitably reach out and touch the United States, just as the world wars had. Realist thinkers understood that America was uniquely capable of stabilizing the international order and containing Soviet power after World War II, even as they disagreed—sometimes sharply—over the precise nature and extent of American commitments. Moreover, although Cold War realists recognized the paramount role of power in international affairs, most also recognized that U.S. power would be most effective if harnessed to a compelling concept of American moral purpose and exercised primarily through enduring partnerships with nations that shared core American values. “An idealistic policy undisciplined by political realism is bound to be unstable and ineffective,” the political scientist Robert Osgood wrote. “Political realism unguided by moral purpose will be self-defeating and futile.” Most realists were thus sympathetic to the major initiatives of postwar foreign policy, such as the creation of U.S.-led military alliances and the cultivation of a thriving Western community composed primarily of liberal democracies.
At the same time, Cold War realists spoke of the need for American restraint. They worried that America’s liberal idealism, absent a sense of limits, would carry the country into quixotic crusades. They thought that excessive commitments at the periphery of the global system could weaken the international order against its radical challengers. They believed that a policy of outright confrontation toward the Kremlin could be quite dangerous. “Absolute security for one power means absolute insecurity for all others,” Kissinger wrote. Realists therefore advocated policies meant to temper American ambition and the most perilous aspects of superpower competition. They supported—and, in Kissinger’s case, led—arms-control agreements and political negotiations with Moscow. They often objected to America’s costliest interventions in the Third World. Kennan and Morgenthau were among the first mainstream figures to go public with opposition to American involvement in Vietnam (Morgenthau did so in the pages of Commentary in May 1962).
During the Cold War, then, realism was a supple, nuanced doctrine. It emphasized the need for balance in American statecraft—for energetic action blended with moderation, for hard-headed power politics linked to a regard for partnerships and values. It recognized that the United States could best mitigate the tragic nature of international relations by engaging with, rather than withdrawing from, an imperfect world.
This nuance has now been lost. Academics have applied the label of realism to dangerous and unrealistic policy proposals. More disturbing and consequential still, the distortion of realism seems to be finding a sympathetic hearing in the Trump White House.
Realism as Retrenchment
Consider the state of academic realism. Today’s most prominent self-identified realists—Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne—advocate a thoroughgoing U.S. retrenchment from global affairs. Whereas Cold War realists were willing to see the world as it was—a world that required unequal burden-sharing and an unprecedented, sustained American commitment to preserve international stability—academic realists now engage in precisely the wishful thinking that earlier realists deplored. They assume that the international order can essentially regulate itself and that America will not be threatened by—and can even profit from—a more unsettled world. They thus favor discarding the policies that have proven so successful over the decades in providing a congenial international climate.
Why has academic realism gone astray? If the Cold War brokered the marriage between realists and American global engagement, the end of the Cold War precipitated a divorce. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers continued to pursue an ambitious global agenda based on preserving and deepening both America’s geopolitical advantage and the liberal international order. For many realists, however, the end of the Cold War removed the extraordinary threat—an expansionist USSR—that had led them to support such an agenda in the first place. Academic realists argued that the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s (primarily in the former Yugoslavia) reflected capriciousness rather than a prudent effort to deal with sources of instability. Similarly, they saw key policy initiatives—especially NATO enlargement and the Iraq war of 2003—as evidence that Washington was no longer behaving with moderation and was itself becoming a destabilizing force in global affairs.
These critiques were overstated, but not wholly without merit. The invasion and occupation of Iraq did prove far costlier than expected, as the academic realists had indeed warned. NATO expansion—even as it successfully promoted stability and liberal reform in Eastern Europe—did take a toll on U.S.–Russia relations. Having lost policy arguments that they thought they should have won, academic realists decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, calling for a radical reformulation of America’s broader grand strategy.
The realists’ preferred strategy has various names—“offshore balancing,” “restraint,” etc.—but the key components and expectations are consistent. Most academic realists argue that the United States should pare back or eliminate its military alliances and overseas troop deployments, going back “onshore” only if a hostile power is poised to dominate a key overseas region. They call on Washington to forgo costly nation-building and counterinsurgency missions overseas and to downgrade if not abandon the promotion of democracy and human rights.
Academic realists argue that this approach will force local actors in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia to assume greater responsibility for their own security, and that the United States can manipulate—through diplomacy, arms sales, and covert action—the resulting rivalries and conflicts to prevent any single power from dominating a key region and thereby threatening the United States. Should these calculations prove faulty and a hostile power be poised to dominate, Washington can easily swoop in to set things aright, as it did during the world wars. Finally, if even this calculation were to prove faulty, realists argue that America can ride out the danger posed by a regional hegemon because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and America’s nuclear deterrent provide geopolitical immunity against existential threats.
Today’s academic realists portray this approach as hard-headed, economical strategy. But in reality, it represents a stark departure from classical American realism. During the Cold War, leading realists placed importance on preserving international stability and heeded the fundamental lesson of World Wars I and II—that the United States, by dint of its power and geography, was the only actor that could anchor international arrangements. Today’s academic realists essentially argue that the United States should dismantle the global architecture that has undergirded the international order—and that Washington can survive and even thrive amid the ensuing disorder. Cold War realists helped erect the pillars of a peaceful and prosperous world. Contemporary academic realists advocate tearing down those pillars and seeing what happens.
The answer is “nothing good.” Contemporary academic realists sit atop a pyramid of faulty assumptions. They assume that one can remove the buttresses of the international system without that system collapsing, and that geopolitical burdens laid down by America will be picked up effectively by others. They assume that the United States does not need the enduring relationships that its alliances have fostered, and that it can obtain any cooperation it needs via purely transactional interactions. They assume that a world in which the United States ceases to promote liberal values will not be a world less congenial to America’s geopolitical interests. They assume that revisionist states will be mollified rather than emboldened by an American withdrawal, and that the transition from U.S. leadership to another global system will not unleash widespread conflict. Finally, they assume that if such upheaval does erupt, the United States can deftly manage and even profit from it, and that America can quickly move to restore stability at a reasonable cost should it become necessary to do so.
The founding generation of American realists had learned not to indulge in wishfully thinking that the international order would create or sustain itself, or that the costs of responding to rampant international disorder would be trivial. Today’s academic realists, by contrast, would stake everything on a leap into the unknown.
For many years, neither Democratic nor Republican policymakers were willing to make such a leap. Now, however, the Trump administration appears inclined to embrace its own version of foreign-policy realism, one that bears many similarities to—and contains many of the same liabilities as—the academic variant. One of the least academic presidents in American history may, ironically, be buying into some of the most misguided doctrines of the ivory tower.
Any assessment of the Trump administration must remain somewhat provisional, given that Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy is still a work in progress. Yet Trump and his administration have so far taken multiple steps to outline a three-legged-stool vision of foreign policy that they explicitly describe as “realist” in orientation. Like modern-day academic realism, however, this vision diverges drastically from the earlier tradition of American realism and leads to deeply problematic policy.
The first leg is President Trump’s oft-stated view of the international environment as an inherently zero-sum arena in which the gains of other countries are America’s losses. The post–World War II realists, by contrast, believed that the United States could enjoy positive-sum relations with like-minded nations. Indeed, they believed that America could not enjoy economic prosperity and national security unless its major trading partners in Europe and Asia were themselves prosperous and stable. The celebrated Marshall Plan was high-mindedly generous in the sense of addressing urgent humanitarian needs in Europe, yet policymakers very much conceived of it as serving America’s parochial economic and security interests at the same time. President Trump, however, sees a winner and loser in every transaction, and believes—with respect to allies and adversaries alike—that it is the United States who generally gets snookered. The “reality” at the core of Trump’s realism is his stated belief that America is exploited “by every nation in the world virtually.”
This belief aligns closely with the second leg of the Trump worldview: the idea that all foreign policy is explicitly competitive in nature. Whereas the Cold War realists saw a Western community of states, President Trump apparently sees a dog-eat-dog world where America should view every transaction—even with allies—on a one-off basis. “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” wrote National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn in an op-ed. “Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
To be sure, Cold War realists were deeply skeptical about “one worldism” and appeals to a global community. But still they saw the United States and its allies as representing the “free world,” a community of common purpose forged in the battle against totalitarian enemies. The Trump administration seems to view U.S. partnerships primarily on an ad hoc basis, and it has articulated something akin to a “what have you done for me lately” approach to allies. The Cold War realists—who understood how hard it was to assemble effective alliances in the first place—would have found this approach odd in the extreme.
Finally, there is the third leg of Trump’s “realism”: an embrace of amorality. President Trump has repeatedly argued that issues such as the promotion of human rights and democracy are merely distractions from “winning” in the international arena and a recipe for squandering scarce resources. On the president’s first overseas trip to the Middle East in May, for instance, he promised not to “lecture” authoritarian countries on their internal behavior, and he made clear his intent to embrace leaders who back short-term U.S. foreign-policy goals no matter how egregious their violations of basic human rights and political freedoms. Weeks later, on a visit to Poland, the president did speak explicitly about the role that shared values played in the West’s struggle against Communism during the Cold War, and he invoked “the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” Yet his speech contained only the most cursory reference to Russia—the authoritarian power now undermining democratic governance and security throughout Europe and beyond. Just as significant, Trump failed to mention that Poland itself—until a few years ago, a stirring exemplar of successful transition from totalitarianism to democracy—is today sliding backwards toward illiberalism (as are other countries within Europe and the broader free world).
At first glance, this approach might seem like a modern-day echo of Cold War debates about whether to back authoritarian dictators in the struggle against global Communism. But, as Jeane Kirkpatrick explained in her famous 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” and as Kissinger himself frequently argued, Cold War realists saw such tactical alliances of convenience as being in the service of a deeper values-based goal: the preservation of an international environment favoring liberty and democracy against the predations of totalitarianism. Moreover, they understood that Americans would sustain the burdens of global leadership over a prolonged period only if motivated by appeals to their cherished ideals as well as their concrete interests. Trump, for his part, has given only faint and sporadic indications of any appreciation of the traditional role of values in American foreign policy.
Put together, these three elements have profound, sometimes radical, implications for America’s approach to a broad range of global issues. Guided by this form of realism, the Trump administration has persistently chastised and alienated long-standing democratic allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific and moved closer to authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, China, and the Philippines. The president’s body language alone has been striking: Trump’s summits have repeatedly showcased conviviality with dictators and quasi-authoritarians and painfully awkward interactions with democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. Similarly, Trump has disdained international agreements and institutions that do not deliver immediate, concrete benefits for the United States, even if they are critical to forging international cooperation on key issues or advancing longer-term goods. As Trump has put it, he means to promote the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris, and he believes that those interests are inherently at odds with each other.
To be fair, President Trump and his proxies do view the war on terror as a matter of defending both American security interests and Western civilization’s values against the jihadist onslaught. This was a key theme of Trump’s major address in Warsaw. Yet the administration has not explained how this civilizational mindset would inform any other aspect of its foreign policy—with the possible exception of immigration policy—and resorts far more often to the parochial lens of nationalism.
The Trump administration seems to be articulating a vision in which America has no lasting friends, little enduring concern with values, and even less interest in cultivating a community of like-minded nations that exists for more than purely deal-making purposes. The administration has often portrayed this as clear-eyed realism, even invoking the founding father of realism, Thucydides, as its intellectual lodestar. This approach does bear some resemblance to classical realism: an unsentimental approach to the world with an emphasis on the competitive aspects of the international environment. And insofar as Trump dresses down American allies, rejects the importance of values, and focuses on transactional partnerships, his version of realism has quite a lot in common with the contemporary academic version.
Daniel Drezner of Tufts University has noted the overlap, declaring in a Washington Post column, “This is [academic] realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.” Randall Schweller of Ohio State University, an avowed academic realist and Trump supporter, has been even more explicit, noting approvingly that “Trump’s foreign-policy approach essentially falls under the rubric of ‘off-shore balancing’” as promoted by ivory-tower realists in recent decades.
Yet one suspects that the American realists who helped create the post–World War II order would not feel comfortable with either the academic or Trumpian versions of realism as they exist today. For although both of these approaches purport to be about power and concrete results, both neglect the very things that have allowed the United States to use its power so effectively in the past.
Both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that U.S. power is most potent when it is wielded in concert with a deeply institutionalized community of like-minded nations. Alliances are less about addition and subtraction—the math of the burden-sharing emphasized by Trump and the academic realists—and more about multiplication, leveraging U.S. power to influence world events at a fraction of the cost of unilateral approaches. The United States would be vastly less powerful and influential in Europe and Central Asia without NATO; it would encounter far greater difficulties in rounding up partners to wage the ongoing war in Afghanistan or defeat the Islamic State; it would find itself fighting alone—rather than with some of the world’s most powerful partners—far more often. Likewise, without its longstanding treaty allies in Asia, the United States would be at an almost insurmountable disadvantage vis-à-vis revisionist powers in that region, namely China.
Both versions of realism also ignore the fact that America has been able to exercise its enormous power with remarkably little global resistance precisely because American leaders, by and large, have paid sufficient regard to the opinions of potential partners. Of course, every administration has sought to “put America first,” but the pursuit of American self-interest has proved most successful when it enjoys the acquiescence of other states. Likewise, the academic and Trump versions of realism too frequently forget that America draws power by supporting values with universal appeal. This is why every American president from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama has recognized that a more democratic world is likely to be one that is both ideologically and geopolitically more congenial to the United States.
Most important, both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that the classical post–World War II realists deliberately sought to overcome the dog-eat-dog world that modern variants take as a given. They did so by facilitating cooperation within the free world, suppressing the security competitions that had previously led to cataclysmic wars, creating the basis for a thriving international economy, and thereby making life a little less nasty, brutish, and short for Americans as well as for vast swaths of the world’s population.
If realism is about maximizing power, effectiveness, and security in a competitive global arena, then neither the academic nor the Trump versions of realism merits the name. And if realism is meant to reflect the world as it is, both of these versions are deeply deficient.
This is a tragedy. For if ever there were a moment for an informed realism, it would be now, as the strategic horizon darkens and a more competitive international environment reemerges. There is still time for Trump and his team to adapt, and realism can still make a constructive contribution to American policy. But first it must rediscover its roots—and absorb the lessons of the past 70 years.
The Seven Pillars of Realism
A reformed realism should be built upon seven bedrock insights, which President Trump would do well to embrace.
First, American leadership remains essential to restraining global disorder. Today’s realists channel the longstanding American hope that there would come a time when the United States could slough off the responsibilities it assumed after World War II and again become a country that relies on its advantageous geography to keep the world at arm’s length. Yet realism compels an awareness that America is exceptionally suited to the part it has played for nearly four generations. The combination of its power, geographic location, and values has rendered America uniquely capable of providing a degree of global order in a way that is more reassuring than threatening to most of the key actors in the international system. Moreover, given that today the most ambitious and energetic international actors besides the United States are not liberal democracies but aggressive authoritarian powers, an American withdrawal is unlikely to produce multipolar peace. Instead, it is likely to precipitate the upheaval that U.S. engagement and activism have long been meant to avert. As a corollary, realists must also recognize that the United States is unlikely to thrive amid such upheaval; it will probably find that the disorder spreads and ultimately implicates vital American interests, as was twice the case in the first half of the 20th century.
Second, true realism recognizes the interdependence of hard and soft power. In a competitive world, there is no substitute for American hard power, and particularly for military muscle. Without guns, there will not—over the long term—be butter. But military power, by itself, is an insufficient foundation for American strategy. A crude reliance on coercion will damage American prestige and credibility in the end; hard power works best when deployed in the service of ideas and goals that command widespread international approval. Similarly, military might is most effective when combined with the “softer” tools of development assistance, foreign aid, and knowledge of foreign societies and cultures. The Trump administration has sought to eviscerate these nonmilitary capabilities and bragged about its “hard-power budget”; it would do better to understand that a balance between hard and soft power is essential.
Third, values are an essential part of American realism. Of course, the United States must not undertake indiscriminate interventions in the name of democracy and human rights. But, fortunately, no serious policymaker—not Woodrow Wilson, not Jimmy Carter, not George W. Bush—has ever embraced such a doctrine. What most American leaders have traditionally recognized is that, on balance, U.S. interests will be served and U.S. power will be magnified in a world in which democracy and human rights are respected. Ronald Reagan, now revered for his achievements in improving America’s global position, understood this point and made the selective promotion of democracy—primarily through nonmilitary means—a key part of his foreign policy. While paying due heed to the requirements of prudence and the limits of American power, then, American realists should work to foster a climate in which those values can flourish.
Fourth, a reformed realism requires aligning relations with the major powers appropriately—especially today, as great-power tensions rise. That means appreciating the value of institutions that have bound the United States to some of the most powerful actors in the international system for decades and thereby given Washington leadership of the world’s dominant geopolitical coalition. It means not taking trustworthy allies for granted or picking fights with them gratuitously. It also means not treating actual adversaries, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as if they were trustworthy partners (as Trump has often talked of doing) or as if their aggressive behavior were simply a defensive response to American provocations (as many academic realists have done). A realistic approach to American foreign policy begins by seeing great-power relations through clear eyes.
Fifth, limits are essential. Academic realists are wrong to suggest that values should be excised from U.S. policy; they are wrong to argue that the United States should pull back dramatically from the world. Yet they are right that good statecraft requires an understanding of limits—particularly for a country as powerful as the United States, and particularly at a time when the international environment is becoming more contested. The United States cannot right every wrong, fix every problem, or defend every global interest. America can and should, however, shoulder more of the burden than modern academic and Trumpian realists believe. The United States will be effective only if it chooses its battles carefully; it will need to preserve its power for dealing with the most pressing threat to its national interests and the international order—the resurgence of authoritarian challenges—even if that means taking an economy-of-force approach to other issues.
Sixth, realists must recognize that the United States has not created and sustained a global network of alliances, international institutions, and other embedded relationships out of a sense of charity. It has done so because those relationships provide forums through which the United States can exercise power at a bargain-basement price. Embedded relationships have allowed the United States to rally other nations to support American causes from the Korean War to the counter-ISIS campaign, and have reduced the transaction costs of collective action to meet common threats from international terrorism to p.iracy. They have provided institutional megaphones through which the United States can amplify its diplomatic voice and project its influence into key issues and regions around the globe. If these arrangements did not exist, the United States would find itself having to create them, or acting unilaterally at far greater cost. If realism is really about maximizing American power, true realists ought to be enthusiastic about relationships and institutions that serve that purpose. Realists should adopt the approach that every post–Cold War president has embraced: that the United States will act unilaterally in defense of its interests when it must, but multilaterally with partners whenever it can.
Finally, realism requires not throwing away what has worked in the past. One of the most astounding aspects of both contemporary academic realism and the Trumpian variant of that tradition is the cavalier attitude they display toward arrangements and partnerships that have helped produce a veritable golden age of international peace, stability, and liberalism since World War II, and that have made the United States the most influential and effective actor in the globe in the process. Of course, there have been serious and costly conflicts over the past decades, and U.S. policy has always been thoroughly imperfect. But the last 70 years have been remarkably good ones for U.S. interests and the global order—whether one compares them with the 70 years before the United States adopted its global leadership role, or compares them with the violent disorder that would have emerged if America followed the nostrums peddled today under the realist label. A doctrine that stresses that importance of prudence and discretion, and that was originally conservative in its preoccupation with stability and order, ought not to pursue radical changes in American statecraft or embrace a “come what may” approach to the world. Rather, such a doctrine ought to recognize that true achievements are enormously difficult to come by—and that the most realistic approach to American strategy would thus be to focus on keeping a good thing going.
The Greeks and the Founders feared men like the president, and with good reason
he most striking aspect of the rise and reign of Donald Trump has been his unabashed display of vulgarity and the ease (so far) with which he gets away with it. “Vulgar,” a term of condescension, is not often heard in democracies, where it most applies. It certainly applies to The Donald. The brazen insults he strewed along his path to the presidency were more than enough to deserve the plain name of vulgar. His success despite them suggests something even more upsetting than Trump himself: that his vulgar manliness was not a drag but an advantage.
The whole Trump phenomenon, both the man and the people he appeals to, reminds us of the vulgarity in democracy. Or more, of human vulgarity—since disrespect for the high and mighty can have universal appeal.
We now treat democracy as unquestionably the best, sometimes as the only, form of government. That was not the case in the classical political science of the Greeks. They held democracy in far lower esteem. For Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Plutarch, democracy was typified by the figure of the demagogue, the democratic leader. This man was hasty, angry, impulsive, brash, and punitive; he sought the favor of those like himself, the demos, the hoi polloi (the many). He opposed men of quality, nobles, aristocrats, or gentlemen, and accused them of being enemies of the people, the majority for whom he spoke. The “people” was considered in the classical conception to be just a part of the whole, the majority part to be sure, but it was not a term that included everyone: The demos was quantity against quality, the many versus the few, in practice the poor versus the rich.
The American Founders, building on the philosophy of liberalism, expanded the conception of the people so that “popular government” could include everyone. James Madison made a famous distinction (one that used to be taught in high-school civics) between “democracy”—meaning pure democracy dominated by the demos and subject to “majority faction”—and “republic,” which was based on representation and structured with separation of powers and federalism. In our republican system, the demos would be required to govern through electing the few and be kept diverse and scattered to help keep them moderate. The Founders saw to it that their popular republic would provide for government by people like themselves—no longer aristocrats or nobles but still the few, and that the American people would have those Founders for heroes, rather than vicious characters like Robespierre or naive agitators like Tom Paine, who spoke and acted for the demos.
They wanted to spare the new nation from rule by the demagogue, a vulgar man who appealed to vulgar people on the level of a vulgar manliness with the traits of the demagogue. Vulgar is not always bad, though today we avoid using the term out of concern for the self-esteem of the vulgar. (“Plebeian” can occasionally be heard, but never politically.) Hillary Clinton could speak of “deplorables,” but to condemn them as “vulgar” might have excused them from the easy remedy for being deplorable, which was to vote for the Democrats.
Vulgar people can be honest and good-hearted, but they are susceptible to passion and impatience. Madison wanted a government that would “refine and enlarge” opinions of the people, that is, the vulgar. The moderate republic—now called by the name of what it replaced, democracy—would, with the consent of the vulgar, take power from the hands of the vulgar.
The result was a Constitution that makes use of the talents and virtues of the few, especially their ambition. With its complex structure, the Constitution supplies many avenues of ambition in politics, and outside politics, it suffuses the spirit of ambition everywhere in our society. Ambition is the desire to excel, to be outstanding above the normal satisfactions of ordinary people. In our democracy, the popular desire to “get ahead” is normal and imparts a modicum of ambition to all. All of us have learned to live with enlightened innovation rather than custom, and we do not yearn for the settled comfort of aristocracy. But still some want to get ahead by rising to the top or at least by having an “impact.” This sort of ambition is democratic in origin and hostile to the aristocrats. Yet those who possess it still strive to be above the rest of the democrats. Wanting to have an impact on the world puts you in the natural legion of the few.D
onald Trump is one of these few, ambitious if nothing else. In fact, there is little else to him. Though the son of a rich man, he has the outrageous coarseness of a vulgar man. He appeals to such men and to women who like manly men. These are his audience, and they are not put off by his departures from decorum. Far from it: They appreciate his lack of good taste, of good manners, of gentlemanliness, of protocol, and of tact. His boldness in going beyond the boundaries of decency they interpret as “telling it like it is”—as if honesty were found mainly in company with indecency, and plain talk were the same as blurting lies.
Though rich (but just how rich?), Trump is not a philanthropist who wishes to elevate our democracy with magnificent gifts, like Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. He does not support the fine arts or education, apart from founding Trump University, a failed monument to the profit motive. He dresses in a dark suit, wearing an aggressive tie, and does not try to hide his uncommon wealth with presumptuous informality like the techie billionaires. He does this and gets away with it, because he knows that he retains close contact with his supporters: He uses his wealth in vulgar display just as they would. He made his name in Reality TV and lost some of his wealth in the operation of casinos. And speaking of his name, he has branded all his enterprises with the name of Trump, apparently believing that his every activity deserves the highest honor he can bestow.
Along with the tremendous value of Trump’s name, however, goes his insistence that everyone recognize it. His thin skin and amazing touchiness show in his ready reactions to slights, let alone criticism. His egoism makes his psychology an easy read—his bluster opposed and counteracted by his sensitivity. Unlike the truly manly male, who hardly notices and cares little for how he is received by others, Trump demands universal love as the reward for his just denunciations and wise observations. In this he is closer to the sensitive male than to the manly male, and differs from the former only by his optimism that women will like him for his candor.
His outrageous comments on the newscaster Megyn Kelly’s menstrual condition or on his 2016 rival Carly Fiorina’s supposed homeliness, set a record for rash behavior by a public figure in need of votes, perhaps causing, for all he knew or cared, a permanent breach in the bounds of decorum. But it did not appear that he suffered much for it in the women’s vote. With such rashness one would expect an appropriate insensitivity, a devil-may-care approach to public esteem—but not at all, he wants it just the same. His vulgar manliness wants to mask his obvious yearning for indiscriminate love, and of course doesn’t succeed. The fawning demagogue in him prevails over the impression he wants to convey of brash independence.
Yet he won the election, as he keeps reminding us. He’s a winner, and the vulgar love a winner. This fact invites us to infer that he might have a planned policy of swagger as opposed to an uncontrollable impulse. Ordinary people, decent though they may be, are impressed by extraordinary daring. They stand amazed at sensational violations of decency. So, if we are to accept the hypothesis of his Machiavellian shrewdness, we could suppose that Trump has deliberately chosen a strategy of speaking beyond normal bounds, one designed to impress ordinary folk and at the same time to dismay the elite who kept expecting that he would pay, as they would, for having gone too far. This fits with the classical demagogue, who roused the demos against the nobles or gentlemen, and Trump has used the same method against the leaders of both parties. As do all trendy folk, Trump has called these leaders the “Establishment,” taking them as a collectivity and using the name given them by the New Left in the late Sixties.
Edmund Burke in the 18th century spoke of “establishments” in the plural of the British constitution, such as the Church, the lawyers, the universities, the nobility—all unelected authorities supplying stability and guidance to a free society. By contrast, the single Establishment of the New Left, picked up by Trump, is an accusation of malignant stagnation in a free society. The term “elite” has a mixed history, good and bad, of describing the democratic replacement for the aristocratic few. In America now, the “elite” and the “Establishment” refer principally to elected officials, present or past, as well as to institutions, like the media, that have power because they have popular favor. It is strange to denounce them to the people who have chosen them, and particularly as if they were a single conspiracy when our parties seem to be so deeply at odds and said to be “polarized.”A
s Trump had it during his election campaign, our parties are together against us, yet so divided against each other as to be unable to act. He seems quite uninterested in the liberal/conservative debate, or indeed in any debate. But he found one point to attack that no other politician had seen: political correctness. Here was a well-known mind-set with practices and policies carried out and defended by Democrats, often criticized, but not by politicians. No Republican had had the cleverness to see and the boldness to exploit the weakness in political correctness. This was the name Trump gave to the general political strategy of Democrats to designate vulnerable groups, “minorities and women,” for special favor in jobs, honors, and benefits. This strategy of inclusiveness was designed to help win elections by the simple addition of vulnerable groups taught to vote by their identity, following the example of black voters.
Trump noticed that the policy of inclusiveness, in cases such as affirmative action, was actually including some by excluding others not officially identified as vulnerable—particularly white voters. Without saying so—for in this Trump was cautious and prudent—he began to mobilize a white community to match the long-existing “black community,” thus turning the strategy of identity against itself. It was now Trump voters who were encouraged to think themselves marginalized. One could call this racism only if the “inclusive” policy of the Democrats were also termed racism. Surely, however, Trump was not calling on the finer feelings of the electorate. In a democratic age without nobles to serve as targets, the demagogue has to operate against some of the people in order to claim to act on behalf of those forgotten. Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, has made a study of forgotten whites in Bayou Louisiana that nicely describes Trump voters before they voted for him. They were resentful, like departing airline passengers, of having to stand in line and watch other preferred groups waved ahead of them.
The Establishment, according to Trump, had made us losers; he would make America great again. Democrats had forgotten America in their preoccupation with its separate identities, and their desire to come to the aid of the vulnerable at home induced them to prefer the vulnerable abroad. America was too successful, too much a winner, the Establishment (or at least its Democratic branch) believed. America’s greatness was due to its exploitation of weaker countries, not to its virtue; its greatness was lacking in goodness. Best to apologize, and so lead the world after all in apologizing for human exploitation of nature. Nature needs protection from us (humans), and we must seek means of “sustainability” to enable it to return to functioning on its own for our good.
All this—the politics and philosophy of Barack Obama and his liberals—was fresh meat for Trump. But the hectoring manner in which they were conveyed—the schoolmarm political correctness that admonishes rather than argues—was still more inviting. Whereas the liberal policy of affirmative action was designed to help blacks, the liberal affectation of political correctness came from feminism. The feminism we know, like the New Left dating from the late Sixties, made its way through “raising consciousness,” by correcting the bias of language favoring men so as to put across a gender neutrality that favored neither sex. Of course in practice, and when combined with affirmative action, achieving gender neutrality required a massive societal feminization that was the reverse of neutral.
Political correctness, originally from feminism, now applies to blacks as well, particularly to the way whites are required to address blacks. Blacks are allowed the privileges of vulgar manliness that are denied to the rest of the population. If only black men would preach manliness, refined or not, to the rest of the population! But they are content with their own freedom and, with manly contempt of others, do not seek to justify it more generally.
Thus it was left to Donald Trump alone to attack political correctness and come to the defense of vulgar manliness. He does this not with argument but with outrageous behavior meant to be offensive. As a demagogue, he seeks direct contact with the people. He wants to bypass the media, the parties, and the Constitution that try to control and limit his contact and claim the right, whether formal or informal, to stand between him and the people. As methods of direct contact, Trump used old-fashioned rallies in his campaign rather than informal meetings; he sends tweets to all indiscriminately rather than addressing people through the media; and he features shocking talk and behavior rather than conventional politeness and respect. His desire is to transgress normal boundaries, especially those of political correctness, and thus to capture attention.
His boastfulness seems stupid, and it is, but it makes people think that because he is bold, he is more honest and more truthful than those who hesitate and formulate. His offhand lies are not meant to be accurate but rather to display the lack of restraint that seems to be more truthful than the uptight rectitude of the fact-checker. His vulgar insults betray the absence of wit and the rejection of humor and irony in his flat soul; he is always serious and yet always exaggerates.
In sum, Donald Trump reflects and connects to the vulgar manliness in the American (or any) people. He is demotic rather than democratic, intuitive himself in finding what is instinctive in us. The American Founders made a Constitution for a popular republic that would resist the ills of all previous republics, which had exposed government to the vagaries and impulses of the vulgar. Instead, our republic would “refine and enlarge” the popular will through representative institutions that contain and employ the ambition of the few, and that supply the whole with the “cool and deliberate sense of the community.”
The Founders made a constitutional democracy with, among other things, an electoral college, of which Trump took full advantage, that was meant to keep people like him from ever winning office. Well, every human institution for good can be abused for ill. And not only Trump supporters but all of us must hope that even a demagogue can bring good. Perhaps what is demotic can refresh, rather than degrade, what is democratic. It is one good thing at least to be reminded of the difference between the vulgar and the refined.
Or have I not just said that this difference too is very much in question?
Review of 'The Strange Death of Europe' By Douglas Murray
Since Christianity had shaped the “humanism of which Europe feels legitimately proud,” the ailing pontiff argued, the constitution should make some reference to Europe’s Christian patrimony. His appeal was met with accusations of bigotry. The pope had inflamed the post-9/11 atmosphere of “Islamophobia,” one “anti-racism” outfit said. Another group asked: What about the contributions made by the “tolerant Islam of al-Andalus”? Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing spoke for the political class: “Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role.”
Douglas Murray recounts this episode early on in his fiery, lucid, and essential polemic. It epitomized the folly of European elites who would sooner discard the Continent’s civilizational heritage than show partiality for their own culture over others’. To Murray, this tendency is quite literally suicidal—hence the “death” in his title.
The book deals mainly with Western Europe’s disastrous experiment in admitting huge numbers of Muslim immigrants without bothering to assimilate them. These immigrants now inhabit parallel communities on the outskirts of most major cities. They reject mainstream values and not infrequently go boom. Murray’s account ranges from the postwar guest-worker programs to the 2015 crisis that brought more than a million people from the Middle East and Africa.
This is dark-night-of-the-soul stuff. The author, a director at London’s Henry Jackson Society (where I was briefly a nonresident fellow), has for more than a decade been among Europe’s more pessimistic voices on immigration. My classically liberal instincts primed me to oppose him at every turn. Time and again, I found myself conceding that, indeed, he has a point. This is in large part because I have been living in and reporting on Europe for nearly four years. Events of the period have vindicated Murray’s bleak vision and confounded his critics.
Murray is right: Time isn’t mellowing out Europe’s Muslims. “The presumption of those who believed in integration is that in time everybody who arrives will become like Europeans,” Murray writes. Yet it is the young who are usually the most fanatical. Second- and third-generation immigrants make up the bulk of the estimated 5,000 Muslims who have gone off to fight with the Islamic State.
The first large wave of Muslim immigrants to Britain arrived soon after World War II. Seven decades later, an opinion survey conducted (in 2016) by the polling firm ICM found that half of Muslim Britons would proscribe homosexuality, a third would legalize polygamy, and a fifth would replace civil law with Shariah. A different survey, also conducted in 2016, found that 83 percent of young French Muslims describe their faith as “important or very important” to them, compared with 22 percent of young Catholics. I could go on with such polling data; Murray does for many pages.
He is also correct that all the various “integration” models have failed. Whether it is consensus-based social democracy in the Nordic countries, multiculturalism in Britain, or republican secularism in France, the same patterns of disintegration and social incohesion persist nearly everywhere. Different European governments have treated this or that security measure, economic policy, or urban-planning scheme as the integration panacea, to no avail.
Murray argues that the successive failures owe to a basic lack of political will. To prove the point he cites, among other things, female genital mutilation in the UK. Laws against the practice have been on the books for three decades. Even so, an estimated 130,000 British women have had their genitals cut, and not a single case has been successfully prosecuted.
Pusillanimity and retreat have been the norm among governments and cultural elites on everything from FGM to free speech to counterterrorism. The result has been that the “people who are most criticized both from within Muslim communities in Europe and among the wider population are in fact the people who fell hardest for the integration promises of liberal Europe.” It was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the fierce Somali-born proponent of Enlightenment values and women’s equality, who had to escape Holland under a death threat, not her persecutors.
And Murray is right when he says that Europeans hadn’t staged a real debate on immigration until very recently. The author might be too quick to dismiss the salutary fiscal and social effects of economic growth and immigration’s role in promoting it. At various points he even suggests that Europeans forgo economic as well as population growth if it means having to put up with fewer migrants. He praises hermetically sealed Japan, but he elides the Japanese model’s serious economic, demographic, and even psychological disadvantages.
All this is secondary to Murray’s unanswerable argument that European elites had for years cordoned off immigration from normal political debate. As he writes, “whereas the benefits of mass immigration undoubtedly exist and everybody is made very aware of them, the disadvantages of importing huge numbers of people from another culture take a great deal of time to admit to.” In some cases, most notably the child-sex grooming conspiracy in Rotherham, England, the institutions have tried to actively suppress the truth. Writes Murray: “Instead of carrying out their jobs without fear or favor, police, prosecutors, and journalists behaved as though their job was to mediate between the public and the facts.”I s it possible to imagine an alternative history, one in which Europe would absorb this many migrants from Islamic lands but suffer fewer and less calamitous harms? Murray’s surprising answer is yes. Had Europe retained its existential confidence over the course of the previous two centuries, things might have turned out differently. As it was, however, mass migration saw a “strong religious culture”—Islam—“placed into a weak and relativistic culture.”
In the book’s best chapters, Murray departs from the policy debate to attend to the sources of Europe’s existential insecurity. Germans bear much of the blame, beginning with 19th-century Bible scholarship that applied the methods of history, philology, and literary criticism to sacred scripture. That pulled the rug of theological certainty from under Europe’s feet, in Murray’s account, and then Darwin’s discoveries heightened the disorientation. Europeans next tried to substitute totalistic ideology for religion, with catastrophic results.
Finally, after World War II, they settled on human rights as the central meaning of Europe. But since Europeans could no longer believe, these rights were cut off from one of their main wellsprings: the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Catholic Church—having circumscribed the power of earthly kings across centuries and thereby “injected an anti-totalitarian vaccine into the European bloodstream,” as George Weigel has written in these pages–was scorned or ignored. Europeans forgot how they came to be free.
Somehow Europe must recover its vitality. But how? Murray is torn. On one hand, he sees how a rights-based civilization needs a theological frame, lest it succumb before a virile and energetic civilization like Islam. On the other, he thinks the leap of faith is impossible today. Murray can’t blame François, the professor-protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s 2016 novel Submission. Faced with an Islamic takeover of France, François heads to a monastery desperate to shake his spiritual torpor. But kneeling before the Virgin doesn’t do anything for him. Islam, with its simplicity and practicality (not least the offer of up to four nubile wives), is much harder to resist.
Murray wonders whether the answer lies in art. Maybe in beauty Europeans can recover the fulfillment and sense of mystery that their ancestors once found in liturgy–only without the cosmic truth claims. He laments that contemporary European art has “given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion,” though it is possible that the current period of crisis will engender a revival. In the meanwhile, Murray has suggested, even nonbelievers should go to church as a way to mark and show gratitude for Christianity’s foundational role in Europe.
He is onto something. Figure out the identity bit in the book’s subtitle—“Immigration, Identity, Islam”—and the other two will prove much easier to sort out.
A maestro’s morality
How is it possible that a man who made his conducting debut when Grover Cleveland was president should still be sufficiently well known and revered that most of his recordings remain in print to this day? Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, Harvey Sachs’s new biography, goes a long way toward defining what made Toscanini unique.1 A conductor himself, Sachs is also the author of, among other excellent books, a previous biography of Toscanini that was published in 1978. Since then, several large caches of important primary-source material, most notably some 1,500 of the conductor’s letters, have become available to researchers. Sachs’s new biography draws on this new material and other fresh research. It is vastly longer and more detailed than its predecessor and supersedes it in every way.
Despite its length and thoroughness, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience is not a pedant’s vade mecum. Clearly and attractively written, it ranks alongside Richard Osborne’s 1998 biography of Herbert von Karajan as one of the most readable biographies of a conductor ever published. For Toscanini, as Sachs shows us, had a volatile, immensely strong-willed character, one that in time caused him to clash not only with his colleagues but with the dangerous likes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The same fierce integrity that energized his conducting also led him to put his life at risk at a time when many of his fellow musicians were disinclined to go even slightly out of their way to push back against the Fascist tyrants of the ’30s.T oscanini: Musician of Conscience does not devote much space to close analysis of Toscanini’s interpretative choices and technical methods. For the most part, Sachs shows us Toscanini’s art through the eyes of others, and the near-unanimity of the admiration of his contemporaries, whose praise is quoted in extenso, is striking, even startling. Richard Strauss, as distinguished a conductor as he was a composer, spoke for virtually everyone in the world of music when he said, “When you see that man conduct, you feel that there is only one thing for you to do: take your baton, break it in pieces, and never conduct again.”
Fortunately for posterity, Toscanini’s unflashy yet wondrously supple baton technique can be seen up close in the 10 concerts he gave with the NBC Symphony between 1948 and 1952 that were telecast live (most of which can now be viewed in part or whole on YouTube). But while his manual gestures, whose effect was heightened by the irresistible force of his piercing gaze, were by all accounts unfailingly communicative, Toscanini’s ability to draw unforgettable performances out of the orchestras that he led had at least as much to do with his natural musical gifts. These included an infallible memory—he always conducted without a score—and an eerily exact ear for wrong notes. Such attributes would have impressed orchestra players, a hard-nosed lot, even if they had not been deployed in the service of a personality so galvanizing that most musicians found it all but impossible not to do Toscanini’s musical bidding.
What he wanted was for the most part wholly straightforward. Toscanini believed that it was his job—his duty, if you will—to perform the classics with note-perfect precision, singing tone, unflagging intensity, and an overall feeling of architectural unity that became his trademark. When an orchestra failed to give of its best, he flew into screaming rages whose verbal violence would likely not be believed were it not for the fact that there were secret tapes made. In one of his most spectacular tantrums, which has been posted on YouTube, he can be heard telling the bass players of the NBC Symphony that “you have no ears, no eyes, nothing at all…you have ears in—in your feet!”
Toscanini was able to get away with such behavior because his own gifts were so extraordinary that the vast majority of his players worshipped him. In the words of the English bassoonist Archie Camden, who played under Toscanini in the BBC Symphony from 1935 to 1939, he was “the High Priest of Music,” a man “almost of another world” whose artistic integrity was beyond question. And while his personal integrity was not nearly so unblemished—he was, as Sachs reports with unsalacious candor, a compulsive philanderer whose love letters to his mistresses are explicit to the point of pornography—there is nonetheless a parallel between the passionate conscientiousness of his music-making and his refusal to compromise with Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom were sufficiently knowledgeable about music to understand what a coup it would have been to co-opt the world’s greatest conductor.
Among the most valuable parts of Toscanini: Musician of Conscience are the sections in which Sachs describes Toscanini’s fractious relations with the German and Italian governments. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he had been initially impressed by Mussolini, so much so that he ran for the Italian parliament as a Fascist candidate in 1919. But he soon saw through Mussolini’s modernizing rodomontade to the tyrant within, and by the late ’20s he was known throughout Italy and the world as an unswerving opponent of the Fascist regime. In 1931 he was beaten by a mob of blackshirted thugs, after which he stopped conducting in Italy, explaining that he would not perform there so long as the Fascists were in power. Mussolini thereupon started tapping his telephone line, and seven years later the conductor’s passport was confiscated when he described the Italian government’s treatment of Jews as “medieval stuff” in a phone call. Had public and private pressure not been brought to bear, he might well have been jailed or murdered. Instead he was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. He did not return to Italy until after World War II.
If anything, Toscanini’s hatred for the Nazis was even more potent, above all because he was disgusted by their anti-Semitism. A philo-Semite who referred to the Jews as “this marvelous people persecuted by the modern Nero,” he wrote a letter to one of his mistresses in the immediate wake of the Anschluss that makes for arresting reading eight decades later:
My heart is torn in bits and pieces. When you think about this tragic destruction of the Jewish population of Austria, it makes your blood turn cold. Think of what a prominent part they’d played in Vienna’s life for two centuries! . . . Today, with all the great progress of our civilization, none of the so-called liberal nations is making a move. England, France, and the United States are silent!
Toscanini felt so strongly about the rising tide of anti-Semitism that he agreed in 1936 to conduct the inaugural concerts of the Palestine Symphony (later the Israel Philharmonic) as a gesture of solidarity with the Jews. In an even more consequential gesture, he had already terminated his relationship with the Bayreuth Festival, where he had conducted in 1930 and 1931, the first non-German conductor to do so. While the founder of the festival, Richard Wagner, ranked alongside Beethoven, Brahms, and Verdi at the top of Toscanini’s pantheon of musical gods, he was well aware many of the members of the Wagner family who ran Bayreuth were close friends of Adolf Hitler, and he decided to stop conducting in Germany—Bayreuth included—when the Nazis came to power. Hitler implored him to return to the festival in a personal letter that praised him as “the great representative of art and of a people friendly to Germany.” Once again, though, there was to be no compromise: Toscanini never performed in Germany again, nor would he forgive those musicians, Wilhelm Furtwängler among them, who continued to do so.I mplicit throughout Sachs’s book is the idea that Toscanini the man and Toscanini the musician were, as his subtitle suggests, inseparable—that, in other words, his conscience drove him to oppose totalitarianism in much the same way that it drove him to pour his heart and soul into his work. He was in every sense of the word a driven man, one capable of writing in an especially revealing letter that “when I’m working I don’t have time to feel joy; on the contrary, I suffer without interruption, and I feel that I’m going through all the pain and suffering of a woman giving birth.”
Toscanini was not striking a theatrical pose when he wrote these melodramatic-sounding words. The rare moments of ecstasy that he experienced on the podium were more than offset by his obsessive struggle to make the mere mortals who sang and played for him realize, as closely as possible, his vision of artistic perfection. That was why he berated them, why he ended his rehearsals drenched with sweat, why he flogged himself as unsparingly as he flogged his musicians. It was, he believed, what he had been born to do, and he was willing to move heaven and earth in order to do it.
To read of such terrifying dedication is awe-inspiring—yet it is also strangely demoralizing. To be sure, there are still artists who drive themselves as relentlessly as did Toscanini, and who pull great art out of themselves with the same iron determination. But his quasi-religious consecration to music inevitably feels alien to the light-minded spirit of our own age, dominated as it is by pop culture. It is hard to believe that NBC, the network of Jimmy Fallon and Superstore, maintained for 17 years a full-time symphony orchestra that had been organized in 1937 for the specific purpose of allowing Toscanini to give concerts under conditions that he found satisfactory. A poll taken by Fortune that year found that 40 percent of Americans could identify Toscanini as a conductor. By 1954, the year in which he gave up conducting the NBC Symphony (which was then disbanded), the number was surely much higher.
Will there ever again be a time when high art in general and classical music in particular mean as much to the American people as they did in Toscanini’s heyday? Very likely not. But at least there will be Harvey Sachs’s fine biography—and, far more important, Toscanini’s matchlessly vivid recordings—to remind us of what we once were, what we have lost, and what Arturo Toscanini himself aspired to be and to do.
1 Liveright, 923 pages. Many of Toscanini’s best commercial American recordings, made with the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, were reissued earlier this year in a budget-priced box set called Arturo Toscanini: The Essential Recordings (RCA Red Seal, 20 CD’s) whose contents were chosen by Sachs and Christopher Dyment, another noted Toscanini scholar. Most of the recordings that he made in the ’30s with the BBC Symphony are on Arturo Toscanini: The HMV Recordings (Warner Classics, six CD’s).
A blockbuster movie gets the spirit right and the details wrong
But enough about Brexit; what about Christopher Nolan’s new movie about Dunkirk?
Dunkirk is undoubtedly a blockbuster with a huge cast—Nolan has splendidly used thousands of extras rather than computer cartooning to depict the vast numbers of Allied troops trapped on the beaches—and a superb score by Hans Zimmer. Kenneth Branagh is a stiff upper-lipped rear-admiral, whose rather clunking script is all too obviously designed to tell the audience what’s going on; One Direction pop star Harry Styles is a British Tommy, and Tom Hardy is a Spitfire pilot who somehow shoots down two Heinkels while gliding, having run out of fuel about halfway through the movie. Mark Rylance, meanwhile, plays the brave skipper of a small boat taking troops off the beaches in the manner of Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver.
Yet for all the clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation, Dunkirk somehow works well.
It works for the same reason that the 1958 film of the same name directed by Leslie Norman and starring Richard Attenborough and John Mills did. The story of the nine-day evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 is a tale of such extraordinary heroism, luck, and intimate proximity to utter disaster that it would carry any film, even a bad one, and Nolan’s is emphatically not a bad one. Although the dogfights take place at ridiculously low altitudes, they are thrilling, and the fact that one doesn’t see a single German soldier until the closing scene, and then only two of them in silhouette, somehow works, too. See the film on the biggest screen you can, which will emphasize the enormity of the challenge faced by the Allies in getting over 336,000 troops off the beaches for the loss of only 40,000 killed, wounded and captured.
There is a scene when the armada of small boats arrives at the beaches that will bring a lump to the throat of any patriotic Briton; similarly, three swooping Spitfires are given a wonderfully evocative moment. The microcosm of the evacuation that Nolan concentrates on works well, despite another silly subplot in which a British officer with PTSD (played by Cillian Murphy) kills a young boy on Rylance’s small boat. That all the British infantry privates, not just Harry Styles, look like they sing in boy-bands doesn’t affect the power of seeing them crouch en masse under German attack in their greatcoats and helmets on the foam-flecked beaches.
On the tenth of May in 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded France, Belgium, and Holland, unleashing Blitzkrieg on the British and French armies—a new all-arms tactic of warfare that left his enemies reeling. He also sent tanks through the forests of the Ardennes mountains, which were considered impassable, and by May 16, some panzer units had already reached the English Channel. With the British and French in full retreat, on May 24 the Fuhrer halted his tanks’ headlong advance for various sound military reasons—he wanted to give his men some rest, did not want to over-extend the German army, needed to protect against counter-attack, and wanted his infantry to catch up. From May 26 to June 3, the Allies used this pause to throw up a perimeter around the French port of Dunkirk, from whose pleasure beaches more than a quarter of a million British and more than 80,000 French troops embarked to cross the Channel to safety in Britain.
Protected by the Royal Air Force, which lost 144 pilots in the skies over Dunkirk, and by the French air force (which plays no part in this movie) and transported by the Royal Navy (which doesn’t seem to be able to use its guns against the Luftwaffe in this film, but which luckily did in real life), British and French troops made it to Dover, albeit without any heavy equipment which they had to destroy on the beach. An allusion is made to that when Tom Hardy destroys the Spitfire he has (I must say quite unbelievably) landed on a beach in order to prevent its falling into German hands.
In response to a call from the British government, more than 700 private vessels were requisitioned, including yachts, paddle steamers, ferries, fishing trawlers, packet steamers and lifeboats. Even today when boating down the Thames it is possible to see small pleasure vessels sometimes only fifteen feet long with the plaque “Dunkirk 1940” proudly displayed on the cabins. That 226 were sunk by the Luftwaffe, along with six destroyers of the 220 warships that took part, shows what it meant to rise to what was afterwards called “the Dunkirk Spirit.” It was a spirit of defiance of tyranny that one glimpses regularly in this film, even if Nolan does have to pay obeisance to the modern demands for stories of cowardice alongside heroism, and the supposedly redemptive cowardice-into-heroism stories that Hollywood did not find necessary when it made Mrs. Miniver in 1942.
Nolan’s Dunkirk implies that it was the small boats that brought back the majority of the troops, whereas in fact the 39 destroyers and one cruiser involved in Operation Dynamo brought back the huge majority while the little ships did the crucial job of ferrying troops from the beaches to the destroyers. Six of which were sunk, though none by U-boats (which the film wrongly suggests were present).
Where Nolan’s film commits a libel on the British armed services is in its tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time. In the movie, a British beach-master prevents French infantrymen from boarding a naval vessel, saying “This is a British ship. You get your own ships.” The movie later alleges that no Frenchmen were allowed to be evacuated until all the Britons were safely back home. This was not what happened. The French were brought across the Channel in Royal Navy vessels and small boats when their units arrived on the beaches.
There was no discrimination whatsoever, and to suggest there was injects false nationalist tension into what was in truth a model of good inter-Allied cooperation. Only much later, when the Nazi-installed Vichy government in France needed to create an Anglophobic myth of betrayal at Dunkirk, did such lies emerge. It is a shame that Nolan is now propagating them—especially since this might be the only contact that millions of people will ever have with the Dunkirk story for years, perhaps even a generation. At a time when schools simply do not teach the histories of anything so patriotism-inducing as Dunkirk, it was incumbent on Nolan to get this right.
In a touching scene at the end, one of the Tommies is depicted reading from a newspaper Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, 1940, with its admonition: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Churchill made no attempt to minimize the scale of what he called a “colossal military disaster,” but he also spoke, rightly, of the fact that it had been a “miracle of deliverance.” That is all that matters in this story.
So despite my annoyance at how many little details are off here—for example, Tom Hardy firing 75 seconds’ worth of ammunition when he would really have only had 14.7, or choppy weather when the Channel was really like a mill pond—I must confess that such problems are only for military history pedants like me. What Nolan has gotten right is the superb spirit of the British people in overcoming hatred, resentment, and fury with calmness, courage, and good humor.
Which brings us back to Brexit.
The Swoon has several symptoms: extreme praise, a disinclination to absorb contrary facts, a weakness for adulation, and a willingness to project one’s own beliefs and dispositions onto an ill-suited target, regardless of evidence. The first thing to know about the Swoon, though, is that it is well rooted in reality. John McCain is perhaps the most interesting non-presidential figure in Washington politics since Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Any piece of journalism that aims to assess him objectively should be required to include, as a stipulation, a passage like this one from Robert Timberg’s masterful book about Vietnam, The Nightingale’s Song.
“Do you want to go home?”
“Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you.”
The [chief jailer] gleefully led the charge as the guards, at [another guard’s] command, drove fists and knees and boots into McCain. Amid laughter and muttered oaths, he was slammed from one guard to another, bounced from wall to wall, knocked down, kicked, dragged to his feet, knocked back down, punched again and again in the face. When the beating was over, he lay on the floor, bloody, arms and legs throbbing, ribs cracked, several teeth broken off at the gum line.
“Are you ready to confess your crimes?” asked [the guard].
The ropes came next . . .
This scene is, of course, from McCain’s five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. It helps to know that before this gruesome episode began—there were many more to come—McCain’s arms had been broken and gone untreated. It helps, too, to know that the point of the torture was to force McCain to leave the prison and return home to his father, the highest ranking naval officer in the Pacific. In other words, they hung him by his broken arms because he refused to let them let him go.
Every reporter who’s done his homework knows this about McCain, and most civilians who meet him know it, too. This is the predicate for the Swoon. It began to afflict liberal journalists of the Boomer generation during the warm-up to his first run for president, against Governor George W. Bush, in the late 1990s. The reporter would be brought onto McCain’s campaign bus and receive a mock-gruff welcome from the candidate. No nervous handlers would be in evidence, like those who ever attend other candidates during interviews.
And then it happens: In casual, preliminary conversation, McCain makes an indiscreet comment about a Senate colleague. “Is that off the record?” the reporter asks, and McCain waves his hand: “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” In a minute or two, the candidate, a former fighter pilot, drops the F bomb. Then, on another subject, he makes an offhanded reference to being “in prison.” The reporter, who went through four deferments in the late 1960s smoking weed with half-naked co-eds at an Ivy League school, feels the hot, familiar surge of guilt. As the interview winds down, the reporter sees an unexpected and semi-obscure literary work—the collected short stories of William Maxwell, let’s say—that McCain keeps handy for casual reading.
By the time he’s shown off the bus—after McCain has complimented a forgotten column the reporter wrote two years ago—the man is a goner. If I saw it once in my years writing about McCain, I saw it a dozen times. (I saw it happen to me!) Soon the magazine feature appears, with a headline like “The Warrior,” or “A Question of Honor,” or even “John McCain Walks on Water.” Those are all real headlines from his first presidential campaign. This really got printed, too: “It is a perilous thing, this act of faith in a faithless time—perilous for McCain and perilous for the people who have come to him, who must realize the constant risk that, sometimes, God turns out to be just a thunderstorm, and the gold just stones agleam in the sun.”
Judging from inquiries I’ve made over the years, the only person who knows what that sentence means is the writer of it, an employee of Esquire magazine named Charles Pierce. No liberal journalist got the Swoon worse than Pierce, and no one was left with a bitterer hangover when it emerged that McCain was, in nearly every respect, a conventionally conservative, generally loyal Republican—with complications, of course. The early Swooners had mistaken those complications (support for campaign-finance reform, for example, and his willingness to strike back at evangelical bullies like Jerry Falwell Sr.) as the essence of McCain. When events proved this not to be so, culminating in his dreary turn as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee—when he committed the ultimate crime in liberal eyes, midwifing the national career of Sarah Palin—it was only Republicans who were left to swoon.
So matters rested until this July, when McCain released the news that he suffers from a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. Many appropriate encomiums rolled in, some from the original Swooners. But another complication arose. Desperate to pass a “motion to proceed” so that a vote could be taken on a lame and toothless “repeal” of Obamacare, Senate Republicans could muster only a tie vote. McCain announced he would rise from his hospital bed and fly to Washington to break the tie and vote for the motion to proceed.
Even conservatives who had long remained resistant to the Swoon succumbed. Even Donald Trump tweet-hailed McCain as a returning hero. His old fans from the left, those with long memories, wrote, or tweeted, more in sorrow than in anger. Over at Esquire, poor Charles Peirce reaffirmed that God had turned out to be just a thunderstorm again. “The ugliest thing to witness on a very ugly day in the United States Senate,” he wrote, “was what John McCain did to what was left of his legacy as a national figure.” A longtime Swooner in the Atlantic: “Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.” Answers: a hypocrite, and nothing!
The old fans weren’t mollified by a speech McCain made after his vote, in which he sounded notes they had once thrilled to—he praised bipartisanship and cooperation across the aisle. Several critics in the press dismissed the speech with the same accusation that his conservative enemies had always leveled at McCain when he committed something moderate. He was pandering…to them! “McCain so dearly wants the press to think better of him for [this] speech,” wrote the ex-fan in the Atlantic. But the former Swooners were having none of it. Swoon me once, shame on me. Swoon me twice . . .
Then the next day in the wee hours, McCain voted against the actual bill to repeal Obamacare. Democrats were elated, and Republicans were forced to halt in mid-Swoon. His reasons for voting as he did were sound enough, but reasons seldom enter in when people are in thrall to their image of McCain. The people who had once loved him so, and who had suffered so cruelly in disappointment, were once more in love. Let’s let Pierce have the last word: “The John McCain the country had been waiting for finally showed up early Friday morning.” He had done what they wanted him to do; why he had done it was immaterial.
The condescension is breathtaking. Sometimes I think McCain is the most misunderstood man in Washington. True enough, he’s hard to pin down. He’s a screen onto which the city’s ideologues and party hacks project their own hopes and forebodings. Now, as he wages another battle in a long and eventful life, what he deserves from us is something simpler—not a swoon but a salute, offered humbly, with much reverence, affection, and gratitude.