Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Two Books

Two books recently have been waltzing one another around in my head. David Hackett Fischer's new one, "Liberty and Freedom," is a visual tour of those two words and of the national symbols that partake of "what H.G. Wells called an American attitude of optimistic fatalism."

Paul Johnson's "Modern times" is a history of the world from about 1919 to 1990. At 784 pages (with another 56 of footnotes), it's got a formidable bulk, but the prose goes down like good Scotch. It takes a position that will make a lot of people uncomfortable -- me included -- that the abandonment of traditional virtues and religions, and the belief that they could be replaced by pure reason, opened the door in the 20th century to all manner of horrors.

His target is the modern state, which in the 20th century replaced the church. It is an "agency of benevolence," "trying to do collectively what the sensible and morally educated person did individually." This reached its Götterdämmerung in the "totalitarian utopias" of Lenin and Hitler, but it also poisoned a host of failed "people's republics" in the Third World.

The state was, up to the 1980s, the great gainer of the twentieth century; and the central failure. Before 1914 it was rare for the public sector to embrace more than 10 per cent of the economy; by the end of the 1970s, and even beyond, the state took up 45 per cent or more of the GNP in liberal countries, let alone totalitarian ones. But whereas, at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, most intelligent people believed that an enlarged state could increase the sum total of human happiness, by the 1990s this view was held by no one outside a small, diminishing and dispirited band of zealots, most of them academics. The experiment had been tried in innumerable ways, and it had failed in nearly all of them. The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster. It had also proved itself the greatest killer of all time. By the 1990s, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of some 125 million people during the century, more perhaps than it had succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900. Its inhuman malevolence had more than kept pace with its growing size and expanding means.

The fall from grace of the state likewise, by the early 1990s, had begun to discredit its agents, the activist politicians, whose phenomenal rise in numbers and authority was one of the most important and baleful human developments of modern times. It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who had first announced that human beings could be transformed for the better by the political process, and that the agency of change, the creator of what he termed the 'new man,' would be the state, and the self-appointed benefactors who controlled it for the good of all. In the twentieth century his theory was finally put to the test, on a colossal scale, and tested to destruction. As we have noted, by the year 1900 politics was already replacing religion as the chief form of zealotry. To archetypes of the new class, such as Lenin, Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung, politics -- by which they meant the engineering of society for lofty purposes -- was the one legitimate form of moral activity, the only sure means of improving humanity. This view, which would have struck an earlier age as fantastic, even insane, became to some extent the orthodoxy everywhere: diluted in the West, in virulent form in the Communist countries and much of the Third World. At the democratic end of the spectrum, the political zealots offered New Deals, Great Societies and welfare states; at the totalitarian end, cultural revolutions; always and everywhere, Plans. These zealots marched across the decades and hemispheres: mountebanks, charismatics,
exaltés, secular saints, mass murderers, all united by their belief that politics was the cure for human ills: Sun Yat-sen and Ataturk, Stalin and Mussolini, Khrushchev, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Castro, Nehru, U Nu and Sukharno, Perón and Allende, Nkrumah and Nyerere, Nasser, Shah Pahlevi, Gadafy and Saddam Hussein, Honecker and Ceausescu.

There are problems with this: The 19th century had its own nightmares, and the overall spread of wealth and health in the world in the 20th century, much of it as a result of state-sponsored activities, seems to argue that not everything now is worse than it was.

It's an axiom of history that no people who lived through a period or an experience are capable of understanding it in historical terms. But to those of us who lived through any part of the blood-boltered 20th century, Johnson throws down a challenge difficult to match: prove that the nation-state wasn't the star player of the century.

* * *

I have some quibbles with Fischer's book, too; in fact I have quibbles all throughout, starting on page 6 where he seems to present the Anglo-Saxon wappentake as an equivalent of the Norse version, when the word was never used in recorded English in the Norse sense. It's likely that the ultimate origin is, in fact, in the sense found in Norse, but that's not proven. Also, he lists a word as "Old Scots," when I'm pretty sure he means Old Saxon.

But these trifles do not detract from the joy of his exploration. On any page of it, you meet little lost gems from the history books, like this one:

"In 1784, a British ship on a passage from India stopped at the Comoro Islands in the Mozambique Channel, off the coast of southern Africa. It found that the African inhabitants had risen in revolution against their Arab rulers. Their rallying cry was 'America is free! Cannot we be?' "

He puts fresh shine on the old distinction of "freedom from" and "freedom to." Most modern writers on the topic recognize a distinction (Isaiah Berlin in "Two Concepts of Liberty," denied the distinction, but his use of "negative" and "positive" liberty amounts to essentially the same thing).

In an age when these two words form so important a part of the national discourse, every fresh reminder of their shape is timely: Liberty as independence; freedom as belonging. Liberty as classical, Roman; freedom as tribal, Germanic. Liberty as political, legal; freedom as social, psychological. Liberty's etymological family includes "libertine." Freedom's includes "friend."

I am especially interested in Fischer's section on the Revolutionary War. "The American Revolution was strong because it included so many ranks, regions, and religions, with visions of liberty and freedom," he writes. And he traces the disparate threads of them, from the strong-rooted liberty tree of New England, to the Philadelphia Quakers and their statehouse bell, to the "Don't Tread on Me" rattlesnake of the Carolina hill country.

And he notes that "all envisioned liberty and freedom as a union of ethical ideals and material interests." That still is true, of course. Any political faction is doomed to minority if it fails to take account of the essential fact that the bulk of Americans, rich and poor, thinks work toward purely material success is a laudable pursuit. This isn't some evil seed injected into the nation by Reagan and Bush. It's in the blood. The poor in America in 1776 didn't want to smash property; they wanted the right to work to get it.

The Declaration of Independence itself is America's first party platform, a cobbling together of regional interests little connected to one another (New England's obsession with Catholic Quebec, South Carolina's defensiveness about slavery). Jefferson made it so from its first draft. But it seems to me a key word in it is "pursuit." That is one verb that united all the regions, all the factions. If the Declaration had held forth an American right merely to "happiness," what a different prerogative it would have presented to the state the rebels created. It would have propelled us right into Paul Johnson's 20th century. Yet even the most radical Whigs (Paine, for instance) spoke of freedom as an absolute level for all men, but specifically rejected the notion of leveling of wealth.

A third book in this dance is Gertrude Himmelfarb's "The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments."

As this excellent review points out, the book is "more important than it looks." I read it months ago, but it keeps sinking deeper into my perception, and shifting and reordering other ideas. How could I have learned to connect the American Revolution with the Enlightenment, without noticing the very obvious disconnection between the ideas and ideals of the Founders and those of the philosophes?

The French philosophes thought the social classes were divided by the chasm of poverty and, more crucially, of superstition and ignorance. They despised the lower orders because they were in thrall to Christianity. The editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot, declared the common people had no role in the Age of Reason. “The general mass of men are not so made that they can either promote or understand this forward march of the human spirit.” Indeed, “the common people are incredibly stupid,” he said, and were little more than beasts: “too idiotic — bestial — too miserable, and too busy” to enlighten themselves. Voltaire agreed. The lower orders lacked the intellect required to reason and so must be left to wallow in superstition. They could be controlled and pacified only by the sanctions and strictures of religion which, Voltaire proclaimed, “must be destroyed among respectable people and left to the canaille large and small, for whom it was made.”

Johnson, who wrote a blurb on the dust jacket of Himmelfarb's book, rightly connects the modern totalitarian utopias to Rousseau. The U.S. Founders had not read Rousseau when they did their work, at least not his political writing.

The classical idea of "virtue" -- defined by Himmelfarb as "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private" seems to be the counterbalance to Johnson's horror of the modern state and the church of politics. But even in the virtuous 18th century, there wasn't enough of it to go around.

John Adams wrote to his cousin, Sam, "I think with you, that knowledge and benevolence ought to be promoted as much as possible; but, despairing of ever seeing them sufficiently general for the security of society, I am for seeking institutions which may supply in some degree the defect."

Where public virtue is insufficient, politics steps in. The problem is not unique to the 20th century. And the American Founders -- whose common sense genius never fails to astonish me -- foresaw the perils of the modern state. They attempted to head it off by playing one human weakness against another.

Separation of powers, checks and balances, competition of opposite and rival interests (sects, classes, regions) were going to protect the young United States against corruption and despotism. The Framers saw the potential for politics to run amok; they did not believe men were gods and they did not confuse citizens with philosophers.

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