"Whenever--at whatever moment she was asked what she was thinking about she could have answered without fail, 'Always about my…
“Whenever—at whatever moment—she was asked what she was thinking about she could have answered without fail, ‘Always about my happiness and my unhappiness.’” No novelist but Tolstoy could have charged this apparently unremarkable sentence, which summarizes the preoccupations of an unfaithful wife, with so potent a current of meaning, and in Anna Karenina, a novel powered in large part by philosophical and religious speculation, no other sentence carries significance of a higher voltage. For Tolstoy, happiness and unhappiness were the human matters of the utmost consequence, and they were the principal themes of his writings.
One must make the appropriate distinctions: the life of a well-to-do woman preoccupied with her adultery is not, after all, that of a great novelist who imagines such a woman and her experience. Yet what Tolstoy wrote of Anna Karenina he might have said, at almost any time, and just as truly, of himself. The pursuit of happiness was his true life’s work; it engaged all his powers. Somehow he knew that he had been made for happiness, and that happiness was the end man was made for. “The craving of a man’s body and soul for happiness,” he wrote in his diary at the age of twenty-four, “is the only path to an understanding of the mysteries of life.” To desire happiness, he understood, was to seek the meaning of one’s life, and to attain it was to see as deeply into the divine intention as a man could hope to do. He poured his colossal energies into discovering what this happiness might be, and how he could take possession of his rightful share.
The recent publication of two new biographies1 provides an occasion to examine the marks left on Tolstoy’s spiritual person by this effort. Unfortunately, neither the English novelist A.N. Wilson nor the French biographer Martine de Courcel—though both of them are gifted and serious writers—does much to illuminate the happiness Tolstoy fought for or to demonstrate just what part of it he managed to get. The trouble is that the question of Tolstoy’s happiness is essentially a religious one, and de Courcel takes Tolstoy seriously but not religion, while Wilson takes religion seriously but not Tolstoy.
“Tolstoy was never so happy as when he was writing War and Peace,” Wilson rightly observes, yet he determines this happiness to be a neurotic’s absorption in an art that offers “the comforting possibilities of distortion, of laundering experience. . . .” De Courcel, for her part, finds that Tolstoy was happiest when overcome by “an irresistible urge to write, having nothing to do with any humanitarian, social, or religious consideration.” Yet for Tolstoy, who wrote novels, novellas, short stories, plays, religious treatises, political tracts, articles on pedagogical theory, in addition to keeping a diary (intermittently) from the age of eighteen until his death at eighty-two, there was no desire to create that did not have its religious impulse. Neither biographer ever really considers it possible that, somewhere in the tumultuous religious quest that was Tolstoy’s life, he might have found, if only for a spell, something like the true way to live, of which his greatest writing was the natural expression.
One would be surprised if a man like Tolstoy had not believed himself made to be happy. His fellow novelist and contemporary Turgenev once said of him, “Now there’s a man of many blessings. Fortune has smiled on him his whole life long.” He certainly had an auspicious start, being born (in 1828) to a noble and wealthy family—he was Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy—on the estate that he was to inherit, Yasnaya Polyana. And quite apart from the social advantages, he enjoyed any number of others, beginning with literary genius but not stopping there. Plainly the work of one of nature’s most glorious days, Tolstoy was a marvel of ability, energy, sensitivity, strength. He sprouted passions and talents prodigiously, from every inch of him, with an extravagance that bordered on the joyous preposterousness of heroic folklore; it was as though Homer had been endowed with the eye, not only of Monet, but also of Ted Williams.
In his youth, Tolstoy aspired to be the wisest man in the world, and the bravest, and the strongest, and certainly the most admired: sizable ambitions, by anybody’s reckoning. He did not do so badly by them. He even grew up to be something of a he-man; more perhaps than any other man of comparable intellectual and artistic gifts, he knew the full reach of the body’s power and pleasure. A gymnast, a weight-lifter, a wrestler, he was renowned for his feats of strength. He prided himself on handling a plough as easily as did the sturdiest of his serfs. He served in the army for several years, and not without gallantry, being awarded a high honor for valor as an officer in the Crimean War.
Surely no one seemed to love life’s variety, to crave the joys of sensation, emotion, and thought, more voraciously than he. He was a graceful horseman, and a crack shot; the birds, Turgenev complained, flew his way. His passion for the hunt extended also to women, who tended to fly his way as well. A fine pianist, he thought for a time of becoming a composer, and once spent an afternoon playing a piece by Haydn over and over for some nightingales outside his window. He tried his hand at sculpture. He managed an estate of 4,000 acres. He founded a school for the peasant children of Yasnaya Polyana, which was perhaps the most successful school ever run on anarchist principles, mostly because it had him for a teacher. He fathered fourteen known children, nine of whom lived, one, a peasant woman’s son, unofficially. To his children’s delight, he joyfully outdid them at childishness, a boisterous paternal festival. He bred horses and kept bees. At the age of sixty-three, he took up the study of Hebrew. After getting that down, he decided to learn how to ride a bicycle. It was the crowning touch.
In 1865, two years into the writing of War and Peace, Tolstoy remarked to a younger colleague that the artist’s purpose is “to compel us to love life in all its countless and inexhaustible manifestations.” Who could seem better suited to the task than a man with so exceptional a gift for living? If superabundant talent and sheer force of vitality were sufficient to ensure a man’s happiness, his would surely have been among the happiest of lives. But in the end all this energy and high accomplishment and worldly pleasure brought him small enjoyment, and even great pain.
For it was not vitality and its myriad joys that he ultimately revered; rather, it was goodness. Turgenev would have loved to have had Tolstoy’s vital gifts—provided he could have had them and still remain Turgenev—but for Tolstoy they were a source of anguish. In A.N. Wilson’s tersely elegant summation, “The fates . . . showered upon this improbable recipient imaginative gifts . . . almost without parallel. He [feared] them, et dona ferentes [and the gifts they bore].” The more fortune smiled on him, the more he grimaced and fretted; he was afflicted with the conviction that almost everything a man could want he should in fact abhor and renounce, for the sake of his soul’s one true need.
It was in childhood that he discovered what that need was, although then he did not feel it as a need at all, but as utter fulfillment. “Happy, happy, irrecoverable days of childhood! How can one fail to love and cherish its memories?” In Tolstoy’s first novel, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, published in installments between 1852 and 1857, the narrator, Eugene Irtenyev, recalls his wondrous childhood comprehension of the world’s perfection. Enveloped in the ardent tenderness of his mother’s love, he felt God’s love, too, enfolding all the world in its embrace. Years later, during adolescence, looking out from his window at a flawless spring afternoon, Eugene feels again an intimation of this same perfection, and understands the moral teaching that it bears: “Everything spoke to me of beauty, happiness, and virtue; told me that each of these was quite easy and attainable for me, that the one could not be without the others, and even that beauty, happiness, and virtue were one and the same thing.”
By the time Tolstoy wrote Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, such happiness, for him, was already sadly torn. Tolstoy’s powers of mind, sharp-toothed, swift, and relentless, were unloosed at an early age, and they gave those blessed certainties of the childish soul a mauling. Like Eugene Irtenyev, the young Tolstoy philosophized just enough to undo “the convictions which, for [his] life’s happiness, [he] ought never to have dared to disturb.” Tolstoy came to question everything he had cherished most; his skepticism, however, was not that of the born philosopher, at ease among endless vistas of uncertainty, but rather that of an unsettled soul, in dire need of refuge. Once he had thought sufficiently to cast all into doubt, what moved him to think further was not the joy of questioning but the need to have an answer.
He knew what he wanted the answer to be. Spiritually dispossessed, he tried to think his way back to the certainty of God’s ultimate loving goodness that he had once found in his family’s love and that had seemed to offer protection from all sorrow. Unable to recover the path by means of his intellect, he relied on his memory of the old feelings to guide him. In his diary he wrote, “I believe in goodness and love it, but I don’t know what can show me the way to it. . . . It is better to do good, without knowing how one knows what it is, and not to think about it.”
All his life he was to live—or at least try to live—according to this irrational and uncertain wisdom, yet all his life he was to suffer from the need for a wisdom that his exacting reason could certify. To think about the ultimate questions was painful for Tolstoy, sometimes even dangerous, but he could not stop thinking about them. “I must work with my brain. I know I would have been happier if I hadn’t known this sort of work. But God set me on this path: I must follow it.” His soul at odds with his mind, he prayed with all his strength to a loving and merciful God Who, he periodically declared, most likely did not exist.
There were times when his confusion amounted to nihilism, and his youth was among the most distressing of these times. The swirling winds of his doubt swept away the path of virtue, and he found himself in the well-rutted track of the aristocratic pleasure-life. He dressed with elegance, cut an imperious figure, and tended to despise the drab, the stammering, the socially unclean. He got knee-walking drunk, gambled away piles of money, flirted with the decent young women and spent his nights with the indecent ones, usually Gypsies or prostitutes. The sort of life he led seemed natural enough to most of those living it, and he had quite a liking for it himself; yet he sensed, intermittently at any rate, that something fine in him was being disfigured. From his first diary entry, which he made when he was eighteen and taking the cure for gonorrhea, he recorded his struggle to renounce “the disorderly life . . . [that is] a consequence of the early corruption of the soul.”
As formidable a nemesis as Tolstoy’s sexual compulsion was for him, or his laziness, or his despair, more pernicious and discomfiting still was the social compulsion that overpowered him: his vanity. In 1852, at the age of twenty-four, he observed, “Throughout my diary one main idea and desire can be seen—to be rid of the vanity which was oppressing me and ruining all my pleasures, and to search for ways to rid myself of it.” His attempt to analyze the vice rapidly acquired an uncontrollable emotional momentum and became a diatribe eloquent with disgust and shame:
It’s a sort of moral sickness like leprosy—it doesn’t destroy any one part but disfigures the whole—it insinuates itself gradually and imperceptibly and then develops throughout the whole organism; there is no manifestation of life which it doesn’t infect; it’s like venereal disease—if it’s driven out of one part it appears with greater force in another.
Tolstoy’s understanding of this moral plague was to inform his whole life’s work. That understanding derived chiefly from his beloved Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom A.N. Wilson correctly calls “the greatest single influence on the development of Tolstoy’s thought.” Émile, Rousseau’s masterpiece on the ideal education of democratic man, offers his fullest treatment of vanity, or amour-propre—Tolstoy himself occasionally uses the French term—but it is in a note to the Discourse on Inequality that Rousseau most succinctly defines the scourge: “Amour-propre is only a relative sentiment, artificial and born in society, which inclines each individual to have a greater esteem for himself than for anyone else, inspires in men all the harm they do to one another, and is the true source of honor.” In Émile Rousseau writes: “. . . what makes man essentially good is to have few needs and to compare himself little with others; what makes him wicked is to have many needs and to depend very much on opinion.”
The young Tolstoy was a needy sort who lived very much for the eyes of others. So importunate was his need for admiration, so keen his sensitivity to insult, that the most commonplace social gathering became an ordeal for him. The “Rules for Society” he set down in his diary rest upon the understanding that the ordinary social intercourse of professedly convivial people is governed by the very amour-propre that ignites raging warfare. “At a ball, ask the most important ladies to dance. If you feel shy, don’t become flustered, but carry on. Be as cold as possible and don’t betray any impressions.” “Don’t tolerate the slightest unpleasantness or sarcasm from anyone, without paying it back twofold.” Tolstoy needed Rousseau to save him from the worldly nobleman in himself, and to remind him where his true happiness lay; left on his own, he was prone to confusion.
True, in his dithering and misery he accomplished more than most happy men dream of doing, but neither the activity nor the achievement nor the admiration raised him up out of his unhappiness. Even telling the truth in his writing, which was the supreme law of art, exacerbated his pain, for he was too weak to live the rest of his life in accordance with the truth his work proclaimed. In the story “A Billiard-Marker’s Notes,” written in 1852, he recounts the degeneration and eventual suicide of an aristocratic young man who knew how he ought to live but fell into the life that men of his type were expected to lead. His suicide note has a familiar ring:
God gave me everything man can desire: wealth, a name, intelligence, and noble aspirations. I wanted to enjoy myself and trampled in the mire all that was good in me. . . . And how good and happy I might have been had I trodden the path which on entering life my fresh mind and my childlike, genuine feeling indicated to me! More than once I tried to escape from the rut in which my life was moving and get back to that bright path. I told myself: I will use all the will I have—but I could not. . . . Thoughts of what will be beyond the tomb and of what will be said tomorrow about my death at Aunt Rtishcheva’s present themselves to me with equal force.
Tolstoy’s moral lucidity here is pitiless, even savage, as it tends to be in the diaries as well, although A.N. Wilson, for one, is unable to recognize the honesty with which Tolstoy saw himself and recorded what he saw. According to Wilson, “like many self-obsessed people, [Tolstoy] was entirely lacking in self-knowledge.” In writing fiction, says Wilson, Tolstoy enjoyed the power of “arranging events to make them tolerable to himself,” and Wilson adds: “One cannot exaggerate the extent to which Tolstoy’s fiction is his version of how he wanted life to be.” But to exaggerate that is exactly what Wilson does. In fact, one of Tolstoy’s rarest gifts was his clear awareness of how painfully far his own life fell short of what he wanted it to be, and no writer who has put his own life to the uses of fiction has spared himself less than Tolstoy. He knew only too well that the success of his writing in no way mitigated the failures of his life.
Since art would not save him, he dreamed of something that would—specifically, a woman’s love to restore his innocence, empower him to live rightly and in utter happiness. “Love is man’s one vocation and happiness on earth,” he declared to Valeriya Arsenyeva, the daughter of a neighboring landowner whose guardian he became on her father’s death and with whom he fell in love during the summer of 1856. She was twenty, seven years younger than he, and his letters to her were full of the sad but hor lul wisdom of “a man morally old, who did many foolish things in his youth for which he has paid with the happiness of the best years of his life, and who has now found for himself both a purpose and a vocation. . . .”
In the end, however, he found Valeriya insufficiently substantial for the noble love he had in mind. (The failed romance did move him to write the fine novella Family Happiness, about the way love deepens and matures in the early years of a marriage.) Only six years later did he find the woman he knew was meant for him, Sonya Behrs, a doctor’s daughter, just eighteen: “A child! It could be!” She was pretty; she sang; she wrote; she was devout and good as only a child could be: she was perfect, and she terrified him. Tolstoy suddenly stopped short—afraid he might be in love with love and not with her, afraid that in any case she could not possibly love him—and pronounced himself unsuitable for married happiness; a nature like his was intended for something else altogether, for an art to be pursued in solitude. “A monastery, work—that’s your vocation, and from its height you can look down calmly and gladly at other people’s love and happiness.” That, however, was precisely what he could never do. His literary vocation was in fact to be the supreme artist of family happiness, and that vocation could not be fulfilled until he was the head of his own loving and happy family.
He overcame his misgivings, which were plentiful and recurred frequently. Once married, he found himself happier than he had thought he ever could be. Yet before long, he began to see that this happiness too was unstable, as happiness based on luck and not on virtue was bound to be: “All the conditions for happiness have come together for me. Often the only thing missing (all this time) is the awareness that I’ve done everything that I ought to have done in order to enjoy to the full what has been given me, and to repay others, the whole world, by my work for what they have given me.” For Tolstoy, happiness could not be happiness if it was mere accident. He needed to feel sure there was a divine warrant, that the unexampled joys of marriage were God’s reward for his having lived the life he was intended to live.
In time, he attained the precise equilibrium that was required for his first great artistic achievement; he found himself just happy enough with his wife and children, and just unhappy enough with himself, to undertake with joyous diligence the writing of War and Peace (1865-69) and later Anna Karenina (1875-77)—a greater novel still, and one in which he subjects family happiness to the most searching ordeal.
The fifteen years during which Tolstoy himself managed to hold on to this equilibrium were the happiest of his life—probably among the happiest of any life. (During this time he wrote in his diaries hardly at all.) Sonya’s younger brother, who spent his every youthful summer with the Tolstoys, wrote in his memoirs, “I cannot sufficiently describe the joyous and happy frame of mind that usually reigned at Yasnaya Polyana. Its source was always Leo Nikolayevich.” The writing of War and Peace, which was to repay “all the world” for Tolstoy’s undeserved happiness, ended up celebrating his deserved happiness.
But it, too, vanished; the fear of death dissolved it. Early in his marriage Tolstoy had mentioned in his diary the worry that his happiness might be impermanent, that death would come and sweep it all away forever. He had looked away from this fear, and he had forgotten it. It had not gone away, though. Once he mustered the courage to look eternity in the face, it stared him down, and left him shaken. The sight convinced him that the meaning of his life had eluded him after all, that family happiness was merely a diversion from the horror of eternity’s unendurable emptiness.
Unable to understand what life was for, he found that he could not live. Death was everywhere he looked, and, pitiless, inexplicable, it blasted all life’s joys. Art, family, prosperity, fame: none of these meant a thing any more. All he wanted was to die, to end the horror of a meaningless life. “And all this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune,” he wrote in A Confession, the great autobiographical essay he finished in 1882.
He searched everywhere for the wisdom that could save him from despair. He ransacked the words of the wisest men—Socrates, Solomon, Schopenhauer, Buddha—but found at the heart of their reputed wisdom only disgust with, or even horror at, life: “Happy is he who has not been born. . . .” He consulted the latest findings of modern science, which informed him that he was no more than “a transitory, casual cohesion of particles.” At last, having perceived that his powers of reason could not provide him with life’s meaning, but could only make clear its meaninglessness, he concluded (in a variant of the conclusion he had reached once before in his youth) that rational knowledge itself leads inexorably to the longing for death, while irrational knowledge, of the sort possessed by millions of ordinary people, gives the strength to live happily.
So it was that Tolstoy came to seek, and claimed to find, his happiness in the religious faith of this great multitude. He rejoined the flock of the Orthodox Church, and for a while was a paragon of conventional piety. However, before long he decided the Orthodox Christ bore only a superficial resemblance to the true Christ, whom he discovered by studying the Gospels with utmost intentness and by searching his own heart. What institutional Christianity had persistently ignored in Christ’s teaching, Tolstoy wrote in What I Believe (1884), was the injunction “that men must create their own happiness here,” in this world.
To create his happiness, Tolstoy sought to reduce his seigneurial way of life to an exemplary peasant starkness. He denounced his previous writings as immoral amusements pandering to the wicked tastes of the privileged classes, and he refused to accept any money from the sale of his books. He swore off meat, alcohol, and tobacco. He toiled in the fields with the rest of the peasants, and he took up cobbling, in order to have a truly useful skill. He even emptied his own chamber pot.
With withering logic, Tolstoy reduced life’s “countless and inexhaustible manifestations” to a series of problems that needed solving so that the reign of happiness could begin. So long as any man was miserable, no man could be happy; to concern oneself with anything but the poverty, hunger, cruelty, and injustice that remained to be eradicated was to miss the point of life entirely. Tolstoy entered the political world with a view toward putting an end to politics. The existence of government in any form was inimical to happiness, he maintained, for every state was based on the evil of violent force. He inveighed tirelessly against the Russian state and church. When, in 1881, revolutionary terrorists murdered Czar Alexander II, Tolstoy wrote fecklessly to his son and successor asking him to spare the assassins’ lives; such saintly forgiveness would inspire all Russia with goodness and love. The Czar, not unreasonably, opted for hanging.
The truth that Tolstoy found at last in the Gospels changed his life utterly. Or so he proclaimed: “And I became assured of this truth and was reassured, and have joyfully lived twenty years of my life since then and am now joyfully approaching my death.” That was not the whole story, however. In his own diary, in 1897, he wrote that he had thought his new faith would be “a haven and a respite. But it wasn’t so. The real difficulties have begun and are continuing and will probably stay with me till death.” His wife observed in her diary that he was “unhappy as ever even now that he has faith.”
He saw to it that he was not alone in his unhappiness. Family life became a pitched battle of the spirit. Tolstoy berated his wife as the epitome of pagan selfishness, and blamed her obstinate benightedness for his own misery; she mocked his spitefulness, vanity, and hypocrisy. “Only old men and children, free from sexual desire, live a true life,” he declared; in his novella Father Sergius a monk chops off one of his fingers to help himself resist a seductive beauty. Sonya taunted Tolstoy with his own irrepressible goatishness, which mortified him: “I’m sad, sad. Lord, help me, burn up the old carnal man in me.”
But sex was a simple and straightforward evil, compared with amour-propre. The pride of self-abasement was an unconquerable temptation; Tolstoy hated his desire for saintliness at eighty as he had his desire for women at eighteen, although he was no more successful in overcoming the one than the other. Sonya took a malicious delight in his failures. Finally enough was enough. At the age of eighty-two Tolstoy sneaked off from home, and died days later in a railroad station to which his disciples refused Sonya admittance. It was as unhappy an end as one could have imagined for such a life.
Writing in his diary in 1905, sick of art, sick of himself, Tolstoy analyzed the achievement of his that everybody else most esteemed: “I have all the vices, and to a very high degree. . . . My own salvation is that I know it, and have been fighting—fighting all my life—against it. For this reason they call me a psychologist.”
It is clear, though—and not only from his later life—that to his own mind he was foremost a moralist, fighting for the sake of his soul and others’, and that he was a psychologist to that end. What gives Tolstoy’s art its main force is the tumultuous coexistence in his characters’ souls of longings as potent as his own for both the false happiness and the true. He is expert at observing the force with which, and the angle at which, the contrary desires in a soul collide, and he is superb at calculating the effect of these collisions: the disturbance they produce in a person’s thoughts, feelings, dreams, demeanor, appetite, complexion, gait; the efforts one makes to shake off these disturbances; the degree to which these efforts increase one’s true happiness or unhappiness.
Tolstoy is often spoken of as the master of rendering sensation—what it feels like to skate gracefully or to walk bearishly, to ride in a sleigh, to be caught in a snowstorm, to mow a field of hay, to dance with someone incomparably exciting, to be injured or ill, to go hungry or to slip a platter of oysters down the hatch, to ride a horse or even to be a horse. But his unsurpassed mastery really lies in something deeper. What he is intent on rendering when he examines a body’s contour, feeling, motion is the full complex of moral and even of metaphysical implication that sensation bears: the way the unseen and impalpable forces of good and evil that govern life make their presence known through these strange physical natures of ours. “The body? Why the body?” he asked in his diary, not long before he died. The answer, which in fact he had known since youth, was that the life of the body was above all the appointed trial of the soul’s integrity and strength.
The current estimation of Tolstoy’s writings reflects the degree to which the happiness of the animal man has come to dominate modern opinion. The Russian writer Ivan Bunin recalls how his father laughingly told him about the way certain neighbors of theirs read War and Peace: some could not get enough of War but skipped Peace altogether, while the others read every word of Peace but preferred to give War a miss. Today the descendants of the former rule, although the lines of descent are confusing. Underlying the 20th-century appreciation of Tolstoy’s War and the denigration of his Peace is the modern cult of the body. It is the physical horror of war that makes it supremely repulsive to modern eyes; it is physical pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, that furnishes the chief attraction of peace. Modern admirers of Tolstoy’s War tend to admire it precisely because war is the worst thing they can think of. Which is not to suggest they dislike Peace; it is rather that they do not care for Tolstoy’s quaint and confining notions of how Peace is best spent.
Contrary to the prevailing opinion, however, it is in writing of peace—especially of love, and of its most beguiling perversions—that Tolstoy is peerless, and it is in his understanding of war—indeed, of political life in general—that he is most wanting. What he really knows about happiness and unhappiness is not what most people think he knows.
In War and Peace the first sight Tolstoy provides of men engaged in soldiering, a Russian regimental inspection, cuts to the vicious amour-propre he sees at the heart of the enterprise. When the general spots a soldier dressed inappropriately for the occasion, in a fancy dress coat, he erupts at the company commander, plainly reveling in the chance to unloose his lavish contempt: “He was evidently pleased at his own display of anger and . . . wished to find a further excuse for wrath.” The general then lights into the peculiarly dressed soldier—an officer who has been reduced to the ranks for insubordination, but who has received permission to dress as a gentleman. The soldier, Dolokhov, stares right back at the general “with his clear, insolent eyes,” and announces that, although he must obey orders, he will not endure insults. The general, still angry but acknowledging the gentleman’s sense of honor, asks him, politely, to change his coat.
Tolstoy’s introduction to the military temperament emphasizes the inane anger that flares up when one man’s pride strikes hard against another’s. Even among men who are fighting on the same side, there is an endless combat of wills. Where amour-propre is the guiding passion and each man aches to prove himself supreme, the warlike emotions know no rest; one’s friends, too, are one’s foes. In the middle of combat, a Russian general and a German colonel, colleagues who despise each other, launch into loud disagreement about tactics “with the sole object of offending one another.” At a Russian council of war, every general—except Kutuzov, Tolstoy’s military hero—is bent above all on showing himself the best man in the place, and no one (except Kutuzov, who dozes through the nonsense) much cares what the best strategy might really be.
Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, quoting Montesquieu, declares that honor is the predominant passion among men living under monarchies; the undertaking of Tolstoy’s art is the demolition of this cult of honor and the restoration of natural morality. The passion for glory, Tolstoy teaches, stunts and twists the human soul, and men have grown so accustomed to their own spiritual deformity that they revere as all but divine the most misshapen among them: Napoleon. The “confident, self-complacent happiness” of the villainous Napoleon, and the “great happiness” Prince Andrei feels on his way to his first battle with that enemy (whom he also worships), rest on this willful mass delusion.
Andrei is not going to war in defense of his country, or even of his own family. As far as he is concerned, this immense and gruesome collision between nations is taking place so that other men might marvel at his courage and skill in the face of death. Like Napoleon, he is possessed by a warlike spirit of maniacal frivolity. The suffering of millions is but the occasion for his conquest of happiness. Although over the course of the novel Andrei’s spiritual life takes many turns, and although he does in the end find a happiness that is true and durable, and that sees him through the pain of his slow dying, Tolstoy shows that it is a second-best happiness, for someone who learned too late how to live. It is, rather, Pierre Bezukhov who learns in time, who marries Andrei’s sometime fiancée, Natasha Rostov, and who lives in blessed family happiness.
Only by renouncing the delusions that govern public life, Tolstoy contends, can a man hope to find happiness. Insofar as men act in the name of nations, they live in servitude to a monstrous unreality, which has founded its virtually universal dominion on vanity and on the tendency of every human being unthinkingly to live as he sees others living. Indeed, the greater the political man, the more helplessly he lives the life that Tolstoy repeatedly likens to that of an insect swarm. To pursue the chimerical happiness of supreme power and glory is to become, instead, “history’s slave.”
Although Tolstoy does not cite Machiavelli by name, his teaching is principally a refutation of The Prince, which Napoleon took as his gospel. Machiavelli observes matter-of-factly that it is man’s “natural and ordinary desire to acquire”—to acquire wealth, power, renown. If a man has the prudence to understand what he must do in order to get what he wants, and the ability to do these necessary things, then he will be happy, felice; if not, he will end unhappily. Tolstoy, by contrast, declares that no man can predict the consequences of any political or military action he might take, and that therefore no one really has the power to make events turn out the way he wants. What might seem to be chance, but is in fact Providence, invariably overrules human presumption, as Tolstoy purports to demonstrate in describing grand military designs brought to nothing by the confusion of battle. Events never unfold according to the intention of the great man who believes himself their master, but rather according to the unfathomable will of God, which Tolstoy plainly believes himself to have fathomed rather more deeply than the nearest contender.
Yet Tolstoy is mistaken. The thunderous profundities with which he explains God’s Own History seem, indeed, shrill, callow, and even vain when set beside the work of a great statesman and historian like Winston Churchill. Churchill, too, knew what soldiers suffered, and felt their pain sharply; like Tolstoy’s favorite, General Kutuzov, he was notoriously quick to tears. Unlike Tolstoy, however, Churchill did not permit his deep compassion the privilege of blind moral outrage, which leaps without thinking—or at least without thinking hard enough—from the observation of war’s cruelty to the wholesale condemnation of political life as men have always known it. Churchill’s is the wiser pity, and it does not fail to honor the familiar political virtues.
For Tolstoy, the murderous horror of warfare is sufficient proof that there is no such thing as the political greatness which men have traditionally honored. Terrible as war is, what else can it be? Churchill shows us. Seeing that political life—war inevitably included—is the natural human state, Churchill refuses to lament or to execrate that condition of existence, but accepts it as simple unalterable fact, and acknowledges it as the ground as well of much that is honorable, heroic, decent, even charitable in human action.
Churchill understood, of course, how much in war depends on chance, and he was also inclined to give Providence its due as well; yet he understood that, in determining the course of events, what tends to be truly critical is in fact human decision, the choices made in the highest reaches of political and military command. Churchill’s account of World War I, The World Crisis, which is his greatest history, is a brilliant study in “the sublime responsibility of men”: he describes the appalling imprudence of kings, ministers, and generals that caused the war’s then-unparalleled destruction—the pathos with which he renders the carnage rivals Tolstoy’s own—and he presents the prudent alternatives to the prevailing imbecility that could have averted the worst of the horror. Even in the most wretched debacle, Churchill recognizes the honorable men who tried to prevent disaster.
On the eve of World War I Churchill wrote to his wife, “I am interested, geared up & happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?” He knew it was both horrible and magnificent to be built like that. Churchill clearly relished the trial of his personal merit that war provided—the chance to show himself, and the world, what strength and splendor were his—and he never felt more joyously alive than when engaged in war. That is, Churchill loved war in a way that Tolstoy attempted to prove no one should: for his pride’s sake, as the chance to display his greatness.
“I pray God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity,” Churchill wrote of his wartime exhilaration, and one hopes that he was forgiven. His passion for honor was indispensable to his moral greatness, and that greatness was indispensable to the preservation of civilized life. The incapacity to understand a man like Churchill, to appreciate his genius and excellence, was perhaps Tolstoy’s gravest failure of imagination.
It is in peace, then, in the joys of love, of the family, that Tolstoy presents the real hope of human happiness.
The happiness he exalts in War and Peace and Anna Karenina tends, it is true, to be a foursquare, stolid affair, maybe even a bit on the dull side. Although intimations of ecstasy might herald its approach, its presence consists chiefly in the orderly succession of placid days, each bearing a hearty but unexceptional portion of contentment in love and work. Still, although such happiness might cease to thrill, it does not fail to satisfy. It is as durable as human things can be. One comes to regard all of life by the light it casts, the radiance of deserved joy that God grants to those who see how they ought to live and who fulfill their destinies.
Possessing this happiness makes one grateful even for the crudest pains of one’s earlier life; one’s sufferings seem in retrospect to have been necessary trials, proving one’s worthiness for the prize that was waiting all along. But the quest for happiness always holds the danger of tragic failure. The way is a perilous one, strewn with human wreckage, the broken remains of those beguiled by simulacra; it is as much in his accounts of these various failures as in his accounts of the rare triumphs that Tolstoy honors the moral heroism of those who win family happiness and who hold on to it.
To the enlightened modern reader of Anna Karenina, the principal impedimenta to such happiness would seem to lie not within but without, in outworn and restrictive institutions. People no longer have to suffer the way Anna did. Liberal divorce laws and a little more tolerance in general, the thinking goes, would have solved her problem.
The general inclination these days is to feel sympathetic, at the very least, toward Anna and her adulterous lover, the dashing officer Vronsky. Anna, after all, has the misfortune to be married to a man who does not know what love is. Karenin is a creature of the purest amour-propre. He lives solely for his place in the world’s estimation; a bureaucrat of estimable rank, he has no purpose behind his work but the craving continually to advance. He thinks nothing of it when he sees his wife talking passionately with Vronsky at a social affair; addressing Anna on the matter, he declares that he has no intention of becoming jealous, for jealousy is “an insulting and degrading feeling. . . .” As for Anna, she sees how pinched her husband’s nature is, and thinks disdainfully that her infidelity would not affect him at all if Society were not there to notice it.
Next, Vronsky. D.H. Lawrence—in some ways Tolstoy’s antithesis among the great novelists—chastised Tolstoy for envying “the healthy passionate male in the young Vronsky” and for therefore turning him into someone “abject and pitiable.” For Lawrence and for his followers, Vronsky represents a modern erotic ideal, and Tolstoy is perverse in his refusal to honor it. And indeed, beside the jug-eared nullity of a Karenin, Vronsky does excite with his bold erotic gleam: Karenin’s failure as a husband is Vronsky’s triumph as a lover, at least in the crudest sense.
Yet as a triumphant lover, Vronsky values love less than triumph. When he meets Anna, he admires her obvious charms—her grace, her tender expression, her insistent vitality—but what really incites him is her apparent indifference to his charms. In the perversion of love that is Vronsky’s desire, amour-propre and animal passion are fused. Tolstoy makes it clear that the consummation of that desire is the equivalent of murder, and that Vronsky’s amour-propre is the trigger man.
Vronsky and Anna’s adultery is more passionate than such things generally are among people of their set, yet very different from what Tolstoy thinks of as love. Anna might have actually been capable of loving Vronsky, but he does not have it in him to love her; and his inadequacy corrodes her own feelings. Informing Vronsky that she has told her husband about them, Anna hopes he will urge her to leave Karenin and go off with him; for this, she is willing to abandon even her beloved son. Instead, Vronsky first imagines how proud he will look when he fights a duel with Karenin, then suddenly recalls a friend’s warning that the wrong sort of romance can wreck a career: “. . . he knew he could not pass on the thought to her.” In the need for this reticence is a ruinous betrayal. Vronsky is more like Karenin at this instant than he could ever admit to himself.
The fatality of Vronsky and Anna’s romance is not the tragic consequence of passion so extraordinary that society cannot endure it; rather, it is the dismal end of love that simply is never good enough. The killing flaws are not in the society the lovers defy but in the lovers themselves. Love like theirs is its own punishment, just as Tolstoy thought war to be. And such failings are timeless. If Anna and Vronsky were to meet in New York during the late 20th century, their passion most likely would not wind up getting them killed, as it does in the novel, but it would probably leave them terminally wretched, with a touch of death in their souls. Men are essentially the same in all times and places, Tolstoy believed, and in Anna Karenina he portrays the spiritual havoc that souls like Anna’s and Vronsky’s, embracing some false happiness as true, will inevitably cause, wherever and whenever they might happen to meet.
Unhappiness is the rule in this world of Tolstoy’s, and happiness seems all the happier for its rarity. In Anna Karenina, Kitty Shcherbatsky and Constantin Levin, like Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostov, and Nicholas Rostov and Marya Bolkonsky, in War and Peace, come to enjoy this happiness: a life of heroic normality transfigured by love, which is the surest approach to knowledge of the divine. Through zigzag careers of misleading speculation and wayward passion, they are preserved by some undying sense of what life truly requires, until they reach an end to their tortuous questing.
The contrast between Levin and Kitty’s love and Vronsky and Anna’s is revealing in every detail. Vronsky’s early infatuation with Anna induces a kind of rapture of self-regard, in which he stares right through the people around him as if they did not exist; Levin’s joy at his engagement to Kitty fills him with a powerful surge of love for everyone he sees. As romance goes bad, Anna tries to make every young man she meets fall in love with her; Kitty, by contrast, is nonplussed when a houseguest flirts with her, and Levin throws the rascal out. Anna scarcely pays any mind to the child she has with Vronsky, and in order to preserve her sexual charm, she takes pains not to have any more children; Kitty is a loving mother, and her eroticism serves the fullness of her sexuality.
It is not hard to tell the happy from the unhappy in Tolstoy’s world—which is not to say that unhappiness is without forces in reserve to break in just when happiness itself seems a sure thing. Like Anna and Vronsky, like Tolstoy himself, Levin finds himself drawn to death, and all but irresistibly. Levin has no trouble living his life so long as he simply lives; it is thinking about life’s meaning that becomes the bane of his existence, and nearly the end of it. What saves him is hearing one peasant speak of another who “‘lives for his soul and remembers God.’” Restored to sanity, Levin is able to identify the thing that almost killed him: “Ah yes! Pride!”—specifically, pride of intellect, “mind-swindling.”
All this strikes Levin with the force of revelation, but in fact it is no more than a reminder of what love has already taught: that the loving soul enjoys a privileged approach to the mysteries of life which reason is denied. Early in their marriage, as Levin listens to Kitty cry out in labor with their first child, he recognizes that he has felt similar feelings once before, watching his brother die of consumption: “. . . that sorrow and this joy were equally beyond the usual conditions of life: they were like openings in that usual life through which something higher became visible. . . . [The] soul soared, as then, to heights it had never known before, at which reason could not keep up with it.” Levin, who is not a praying man, prays then, as readily and as intently as in childhood. And when at last his son is born, he returns suddenly “to the old everyday world, now radiant with the light of such new joy that it was insupportable.”
For Tolstoy, the impulse that moves one person truly to love another is nearly the same as that which moves one to prayer; and the most urgent of prayers, which begs for assurance that life is not without meaning, may be answered by the existence of another human being whom one cannot but love. Here, for Tolstoy, is the heart of family happiness, the truth on which it rests: the ordinary irradiated by the majestic, the incomprehensible, the godly.
However remarkable the happiness of the worthy souls in Tolstoy’s great novels, one cannot but think how much greater still must have been the happiness of bringing them to imagined life. In the writing of these books, there had to be such ecstasy as few men ever know, the pleasure of artistic genius in full command of its powers. As in Mozart’s composition, Socrates’ philosophizing, Michelangelo’s painting and sculpture and poetry and architecture, there is a potency that makes it possible to speak of a man as being godlike.
The truest things Tolstoy knew about happiness went into his art; that art, however, could not ensure his own happiness. He even came to think he was better off without art, at a time when he thought too much for his own good—and yet did not think deeply enough, did not remember what it was he had really lived by during the time of his greatest happiness. His late-blooming career as a holy man brought him no nearer to God than his life as husband, father, and writer had done; and indeed pushed him farther away. For that earlier life, the one he denounced and cast aside, truly was a blessed one: a life of sublime earthly love, in family happiness and in the artistic vocation that honored this happiness; human love embraced and sustained by divine. It ended unhappily for Tolstoy; yet in the best of his writing, his truest happiness will stand through time, its radiance undiminished, showing others what might be possible.
1 Tolstoy, by A.N. Wilson, Norton, 572 pp., 125.00. Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation, by Martine de Courcel, translated by Peter Levi, Scribners, 458 pp., $27.50.
Tolstoy and the Pursuit of Happinesss
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Can it be reversed?
Writing in these pages last year (“Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” July/August 2016), I described this surge of intemperate politics as a global phenomenon, a crisis of illiberalism stretching from France to the Philippines and from South Africa to Greece. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I argued, were articulating American versions of this growing challenge to liberalism. By “liberalism,” I was referring not to the left or center-left but to the philosophy of individual rights, free enterprise, checks and balances, and cultural pluralism that forms the common ground of politics across the West.
Less a systematic ideology than a posture or sensibility, the new illiberalism nevertheless has certain core planks. Chief among these are a conspiratorial account of world events; hostility to free trade and finance capital; opposition to immigration that goes beyond reasonable restrictions and bleeds into virulent nativism; impatience with norms and procedural niceties; a tendency toward populist leader-worship; and skepticism toward international treaties and institutions, such as NATO, that provide the scaffolding for the U.S.-led postwar order.
The new illiberals, I pointed out, all tend to admire established authoritarians to varying degrees. Trump, along with France’s Marine Le Pen and many others, looks to Vladimir Putin. For Sanders, it was Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where, the Vermont socialist said in 2011, “the American dream is more apt to be realized.” Even so, I argued, the crisis of illiberalism traces mainly to discontents internal to liberal democracies.
Trump’s election and his first eight months in office have confirmed the thrust of my predictions, if not all of the policy details. On the policy front, the new president has proved too undisciplined, his efforts too wild and haphazard, to reorient the U.S. government away from postwar liberal order.
The courts blunted the “Muslim ban.” The Trump administration has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend treaty partners in Europe and East Asia. Trumpian grumbling about allies not paying their fair share—a fair point in Europe’s case, by the way—has amounted to just that. The president did pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but even the ultra-establishmentarian Hillary Clinton went from supporting to opposing the pact once she figured out which way the Democratic winds were blowing. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into being nearly a quarter-century ago, does look shaky at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it won’t survive in some modified form.
Yet on the cultural front, the crisis of illiberalism continues to rage. If anything, it has intensified, as attested by the events surrounding the protest over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president refused to condemn unequivocally white nationalists who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Trump even suggested there were “very fine people” among them, thus winking at the so-called alt-right as he had during the campaign. In the days that followed, much of the left rallied behind so-called antifa (“anti-fascist”) militants who make no secret of their allegiance to violent totalitarian ideologies at the other end of the political spectrum.
Disorder is the new American normal, then. Questions that appeared to have been settled—about the connection between economic and political liberty, the perils of conspiracism and romantic politics, America’s unique role on the world stage, and so on—are unsettled once more. Serious people wonder out loud whether liberal democracy is worth maintaining at all, with many of them concluding that it is not. The return of ideas that for good reason were buried in the last century threatens the decent political order that has made the U.S. an exceptionally free and prosperous civilization.F or many leftists, America’s commitment to liberty and equality before the law has always masked despotism and exploitation. This view long predated Trump’s rise, and if they didn’t subscribe to it themselves, too often mainstream Democrats and progressives treated its proponents—the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn—as beloved and respectable, if slightly eccentric, relatives.
This cynical vision of the free society (as a conspiracy against the dispossessed) was a mainstay of Cold War–era debates about the relative merits of Western democracy and Communism. Soviet apologists insisted that Communist states couldn’t be expected to uphold “merely” formal rights when they had set out to shape a whole new kind of man. That required “breaking a few eggs,” in the words of the Stalinist interrogators in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Anyway, what good were free speech and due process to the coal miner, when under capitalism the whole social structure was rigged against him?
That line worked for a time, until the scale of Soviet tyranny became impossible to justify by anyone but its most abject apologists. It became obvious that “bourgeois justice,” however imperfect, was infinitely preferable to the Marxist alternative. With the Communist experiment discredited, and Western workers uninterested in staging world revolution, the illiberal left began shifting instead to questions of identity. In race-gender-sexuality theory and the identitarian “subaltern,” it found potent substitutes for dialectical materialism and the proletariat. We are still living with the consequences of this shift.
Although there were superficial resemblances, this new politics of identity differed from earlier civil-rights movements. Those earlier movements had sought a place at the American table for hitherto entirely or somewhat excluded groups: blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and so on. In doing so, they didn’t seek to overturn or radically reorganize the table. Instead, they reaffirmed the American Founding (think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s constant references to the Declaration of Independence). And these movements succeeded, owing to America’s tremendous capacity for absorbing social change.
Yet for the new identitarians, as for the Marxists before them, liberal-democratic order was systematically rigged against the downtrodden—now redefined along lines of race, gender, and sexuality, with social class quietly swept under the rug. America’s strides toward racial progress, not least the election and re-election of an African-American president, were dismissed. The U.S. still deserved condemnation because it fell short of perfect inclusion, limitless autonomy, and complete equality—conditions that no free society can achieve given the root fact of human nature. The accidentals had changed from the Marxist days, in other words, but the essentials remained the same.
In one sense, though, the identitarians went further. The old Marxists still claimed to stand on objectively accessible truth. Not so their successors. Following intellectual lodestars such as the gender theorist Judith Butler, the identity left came to reject objective truth—and with it, biological sex differences, aesthetic standards in art, the possibility of universal moral precepts, and much else of the kind. All of these things, the left identitarians said, were products of repressive institutions, hierarchies, and power.
Today’s “social-justice warriors” are heirs to this sordid intellectual legacy. They claim to seek justice. But, unmoored from any moral foundations, SJW justice operates like mob justice and revolutionary terror, usually carried out online. SJWs claim to protect individual autonomy, but the obsession with group identity and power dynamics means that SJW autonomy claims must destroy the autonomy of others. Self-righteousness married to total relativism is a terrifying thing.
It isn’t enough to have legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. via judicial fiat; the evangelical baker must be forced to bake cakes for gay weddings. It isn’t enough to have won legal protection and social acceptance for the transgendered; the Orthodox rabbi must use preferred trans pronouns on pain of criminal prosecution. Likewise, since there is no objective truth to be gained from the open exchange of ideas, any speech that causes subjective discomfort among members of marginalized groups must be suppressed, if necessary through physical violence. Campus censorship that began with speech codes and mobs that prevented conservative and pro-Israel figures from speaking has now evolved into a general right to beat anyone designated as a “fascist,” on- or off-campus.
For the illiberal left, the election of Donald Trump was indisputable proof that behind America’s liberal pieties lurks, forever, the beast of bigotry. Trump, in this view, wasn’t just an unqualified vulgarian who nevertheless won the decisive backing of voters dissatisfied with the alternative or alienated from mainstream politics. Rather, a vote for Trump constituted a declaration of war against women, immigrants, and other victims of American “structures of oppression.” There would be no attempt to persuade Trump supporters; war would be answered by war.
This isn’t liberalism. Since it can sometimes appear as an extension of traditional civil-rights activism, however, identity leftism has glommed itself onto liberalism. It is frequently impossible to tell where traditional autonomy- and equality-seeking liberalism ends and repressive identity leftism begins. Whether based on faulty thinking or out of a sense of weakness before an angry and energetic movement, liberals have too often embraced the identity left as their own. They haven’t noticed how the identitarians seek to undermine, not rectify, liberal order.
Some on the left, notably Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, are sounding the alarm and calling on Democrats to stress the common good over tribalism. Yet these are a few voices in the wilderness. Identitarians of various stripes still lord over the broad left, where it is fashionable to believe that the U.S. project is predatory and oppressive by design. If there is a viable left alternative to identity on the horizon, it is the one offered by Sanders and his “Bernie Bros”—which is to say, a reversion to the socialism and class struggle of the previous century.
Americans, it seems, will have to wait a while for reason and responsibility to return to the left.T
hen there is the illiberal fever gripping American conservatives. Liberal democracy has always had its critics on the right, particularly in Continental Europe, where statist, authoritarian, and blood-and-soil accounts of conservatism predominate. Mainstream Anglo-American conservatism took a different course. It has championed individual rights, free enterprise, and pluralism while insisting that liberty depends on public virtue and moral order, and that sometimes the claims of liberty and autonomy must give way to those of tradition, state authority, and the common good.
The whole beauty of American order lies in keeping in tension these rival forces that are nevertheless fundamentally at peace. The Founders didn’t adopt wholesale Enlightenment liberalism; rather, they tempered its precepts about universal rights with the teachings of biblical religion as well as Roman political theory. The Constitution drew from all three wellsprings. The product was a whole, and it is a pointless and ahistorical exercise to elevate any one source above the others.
American conservatism and liberalism, then, are in fact branches of each other, the one (conservatism) invoking tradition and virtue to defend and, when necessary, discipline the regime of liberty; the other (liberalism) guaranteeing the open space in which churches, volunteer organizations, philanthropic activity, and other sources of tradition and civic virtue flourish, in freedom, rather than through state establishment or patronage.
One result has been long-term political stability, a blessing that Americans take for granted. Another has been the transformation of liberalism into the lingua franca of all politics, not just at home but across a world that, since 1945, has increasingly reflected U.S. preferences. The great French classical liberal Raymond Aron noted in 1955 that the “essentials of liberalism—the respect for individual liberty and moderate government—are no longer the property of a single party: they have become the property of all.” As Aron archly pointed out, even liberalism’s enemies tend to frame their objections using the rights-based talk associated with liberalism.
Under Trump, however, some in the party of the right have abdicated their responsibility to liberal democracy as a whole. They have reduced themselves to the lowest sophistry in defense of the New Yorker’s inanities and daily assaults on presidential norms. Beginning when Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year, a great deal of conservative “thinking” has amounted to: You did X to us, now enjoy it as we dish it back to you and then some. Entire websites and some of the biggest stars in right-wing punditry are singularly devoted to making this rather base point. If Trump is undermining this or that aspect of liberal order that was once cherished by conservatives, so be it; that 63 million Americans supported him and that the president “drives the left crazy”—these are good enough reasons to go along.
Some of this is partisan jousting that occurs with every administration. But when it comes to Trump’s most egregious statements and conduct—such as his repeated assertions that the U.S. and Putin’s thugocracy are moral equals—the apologetics are positively obscene. Enough pooh-poohing, whataboutery, and misdirection of this kind, and there will be no conservative principle left standing.
More perniciously, as once-defeated illiberal philosophies have returned with a vengeance to the left, so have their reactionary analogues to the right. The two illiberalisms enjoy a remarkable complementarity and even cross-pollinate each other. This has developed to the point where it is sometimes hard to distinguish Tucker Carlson from Chomsky, Laura Ingraham from Julian Assange, the Claremont Review from New Left Review, and so on.
Two slanders against liberalism in particular seem to be gathering strength on the thinking right. The first is the tendency to frame elements of liberal democracy, especially free trade, as a conspiracy hatched by capitalists, the managerial class, and others with soft hands against American workers. One needn’t renounce liberal democracy as a whole to believe this, though believers often go the whole hog. The second idea is that liberalism itself was another form of totalitarianism all along and, therefore, that no amount of conservative course correction can set right what is wrong with the system.
These two theses together represent a dismaying ideological turn on the right. The first—the account of global capitalism as an imposition of power over the powerless—has gained currency in the pages of American Affairs, the new journal of Trumpian thought, where class struggle is a constant theme. Other conservatives, who were always skeptical of free enterprise and U.S.-led world order, such as the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell, are also publishing similar ideas to a wider reception than perhaps greeted them in the past.
In a March 2017 essay in the Claremont Review of Books, for example, Caldwell flatly described globalization as a “con game.” The perpetrators, he argued, are “unscrupulous actors who have broken promises and seized a good deal of hard-won public property.” These included administrations of both parties that pursued trade liberalization over decades, people who live in cities and therefore benefit from the knowledge-based economy, American firms, and really anyone who has ever thought to capitalize on global supply chains to boost competitiveness—globalists, in a word.
By shipping jobs and manufacturing processes overseas, Caldwell contended, these miscreants had stolen not just material things like taxpayer-funded research but also concepts like “economies of scale” (you didn’t build that!). Thus, globalization in the West differed “in degree but not in kind from the contemporaneous Eastern Bloc looting of state assets.”
That comparison with predatory post-Communist privatization is a sure sign of ideological overheating. It is somewhat like saying that a consumer bank’s lending to home buyers differs in degree but not in kind from a loan shark’s racket in a housing project. Well, yes, in the sense that the underlying activity—moneylending, the purchase of assets—is the same in both cases. But the context makes all the difference: The globalization that began after World War II and accelerated in the ’90s took place within a rules-based system, which duly elected or appointed policymakers in Western democracies designed in good faith and for a whole host of legitimate strategic and economic reasons.
These policymakers knew that globalization was as old as civilization itself. It would take place anyway, and the only question was whether it would be rules-based and efficient or the kind of globalization that would be driven by great-power rivalry and therefore prone to protectionist trade wars. And they were right. What today’s anti-trade types won’t admit is that defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a proposed U.S.-European trade pact known as TTIP won’t end globalization as such; instead, it will cede the game to other powers that are less concerned about rules and fair play.
The postwar globalizers may have gone too far (or not far enough!). They certainly didn’t give sufficient thought to the losers in the system, or how to deal with the de-industrialization that would follow when information became supremely mobile and wages in the West remained too high relative to skills and productivity gains in the developing world. They muddled and compromised their way through these questions, as all policymakers in the real world do.
The point is that these leaders—the likes of FDR, Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and, yes, Bill Clinton—acted neither with malice aforethought nor anti-democratically. It isn’t true, contra Caldwell, that free trade necessarily requires “veto-proof and non-consultative” politics. The U.S., Britain, and other members of what used to be called the Free World have respected popular sovereignty (as understood at the time) for as long as they have been trading nations. Put another way, you were far more likely to enjoy political freedom if you were a citizen of one of these states than of countries that opposed economic liberalism in the 20th century. That remains true today. These distinctions matter.
Caldwell and like-minded writers of the right, who tend to dwell on liberal democracies’ crimes, are prepared to tolerate far worse if it is committed in the name of defeating “globalism.” Hence the speech on Putin that Caldwell delivered this spring at a Hillsdale College gathering in Phoenix. Promising not to “talk about what to think about Putin,” he proceeded to praise the Russian strongman as the “preeminent statesman of our time” (alongside Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan). Putin, Caldwell said, “has become a symbol of national self-determination.”
Then Caldwell made a remark that illuminates the link between the illiberalisms of yesterday and today. Putin is to “populist conservatives,” he declared, what Castro once was to progressives. “You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.”
Whatever his excesses, indeed.T
he other big idea is that today’s liberal crises aren’t a bug but a core feature of liberalism. This line of thinking is particularly prevalent among some Catholic traditionalists and other orthodox Christians (both small- and capital-“o”). The common denominator, it seems to me, is having grown up as a serious believer at a time when many liberals—to their shame—have declared war on faith generally and social conservatism in particular.
The argument essentially is this:
We (social conservatives, traditionalists) saw the threat from liberalism coming. With its claims about abstract rights and universal reason, classical liberalism had always posed a danger to the Church and to people of God. We remembered what those fired up by the new ideas did to our nuns and altars in France. Still we made peace with American liberal order, because we were told that the Founders had “built on low but solid ground,” to borrow Leo Strauss’s famous formulation, or that they had “built better than they knew,” as American Catholic hierarchs in the 19th century put it.
Maybe these promises held good for a couple of centuries, the argument continues, but they no longer do. Witness the second sexual revolution under way today. The revolutionaries are plainly telling us that we must either conform our beliefs to Herod’s ways or be driven from the democratic public square. Can it still be said that the Founding rested on solid ground? Did the Founders really build better than they knew? Or is what is passing now precisely what they intended, the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment universalism that they planted in the Constitution? We don’t love Trump (or Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, etc.), but perhaps he can counter the pincer movement of sexual and economic liberalism, and restore a measure of solidarity and commitment to the Western project.
The most pessimistic of these illiberal critics go so far as to argue that liberalism isn’t all that different from Communism, that both are totalitarian children of the Enlightenment. One such critic, Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, summed up this position in a January essay in First Things magazine:
The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped [under liberalism] without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.1
I share Vermeule’s despair and that of many other conservative-Christian friends, because there have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.
Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives. Are coercion and conformity targeting people of faith under liberalism? To be sure. But these don’t take the form of the gulag or the concentration camp or the soccer stadium–cum-killing field. Catholic political practice knows well how to draw such moral distinctions between regimes: Pope John Paul II befriended Reagan. If liberal democracy and Communism were indeed “twins” whose distinctions are “glib,” why did he do so?
And as Pascal Bruckner wrote in his essay “The Tyranny of Guilt,” if liberal democracy does trap or jail you (politically speaking), it also invariably slips the key under your cell door. The Swedish midwives driven out of the profession over their pro-life views can take their story to the media. The Down syndrome advocacy outfit whose anti-eugenic advertising was censored in France can sue in national and then international courts. The Little Sisters of the Poor can appeal to the Supreme Court for a conscience exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. And so on.
Conversely, once you go illiberal, you don’t just rid yourself of the NGOs and doctrinaire bureaucrats bent on forcing priests to perform gay marriages; you also lose the legal guarantees that protect the Church, however imperfectly, against capricious rulers and popular majorities. And if public opinion in the West is turning increasingly secular, indeed anti-Christian, as social conservatives complain and surveys seem to confirm, is it really a good idea to militate in favor of a more illiberal order rather than defend tooth and nail liberal principles of freedom of conscience? For tomorrow, the state might fall into Elizabeth Warren’s hands.
Nor, finally, is political liberalism alone to blame for the Church’s retreating on various fronts. There have been plenty of wounds inflicted by churchmen and laypeople, who believed that they could best serve the faith by conforming its liturgy, moral teaching, and public presence to liberal order. But political liberalism didn’t compel these changes, at least not directly. In the space opened up by liberalism, and amid the kaleidoscopic lifestyles that left millions of people feeling empty and confused, it was perfectly possible to propose tradition as an alternative. It is still possible to do so.N one of this is to excuse the failures of liberals. Liberals and mainstream conservatives must go back to the drawing board, to figure out why it is that thoughtful people have come to conclude that their system is incompatible with democracy, nationalism, and religious faith. Traditionalists and others who see Russia’s mafia state as a defender of Christian civilization and national sovereignty have been duped, but liberals bear some blame for driving large numbers of people in the West to that conclusion.
This is a generational challenge for the liberal project. So be it. Liberal societies like America’s by nature invite such questioning. But before we abandon the 200-and-some-year-old liberal adventure, it is worth examining the ways in which today’s left-wing and right-wing critiques of it mirror bad ideas that were overcome in the previous century. The ideological ferment of the moment, after all, doesn’t relieve the illiberals of the responsibility to reckon with the lessons of the past.
1 Vermeule was reviewing The Demon in Democracy, a 2015 book by the Polish political theorist and parliamentarian Ryszard Legutko that makes the same case. Fred Siegel’s review of the English edition appeared in our June 2016 issue.
How the courts are intervening to block some of the most unjust punishments of our time
Barrett’s decision marked the 59th judicial setback for a college or university since 2013 in a due-process lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault. (In four additional cases, the school settled a lawsuit before any judicial decision occurred.) This body of law serves as a towering rebuke to the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
Beginning in 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a series of “guidance” documents pressuring colleges and universities to change how they adjudicated sexual-assault cases in ways that increased the likelihood of guilty findings. Amid pressure from student and faculty activists, virtually all elite colleges and universities have gone far beyond federal mandates and have even further weakened the rights of students accused of sexual assault.
Like all extreme victims’-rights approaches, the new policies had the greatest impact on the wrongly accused. A 2016 study from UCLA public-policy professor John Villasenor used just one of the changes—schools employing the lowest standard of proof, a preponderance of the evidence—to predict that as often as 33 percent of the time, campus Title IX tribunals would return guilty findings in cases involving innocent students. Villasenor’s study could not measure the impact of other Obama-era policy demands—such as allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, discouraging cross-examination of accusers, and urging schools to adjudicate claims even when a criminal inquiry found no wrongdoing.
In a September 7 address at George Mason University, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated that “no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.” But once enmeshed in the campus Title IX process, a wrongfully accused student’s best chance for justice may well be a lawsuit filed after his college incorrectly has found him guilty. (According to data from United Educators, a higher-education insurance firm, 99 percent of students accused of campus sexual assault are male.) The Foundation for Individual Rights has identified more than 180 such lawsuits filed since the 2011 policy changes. That figure, obviously, excludes students with equally strong claims whose families cannot afford to go to court. These students face life-altering consequences. As Judge T.S. Ellis III noted in a 2016 decision, it is “so clear as to be almost a truism” that a student will lose future educational and employment opportunities if his college wrongly brands him a rapist.
“It is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking in wisdom or compassion.” So wrote the Supreme Court in a 1975 case, Wood v. Strickland. While the Supreme Court has made clear that colleges must provide accused students with some rights, especially when dealing with nonacademic disciplinary questions, courts generally have not been eager to intervene in such matters.
This is what makes the developments of the last four years all the more remarkable. The process began in May 2013, in a ruling against St. Joseph’s University, and has lately accelerated (15 rulings in 2016 and 21 thus far in 2017). Of the 40 setbacks for colleges in federal court, 14 came from judges nominated by Barack Obama, 11 from Clinton nominees, and nine from selections of George W. Bush. Brown University has been on the losing side of three decisions; Duke, Cornell, and Penn State, two each.
Court decisions since the expansion of Title IX activism have not all gone in one direction. In 36 of the due-process lawsuits, courts have permitted the university to maintain its guilty finding. (In four other cases, the university settled despite prevailing at a preliminary stage.) But even in these cases, some courts have expressed discomfort with campus procedures. One federal judge was “greatly troubled” that Georgia Tech veered “very far from an ideal representation of due process” when its investigator “did not pursue any line of investigation that may have cast doubt on [the accuser’s] account of the incident.” Another went out of his way to say that he considered it plausible that a former Case Western Reserve University student was actually “innocent of the charges levied against him.” And one state appellate judge opened oral argument by bluntly informing the University of California’s lawyer, “When I . . . finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was, ‘Where’s the kangaroo?’”
Judges have, obviously, raised more questions in cases where the college has found itself on the losing side. Those lawsuits have featured three common areas of concern: bias in the investigation, resulting in a college decision based on incomplete evidence; procedures that prevented the accused student from challenging his accuser’s credibility, chiefly through cross-examination; and schools utilizing a process that seemed designed to produce a predetermined result, in response to real or perceived pressure from the federal government.C olleges and universities have proven remarkably willing to act on incomplete information when adjudicating sexual-assault cases. In December 2013, for example, Amherst College expelled a student for sexual assault despite text messages (which the college investigator failed to discover) indicating that the accuser had consented to sexual contact. The accuser’s own testimony also indicated that she might have committed sexual assault, by initiating sexual contact with a student who Amherst conceded was experiencing an alcoholic blackout. When the accused student sued Amherst, the college said its failure to uncover the text messages had been irrelevant because its investigator had only sought texts that portrayed the incident as nonconsensual. In February, Judge Mark Mastroianni allowed the accused student’s lawsuit to proceed, commenting that the texts could raise “additional questions about the credibility of the version of events [the accuser] gave during the disciplinary proceeding.” The two sides settled in late July.
Amherst was hardly alone in its eagerness to avoid evidence that might undermine the accuser’s version of events; the same happened at Penn State, St. Joseph’s, Duke, Ohio State, Occidental, Lynn, Marlboro, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
Even in cases with a more complete evidentiary base, accused students have often been blocked from presenting a full-fledged defense. As part of its reinterpretation of Title IX, the Obama administration sought to shield campus accusers from cross-examination. OCR’s 2011 guidance “strongly” discouraged direct cross-examination of accusers by the accused student—a critical restriction, since most university procedures require the accused student, rather than his lawyer, to defend himself in the hearing. OCR’s 2014 guidance suggested that this type of cross-examination in and of itself could create a hostile environment. The Obama administration even spoke favorably about the growing trend among schools to abolish hearings altogether and allow a single official to serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in sexual-assault cases.
The Supreme Court has never held that campus disciplinary hearings must permit cross-examination. Nonetheless, the recent attack on the practice has left schools struggling to explain why they would not want to utilize what the Court has described as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” In June 2016, the University of Cincinnati found a student guilty of sexual assault after a hearing at which neither his accuser nor the university’s Title IX investigator appeared. In an unintentionally comical line, the hearing chair noted the absent witnesses before asking the accused student if he had “any questions of the Title IX report.” The student, befuddled, replied, “Well, since she’s not here, I can’t really ask anything of the report.” (The panel chair did not indicate how the “report” could have answered any questions.) Cincinnati found the student guilty anyway.1
Limitations on full cross-examination also played a role in judicial setbacks for Middlebury, George Mason, James Madison, Ohio State, Occidental, Penn State, Brandeis, Amherst, Notre Dame, and Skidmore.
Finally, since 2011, more than 300 students have filed Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging mishandling of their sexual-assault allegation by their college. OCR’s leadership seemed to welcome the complaints, which allowed Obama officials not only to inspect the individual case but all sexual-assault claims at the school in question over a three-year period. Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has estimated that during the Obama years, colleges spent between $60 million and $100 million on these investigations. If OCR finds a Title IX violation, that might lead to a loss of federal funding. This has led Harvard Law professors Jeannie Suk Gersen, Janet Halley, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Nancy Gertner to observe in a white paper submitted to OCR that universities have “strong incentives to ensure the school stays in OCR’s good graces.”
One of the earliest lawsuits after the Obama administration’s policy shift, involving former Xavier University basketball player Dez Wells, demonstrated how an OCR investigation can affect the fairness of a university inquiry. The accuser’s complaint had been referred both to Xavier’s Title IX office and the Cincinnati police. The police concluded that the allegation was meritless; Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters later said he considered charging the accuser with filing a false police report.
Deters asked Xavier to delay its proceedings until his office completed its investigation. School officials refused. Instead, three weeks after the initial allegation, the university expelled Wells. He sued and speculated that Xavier’s haste came not from a quest for justice but instead from a desire to avoid difficulties in finalizing an agreement with OCR to resolve an unrelated complaint filed by two female Xavier students. (In recent years, OCR has entered into dozens of similar resolution agreements, which bind universities to policy changes in exchange for removing the threat of losing federal funds.) In a July 2014 ruling, Judge Arthur Spiegel observed that Xavier’s disciplinary tribunal, however “well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault.” Soon thereafter, the two sides settled; Wells transferred to the University of Maryland.
Ohio State, Occidental, Cornell, Middlebury, Appalachian State, USC, and Columbia have all found themselves on the losing side of court decisions arising from cases that originated during a time in which OCR was investigating or threatening to investigate the school. (In the Ohio State case, one university staffer testified that she didn’t know whether she had an obligation to correct a false statement by an accuser to a disciplinary panel.) Pressure from OCR can be indirect, as well. The Obama administration interpreted federal law as requiring all universities to have at least one Title IX coordinator; larger universities now employ dozens of Title IX personnel who, as the Harvard Law professors explained, “have reason to fear for their jobs if they hold a student not responsible or if they assign a rehabilitative or restorative rather than a harshly punitive sanction.”A mid the wave of judicial setbacks for universities, two decisions in particular stand out. Easily the most powerful opinion in a campus due-process case came in March 2016 from Judge F. Dennis Saylor. While the stereotypical campus sexual-assault allegation results from an alcohol-filled, one-night encounter between a male and a female student, a case at Brandeis University involved a long-term monogamous relationship between two male students. A bad breakup led to the accusing student’s filing the following complaint, against which his former boyfriend was expected to provide a defense: “Starting in the month of September, 2011, the Alleged violator of Policy had numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual interactions with me. These interactions continued to occur until around May 2013.”
To adjudicate, Brandeis hired a former OCR staffer, who interviewed the two students and a few of their friends. Since the university did not hold a hearing, the investigator decided guilt or innocence on her own. She treated each incident as if the two men were strangers to each other, which allowed her to determine that sexual “violence” had occurred in the relationship. The accused student, she found, sometimes looked at his boyfriend in the nude without permission and sometimes awakened his boyfriend with kisses when the boyfriend wanted to stay asleep. The university’s procedures prevented the student from seeing the investigator’s report, with its absurdly broad definition of sexual misconduct, in preparing his appeal. “In the context of American legal culture,” Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos later argued, denying this type of information “is crazy.” “Standard rules of evidence and other protections for the accused keep things like false accusations or mistakes by authorities from hurting innocent people.” When the university appeal was denied, the student sued.
At an October 2015 hearing to consider the university’s motion to dismiss, Saylor seemed flabbergasted at the unfairness of the school’s approach. “I don’t understand,” he observed, “how a university, much less one named after Louis Brandeis, could possibly think that that was a fair procedure to not allow the accused to see the accusation.” Brandeis’s lawyer cited pressure to conform to OCR guidance, but the judge deemed the university’s procedures “closer to Salem 1692 than Boston, 2015.”
The following March, Saylor issued an 89-page opinion that has been cited in virtually every lawsuit subsequently filed by an accused student. “Whether someone is a ‘victim’ is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning,” Saylor wrote. “If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.” Saylor concluded that Brandeis forced the accused student “to defend himself in what was essentially an inquisitorial proceeding that plausibly failed to provide him with a fair and reasonable opportunity to be informed of the charges and to present an adequate defense.”
The student, vindicated by the ruling’s sweeping nature, then withdrew his lawsuit. He currently is pursuing a Title IX complaint against Brandeis with OCR.
Four months later, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals produced an opinion that lacked Saylor’s rhetorical flourish or his understanding of the basic unfairness of the campus Title IX process. But by creating a more relaxed standard for accused students to make federal Title IX claims, the Second Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Columbia carried considerable weight.
Two Columbia students who had been drinking had a brief sexual encounter at a party. More than four months later, the accuser claimed she was too intoxicated to have consented. Her allegation came in an atmosphere of campus outrage about the university’s allegedly insufficient toughness on sexual assault. In this setting, the accused student found Columbia’s Title IX investigator uninterested in hearing his side of the story. He cited witnesses who would corroborate his belief that the accuser wasn’t intoxicated; the investigator declined to speak with them. The student was found guilty, although for reasons differing from the initial claim; the Columbia panel ruled that he had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward the [accuser] over a period of weeks,” leaving her unable to consent on the night in question. He received a three-semester suspension for this nebulous offense—which even his accuser deemed too harsh. He sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Jesse Furman.
Furman’s opinion provided a ringing victory for Columbia and the Obama-backed policies it used. As Title IX litigator Patricia Hamill later observed, Furman’s “almost impossible standard” required accused students to have inside information about the institution’s handling of other sexual-assault claims—information they could plausibly obtain only through the legal process known as discovery, which happens at a later stage of litigation—in order to survive a university’s initial motion to dismiss. Furman suggested that, to prevail, an accused student would need to show that his school treated a female student accused of sexual assault more favorably, or at least provide details about how cases against other accused students showed a pattern of bias. But federal privacy law keeps campus disciplinary hearings private, leaving most accused students with little opportunity to uncover the information before their case is dismissed.
At the same time, the opinion excused virtually any degree of unfairness by the institution. Furman reasoned that taking “allegations of rape on campus seriously and . . . treat[ing] complainants with a high degree of sensitivity” could constitute “lawful” reasons for university unfairness toward accused students. Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education detected the decision’s “immediate and nationwide impact” in several rulings against accused students. It also played the same role in university briefs that Saylor’s Brandeis opinion did in filings by accused students.
The Columbia student’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, appealed Furman’s ruling to the Second Circuit. The stakes were high, since a ruling affirming the lower court’s reasoning would have all but foreclosed Title IX lawsuits by accused students in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. But a panel of three judges, all nominated by Democratic presidents, overturned Furman’s decision. In the opinion’s crucial passage, Judge Pierre Leval held that a university “is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.” Before the Columbia decision, courts almost always had rebuffed Title IX pleadings from accused students. More recently, judges have allowed Title IX claims to proceed against Amherst, Cornell, California–Santa Barbara, Drake, and Rollins.
After the Second Circuit’s decision, Columbia settled with the accused student, sparing its Title IX decision-makers from having to testify at a trial. James Madison was one of the few universities to take a different course, with disastrous results. A lawsuit from an accused student survived a motion to dismiss, but the university refused to settle, allowing the student’s lawyer to depose the three school employees who had decided his client’s fate. One unintentionally revealed that he had misapplied the university’s own definition of consent. Another cited the importance of the accuser’s slurring words on a voicemail, thus proving her extreme intoxication on the night of the alleged assault. It was left to the accused student’s lawyer, at a deposition months after the decision had been made, to note that the voicemail in question actually was received on a different night. In December 2016, Judge Elizabeth Dillon, an Obama nominee, granted summary judgment to the accused student, concluding that “significant anomalies in the appeal process” violated his due-process rights under the Constitution.niversities were on the losing side of 36 due-process rulings when Obama appointee Catherine Lhamon was presiding over the Office for Civil Rights between 2013 and 2016; no record exists of her publicly acknowledging any of them. In June 2017, however, Lhamon suddenly rejoiced that “yet another federal court” had found that students disciplined for sexual misconduct “were not denied due process.” That Fifth Circuit decision, involving two former students at the University of Houston, was an odd case for her to celebrate. The majority cabined its findings to the “unique facts” of the case—that the accused students likely would have been found guilty even under the fairest possible process. And the dissent, from Judge Edith Jones, denounced the procedures championed by Lhamon and other Obama officials as “heavily weighted in favor of finding guilt,” predicting “worse to come if appellate courts do not step in to protect students’ procedural due process right where allegations of quasi-criminal sexual misconduct arise.”
At this stage, Lhamon, who now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, cannot be taken seriously when it comes to questions of campus due process. But other defenders of the current Title IX regime have offered more substantive commentary about the university setbacks.
Legal scholar Michelle Anderson was one of the few to even discuss the due-process decisions. “Colleges and universities do not always adjudicate allegations of sexual assault well,” she noted in a 2016 law review article defending the Obama-era policies. Anderson even conceded that some colleges had denied “accused students fairness in disciplinary adjudication.” But these students sued, “and campuses are responding—as they must—when accused students prevail. So campuses face powerful legal incentives on both sides to address campus sexual assault, and to do so fairly and impartially.”
This may be true, but Anderson does not explain why wrongly accused students should bear the financial and emotional burden of inducing their colleges to implement fair procedures. More important, scant evidence exists that colleges have responded to the court victories of wrongly accused students by creating fairer procedures. Some have even made it more difficult for wrongly accused students to sue. After losing a lawsuit in December 2014, Brown eliminated the right of students accused of sexual assault to have “every opportunity” to present evidence. That same year, an accused student showed how Swarthmore had deviated from its own procedures in his case. The college quickly settled the lawsuit—and then added a clause to its procedures immunizing it from similar claims in the future. Swarthmore currently informs accused students that “rules of evidence ordinarily found in legal proceedings shall not be applied, nor shall any deviations from any of these prescribed procedures alone invalidate a decision.”
Many lawsuits are still working their way through the judicial system; three cases are pending at federal appellate courts. Of the two that address substantive matters, oral arguments seemed to reveal skepticism of the university’s position. On July 26, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit considered a case at Boston College, where the accused student plausibly argued that someone else had committed the sexual assault (which occurred on a poorly lit dance floor). Judges Bruce Selya and William Kayatta seemed troubled that a Boston College dean had improperly intruded on the hearing board’s deliberations. At the Sixth Circuit a few days later, Judges Richard Griffin and Amul Thapar both expressed concerns about the University of Cincinnati’s downplaying the importance of cross-examination in campus-sex adjudications. Judge Eric Clay was quieter, but he wondered about the tension between the university’s Title IX and truth-seeking obligations.
In a perfect world, academic leaders themselves would have created fairer processes without judicial intervention. But in the current campus environment, such an approach is impossible. So, at least for the short term, the courts remain the best, albeit imperfect, option for students wrongly accused of sexual assault. Meanwhile, every year, young men entrust themselves and their family’s money to institutions of higher learning that are indifferent to their rights and unconcerned with the injustices to which these students might be subjected.
1 After a district court placed that finding on hold, the university appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
Review of 'Terror in France' By Gilles Kepel
Kepel is particularly knowledgeable about the history and process of radicalization that takes place in his nation’s heavily Muslim banlieues (the depressed housing projects ringing Paris and other major cities), and Terror in France is informed by decades of fieldwork in these volatile locales. What we have been witnessing for more than a decade, Kepel argues, is the “third wave” of global jihadism, which is not so much a top-down doctrinally inspired campaign (as were the 9/11 attacks, directed from afar by the oracular figure of Osama bin Laden) but a bottom-up insurgency with an “enclave-based ethnic-racial logic of violence” to it. Kepel traces the phenomenon back to 2005, a convulsive year that saw the second-generation descendants of France’s postcolonial Muslim immigrants confront a changing socio-political landscape.
That was the year of the greatest riots in modern French history, involving mostly young Muslim men. It was also the year that Abu Musab al-Suri, the Syrian-born Islamist then serving as al-Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe, published The Global Islamic Resistance Call. This 1,600-page manifesto combined pious imprecations against the West with do-it-yourself ingenuity, an Anarchist’s Cookbook for the Islamist set. In Kepel’s words, the manifesto preached a “jihadism of proximity,” the brand of civil war later adopted by the Islamic State. It called for ceaseless, mass-casualty attacks in Western cities—attacks which increase suspicion and regulation of Muslims and, in turn, drive those Muslims into the arms of violent extremists.
The third-generation jihad has been assisted by two phenomena: social-networking sites that easily and widely disseminate Islamist propaganda (thus increasing the rate of self-radicalization) and the so-called Arab Spring, which led to state collapse in Syria and Libya, providing “an exceptional site for military training and propaganda only a few hours’ flight from Europe, and at a very low cost.”
Kepel’s book is not just a study of the ideology and tactics of Islamists but a sociopolitical overview of how this disturbing phenomenon fits within a country on the brink. For example, Kepel finds that jihadism is emerging in conjunction with developments such as the “end of industrial society.” A downturn in work has led to an ominous situation in which a “right-wing ethnic nationalism” preying on the economically anxious has risen alongside Islamism as “parallel conduits for expressing grievances.” Filling a space left by the French Communist Party (which once brought the ethnic French working class and Arab immigrants together), these two extremes leer at each other from opposite sides of a societal chasm, signaling the potentially cataclysmic future that awaits France if both mass unemployment and Islamist terror continue undiminished.
The French economy has also had a more direct inciting effect on jihadism. Overregulated labor markets make it difficult for young Muslims to get jobs, thus exacerbating the conditions of social deprivation and exclusion that make individuals susceptible to radicalization. The inability to tackle chronic unemployment has led to widespread Muslim disillusionment with the left (a disillusionment aggravated by another, often glossed over, factor: widespread Muslim opposition to the Socialist Party’s championing of same-sex marriage). Essentially, one left-wing constituency (unions) has made the unemployment of another constituency (Muslim youth) the mechanism for maintaining its privileges.
Kepel does not, however, cite deprivation as the sole or even main contributing factor to Islamist radicalization. One Parisian banlieue that has sent more than 80 residents to fight in Syria, he notes, has “attractive new apartment buildings” built by the state and features a mosque “constructed with the backing of the Socialist mayor.” It is also the birthplace of well-known French movie stars of Arab descent, and thus hardly a place where ambition goes to die. “The Islamophobia mantra and the victim mentality it reinforces makes it possible to rationalize a total rejection of France and a commitment to jihad by making a connection between unemployment, discrimination, and French republican values,” Kepel writes. Indeed, Kepel is refreshingly derisive of the term “Islamophobia” throughout the book, excoriating Islamists and their fellow travelers for “substituting it for anti-Semitism as the West’s cardinal sin.” These are meaningful words coming from Kepel, a deeply learned scholar of Islam who harbors great respect for the faith and its adherents.
Kepel also weaves the saga of jihadism into the ongoing “kulturkampf within the French left.” Arguments about Islamist terrorism demonstrate a “divorce between a secular progressive tradition” and the children of the Muslim immigrants this tradition fought to defend. The most ironically perverse manifestation of this divorce was ISIS’s kidnapping of Didier François, co-founder of the civil-rights organization SOS Racisme. Kepel recognizes the origins of this divorce in the “red-green” alliance formed decades ago between Islamists and elements of the French intellectual left, such as Michel Foucault, a cheerleader of the Iranian revolution.
Though he offers a rigorous history and analysis of the jihadist problem, Kepel is generally at a loss for solutions. He decries a complacent French elite, with its disregard for genuine expertise (evidenced by the decline in institutional academic support for Islamicists and Arabists) and the narrow, relatively impenetrable way in which it perpetuates itself, chiefly with a single school (the École normale supérieure) that practically every French politician must attend. Despite France’s admirable republican values, this has made the process of assimilation rather difficult. But other than wishing that the public education system become more effective and inclusive at instilling republican values, Kepel provides little in the way of suggestions as to how France emerges from this mess. That a scholar of such erudition and humanity can do little but throw up his hands and issue a sigh of despair cannot bode well. The third-generation jihad owes as much to the political breakdown in France as it does to the meltdown in the Middle East. Defeating this two-headed beast requires a new and comprehensive playbook: the West’s answer to The Global Islamic Resistance Call. That book has yet to be written.
resident Trump, in case you haven’t noticed, has a tendency to exaggerate. Nothing is “just right” or “meh” for him. Buildings, crowds, election results, and military campaigns are always outsized, gargantuan, larger, and more significant than you might otherwise assume. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote 30 years ago in The Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
So effective, in fact, that the press has picked up the habit. Reporters and editors agree with the president that nothing he does is ordinary. After covering Trump for more than two years, they still can’t accept him as a run-of-the-mill politician. And while there are aspects of Donald Trump and his presidency that are, to say the least, unusual, the media seem unable to distinguish between the abnormal and significant—firing the FBI director in the midst of an investigation into one’s presidential campaign, for example—and the commonplace.
Consider the fiscal deal President Trump struck with Democratic leaders in early September.
On September 6, the president held an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Pence, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, and congressional leaders of both parties. He had to find a way to (a) raise the debt ceiling, (b) fund the federal government, and (c) spend money on hurricane relief. The problem is that a bloc of House Republicans won’t vote for (a) unless the increase is accompanied by significant budget cuts, which interferes with (b) and (c). To raise the debt ceiling, then, requires Democratic votes. And the debt ceiling must be raised. “There is zero chance—no chance—we will not raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in August.
The meeting went like this. First House Speaker Paul Ryan asked for an 18-month increase in the debt ceiling so Republicans wouldn’t have to vote again on the matter until after the midterm elections. Democrats refused. The bargaining continued until Ryan asked for a six-month increase. The Democrats remained stubborn. So Trump, always willing to kick a can down the road, interrupted Mnuchin to offer a three-month increase, a continuing resolution that will keep the government open through December, and about $8 billion in hurricane money. The Democrats said yes.
That, anyway, is what happened. But the media are not satisfied to report what happened. They want—they need—to tell you what it means. And what does it mean? Well, they aren’t really sure. But it’s something big. It’s something spectacular. For example:
1. “Trump Bypasses Republicans to Strike Deal on Debt Limit and Harvey Aid” was the headline of a story for the New York Times by Peter Baker, Thomas Kaplan, and Michael D. Shear. “The deal to keep the government open and paying its debts until Dec. 15 represented an extraordinary public turn for the president, who has for much of his term set himself up on the right flank of the Republican Party,” their article began. Fair enough. But look at how they import speculation and opinion into the following sentence: “But it remained unclear whether Mr. Trump’s collaboration with Democrats foreshadowed a more sustained shift in strategy by a president who has presented himself as a master dealmaker or amounted to just a one-time instinctual reaction of a mercurial leader momentarily eager to poke his estranged allies.”
2. “The decision was one of the most fascinating and mysterious moves he’s made with Congress during eight months in office,” reported Jeff Zeleny, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, and Jeremy Diamond for CNN. Thanks for sharing!
3. “Trump budget deal gives GOP full-blown Stockholm Syndrome,” read the headline of Tina Nguyen’s piece for Vanity Fair. “Donald Trump’s unexpected capitulation to new best buds ‘Chuck and Nancy’ has thrown the Grand Old Party into a frenzy as Republicans search for explanations—and scapegoats.”
4. “For Conservatives, Trump’s Deal with Democrats Is Nightmare Come True,” read the headline for a New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman. “It is the scenario that President Trump’s most conservative followers considered their worst nightmare, and on Wednesday it seemed to come true: The deal-making political novice, whose ideology and loyalty were always fungible, cut a deal with Democrats.”
5. “Trump sides with Democrats on fiscal issues, throwing Republican plans into chaos,” read the Washington Post headline the day after the deal was announced. “The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.” Yes, the negotiations were upended. Then they made a deal.
6. “Although elected as a Republican last year,” wrote Peter Baker of the Times, “Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” The title of Baker’s news analysis: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.” One hundred and fifty years? Why not 200?
The journalistic rule of thumb used to be that an article describing a political, social, or cultural trend requires at least three examples. Not while covering Trump. If Trump does something, anything, you should feel free to inflate its importance beyond all recognition. And stuff your “reporting” with all sorts of dramatic adjectives and frightening nouns: fascinating, mysterious, unexpected, extraordinary, nightmare, chaos, frenzy, and scapegoats. It’s like a Vince Flynn thriller come to life.
The case for the significance of the budget deal would be stronger if there were a consensus about whom it helped. There isn’t one. At first the press assumed Democrats had won. “Republicans left the Oval Office Wednesday stunned,” reported Rachael Bade, Burgess Everett, and Josh Dawsey of Politico. Another trio of Politico reporters wrote, “In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal.” Republicans were “stunned,” reported Kristina Peterson, Siobhan Hughes, and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal. “Meet the swamp: Donald Trump punts September agenda to December after meeting with Congress,” read the headline of Charlie Spiering’s Breitbart story.
By the following week, though, these very outlets had decided the GOP was looking pretty good. “Trump’s deal with Democrats bolsters Ryan—for now,” read the Politico headline on September 11. “McConnell: No New Debt Ceiling Vote until ‘Well into 2018,’” reported the Washington Post. “At this point…picking a fight with Republican leaders will only help him,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal. “Trump has long warned that he would work with Democrats, if necessary, to fulfill his campaign promises. And Wednesday’s deal is a sign that he intends to follow through on that threat,” wrote Breitbart’s Joel Pollak.
The sensationalism, the conflicting interpretations, the visceral language is dizzying. We have so many reporters chasing the same story that each feels compelled to gussy up a quotidian budget negotiation until it resembles the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, and none feel it necessary to apply to their own reporting the scrutiny and incredulity they apply to Trump. The truth is that no one knows what this agreement portends. Nor is it the job of a reporter to divine the meaning of current events like an augur of Rome. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a deal is just a deal.
Remembering something wonderful
Not surprisingly, many well-established performers were left in the lurch by the rise of the new media. Moreover, some vaudevillians who, like Fred Allen, had successfully reinvented themselves for radio were unable to make the transition to TV. But a handful of exceptionally talented performers managed to move from vaudeville to radio to TV, and none did it with more success than Jack Benny, whose feigned stinginess, scratchy violin playing, slightly effeminate demeanor, and preternaturally exact comic timing made him one of the world’s most beloved performers. After establishing himself in vaudeville, he became the star of a comedy series, The Jack Benny Program, that aired continuously, first on radio and then TV, from 1932 until 1965. Save for Bob Hope, no other comedian of his time was so popular.
With the demise of nighttime network radio as an entertainment medium, the 931 weekly episodes of The Jack Benny Program became the province of comedy obsessives—and because Benny’s TV series was filmed in black-and-white, it is no longer shown in syndication with any regularity. And while he also made Hollywood films, some of which were box-office hits, only one, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), is today seen on TV other than sporadically.
Nevertheless, connoisseurs of comedy still regard Benny, who died in 1974, as a giant, and numerous books, memoirs, and articles have been published about his life and art. Most recently, Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has brought out Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, the first book-length primary-source academic study of The Jack Benny Program and its star.1 Fuller-Seeley’s genuine appreciation for Benny’s work redeems her anachronistic insistence on viewing it through the fashionable prism of gender- and race-based theory, and her book, though sober-sided to the point of occasional starchiness, is often quite illuminating.
Most important of all, off-the-air recordings of 749 episodes of the radio version of The Jack Benny Program survive in whole or part and can easily be downloaded from the Web. As a result, it is possible for people not yet born when Benny was alive to hear for themselves why he is still remembered with admiration and affection—and why one specific aspect of his performing persona continues to fascinate close observers of the American scene.B orn Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894, Benny was the son of Eastern European émigrés (his father was from Poland, his mother from Lithuania). He started studying violin at six and had enough talent to pursue a career in music, but his interests lay elsewhere, and by the time he was a teenager, he was working in vaudeville as a comedian who played the violin as part of his act. Over time he developed into a “monologist,” the period term for what we now call a stand-up comedian, and he began appearing in films in 1929 and on network radio three years after that.
Radio comedy, like silent film, is now an obsolete art form, but the program formats that it fostered in the ’20s and ’30s all survived into the era of TV, and some of them flourish to this day. One, episodic situation comedy, was developed in large part by Jack Benny and his collaborators. Benny and Harry Conn, his first full-time writer, turned his weekly series, which started out as a variety show, into a weekly half-hour playlet featuring a regular cast of characters augmented by guest stars. Such playlets, relying as they did on a setting that was repeated from week to week, were easier to write than the free-standing sketches favored by Allen, Hope, and other ex-vaudevillians, and by the late ’30s, the sitcom had become a staple of radio comedy.
The process, as documented by Fuller-Seeley, was a gradual one. The Jack Benny Program never broke entirely with the variety format, continuing to feature both guest stars (some of whom, like Ronald Colman, ultimately became semi-regular members of the show’s rotating ensemble of players) and songs sung by Dennis Day, a tenor who joined the cast in 1939. Nor was it the first radio situation comedy: Amos & Andy, launched in 1928, was a soap-opera-style daily serial that also featured regular characters. Nevertheless, it was Benny who perfected the form, and his own character would become the prototype for countless later sitcom stars.
The show’s pivotal innovation was to turn Benny and the other cast members into fictionalized versions of themselves—they were the stars of a radio show called “The Jack Benny Program.” Sadye Marks, Benny’s wife, played Mary Livingstone, his sharp-tongued secretary, with three other characters added as the self-reflexive concept took shape. Don Wilson, the stout, genial announcer, came on board in 1934. He was followed in 1936 by Phil Harris, Benny’s roguish bandleader, and, in 1939, by Day, Harris’s simple-minded vocalist. To this team was added a completely fictional character, Rochester Van Jones, Benny’s raspy-voiced, outrageously impertinent black valet, played by Eddie Anderson, who joined the cast in 1938.
As these five talented performers coalesced into a tight-knit ensemble, the jokey, vaudeville-style sketch comedy of the early episodes metamorphosed into sitcom-style scripts that portrayed their offstage lives, as well as the making of the show itself. Scarcely any conventional jokes were told, nor did Benny’s writers employ the topical and political references in which Allen and Hope specialized. Instead, the show’s humor arose almost entirely from the close interplay of character and situation.
Benny was not solely responsible for the creation of this format, which was forged by Conn and perfected by his successors. Instead, he doubled as the star and producer—or, to use the modern term, show runner—closely supervising the writing of the scripts and directing the performances of the other cast members. In addition, he and Conn turned the character of Jack Benny from a sophisticated vaudeville monologist into the hapless butt of the show’s humor, a vain, sexually inept skinflint whose character flaws were ceaselessly twitted by his colleagues, who in turn were given most of the biggest laugh lines.
This latter innovation was a direct reflection of Benny’s real-life personality. Legendary for his voluble appreciation of other comedians, he was content to respond to the wisecracking of his fellow cast members with exquisitely well-timed interjections like “Well!” and “Now, cut that out,” knowing that the comic spotlight would remain focused on the man of whom they were making fun and secure in the knowledge that his own comic personality was strong enough to let them shine without eclipsing him in the process.
And with each passing season, the fictional personalities of Benny and his colleagues became ever more firmly implanted in the minds of their listeners, thus allowing the writers to get laughs merely by alluding to their now-familiar traits. At the same time, Benny and his writers never stooped to coasting on their familiarity. Even the funniest of the “cheap jokes” that were their stock-in-trade were invariably embedded in carefully honed dramatic situations that heightened their effectiveness.
A celebrated case in point is the best-remembered laugh line in the history of The Jack Benny Program, heard in a 1948 episode in which a burglar holds Benny up on the street. “Your money or your life,” the burglar says—to which Jack replies, after a very long pause, “I’m thinking it over!” What makes this line so funny is, of course, our awareness of Benny’s stinginess, reinforced by a decade and a half of constant yet subtly varied repetition. What is not so well remembered is that the line is heard toward the end of an episode that aired shortly after Ronald Colman won an Oscar for his performance in A Double Life. Inspired by this real-life event, the writers concocted an elaborately plotted script in which Benny talks Colman (who played his next-door neighbor on the show) into letting him borrow the Oscar to show to Rochester. It is on his way home from this errand that Benny is held up, and the burglar not only robs him of his money but also steals the statuette, a situation that was resolved to equally explosive comic effect in the course of two subsequent episodes.
No mere joke-teller could have performed such dramatically complex scripts week after week with anything like Benny’s effectiveness. The secret of The Jack Benny Program was that its star, fully aware that he was not “being himself” but playing a part, did so with an actor’s skill. This was what led Ernst Lubitsch to cast him in To Be or Not to Be, in which he plays a mediocre Shakespearean tragedian, a character broadly related to but still quite different from the one who appeared on his own radio show. As Lubitsch explained to Benny, who was skeptical about his ability to carry off the part:
A clown—he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian—he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.
To Be or Not to Be also stands out from the rest of Benny’s work because he plays an identifiably Jewish character. The Jack Benny character that he played on radio and TV, by contrast, was never referred to or explicitly portrayed as Jewish. To be sure, most listeners were in no doubt of his Jewishness, and not merely because Benny made no attempt in real life to conceal his ethnicity, of which he was by all accounts proud. The Jack Benny Program was written by Jews, and the ego-puncturing insults with which their scripts were packed, as well as the schlemiel-like aspect of Benny’s “fall guy” character, were quintessentially Jewish in style.
As Benny explained in a 1948 interview cited by Fuller-Seeley:
The humor of my program is this: I’m a big shot, see? I’m fast-talking. I’m a smart guy. I’m boasting about how marvelous I am. I’m a marvelous lover. I’m a marvelous fiddle player. Then, five minutes after I start shooting off my mouth, my cast makes a shmo out of me.
Even so, his avoidance of specific Jewish identification on the air is noteworthy precisely because his character was a miser. At a time when overt anti-Semitism was still common in America, it is remarkable that Benny’s comic persona was based in large part on an anti-Semitic stereotype—yet one that seems not to have inspired any anti-Semitic attacks on Benny himself. When, in 1945, his writers came up with the idea of an “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because . . . ” write-in campaign, they received 270,000 entries. Only three made mention of his Jewishness.
As for the winning entry, submitted by a California lawyer, it says much about what insulated Benny from such attacks: “He fills the air with boasts and brags / And obsolete, obnoxious gags / The way he plays his violin / Is music’s most obnoxious sin / His cowardice alone, indeed, / Is matched by his obnoxious greed / And all the things that he portrays / Show up MY OWN obnoxious ways.” It is clear that Benny’s foibles were seen by his listeners not as particular but universal, just as there was no harshness in the razzing of his fellow cast members, who very clearly loved the Benny character in spite of his myriad flaws. So, too, did the American people. Several years after his TV series was cancelled, a corporation that was considering using him as a spokesman commissioned a national poll to find out how popular he was. It learned that only 3 percent of the respondents disliked him.
Therein lay Benny’s triumph: He won total acceptance from the American public and did so by embodying a Jewish stereotype from which the sting of prejudice had been leached. Far from being a self-hating whipping boy for anti-Semites, he turned himself into WASP America’s Jewish uncle, preposterous yet lovable.W hen the bottom fell out of network radio, Benny negotiated the move to TV without a hitch, debuting on the small screen in 1950 and bringing the radio version of The Jack Benny Program to a close five years later, making it one of the very last radio comedy series to shut up shop. Even after his weekly TV series was finally canceled by CBS in 1965, he continued to star in well-received one-shot specials on NBC.
But Benny’s TV appearances, for all their charm, were never quite equal in quality to his radio work, which is why he clung to the radio version of The Jack Benny Program until network radio itself went under: Better than anyone else, he knew how good the show had been. For the rest of his life, he lived off the accumulated comic capital built up by 21 years of weekly radio broadcasts.
Now, at long last, he belongs to the ages, and The Jack Benny Program is a museum piece. Yet it remains hugely influential, albeit at one or more removes from the original. From The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Danny Thomas Show to Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Larry Sanders Show, every ensemble-cast sitcom whose central character is a fictionalized version of its star is based on Benny’s example. And now that the ubiquity of the Web has made the radio version of his series readily accessible for the first time, anyone willing to make the modest effort necessary to seek it out is in a position to discover that The Jack Benny Program, six decades after it left the air, is still as wonderfully, benignly funny as it ever was, a monument to the talent of the man who, more than anyone else, made it so.
Review of 'The Transferred Life of George Eliot' By Philip Davis
Not that there’s any danger these theoretically protesting students would have read George Eliot’s works—not even the short one, Silas Marner (1861), which in an earlier day was assigned to high schoolers. I must admit I didn’t find my high-school reading of Silas Marner a pleasant experience—sports novels for boys like John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Tomkinsville were inadequate preparation. I must confess, too, that when I was in graduate school, determined to study 17th-century English verse, my reaction to the suggestion that I should also read Middlemarch (1871–72) was “What?! An 800-page novel by the guy who wrote Silas Marner?” A friend patiently explained that “the guy” was actually Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819, died in 1880. Partly because she was living in sin with the literary jack-of-all-trades George Henry Lewes (legally and irrevocably bound to his estranged wife), she adopted “George Eliot” as a protective pseudonym when, in her 1857 debut, she published Scenes from Clerical Life.
I did, many times over and with awe and delight, go on to read Middlemarch and the seven other novels, often in order to teach them to college students. Students have become less and less receptive over the years. Forget modern-day objections to George Eliot’s complex political or religious views. Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) were too hefty, and the triple-decked Middlemarch and Deronda, even if I set aside three weeks for them, rarely got finished.
The middle 20th century was perhaps a more a propitious time for appreciating George Eliot, Henry James, and other 19th-century English and American novelists. Influential teachers like F.R. Leavis at Cambridge and Lionel Trilling at Columbia were then working hard to persuade students that the study of literature, not just poetry and drama but also fiction, matters both to their personal lives—the development of their sensibility or character—and to their wider society. The “moral imagination” that created Middlemarch enriches our minds by dramatizing the complications—the frequent blurring of good and evil—in our lives. Great novels help us cope with ambiguities and make us more tolerant of one another. Many of Leavis’s and Trilling’s students became teachers themselves, and for several decades the feeling of cultural urgency was sustained. In the 1970s, though, between the leftist emphasis on literature as “politics by other means” and the deconstructionist denial of the possibility of any knowledge, literary or otherwise, independent of political power, the high seriousness of Leavis and Trilling began to fade.
The study of George Eliot and her life has gone through many stages. Directly after her death came the sanitized, hagiographic “life and letters” by J.W. Cross, the much younger man she married after Lewes’s death. Gladstone called it “a Reticence in three volumes.” The three volumes helped spark, if they didn’t cause, the long reaction against the Victorian sages generally that culminated in the dismissively satirical work of the Bloomsbury biographer and critic Lytton Strachey in his immensely influential Eminent Victorians (1916). Strachey’s mistreatment of his forbears was, with regard to George Eliot at least, tempered almost immediately by Virginia Woolf. It was Woolf who in 1919 provocatively said that Middlemarch had been “the first English novel for adults.” Eventually, the critical tide against George Eliot was decisively reversed in the ’40s by Joan Bennett and Leavis, who made the inarguable case for her genuine and lasting achievement. That period of correction culminated in the 1960s with Gordon S. Haight’s biography and with interpretive studies by Barbara Hardy and W.J. Harvey. Books on George Eliot over the last four decades have largely been written by specialists for specialists—on her manuscripts or working notes, and on her affiliations with the scientists, social historians, and competing novelists of her day.
The same is true, only more so, of the books written, with George Eliot as the ostensible subject, to promote deconstructionist or feminist agendas. Biographies have done a better job appealing to the common reader, not least because the woman’s own story is inherently compelling. The question right now is whether a book combining biographical and interpretive insight—one “pitched,” as publishers like to say, not just at experts but at the common reader—is past praying for.
Philip Davis, a Victorian scholar and an editor at Oxford University Press, hopes not. His The Transferred Life of George Eliot—transferred, that is, from her own experience into her letters, journals, essays, and novels, and beyond them into us—deserves serious attention. Davis is conscious that George Eliot called biographies of writers “a disease of English literature,” both overeager to discover scandals and too inclined to substitute day-to-day travels, relationships, dealings with publishers and so on, for critical attention to the books those writers wrote. Davis therefore devotes himself to George Eliot’s writing. Alas, he presumes rather too much knowledge on the reader’s part of the day-to-day as charted in Haight’s marvelous life. (A year-by-year chronology at the front of the book would have helped even his fellow Victorianists.)
As for George Eliot’s writing, Davis is determined to refute “what has been more or less said . . . in the schools of theory for the last 40 years—that 19th-century realism is conservatively bland and unimaginative, bourgeois and parochial, not truly art at all.” His argument for the richness, breadth, and art of George Eliot’s realism—her factual and sympathetic depiction of poor and middling people, without omitting a candid representation of the rich—is most convincing. What looms largest, though, is the realist, the woman herself—the Mary Ann Evans who, from the letters to the novels, became first Marian Evans the translator and essayist and then later “her own greatest character”: George Eliot the novelist. Davis insists that “the meaning of that person”—not merely the voice of her omniscient narrators but the omnipresent imagination that created the whole show—“has not yet exhausted its influence nor the larger future life she should have had, and may still have, in the world.”
The transference of George Eliot’s experience into her fiction is unquestionable: In The Mill on the Floss, for example, Mary Ann is Maggie, and her brother Isaac is Tom Tulliver. Davis knows that a better word might be transmutation, as George Eliot had, in Henry James’s words, “a mind possessed,” for “the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.” No data-accumulating biographer, even the most exhaustive, can account for that “incalculable . . . mystery.”
Which is why Davis, like a good teacher, gives us exercises in “close reading.” He pauses to consider how a George Eliot sentence balances or turns on an easy-to-skip-over word or phrase—the balance or turn often representing a moment when the novelist looks at what’s on the underside of the cards.
George Eliot’s style is subtle because her theme is subtle. Take D.H. Lawrence’s favorite heroine, the adolescent Maggie Tulliver. The external event in The Mill on the Floss may be the girl’s impulsive cutting off her unruly hair to spite her nagging aunts, or the young woman’s drifting down the river with a superficially attractive but truly impossible boyfriend. But the real “action” is Maggie’s internal self-blame and self-assertion. No Victorian novelist was better than George Eliot at tracing the psychological development of, say, a husband and wife who realize they married each other for shallow reasons, are unhappy, and now must deal with the ordinary necessities of balancing the domestic budget—Lydgate and Rosamund in Middlemarch—or, in the same novel, the religiously inclined Dorothea’s mistaken marriage to the old scholar Casaubon. That mistake precipitates not merely disenchantment and an unconscious longing for love with someone else, but (very finely) a quest for a religious explanation of and guide through her quandary.
It’s the religio-philosophical side of George Eliot about which Davis is strongest—and weakest. Her central theological idea, if one may simplify, was that the God of the Bible didn’t exist “out there” but was a projection of the imagination of the people who wrote it. Jesus wasn’t, in Davis’s characterization of her view, “the impervious divine, but [a man who] shed tears and suffered,” and died feeling forsaken. “This deep acceptance of so-called weakness was what most moved Marian Evans in her Christian inheritance. It was what God was for.” That is, the character of Jesus, and the dramatic play between him and his Father, expressed the human emotions we and George Eliot are all too familiar with. The story helps reconcile us to what is, finally, inescapable suffering.
George Eliot came to this demythologized understanding not only of Judaism and Christianity but of all religions through her contact first with a group of intellectuals who lived near Coventry, then with two Germans she translated: David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1,500-page Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835–36) was for her a slog, and Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity (1841) was for her a joy. Also, in the search for the universal morality that Strauss and Feuerbach believed Judaism and Christianity expressed mythically, there was Spinoza’s utterly non-mythical Ethics (1677). It was seminal for her—offering, as Davis says, “the intellectual origin for freethinking criticism of the Bible and for the replacement of religious superstition and dogmatic theology by pure philosophic reason.” She translated it into English, though her version did not appear until 1981.
I wish Davis had left it there, but he takes it too far. He devotes more than 40 pages—a tenth of the whole book—to her three translations, taking them as a mother lode of ideational gold whose tailings glitter throughout her fiction. These 40 pages are followed by 21 devoted to Herbert Spencer, the Victorian hawker of theories-of-everything (his 10-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy addresses biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics). She threw herself at the feet of this intellectual huckster, and though he rebuffed her painfully amorous entreaties, she never ceased revering him. Alas, Spencer was a stick—the kind of philosopher who was incapable of emotion. And she was his intellectual superior in every way. The chapter is largely unnecessary.
The book comes back to life when Davis turns to George Henry Lewes, the man who gave Mary Ann Evans the confidence to become George Eliot—perhaps the greatest act of loving mentorship in all of literature. Like many prominent Victorians, Lewes dabbled in all the arts and sciences, publishing highly readable accounts of them for a general audience. His range was as wide as Spencer’s, but his personality and writing had an irrepressible verve that Spencer could only have envied. Lewes was a sort Stephen Jay Gould yoked to Daniel Boorstin, popularizing other people’s findings and concepts, and coming up with a few of his own. He regarded his Sea-Side Studies (1860) as “the book . . . which was to me the most unalloyed delight,” not least because Marian, whom he called Polly, had helped gather the data. She told a friend “There is so much happiness condensed in it! Such scrambles over rocks, and peeping into clear pool [sic], and strolls along the pure sands, and fresh air mingling with fresh thoughts.” In his remarkably intelligent 1864 biography of Goethe, Lewes remarks that the poet “knew little of the companionship of two souls striving in emulous spirit of loving rivalry to become better, to become wiser, teaching each other to soar.” Such a companionship Lewes and George Eliot had in spades, and some of Davis’s best passages describe it.
Regrettably, Davis also offers many passages well below the standard of his best—needlessly repeating an already established point or obfuscating the obvious. Still, The Transferred Lives is the most formidably instructive, and certainly complete, life-and-works treatment of George Eliot we have.