The authoritarian personality, published in 1950 as part of the Studies in Prejudice series sponsored by the American Jewish Committee,…
The study of anti-Semitism and group prejudice in this country has been fundamentally affected by the monumental volume The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950, which in the few years since its publication has become a kind of “classic” in American social science. Nathan Glazer discusses here the recently published book Studies in the Scape and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality,” edited by Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda (Glencoe, Illinois; The Free Press), a volume of essays which further explores and evaluates the implications of the larger volume.
The authoritarian personality, published in 1950 as part of the Studies in Prejudice series sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, stands as one of the most ambitious efforts of modern American social science. In the 990 pages, 500,000 words, and 100 tables of The Authoritarian Personality, four senior authors (T. W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford) and three collaborators analyzed the results of a large-scale research project on anti-Semitism and group prejudice (“ethnocentrism”) conducted at the University of California in Berkeley. The project had studied more than 2,000 individuals, mostly college students but also sizeable numbers of middle-class adults, prisoners, patients undergoing psychiatric treatment, labor-union members, and some other working-class people. The social scientists tried to demonstrate from this material that anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism were more than “opinions”: they were rather facets of a definite personality type. The roots of this “authoritarian personality” were to be explained by the concepts of psychoanalysis; but its existence, the authors believed, could be demonstrated simply by the use of questionnaires.
The authoritarian personality was described by the authors as rigidly adhering to conventional, middle-class values; uncritically submissive to official moral authorities; tending to reject and condemn those who violated conventional values; opposed to the subjective, the imaginative, the introspective; disposed to think in rigid categories and to emphasize mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; preoccupied with problems of status and strength and weakness; disposed to believe that wild, dangerous, and secret things go on in the world; preoccupied with sexual transgressions.
All these traits (and many others) could be deduced, according to the logic of psychoanalytic thinking, from a family situation in which the parents were anxious about their own status, did not give enough unqualified love to their children, and were strict but inconsistent in their discipline, thus taking on, in the eyes of their children, the character of “forces” which could not be opposed and had to be constantly propitiated. The children’s repressed hostility and aggression toward the parents—and, later, the hostility and aggression that might be appropriately vented on bosses, the state, and other parent-like figures—are released on “out-groups” and various powerless objects (Jews, Negroes, the poor, etc.). Anyone acquainted with psychoanalytic thinking will be able to imagine the vast range of personality traits such a personal history can open to view.
The researchers devised four true-false questionnaires: (1) the “F-scale,” designed to test for authoritarian traits (“F” stands for fascism, since the authoritarian traits are presumed to be “pre-fascist”); (2) the “A-S scale,” testing for anti-Semitism; (3) the “E-scale,” testing for ethnocentrism (including anti-Semitism); and (4) the “PEC-scale,” testing for political and economic conservatism. Anti-Semitic, ethnocentric, conservative, and authoritarian opinions are scored “high”; their opposites, “low.” (The terms “high” and “low” in the meaning of “authoritarian” and “non-authoritarian” have already entered the vocabulary of contemporary American social psychology; we will continue to use them with no further identification). In general, it was found that high scorers on any one of the tests tended to score high on the others, thus establishing, apparently, a clear correlation between anti-Semitic or ethnocentric opinions and a general leaning towards conservatism and authoritarianism (pre-fascism).
Persons scoring in the highest and lowest quarters on the test for ethnocentrism were selected for intensive study by means of interviews and psychological “projective” tests, to further check the relation between ethnocentrism and authoritarianism. The interviews emphasized: the childhood history of the subject; his relations to parents, brothers, and sisters; his present relations with other people; his views of himself, his future, his work. More than ninety specific topics were covered in the interviews, and for each it was hypothesized in advance what might be expected to be the “high” variant (in attitudes towards parents, self, work, etc.), what the “low.” Persons unacquainted with the scores of the subjects on the various tests then read the interviews, deciding whether the person was high or low for each topic. Again, the results showed that the more anti-Semitic and ethnocentric group was generally high, the non-anti-Semitic and non-ethnocentric group low, in relation to authoritarianism.
In The few years since its publication, The Authoritarian Personality has inspired scores of doctoral theses and hundreds of less elaborate studies which have used its concepts and its tests, and attempted to elaborate or test the thesis presented. No volume published since the war in the field of social psychology has had a greater impact on the direction of the actual empirical work being carried on in the universities today.
One must ascribe the impact of The Authoritarian Personality first of all, I think, to the fact that it said something of some importance about an important subject. This simple fact serves to differentiate it from much of the highly regarded recent work in the social sciences, which has said nothing, or, to be just, has said nothing of significance about our society (or other existing societies) or Americans (or other existing variants of the human species). As a matter of fact, the most admired work in the social sciences today is, it appears, not supposed to say anything about anything, being occupied not with substance, but with method, devoted to discussion of how something should be said—if it were to be said. So the most respected figures in the field of sociology today, and to a lesser extent in social psychology, themselves actually say nothing—at times they suggest a hypothesis for someone else to test; at times it is believed they themselves are engaged in the testing of some significant hypothesis by the refined methods appropriate to their status; but usually nothing published can be pointed to.
It is thus understandable why the only two postwar works in the social and psychological sciences which, it is generally agreed, have said something of some scope and significance (right or wrong), were written, respectively, by a group headed by German émigré philosophers (The Authoritarian Personality) and by a former lawyer (The Lonely Crowd`). Now the saying of something is, if nothing else, a great help for the younger men in the field: it gives them something to test, and it suggests a new way of looking at a group of subjects; and this was a great virtue of The Authoritarian Personality.
One must not ignore a second major virtue from the point of view of the young aspirant for a Ph.D. degree: The Authoritarian Personality was filled with ready-made tests that had already been taken through many of the technical procedures of validation which every test must pass. A test to a social psychologist is like nectar to a bee. Regardless of what it studies and how it studies it, someone some place is going to use it and see whether the results on it correlate with results on some other tests. And indeed, we now know how “highs” and “lows” perform on half a hundred other tests, some of them part of the regular equipment of the social psychologist, some of them ad hoc creations designed to test some special characteristic. (The absence of tests may explain why the “inner-directed, other-directed” dichotomy of The Lonely Crowd has been more spoken of than used in the social sciences: until the more ingenious workers in the field create appropriate tests—and some are at work on the problem now—the others will be at a loss.)
Finally we must point to a third reason for the impact of The Authoritarian Personality—the overwhelmingly liberal complexion of contemporary social scientists. Of course they want to fight prejudice, and they are delighted to make use of a theory which paints the anti-Semite in the most unpleasant terms. But more than this, The Authoritarian Personality connected prejudice with something even more hateful: the “reactionary,” pious in his attachment to conventional values, anti-intellectual, suspicious of “ologies” and “isms,” antagonistic to the foreigner, the immigrant, the labor movement, mouthing loyalty to the Constitution while daily demanding the abrogation of the Bill of Rights. It is clear that this type of person is “authoritarian,” as described in the book; to be able to add to the bill of indictment against him that he is also, in some very fundamental way, anti-Semitic and “pro-fascist” is a pleasure even to a scientist, especially since the authors of The Authoritarian Personality seem quite oblivious to authoritarianism on the political left, and so set a precedent for studying authoritarianism without need for unpleasant self-examination.
This is quite a mixed bag of incentives, and not all of them apply to everyone. As we shall see, many who took over where the authors of The Authoritarian Personality left off were interested in overcoming the faults of their theory; others, interested chiefly in confirming the theory, may have served to perpetuate those faults.
We Now have before us an excellent volume summing up the first four years of the work in criticism and elaboration of the concepts of The Authoritarian Personality (Studies in the Scope and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality,” edited by Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda; Glencoe, Illinois, The Free Press, 279 pp., $4.50). It may be safely said that no important work in American social science has been so well served by its critics. The criticism is sharp and on the whole just, and is unrestrained by those considerations for the personal feelings of colleagues and of the sponsoring institution that so often blunt criticism—not that the authors are inconsiderate, but, as we have said, the major responsibility for the book is borne by a group of émigré scholars, and both the over-all editor (Max Horkheimer) and one of the authors (T. W. Adorno) have since returned to Germany; and the sponsoring institution has encouraged criticism by making it amply clear that it was interested in the studies not as received knowledge or doctrine, but as a pioneer and catalytic contribution to a continuing search for truth on a central problem of modern society.1 In a sense, the character and the scope of the criticism are the highest tribute to the value of the study: it is in a class by itself in the field, if the extensiveness, keenness, and quality of the analytic and critical research it has stimulated is any measure.
Despite the fact that it is made up of five different studies by different writers, this volume is so fully representative of what can be said in criticism and in support of the original volume, and of the subsequent work devoted to its thesis, that the best thing we can do is to describe the contents of these essays in order.
The first essay—“Authoritarianism: ‘Right’ and ‘Left,’” by Edward A. Shils—takes up the important question of the political orientation of The Authoritarian Personality, and the way this affected the actual empirical work. Mr. Shils points out that the “Right-Left” spectrum that summed up the range of political thought in the 19th century has been obscured by the rise of Bolshevism, which is not “Left,” out of the Left, and the rise of fascism, which is not “Right,” out of the Right. Those under the influence of Marxist thinking in all its forms have tried to preserve the 19th-century view by arguing that Bolshevism is (or was)really the heir of socialism and other democratic working-class movements, extreme, to be sure, and modified by the peculiar conditions of Russia, while fascism was really only the servant of “big business.” The fact that the two have, in point of realities and contemporary experience, steadily approximated each other, and that their relations to the historic programs of Left and Right have by now become purely historical, if that, has made little impression on those political analysts influenced by Marx.
Mr. Shils asserts that The Authoritarian Personality is an instance of this “steadfast adherence to the Right-Left polarity” in the face of all evidence. This polarity he finds present not only “in the general interpretive chapters . . . but in the severely empirical chapters. . . . The entire team of investigators proceeds as if there were a unilinear scale of political and social attitudes at the extreme right of which stands the Fascist . . . and at the other end what the authors call the complete democrat, who actually holds the views of the non-Stalinist Leninist.” This is a rather strong and uncompromising statement, but Mr. Shils, in expanding it, properly modifies it; the complete democrat of The Authoritarian Personality, it turns out, if we examine the views he is expected to support, is the kind of person who believes “the Wallaceite clichés to which [in the late 40’s] Communists and fellow-travelers gave their assent, as well as persons of more humane sentiment. . . .”
Thus some of the statements offered for “true” or “false” answers on the PEC-scale, which serves to divide conservatives from liberals, read as follows:
It is the responsibility of the entire society, through its government, to guarantee everyone adequate housing, income, and leisure.
The only way to provide adequate medical care is through some program of socialized medicine.
It is essential after the war to maintain or increase the income taxes on corporations and private individuals.
Labor unions should become stronger by being politically active and by publishing labor newspapers to be read by the general public.
If America had more men like Henry Wallace in office we would get along much better.
(It is only fair to point out that on the final form of this scale, which is the one used in the study, the Wallace item is dropped, and the labor union item much milder.)
Mr. Shils asserts: “The failure to discriminate the substantially different types of outlook which could be called liberal, liberal collectivist, radical, Marxist, etc. . . . flows from the authors’ failure to perceive the distinctions between totalitarian Leninism . . . humanitarianism, and New Deal interventionism.” Mr. Shils then goes on to point out that there are really great similarities between the authoritarian ideology tested by the F-scale, and the authoritarianism of Communism. Thus in both we find a great stress on the importance of secret plotting in the way the world runs, though one group believes the plotters are the Elders of Zion and the other believes they are the bankers of Wall Street. (And, as recent events have shown, the mythology of the “Left” can be almost as anti-Semitic as that of the “Right.”) Both take a mystical and irrational view of the world, though in one case it may be expressed in a belief in astrology and the power of blood, and in the other in an absolute adherence to the world of Marx and Lenin, called “science.” Both emphasize the importance of discipline, strong and fearless leaders, untiring work against the vermin (“fascist vermin” is one of the pet Communist phrases) who are undermining society, and so on.
However, Mr. Shils does not quite satisfy us when he tries to show just how the failure to see these points of identity between “Left” and “Right” affects the actual scientific undertaking. He would have been helped, I think, had he studied an earlier and to my mind superior analysis of the political outlook of The Authoritarian Personality—“Prejudice in the Catastrophic Perspective,” by Paul Kecskemeti (COMMENTARY, March 1951). Thus Mr. Shils’s main argument is that a number of leftist authoritarians can actually be detected in the ‘low” group selected, on the basis of their performance on the questionnaires, for further detailed study; yet the authors of The Authoritarian Personality hardly noticed their existence. But he does not seem to realize that the individuals selected for intensive study were picked not on the basis of their performance on the F-scale, measuring authoritarian tendencies, but only on the basis of their performance on the E-scale, which measures anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism alone, not authoritarianism.
Now the authors of The Authoritarian Personality can answer: if, as a matter of fact, Communists come out low on the E-scale, they are properly a subject of study together with all others who come out low. Our aim in studying the low-prejudice and high-prejudice groups as a unit was to see what else in the way of attitudes and what in the way of personality was associated with prejudice. In other words—if there are persons low on prejudice who are authoritarians, our study will reveal them. As a matter of fact, they can continue, we do refer to “rigid lows,” a group low on the Fscale yet showing the same character of rigidity in the way they hold on to their liberal views that the highs show in holding on to their views. Further, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality may answer to Shils, you have shown a strong resemblance between the expressed views of the rightist authoritarian, and the underlying ideology of Leninism. Yet this ideology on the whole remains hidden; it is certainly not exposed to the ordinary fellow-traveler, and probably not very clear to the ordinary party member. How then is an ordinary questionnaire to find this ideology? It will find—as it does—those who believe in liberal clichés and are used by others who actually adhere to the leftist authoritarian ideology. But these latter, even if they fell into the group we studied, would disavow this ideology.
Technically, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality are covered. But there are two important answers to this argument, an argument which in essence justifies a failure to make important political distinctions by pleading the limitations of one kind of scientific procedure. These answers were presented by Mr. Kecskemeti. First, he pointed out that all the attitudes associated at a particular moment in time (in this case the period of the Western alliance with Russia, and its afterglow) with an attitude we favor—that is, tolerance—are in effect idealized by The Authoritarian Personality. If at a given moment the most tolerant people are the supporters of Wallace’s Progressive party, can we argue that we should be against those people who are against the members of the Progressive party? For one thing, the relation may be accidental and not inevitable and organic. (As a matter of fact, no study of the relation between attitudes and personality has yet, I believe, solved the problem of distinguishing ideology—the views someone picks up—from character—the orientations that are basic to a person.) Since
he wrote his article, events have supported Mr. Kecskemeti’s sharp criticism. For the extreme right in this country has in recent years been very careful to avoid all signs of anti-Semitism—which may indicate that anti-Semitism is less basic to an extreme rightist position than the authors of The Authoritarian Personality believed. And at the same time, as we all know, in the last few years the Communist parties throughout the world have at times adopted a position indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.
Mr. Kecskemeti’s second point was the necessity of considering the dynamics of history. If we get more militant liberals of the type admired by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality, it does not follow that prejudice will diminish but, more likely, that there will be a polarization of social tendencies into two extremes, creating a situation likely to produce more prejudice and making the position of the Jews more dangerous. Unquestionably, there were far more “militant liberals,” in the sense in which the term is used in The Authoritarian Personality, in Germany in 1933 than there have ever been in the United States.
To these criticisms, I am afraid the authors of The Authoritarian Personality can only plead guilty, falling back to a more limited and more defensible position. They have not fully shown the relation between authoritarianism and ethnocentrism; this turned out to be a more complicated one than they imagined. Rather, as Mr. Shils asserts and they might well admit, they have only studied one form of authoritarianism—which Mr. Shils properly describes as “nativism,” the outlook exemplified by the fly-by-night anti-Semitic sheet and by all those who are susceptible to its arguments.
Mr. Shils’s article offers one further important criticism of The Authoritarian Personality. He argues that it is not possible to estimate the probability of fascism in the United States, which is one interest of the authors, by studying the nature and distribution of the authoritarian personality, for there is, he convincingly shows, no necessary relation between personality and policy. Policy will be carried on by institutions (parties, governments) regardless of the individual personalities that make them up. More, the success or failure of a policy—like fascism—is dependent not on the number of those with personalities presumed to be related to it, but on social conditions, and on success in perpetuating a certain line through organization, which knows how to involve and tie together people of many kinds of characteristics and temperaments.
Indeed, Mr. Shils makes the interesting point that it is just because the leaders of American “nativism” are examples of the “authoritarian personality” that they are unable to be successful. Some of the characteristics of this personality, as we have seen, are great distrust of others, rigidity and mechanization of thought, weakness in understanding oneself and others, and various other traits deadly to one’s capacity as a political leader. Harold Lasswell, who has pioneered in the study of the relations between political leadership and personality, argues to the same effect in another essay in this volume. He believes it is not likely that leaders, whether democratic or totalitarian, will be themselves authoritarians: leaders need to be strong and impressive individuals. The authoritarian personality is more likely to be found among the followers of political movements and in bureaucratic positions; the political skills needed by democratic leaders and totalitarian leaders alike do not seem, in our experience, to be of the authoritarian variety.
One can only conclude that much more work is necessary on persons in their character as political men, both as leaders and followers, something which Professor Lasswell has been advocating for years.
The second essay in the book is a lengthy methodological critique by Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, who are known as acute practitioners and critics of the techniques of public opinion research. They proceed systematically and in detail through all the phases of the work described in The Authoritarian Personality, making many sharp criticisms.
In some cases I think they go too far, for example, in their feeling that the records of the interviews have been over-analyzed. Thus, T. W. Adorno, discussing an interview in which the subject had spoken of the Jews as “a ticklish problem,” had written: “The term ‘problem’ is taken over from the sphere of science and is used to give the impression of searching, responsible deliberation. By referring to a problem, one implicitly claims personal aloofness. . . . This, of course, is an excellent rationalization for prejudice.” Hyman and Sheatsley, taking issue with this, assert “. . . the very phrase, ‘the Jewish problem,’ or ‘Negro problem,’ is in such common usage that it has none of the properties imputed to it here.” Now they are right in saying that the use of the term “the Negro problem” could not be interpreted as Adorno does, because there is a “Negro problem”—there are debates in Congress, the Supreme Court, in the press, and so on. But Adorno is right in realizing that the Jews are not a problem in this sense, and have not been in Western democratic countries since the beginning of the 19th century. It is only those who want to make them a “problem” who are likely to use such a phrase. Here, as elsewhere in their lengthy critique, Hyman and Sheatsley, 1 think, show the influence of their involvement with public opinion research, which, because it must deal with scores of interviewers and coders and thousands of respondents, cannot afford such fine analysis, but must rather analyze the gross characteristics of large numbers of people.
On the other hand, it is precisely their knowledge of public opinion research which leads them to what I believe are two important and potentially fruitful criticisms of The Authoritarian Personality.
- The group studied, as we have seen, consisted mostly of college students and middle-class adults. Now The Authoritarian Personality does not generalize to the whole American population on the basis of this particular group. What it does say, however, is that the relations that are found between sets of attitudes in this group will be found in people in general. Thus if it finds in its limited sample that ethnocentric individuals are authoritarian, it tends to assume it has found a general relationship between authoritarianism and ethnocentrism. However, the middle class is different from the working class: not only in the attitudes it holds, but in the way these attitudes are related to each other. Leo Srole, in a study of Springfield, Massachusetts, found, as a matter of fact, that the relation ‘between scores on the F-scale and prejudice was greater for the college-educated than for the high-school-educated, and was really quite small in those with only elementary school education. That is, in this latter group there were many authoritarians who were not ethnocentric, and vice versa. The relation found in The Authoritarian Personality, it seems, holds only for the better educated.
- The Authoritarian Personality, finding a correlation between authoritarianism and group prejudice, assumes that the two are related. But it is always possible in this type of study that there is a third factor independently related to the first two in such a way that if it were held constant it would explain the differences. For example: one may find that Jews earn more than non-Jews, and explain the difference in psychological terms (as The Authoritarian Personality explains the difference between those prejudiced and those not prejudiced); but if one compares city Jews with city non-Jews, and rural Jews with rural non-Jews, this difference in income may disappear; the general superiority in income of Jews over non-Jews may simply reflect the fact that Jews have a higher proportion of city-dwellers.
Hyman and Sheatsley argue in the same way, from a number of studies, that the prejudiced ate differentiated from the unprejudiced not only by coming out higher on the F-scale, but by having less education, and they therefore suggest that authoritarianism, as tested by the F-scale, is Something produced by lack of education: “As one examines the interview excerpts in the text, one is continually and vividly struck by the fact that some of the differences obtained, which are treated as determinants of ethnocentrism, seem actually mere reflections of formal education. For example, one of the factors found to differentiate the ethnocentric most significantly is a conventionality with respect to sex. . . . It is shown that high scorers emphasize conventional virtues in a mate, and the authors state: ‘In contrast . . . the low-scoring subject takes a much more individualized attitude, as shown in the following [quotation]: ‘She has to be intelligent, mature, emotionally stable, have adequate physiological characteristics. . . . She should have a maximum of femininity, since we’re all bisexual. You can think of it in terms of a polyfactorial setup. . . .’ It seems strange [continue Hyman and Sheatsley] for the authors to follow this quotation with the remark: ‘The preceding description . . . reveals a conception of real people.’ . . . It is later noted that high-scorers are more likely to explain phenomena in terms of heredity, physical or accidental factors, whereas low-scorers tend in general toward socio-psychological explanations. Again, one thinks immediately that this is a common correlate of formal education. . . .”
A number of items from the F-scale have been used in public opinion polls with national cross-sections. Hyman and Sheatsley quote some of the results, broken down by education:
|Item from F-scale||Percentage agreeing who have|
|College Education||High School Education||Grammar School Education|
|The most important thing to teach children is absolute obedience to their parents.||35%||60%||80%|
|Any good leader should be strict with people under him in order to gain their respect.||36||60||66|
|Prison is too good for sex criminals. They should be publicly whipped or worse.||18||31||45|
|Prison is too good for sex criminals. They should be publicly whipped or worse.||18||31||45|
|There are two kinds of people in the world: the weak and the strong.||30||53||71|
|No decent man can respect a woman who has had sex relations before marriage.||14||26||29|
There would seem to be no question, then, that there is a close relation between authoritarianism—or whatever it is that the F-scale measures—and education. (Further evidence along the same lines is reported in “Authoritarianism and Political Behavior” by Morris Janowitz and Dwayne Marvick in the September 1953 Public Opinion Quarterly.) But by the same token, there is no question that more than education is involved, for 14 to 36 per cent of the college-educated will agree with one or another of these five sentiments from the F-scale. In addition, this major criticism of Hyman and Sheatsley contradicts, to some extent, their earlier one. If the sample is defective in being composed predominantly of college students and middle-class persons, then the differences in authoritarianism found in the sample cannot be due to the traits the subjects have in common, such as a college education.
What seems to be involved, more than the mere formal number of years of education—which is certainly important in itself—is another factor that we might call “intellectuality” or “sophistication.” We all know that two college seniors with the same amount of education will differ enormously in the degree to which they reflect the ideas current among the intellectually sophisticated. But then what will determine who becomes sophisticated and who does not? Different backgrounds, to some extent, but I think we are ultimately driven back to psychological factors. Certainly the authors of The Authoritarian Personality were wrong in not testing more extensively for social correlates to authoritarianism and ethnocentrism. But now, after these more extensive tests have been made, authoritarianism still stands as a psychological reality, a constellation of traits that can be located with many different tests, not only with the F-scale used in The Authoritarian Personality.
This, at any rate, is the conclusion of the next paper in this volume, which consists of a review of the most important work that has been done on the authoritarian personality since the publication of the book. Richard Christie, the author of this chapter, shows first of all that the psychological type described by The Authoritarian Personality as authoritarian is really that, and is really closely linked to fascism. Thus, a study by H. V. Dicks of German prisoners of war, comparing Nazis with the apolitical and the anti-Nazis, shows that the same differences in personality turned up as in the study of California college students. Jerome Himelhoch, in a doctoral thesis, used the F-scale to distinguish authoritarians from non-authoritarians, then gave his subjects Rorschach tests. By comparing the Rorschach records of “highs” and “lows,” he was able to develop a scoring system which differentiated them, and which was successfully used on other samples to divide highs from lows. He then scored the Rorschach records of seven top Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg (Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Streicher, Ley, Frank, and Doenitz) and all scored high—just as his authoritarian students from New York University did.
In another study, Joan Eager and M. B. Smith tested a group of camp counselors with the F-scale. They then interviewed the children under them by means of a “guess who” test: which counselor treats you as if you were a baby?—and so on. Sure enough—those counselors who came out high on the F-scale were also revealed to be more authoritarian in the eyes of the children.
In another study, the F-scale was given to college students; then, as Christie writes, “each high scorer was paired with a low scorer and the two were required to spend twenty minutes together in which they were asked to discuss any aspect of radio, television, or the movies. . . . After this, the F-scale was given again but now each student was told to answer it in the way in which he thought the student he had just been talking with would. The second time they took the test the lows were able to almost approximate the scores of the highs; but the highs, in their second taking of the test, came out with scores scarcely lower than the first time.” This, it is believed, demonstrates the rigidity of the highs, their greater projectivity (they see other people as themselves), and their lack of insight. Other tests, some as ingenious (and difficult to describe) as this one, also give results that seem to bear out the conclusions of The Authoritarian Personality. The question also arises whether in comparing highs and lows we are only coming out with differences in intelligence. This problem had been taken up in The Authoritarian Personality and a low correlation had been found between I.Q.’s and low scores on the F-scale, too low to really explain the differences. Christie has gone into the matter, and has found that this relation is rather greater than The Authoritarian Personality indicates. Obviously we are dealing with very much the same things as the previous correlations between education and authoritarianism. The F-scale is surely tapping, in large measure, intelligence, education, and intellectual sophistication. Yet it must also be tapping something else, if in groups of homogeneous education and intelligence, more or less, it serves to differentiate persons from one another.
Just what this something tapped by the F-scale is will be coming out more clearly as a result of some ingenious investigations, some of which are reported—not very adequately, or in sufficient detail—in the last chapter of this book by Else Frenkel-Brunswik, one of the original authors of The Authoritarian Personality. We have seen what difficulties arise in trying to use opinions to differentiate persons of different personalities. If we find many opinions, some hardly related—like anti-Semitism and a belief in astrology—in the same person, we are tempted to deep psychological explanations. To a large extent, both opinions may be the product of a limited intelligence or education—but suppose both appear in per-sons of adequate intelligence and education?
The problem has become one of getting tests of personality that do not have any relation to tests of opinion. Now rigidity is considered a basic characteristic of the authoritarian personality—he is rigid in his thinking because of his authoritarian upbringing (discipline, lack of love, etc.), because of his fear of facing his true aggressive feelings toward parents and parent-like figures of authority, and so on. Certain tests of rigidity, independent of opinion, are now being used with interesting and provocative results. Thus M. Rokeach has devised a test of simple problem-solving, in which a “set” is established—the subject is shown how to solve a certain problem, a few more problems of the same type are then offered to him, and finally he is offered a problem which, though solvable by the technique he has been using, can be solved much more directly by another technique. Now this might seem to be a simple test of intelligence, but Rokeach asserts that scores of rigidity based on it are highly correlated with ethnocentrism, and are only slightly related to intelligence. In the same way, Dr. Frenkel-Brunswik herself has found in certain experiments in perception in children—unfortunately, these have not yet been reported in adequate detail—that the ethnocentric are “intolerant of ambiguity.” Various other experiments along the same line have been reported.
Out of these ingenious experiments in perception and modes of thinking we see emerging the same type, more or less, that was defined by the original F-scale. And even when tests quite divorced from opinion are used to detect this type, it is found to be prejudiced. These studies seem to me to be proving the central contention of The Authoritarian Personality: that there is a specific type, the authoritarian personality, characterized by rigidity and unable to think in subtle and complicated ways, and that this psychological type tends to be prejudiced. It is intriguing to discover, from Dr. Frenkel-Brunswik’s chapter, that the Nazi psychologist Jaensch, who was an ingenious laboratory worker, described the same type, by way of similar experiments in perception—and idealized it. This was to him the pure, peasant, racial type, as against more “cosmopolitan” psychological varieties.
We are still only at the beginning of these investigations. The Authoritarian Personality, as I have said, has been well served by its criticism and if one looks only at the criticism, almost nothing seems to stand up of the original study. Yet what does stand up is the most important: the steady current of research into the problem of authoritarianism and prejudice which is being carried on by many able and ingenious scholars, which research, as far as one can now see, promises to validate—though at the same time to modify greatly—the central thesis of The Authoritarian Personality: that such a personality structure exists, and persists. But more important, it offers a key that promises to extend our knowledge of race and group prejudice. This department will carry further reports on the research as it becomes public.
1 This volume of criticism is the second in a series called “Continuities in Social Research,” started with the idea of encouraging really long and full analyses and critiques of major works in the social sciences. The first volume in the series was devoted to The American Soldier, a vast and on the whole empty work published in 1949. It is revealing of what sociologists like to call “power relations” when they are talking about other people that scarcely a word that could be considered criticism was breathed in this first volume of “critical” essays.
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The Study of Man: New Light on “The Authoritarian Personality”
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
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Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages