Thursday, May 24, 2018

In His Latter Years, Alan Wolfe Has Grown As A Human Being & The Current Occupant Of The Oval Office In His Latter Years — Not So Much

In 1968, Alan Wolfe was 26-year- old grad student and Donald J. Trump was 22 years of age and fresh out of college. Wolfe looks at himself in 1968 and "shudders at my immaturity, selfishness, and lack of responsibility." The current occupant of the Oval Office continues to exhibit immaturity, selfishness, and lack of responsibility. There you have the import of 1968 fifty years later. If this is (fair & balanced) retrospection, so be it.

A Most Violent Year
By Alan Wolfe

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It was neither the best nor the worst of times. But in contrast to the relative placidity of the 1950s, the events of 1968 opened up previously unimaginable vistas to people all across the globe. “We knew about the Paris commune,” the surrealist artist Jean-Jacques Lebel tells Mitchell Abidor in May Made Me (2018), a new collection of oral histories of that year. “This was going to happen again” in May 1968, he had felt. “So you could have the near orgasmic joy of taking part in something much greater than yourself.” The protests began with calls for an end to same-sex dormitories at French universities and quickly developed into a general strike involving some 10 million workers from every segment of French society. By the end of that year, students and, to a lesser degree, workers in nearly every part of the world would rise up.

The spirit of 1968 was not merely political. Simultaneously individualist and collectivist, as well as both sober and psychedelic, it was cultural, economic, sexual, hedonistic, spiritual, and transcendental. In a few of its more crucial aspects, it was a wild success. Two 68ers—Jack Straw in Britain and Joschka Fischer in Germany—became foreign secretaries of their countries. The women’s movement, galvanized in large part by the unrelenting male chauvinism of 1968’s leaders, intervened in history, as did movements for racial and ethnic equality. Protests against the war in Vietnam played a role, however indirectly, in ending it. Soviet-style communism did, eventually, topple. Universities were transformed, as was, for a brief moment in time, the Catholic Church. Conscription ended. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix changed music.

But a powerful reaction began as early as the first protests in Paris. After fleeing to a military base, Charles de Gaulle announced new elections, and when they took place on June 23, 1968, his party gained even more seats. Not only did May 1968 fail to survive the summer of its birth, but France is now led by a man born nine years after the shock and awe of 1968 came to an end. If you utter “insurrection” in Paris today, you will likely conjure up images of the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen.

In the 50 years since 1968, many prominent radical figures of the time have turned to the right. David Horowitz, the Trump-supporting right-wing propagandist, had been the American New Left’s major theorist in the 1960s. His conversion pales in comparison to that of Benny Lévy, Jean-Paul Sartre’s last personal secretary and a self-professed Maoist, who became a passionate Zionist and died an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. Others did not turn right wing per se but did become supporters of a more militaristic turn in foreign policy in the name of humanitarian interventionism, none better known than Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders [Médecins Sans Frontières].

1968 may have ushered in a new world, but it is a far cry from the one the activists of those years imagined then. Donald Trump is the American president, neo-Nazis are gaining in Germany, Britain is turning its back on Europe, and recently liberated Communist countries compete over how far to the right they can turn. It can be no surprise that the half-century anniversary of 1968 is producing so many books aiming to make sense of it. What was it all about, this sudden outburst of activity? What were its consequences, and could it happen again? Or did it, in the end, signify very little? Both the academic I am now and the radical I was then want to know.

Revolutions, like suicides, are contagious. George Katsiaficas, the author of The Global Imagination of 1968 (2018), is, to modify a term from the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a tourist of many revolutions; his book comes endorsed by a parade of sometime-notorious activists including former Black Panther Bobby Seale; Ward Churchill, who once called the victims of September 11 “little Eichmanns”; and Shaka Zulu of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party and Jersey State Prison. Katsiaficas is worth reading partly for nostalgic reasons: If you have forgotten the existence of Lotta Continua in Italy or of the Brown Berets in California, he will remind you of their actions.

Taking a global perspective on the events of 1968, Katsiaficas has made a somewhat obsessive accounting of all the student demonstrations between April and June of 1968: West Germany saw 63; Japan, 9; France, 1,205. This data, culled from Le Monde, is fascinating; every region of the world witnessed youth revolts of assorted varieties. Richard Vinen, a historian at King’s College London, in 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (2018), cites a diplomat who suggests that Western Australia was the only place unaffected by the times. There are occasions when tourists of the revolution can play a healthy role, and this is one of them: As in 1848, when unrest in Sicily quickly spread to every part of Europe, there really did seem to be a spirit of 1968 that included not just Western Europe and North America but Eastern Europe and the Third World.

In retrospect, the most important of 1968 rebellions was not the Parisian one but the Prague one. Before Václav Havel became a household name, at least in intellectual households, Alexander Dubček and his conception of “socialism with a human face” became one of the most powerful sources of resistance to the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Proceeding very carefully, ever aware of the Soviet tanks facing in his direction, Dubček introduced reforms designed to encourage greater freedom of expression and a more flexible approach to industrial production. Although the Czech reformers bent over backward to accommodate Russian anxieties, the Soviets invaded in August 1968, bringing the dream of a more humanistic form of socialism to an end. The rebellion and its repression made clear that 1968 was not only a protest against capitalism and its appetites but against Soviet-style communism as well.

The very term “New Left” was designed to drive home that young radicals wanted little to do with the days of fellow traveling and united fronts. That might not have been as important in the United States, where Communists have had so little influence, as it was in France, where the French Communist Party (PCF) was not only large and powerful but took upon itself the role of judging whether a movement was properly revolutionary, concluding that all of them outside its own control were not. In Abidor’s oral histories, the filmmaker Michel Andrieu recalls an event on May 13 when he and his friends were confronted by henchmen from the Communist-dominated union the Confédération Générale du Travail, who threw them out of the demonstrations and tried to take their cameras. Another filmmaker, Pascal Aubier, was lectured by Georges Marchais, soon to be the leader of the French Communists, about how his movement was going to end badly.

The epicenter of early phases of the student revolt, the Paris suburb of Nanterre, was in fact governed at the time by the PCF, making a clash between the old and the new left inevitable. The PCF now launched at leftist students the kind of invective they once might have directed against capitalists. “These pseudo-revolutionaries who claim to give the working class movement lessons... must be unmasked vigorously,” Marchais pronounced, “because, objectively, they serve the interests of the Gaullist power and the big capitalist monopolies.... The theses and activities of these revolutionaries might make one laugh.” In Eastern Europe, the students attacked the Communists. In Western Europe, the Communists attacked the students.

Marchais, nonetheless, was onto something when he said that the student rebels were serving the interests of Gaullism. Unlike the United States, France, as the sociologist Michel Crozier once pointed out, was a “blocked society.” Because French institutions were overly bureaucratic and resistant to change, the young and ambitious had little choice but to attack the whole system if they hoped to rise within any part of it. For this reason, May 1968 attracted not only protesters but potential power brokers who, once the 1968 struggles were over, would find successful leaders such as de Gaulle attractive. Régis Debray was in Latin America in May 1968, but despite his support for the Cuban Revolution, he later expressed admiration for de Gaulle, as did soixante-huitards [Sixty-eighters] Serge July and Alain Geismar. This all makes a certain amount of sense to Vinen, who notes that like the student radicals, de Gaulle “regarded the consumer society with disdain”:

He had opposed Israel during the 1967 war. He had opened diplomatic relations with China in 1964. He had withdrawn France from NATO’s joint command structures in 1966, and, most importantly, he had opposed American intervention in Vietnam.

When activists and would-be revolutionaries have more in common with the conservative establishment than with Communists, we know we are in strange territory.

In style, 68ers tended to be charismatic. One of the activists most responsible for the demonstrations in Nanterre was Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Central casting could not have provided a better version of a student radical: half German and half French, Jewish, and with red hair, “Danny the Red,” who later became a Green Party politician in Germany and a key member of the European Parliament, was especially hated by Marchais and the Communists (and he returned the favor). Another of the activists who talked to Abidor, Jean-Pierre Fournier, found Cohn-Bendit refreshing, contrasting him with the more “usual” activists such as Geismar and Jacques Sauvageot, who at the time was a leader of the Union of French Students. “He avoids coded, hidebound language,” Fournier recalled. “He spoke just like us.” He distinctly remembered Cohn-Bendit confronting Louis Aragon, the Communist poet, and calling him a “Stalinist lowlife.”

The tone of radical politics in West Germany was far more sober than in France. The recent memory of Nazism, defeated there little more than 20 years previously, provided an opportunity for conservatives to denounce the radical left as little different from Hitler and his henchmen: Even the liberal and humane philosopher Jürgen Habermas worried about the direction 1968 would take. The man who came to symbolize the German events of that year, Rudi Dutschke, as if to bury the shadow of Nazism once and for all, stood in sharp contrast to the flamboyance of Cohn-Bendit. Dutschke had little appreciation for the surreal and the absurd sides of leftist politics, and his influence stemmed from his modesty and inclusiveness. He was also shaped by the devout Lutheranism of his parents, was married to an American, and was scholarly in his interests and demeanor.

Shot during the 1968 events, Dutschke never fully recovered and died in Aarhus, Denmark in 1979. Ultimately, Dutschke’s major contribution was a phrase, “the long march through the institutions,” which provided a sense of meaning to 1968 activists in the quiet years that followed. The German Dutschke understood better than the French radicals Crozier’s idea of a blocked society, and he hoped to instill in the student left a sense of the seriousness of its actions. Instead of aiming to transform all of society, it was now the goal to transform work, the church, the university, and the family. These were no doubt huge ambitions in themselves, but they were nonetheless tethered to the real world.

In this, the 68ers did achieve a certain success: All major institutions have opened themselves up to change and become more meritocratic compared with how they operated before 1968. Whether this was a result of the student movement, or the demise of inherited privilege, the rise of affirmative action, or the reaction against affirmative action, or the spread of the internet, is still unanswered. But the more responsible of the 1968 protesters made it clear that they were in it for the long term. That may help explain the interest in those events half a century later. You never know when and where a former 68er might just pop up.

Some were less patient. West Germany, like the United States, soon became the home of left-wing terrorists: Here, they were called the Weathermen; there, the Baader-Meinhof gang. (There had been some direct connections between New Leftists in the two countries: Vinen tells the story of Michael Vester, a young German who played an important role in drafting the Port Huron Statement in America.) In sharp contrast to the 68ers like Fischer who became active in the Green Party, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin were charged with setting fire to a department store in Frankfurt and tried in October 1968. Their legacy, the Red Army Faction, as their gang came to be called, was, in Vinen’s accounting, responsible for roughly 34 deaths.

Germany competed with Italy for the most deaths produced by 1968, whether measured in police violence against the protesters or by the actions of left-wing terrorists themselves. Italy won hands down: By Vinen’s accounting, 419 people died there between 1969 and 1987 as a result of left-wing terrorism. In either case, violence could not perpetuate itself indefinitely: The Red Army Faction committed its last violent act in 1993. Germany, a society responsible for so much violence in its recent past, was the last place to tolerate still more violence.

Protest and violence marked 1968 in America, too. That year, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, permanently changing the direction in which the country was headed. It was also the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; the publication of the Kerner Commission report on urban violence; the sentencing of four of the Boston Five, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, for aiding draft resistance; major protests at Columbia University; the My Lai massacre; the Catonsville Nine burning of draft records; the premieres of the films "Wild in the Street"s and "Night of the Living Dead"; feminist protests against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; the “shot heard round the world” photo of a Vietnamese prisoner’s execution; the Mexican Olympics and the protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos; the shooting of Andy Warhol by Valerie Solanas; the release of the USS Pueblo crew by North Korea; and the arrest of Timothy Leary in California on drug charges.

The events of that year proved to be far too big for Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval (2018) by Kyle Longley, a history professor at Arizona State University, focuses on a number of crucial decisions Johnson made in 1968—just about all of which were disastrous. His refusal to bend over Vietnam represented little more than the victory of hope over experience; he heard what he wanted to hear and ignored the reality of the war America was losing. Moreover, Johnson knew that the 1968 Republican candidate Richard Nixon was working with Henry Kissinger to undermine peace talks with the Vietnamese, thereby helping Nixon’s own campaign in an action bordering on treason. Afraid that he would be viewed as trying to help Hubert Humphrey, Johnson refused to make Nixon’s efforts public, even when the press got wind of what was going on. For a man so adept in the ways of power, LBJ experienced 1968 as a long year of impotence.

Prague offers one more example of Johnson’s fecklessness. Determined not to undermine plans for a summit with Soviet leaders, Johnson chose not to contest the claims made by Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, that the Russians, in invading Prague, were simply trying to protect the Czechs from their own folly. This was, as LBJ’s adviser Clark Clifford put it, “a shattering moment, not only for Lyndon Johnson and his dreams, but for the nation and the world. History was taking a turn in the wrong direction that day, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it.” As brilliant as his political instincts were in the domestic realm, Johnson simply did not have the judgment to deal effectively with the global challenges that 1968 posed to America. Johnson not only botched both the war and the peace; he helped squash Hubert Humphrey’s attempt to replace him.

Compared to Hanoi and Prague, the Miss America contest that took place in Atlantic City in September 1968 may seem like small potatoes. In retrospect, it was an event of major significance. Reading all of these books on 1968, it is astonishing to recall that all the major decision-makers in the United States were men, with the noteworthy exception of Anna Chennault of the “China Lobby,” who helped further Richard Nixon’s duplicity by pleading with South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu to resist signing any peace deal. The most vivid example is provided by the 14 so-called “wise men” who in March 1968 urged LBJ to begin to disengage from Vietnam; they were all male, white, and with two exceptions (Abe Fortas, a Jew, and Robert Murphy, a Catholic), Protestant. It is little wonder that feminist activists chose to protest against what they called the “degrading, mindless-boob-girlie symbol” represented by the pageant.

As if trying to mimic the ruling class they were seeking to oust, the New Left movements of 1968 were also dominated by men, many of them with the most reactionary attitudes toward women one can imagine. In 1964, Stokely Carmichael, then a field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, declared that “the only position for women in SNCC” was “prone [sic, supine].” In the early days of organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, too, women’s voices were rarely heard, and the issue of gender equality garnered little attention. Among young radical men, free sex and drugs fueled fatal posturings of machismo and an atmosphere in which women were expected to reward courageous draft resisters with their bodies. It would not be long before those women formed, partly from these experiences, a radical critique of power relations between the sexes.

As if the events of 1968 were taking place in a totally different world, that year saw in the United States the election of Richard Nixon. Lawrence O’Donnell published a history of the 1968 campaign last year, and this year has produced, so far, at least half a dozen more treatments. For the most part, they cover the same stories, relating how Allard Lowenstein, an activist and aspiring politician, searched for a protest candidate to challenge Johnson and eventually persuaded the otherwise ambivalent Eugene McCarthy to run, and how after McCarthy’s surprising performance in New Hampshire, Robert Kennedy jumped in. Johnson surprised everyone by withdrawing from the race (although he made clear that he would accept a draft); Hubert Humphrey experienced repeated humiliation from LBJ before, at the very last minute, finding his voice; Ronald Reagan made his first run for national office; George Wallace and his independent candidacy displayed a bit of Trumpism before Trump; and Nixon chose, of all potential leaders, Spiro Agnew to be his running mate.

Charles Kaiser’s 1968 in America—published 30 years ago and now reprinted for the 50th anniversary—magically conveys the spirit of the times, blending his treatment of the election that gave us Nixon with the culture that gave us Grace Slick, Jim Morrison, and Marvin Gaye. Kaiser’s chapter on rock and roll is, in fact, the best in the book. He identifies as the “one man” who “did more than anyone else to break down the barriers that had traditionally kept American musicians apart” in the years before 1968 John Henry Hammond Jr. Born to wealth—his mother was a Vanderbilt—Hammond possessed an astonishing ability to discover talent and, more importantly, to cross racial lines in bringing that talent together. Without him, Billie Holiday, Sonny Terry, and Aretha Franklin, among many others, might still be unknown to white audiences.

Kaiser downplays, wrongly I believe, just how much white musicians essentially stole from black artists. But he rightly understands how much the tumult of the times shook all previous alignments, including racial ones. “Through television,” Kaiser concludes, “the Vietnam generation participated in a terrible tide of death and destruction as the political center repeatedly failed to hold during the balance of the years. But in their worst moments, the children of the sixties took solace from the music that kept rolling out of the radio.”

So what shall we make of this year of discontent? Richard Vinen concludes his book, easily the very best of the newly published ones being considered here, with this observation: few 68ers became hippies on communes, terrorists, government ministers or multimillionaires but the majority had unspectacular careers that often involved a degree of self-sacrifice.” I think he gets the balance precisely correct: 1968 without question changed lives, but it is an open question how much it changed societies—and in what direction.

1968 certainly changed me. Graduating college in 1963, the closest I had come to politics was a brief fascination, common among young male idealists at the time, with the novels of Ayn Rand. Having outgrown her simplemindedness but unsure what to believe next, I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to enter graduate school at Vanderbilt, a sure way, I correctly believed, to escape the draft. What came next quickly became obvious. Overt, explicit, state-enforced racial segregation, which I encountered in Nashville’s streets in the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, was so blatantly unjust that not protesting against it became unthinkable.

Arrested, jailed, and tried (fortunately the case was eventually dismissed), I encountered among fellow protesters, many of them students at either Fisk or Tennessee A. & I. (now Tennessee State), a sense of moral urgency, a compelling love of gospel music, and a commitment to lives of purpose that put me and my white, middle-class typicality to shame. When my arrest made the hometown newspapers in my native Philadelphia, my mother flew down to Nashville to make sure I was OK. I took her to hear Martin Luther King Jr. preach in a black church, and she never stopped talking about it afterward.

It was said at the time that the personal was political, but for me that phrase took on special meaning. I left Vanderbilt before one year was up when my wife, Brenda, who had had a persistent cough that turned out to be a deadly form of cancer, died soon after our marriage. Just over three years later, my sister Bonnie was taken ill, and she too passed away, this time from an inflamed colon. A few weeks after that, Martin Luther King was shot, then, in just two months more, so was Robert Kennedy. I had already been involved in left-wing politics, but the deaths that took place that year transformed my indignation over racial discrimination in the South and cruelty in Vietnam into powerful and frequently destructive anger: There I was in the streets, cheering slogans, risking arrest, inhaling tear gas, occupying buildings, flirting with Marxist theories, giving advice to students, rejecting King’s nonviolence, and experimenting with sex and drugs. For me, 1968 was a time of both liberation and despair. I literally did not know which end was up.

I was all of 26 years old in 1968. I had never been outside the United States, never lived in anything but a middle-class environment, and, save for one week, never worked in a nine-to-five job. But here I was telling people how to make the world a better place. I shudder now, 50 years on, to recall the know-it-all I was then. But 1968 was capable of doing that sort of thing. Thirty, Jerry Rubin had announced, was the cut-off point, and I still had four years to go. Because the whole world was going up in flames, we knew we must have been doing something right.

In subsequent years, 1968 brought about more than its share of recriminations. A number of writers and intellectuals, some of whom were my building-occupying comrades, expressed “second thoughts” about the radicalism of their youth. My mind does not work that way. To be sure, when I think back to 1968, I shudder at my immaturity, selfishness, and lack of responsibility: The events of that year were changing people, and I was in desperate need of change. Yet all the mistakes I made back then leave me with little or no sense of shame: Dostoyevskian reflections are not my cup of tea. Not even the horror of the Trump years can make me forget all the lies told by Lyndon Baines Johnson to justify the deaths his political cowardice caused in Vietnam.

Once you had seen someone like Spiro Agnew elevated to the vice presidency there seemed no bottom to how low American politics could sink. To be sure, Sarah Palin came close, but she never actually held national office. In 1968, the politics of race had not yet turned in a nationalistic direction, and identity politics was just in the process of formation. Was I wrong to have been swept up in the more exotic manifestations of that year? Knowing how young I was then and how much tragedy I had experienced, I do not think so. I was an idealist at an idealistic moment. That is not a bad place to begin the process of maturing.

Since 1968, America has gone off in a different direction than I had hoped: Reagan, Nixon, and Trump are not the kind of leaders we had in mind back then. In 1968, I would have settled for nothing less than socialism. Twenty-five years after that, something like a European welfare state would have made me happy. Today, just having a reliable subway system appears utopian. The French Revolution, however violent, uprooted the monarchy. The Russian Revolution, however perverse, produced an experiment, albeit a failed one, in economic planning. 1968 not only failed to achieve most of its goals, it set politics off in the wrong direction.

Yet the story does not end there. It pleases me beyond measure that young people today are leading so much of the opposition to Trump, the reactionary right, and the NRA. Let them have much of what I had in those glorious but also frightening years: burning conviction, solidarity, euphoria. Only this time, let them win. # # #

[Alan Wolfe was the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Professor of Political Science at Boston College from 1999 until his retirement in 2016. Wolfe is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including, most recently, The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity (forthcoming October 6, 2018). He received a BS (political science) from Temple University (PA) and a PhD (political science) from the University of Pennsylvania.]

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Today, Joseph O'Neill Provides A Lawyerly Interpretation Of The Life & Work Of Philip Roth

Of the books written by Philip Roth, this blogger was most affected by Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Patrimony: A True Story (1991). The former work was given a respectful treatment in the film version (1969). The latter book described Roth's interaction with his father at the end of the father's life. If this is (fair & balanced) appreciation of gigantic literary talent, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
Roth v. Roth v. Roth
By Joseph O'Neill

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Nowadays, to attempt a critical investigation of the work of Philip Roth is to put oneself in the humiliating position of the flatfoot arriving at the scene of the crime only to discover that, yet again, he’s been beaten to it by the private eye, the eye who has not just cracked the case but got the girl and held the press conference. The eye is, of course, Roth himself. Any idea that might occur to us about the author has already occurred to him, only more intelligently. Roth, for these purposes, includes his brilliantly self-diagnosing and self-disputing writer-narrators Nathan Zuckerman, Peter Tarnopol, David Kepesh, and of course the invented character Philip Roth, Roth the author of fiction, Roth the (pseudo) memoirist, and Roth the interviewee, self-interviewer, and essayist. His first collection of critical writings is titled Reading Myself and Others: (1961, 2001) not only does he read himself like a book, he reads us like a book, too. Still, we must plod on. A crime has been committed and someone has to do the paperwork. Moreover, there is something fishy about the case: the perp, by his own confession, is none other than the private eye. Philip Roth did it.

Before we can go further into this conflation of art and criminality—before we can go anywhere—we must get some kind of a handle on the corpus. A new Roth publication these days includes, in the front matter, a “Books by Philip Roth” page on which his works are listed in subgroups (devised by the author, I assume) such as “Zuckerman Books” and “Roth Books” and “Nemeses: Short Novels.” The 31 (so far) titles course all the way down the page until they reach the distinctly deltaic shape made by “Other Books.” We’re looking at a kind of Nile of writing.

It is hard to contemplate a body of work of such magnitude and grandeur without a little melancholy. Few literary writers younger than, say, 60 have much chance of achieving a comparable yield, and one wonders how many would even want to. The Rothic dedication to productivity seems anachronistic, even uncalled-for, in a culture ever less hospitable to the demands made by a lengthy written text, the most basic being that the reader sit down for hours without some powerful electronic agitation of the senses. Roth himself has predicted—with excessive gloom, I hope—that before long the reading of novels will occupy a niche not much more significant than the one currently occupied by the reading of poems in Latin. But neither pessimism nor, phenomenally, age has held Roth back. Since 2000 he has come out with eight books, and that’s not counting the seven volumes of Library of America definitive editions, most recently The American Trilogy (2011), comprising American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). As Philip Roth pushes 80, the writing flows out of him more voluminously and urgently than ever.

I suppose there are people who believe that even good novels spring from an instrumental urge on the part of the writer to explore his “themes.” If that were true, the work of Philip Roth would be largely reducible to his pressing and often recurrent interest in Jews in America (and Israel and Europe); the social history of Newark; sex; marriage; illness and aging; the prostate gland; pain; persecution and disgrace; the political landscape of post-war America; masturbation; death; writing; identity and masquerade; desire; life; Nixon; racial and sexual politics; childhood; the dealings of men and women; and baseball. (Roth himself has compared his repertoire to his father’s conversation: “Family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew.”) But of course, there is no reason why such preoccupations, of neutral worth in themselves, would result in writing rather than some other activity—chatter, say. Furthermore, themes come and go. If we dropped Philip Roth on a cartoon desert island, we could expect a book featuring a solitary palm tree and the predicament of a fictional Philip Roth marooned on a desert island.

This last scenario would suggest an autobiographical critique. Roth writes about himself: to know the life is to know the work. Certainly, by using narrators who are nominally Roth or may be easily taken to be his shadows, he may be understood to be inviting such an approach. Also, hasn’t he admitted to being an “autobiographical writer” whose only real beef, in this regard, is with misconceptions surrounding “the autobiographical writer that I am thought to be”? Hasn’t he written of “the facts” as his “way of springing into fiction”? Maybe so; but as someone who has trouble reading even autobiographies as fact and finds mostly arid the concept of a novel as a portal to its author, I receive Roth’s stories with a no doubt simplistic acceptance of the fictivity they obviously (albeit postmodernly) assert. In this sense, I take his fiction at face value, even as the very notion of the face as a site of value is put in question by the “masks, disguises, distortions, and lies” with which Roth imagines actuality.

Still, one must take into account certain basic facts. Roth himself has done so, in The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988, 1997).

Philip Roth comes, as used to be said, from nothing, his nothing being a densely Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, named Weequahic. The grandson of Galician immigrants, he grew up as the “good boy” and the “gorged beneficiary” of a gentle, domestically expert mother “who raised housekeeping in America to a great art” and of a loving, bossy father educated only through eighth grade but determined and able enough to ascend into middle management at Metropolitan Life. Family and community enabled Roth to enjoy the “intensely secure and protected childhood” that we recognize as Nathan Zuckerman’s in American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and that we encounter also in those fruitfully nostalgic short novels Everyman (2006) and Nemesis (2010). Even as an adult, Roth remained powerfully filial. Parental presences are strong in his prodigious debut, the story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959); in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969); in the underestimated tragicomedy My Life as a Man (1974); and in the irregular roman-fleuve of the Zuckerman stories. Over the course of these and other books, mother and father figures, troublesomely overbearing at first, appear in a progressively heroic and frankly loving light. The weight and fragility of sonhood is most directly evidenced in Roth’s nonfiction. He has written movingly, if relatively briefly, about his mother (“who still, in my mind, seems to have died inexplicably—at seventy-seven in 1981”) and extensively about his father, who died in 1989. In his marvelous paternal portrait, Patrimony: A True Story (1991), Roth realizes:

If not in my books or in my life, at least in my dreams I would live perennially as [my father’s] little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father, sitting in judgment on whatever I do.

Beyond family are the professional and the personal. Roth’s celebrated professional life needs little elaboration. He is the most prizewinning English-writing author alive, even though one or more Swedish blackballers continue to deny him the Nobel. No one can say that Roth has not always worked very hard. He seems to be in the grip of an artistic dedication that, if it is anything like Zuckerman’s, involves a fear of all connections and activities that threaten to separate even briefly the writer from his desk.

As for the personal, Roth, though evidently blessed with decent health, has not enjoyed immunity from life’s distressing hazards, which in his case include a “crack-up” in his mid-50s and two marriages that came to grief. The second of these was to the English actress Claire Bloom. Bloom wrote a memoir, presumably not postmodern, touching on their marriage, but Roth has not gone there. His first marriage, on the other hand, became a source of anguished written reflection, notably in The Facts and also in My Life as a Man, a novel that in key passages “precisely duplicates the autobiographical.”

At 23, Roth became romantically involved with Margaret Martinson Williams, a divorcée and noncustodial parent of two children. She worked at the University of Chicago in a secretarial job, he (after short-lived graduate studies) as a composition instructor. Williams, four years his senior, was “blond without” but also, as a consequence perhaps of a miserable Michigan upbringing and an early marriage gone very wrong, “raving within.” Grounded in an estimation of her as “a woman of courage and strength for having survived that awful background,” and animated—according to the self-analysis offered in The Facts—by a kind of rescue complex and by the desire “to work at life under more difficult conditions,” young Roth pursued the relationship. After more than two years of wildly driving through marital red lights—crazy quarrels, reproductive fraud (Williams faked a pregnancy and an abortion), separations, and other irresistible evidence of incompatibility—Roth, acting under the influence of “a disastrously confused, unaccountable sense of personal obligation,” wed Williams in 1959. The union was as bad as he could have subconsciously hoped for. Williams withheld her consent to a divorce; nevertheless, Roth was forced to make onerous alimony payments that ended only when she was killed in an automobile accident in Central Park in 1968.

Aside from Roth v. Roth, the great contentious drama of this period was Certain Hyperanxious Jews v. Roth: the brouhaha involving the author and a small, loud portion of American Jewry that, beginning with the appearance of Roth’s early short story “Defender of the Faith,” accused him of anti-Semitism and other tribal wrongs. On this subject, Roth saw fit to abandon his desk. He gave talks, wrote articles, took part in symposia, submitted to public questioning. From this distance, it all seems a little overblown. How could anyone credibly maintain that Roth’s writing at any point damaged or even dented (perceived) Jewish interests—or vice versa? Even allowing for the sensitivities arising from his membership in a Jewish generation confronted in the United States with educational and professional bias and confronted elsewhere with genocidal murder, the degree to which Roth took the complaints to heart—and, by his public appearances, voluntarily fanned them—is striking.

This entertaining episode of mutual paranoia illustrates the productive grandiosity that so often (and of course self-consciously) energizes Roth. Grandiosity is an obvious comic ingredient in such novels as Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993); more subtly, it underlies and draws our attention to the adversarial moral excitement that is central to almost everything Roth has written.

As a youth, Philip Roth aspired to the legal profession: before transferring to Bucknell University, he was a pre-law student at Rutgers University’s Newark campus. To judge from his literary performance, he’d have made a terrific litigator, and not only because he would have been ready to work at all hours.

Especially in many of his mature works, Roth proceeds, like a lawyer, arguendo: the novelistic inquiry asserts a factual premise, makes fiction’s argument based on that premise, then makes a different argument based on factual assumptions put in the alternative to the initial factual assumption. The Counterlife (1986) offers a famous example. Nathan Zuckerman’s brother, Henry, suffers from a heart condition that finally kills him; alternatively, Henry survives the heart condition and emigrates to Israel; alternatively, Nathan and not Henry suffers from the heart condition. This system also arises in a more theoretical context. In Operation Shylock, it is averred that the book is a factual account by Philip Roth of an Israeli adventure that resulted in his real-life recruitment by the Mossad (Roth gave a very funny metafictional interview to The New York Times confirming the book’s purely factual nature); alternatively, and save the aforesaid, the book is part factual, part fictional, and is to be read mutatis mutandis; in the further alternative, and without prejudice to the foregoing, the book is a work of fiction.

What, though, is at issue in these proceedings? My Life as a Man ends with Peter Tarnopol having finally seen off his horribly antagonistic wife. Turning, he sees his new girlfriend sitting there, waiting. “Oh, my God, I thought—now you. You being you! And me! This me who is me being me and none other!” Here is one fundamental, never-ending suit that cannot be settled: that between the self and the other. In question is the ethics of human proximity, with special reference to the conflicts of interest created by the demands of love and/or marriage. Then there is the matter, unusually important in Roth’s writing, of self and community. And finally, of course, there is the quarrel that subsumes every other: Self v. Self v. Self v. Self, ad infinitum. Hedonist Roth v. Hermit Roth v. Husband Roth v. Good-Son Roth v. Bad-Jew Roth v. Good-Jew Roth v. Zionist Roth v. Diasporist Roth v. American Roth v. Israeli Roth v. Child Roth v. Adult Roth. It adds up to “a kind of intricate explanation to myself of my world,” as he has put it, rather mildly. Or, as a youthful character in American Pastoral says, “He’s someone who is very caught up in issues of right and wrong and being punished for doing wrong and the prohibitions against sex.”

No wonder so many Roth novels turn on unjust condemnations: the hounding of Coleman Silk on charges of racism and sexism; the destruction of Ira Ringold for membership in the Communist Party; the wrongful expulsion of Marcus Messner from college; the public disgrace of Mickey Sabbath for sexual misconduct; the bringing-down of blameless Swede Levov by cruel life itself.... The legalistic bent of these dramatic undertakings is heightened by the often summary nature of Roth’s speedily expository prose, in which he freely disregards the workshop rule of showing and not telling. Everyman is a wonderful instance of this almost post-novelistic method—it reads practically like a set of medicolegal findings, only terrifically so. “His special talent,” Zuckerman helpfully writes about someone, “was for dramatizing inquiry, for casting a strong narrative spell even when he was being strictly analytic.”

Much of the action in these novels takes the form of the claims and counterclaims and rationalizations and cross-examinations and mea culpas and shame-on-yous pronounced by the disputants or bystanders. Consequently, the characters deliver long, brilliantly penetrating monologues that contradict the verbal and psychological realism with which their worlds are otherwise presented. How does Roth get away with it? You could say that the problem doesn’t even arise in the Zuckerman books—after all, if Nathan Zuckerman in his writing takes liberties with reported speech, that is a matter for him, not Philip Roth, to answer for. (Clever author, to eat his cake and have it too.) You could also defend the inconsistency pragmatically: the characters’ implausible oral powers of advocacy are a price you happily pay for the writing’s overall true-to-lifeness. Theatrical plays can work this way. (As it happens, Roth has a weakness for play-like dialogue that is, in fact, a weakness. Deception [1990], written entirely in the form of conversations, is unproductively hard going, and the playlets scattered in some of his novels have a low wattage.)

But the actual reason we accept unreal speechifying in Roth’s books is, of course, that he is an extraordinarily good artist, good enough to create his own idiosyncratic but persuasive version of reality. This is from the wonderful early pages of American Pastoral:

Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakeable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.

Note the two long sentences, written to be wolfed down. Note the final heart-stopper. Note the boyish innocence of the observer, that susceptibility to faith that is a prerequisite of susceptibility to scandalization. Can You Believe It?—that could be the subtitle of any of Roth’s books; he cannot stop being taken aback. “To record, one must be unwary,” noted F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the appealing things about Philip Roth is that the more he clothes himself in knowingness and worldliness, the more he reveals his inextinguishable Adamic innocence.

And he’s very funny. How about Cousin Apter, the Holocaust-surviving painter bothered by the fact that “even Hitler painted better than I do”? Or “wicked” Mickey Sabbath, he of the “dog-red cock”? Or Milton Appel, the voluble, repulsive pornographer whom Zuckerman reinvents himself as? Or poor David Kepesh, transformed into a giant breast by reason of “an endocrinopathic catastrophe”?

The Breast notwithstanding, reservations have been expressed about the stubborn masculinity of Roth’s fiction, in which, moreover, there is no shortage of women who are paragons of femininity, who are sexual playthings, or who are (enter Lucy Nelson, Sybil Van Buren, Katrina Van Tassel Grant, Delphine Roux, Eve Frame and her sinister daughter, Sylphid …) nemeses of men. I suppose it would be possible to mount a detailed defense of, or attack on, the author on charges of gender misrepresentation, but that seems beside the point in Roth’s case. Surely it is beyond serious dispute that he writes with all the probity and bravery at his disposal, and thus with a remarkably subjective candor that is inevitably and indeed conscientiously male—and Jewish, and white, and heterosexual. That being so, I read all his work with ethical trust, a trust that remains unbroken even when his constructs do not meet with my imaginative agreement.

But things are not that straightforward: the trust of the reader is distrusted by Roth. Hence the games he plays with authorial identity and with crossing our lines of decency. It’s as if the only ethically tolerable situation, for Roth the artist, is that of being under permanent accusation—his most diligent accuser being himself. And what is the accusation? That, in breach of the paternal injunction, he is not being good. That he is being bad. But the world is what it is. Philip Roth can rewrite it, can protest it, can serve as our proxy vexatious litigant against the indifferent respondent gods—but he cannot make it otherwise. Philip, it’s not your fault. You didn’t do it, son. # # #

[Joseph O'Neill is an Irish novelist and non-fiction writer. O'Neill's novel Netherland (2008) was awarded the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received an LL.B. (law) from Cambridge University (UK). O'Neill is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Written Arts at BArd College (NY).]

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Despite Media Reports Day After Miserable Day, At Bottom There Is Only One Trump Scandal: Corruption

The myriad Trump scandals obscures the fact that the "scandals" are all elements of one massive tale of corruption. This was the subtitle for today's essay by Adam Serwer. In other words, the vast number of "scandals" divert attention from cesspool of corruption that is the reign of the current occupant of the Oval Office. One vast oozing ulcer of corruption that opened on January 17, 2018. If this is (fair & balanced) analysis of criminal behavior, so be it.

PS: Yesterday post lacked a header because this blogger could not find the error in that scrap of code. And so, the last word from this blogger yesterday was "Fuhgeddaboudit" as he hit the Publish button.

[x The Atlantic]
There Is Only One Trump Scandal
By Adam Serwer

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The sheer volume of Trump scandals can seem difficult to keep track of.

There’s the ongoing special-counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign aided a Russian campaign to aid Trump’s candidacy and defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton; there’s the associated inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice when he fired former FBI Director James Comey, whom he had asked not to investigate his former national-security adviser; there are the president’s hush-money payments to women with whom he allegedly had extramarital affairs, made through his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and facilitated by corporate cash paid to influence the White House; there is his ongoing effort to interfere with the Russia inquiry and politicize federal law enforcement; there are the foreign governments that seem to be utilizing the president’s properties as vehicles for influencing administration policy; there’s the emerging evidence that Trump campaign officials sought aid not only from Russia, but from other foreign countries, which may have affected Trump’s foreign policy; there are the ongoing revelations of the president’s Cabinet officials’ misusing taxpayer funds; there is the accumulating evidence that administration decisions are made at the behest of private industry, in particular those in which Republican donors have significant interests.

The preceding wall of text may appear to some as an abridged list of the Trump administration’s scandals, but this is an illusion created by the perception that these are all separate affairs. Viewed as such, the various Trump scandals can seem multifarious and overpowering, and difficult to fathom.

There are not many Trump scandals. There is one Trump scandal [italics for emphasis]. Singular: the corruption of the American government by the president and his associates, who are using their official power for personal and financial gain rather than for the welfare of the American people, and their attempts to shield that corruption from political consequences, public scrutiny, or legal accountability.

Take recent developments: There’s the president’s attempt to aid the Chinese telecom company ZTE, mere hours after the Chinese government approved funding for a project in the vicinity of a Trump property in Indonesia. There’s the millions of dollars corporations paid to Cohen after the election in an attempt to influence administration policy in their favor. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, also the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, urged banks to pay off politicians in an effort to weaken the CFPB’s power legislatively—since taking the helm of CFPB, Mulvaney has dropped a number of cases against payday lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates, after taking thousands from the industry as a congressman. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s own mini-universe of scandals stems from his improper relationships with industry figures, his misuse of taxpayer funds, and his attempts to obscure the truth about both. Trump attempted to pressure the Postmaster General to increase fees on Amazon in order to punish The Washington Post, which has published many stories detailing wrongdoing and misbehavior on the part of the Trump administration, and the Trump campaign before that. Not long after The New York Times reported that Trump officials may have solicited campaign help not just from Russia, but also from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the president “demanded” that the Justice Department launch an inquiry into whether the FBI improperly investigated a campaign that was eagerly soliciting international aid to swing the election in its favor.

In each of these cases, the president or one of his associates was seeking to profit, personally or financially, from their official duties and powers. When that conduct has potentially run afoul of the law, Trump has sought to bend federal law enforcement to his whim, the better to protect himself and his associates from legal accountability. The president’s ongoing chastising of his own Justice Department, and his war of words with current and former FBI officials, stem less from any coherent ideological principle than from Trump’s desperate need to protect himself. An authoritarian model of law enforcement, where the president personally decides who is prosecuted and who is not based on his own political agenda, is simply the best way for Trump to shield himself and his inner circle from legal consequences.

The president’s opponents have yet to craft a coherent narrative about the Trump administration’s corruption, even though the only major legislative accomplishment Trump has to his name is cutting his own taxes. But his supporters have, ironically, crafted an overarching explanation to account for how the president they voted for, who came to office promising to eliminate official corruption, has come to embody it. The “Deep State” narrative is no more complicated than an attempt to explain the accumulating evidence of misbehavior on the part of the administration as a wide-ranging conspiracy to frame the president. The more evidence of wrongdoing that comes to light, the more certain they are that the conspiracy theory is true. In their own way, Trump supporters have recognized that Trump’s burgeoning list of scandals is made of branches from the same twisted tree.

The latest Trumptown fable, that the FBI inquiry into the Trump campaign was meant to aid Clinton’s campaign, is as incoherent as it is absurd. The FBI properly kept the Russia inquiry under wraps while high-ranking FBI officials defied Justice Department rules and made public statements about two inquiries into Clinton prior to election day. Neither of those inquiries led to indictments or guilty pleas; the special-counsel inquiry has led to more than 20 so far. Had the FBI been motivated by a political vendetta against Trump, leaking the fact of the inquiry on its own, even if it uncovered no malfeasance at all, would have been enough to damage his candidacy. The essential quality of pro-Trump punditry however, is that their perception of reality must be warped to conform to the latest Trump proclamation, even if it contradicts previous Trump pronouncements or established facts. Trump dictates reality, and his supporters rush to justify whatever has been decreed. In this way, Trump manages to corrupt not just those in his immediate orbit or inner circle, but even those who have never met him, who endeavor to reconcile the insurmountable gap between his words and the world as it exists.

I want to emphasize that not everything the administration is doing that I believe is bad is a scandal, which I am defining as official wrongdoing or corruption. The president’s ongoing immigration policy, an attempt to displace, through aggressive deportations of otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants, and the cancellation of Temporary Protected Status and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is a moral travesty but not necessarily a misuse of his official powers. Trump’s immigration policy is a reflection of his belief that these people from “shithole countries” are inferior, and therefore offer little to the United States. He is hardly the first president to pursue such a policy on such a basis; but a policy can be morally repugnant without being a scandal.

The president’s unwavering commitment to this ethnonationalism persuades his followers that he is incorruptible, despite his use of his own powers for personal gain and profit. “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened,” the segregationist George Wallace once said of his rise to power. “And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.” (These days, they stomp the floor for “son of a bitch” or “animals.”) Any effective hustle persuades the mark that they’re the ones profiting.

For those Americans unmoved by such appeals, the ongoing corruption of the official powers of the US government on behalf of ego, avarice, and impunity should not be seen as separate stories. They are the same story, and it is the story of the Trump presidency. # # #

[Adam Serwer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, covering politics. Prior to joining The Atlantic, Serwer was a reporter at both Mother Jones and MSNBC and also a national editor at BuzzFeed. He received a BA (English) from Vassar College (NY) and an MS (journalism)from Columbia University (NY).]

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Today's 'toon provides a reverse view of our current world from the warped perspective of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Speaking of the reverse view, here's Dan/Tom's accompanying e-mail

Hey all,

Crazy hectic week, so not much additional verbiate for you this week. To make up for it, here's a photo of me and my friend David Klion hanging out with Trump associate Felix Sater. (Our friend Molly Jong-Fast throws some really interesting dinner parties.) (You can read about Felix here.)

Which Is More Bizarre — The View From The Current Occupant Of The Office's Brain Or, A Cartoonist Socializing With Felix Sater (Previously Appeared In The Mueller Investigation)?

[x TMW]
The View From Trump's Brain
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow." His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political blog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. Even more recently, Dan Perkins was a runner-up for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.]

Copyright © 2018 This Modern World/Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Current Occupant Of The Oval Office Wouldn't Recognize An Aristotelian Virtue If It Came To Life And Kicked Him Where He Sits (At The Front Edge Of A Chair)

Harvey Mansfield was the principal doyen in a field known as neo-conservatism at Harvard University. His students included Charles R. Kesler, Mark Blitz, Andrew Sullivan, Alan Keyes, William Kristol, Clifford Orwin, Paul Cantor, Delba Winthrop, Mark Lilla, Francis Fukuyama, and Shen Tong. It would seem that Mansfield is concerned over the behavior of the current occupant of the Oval Office and this review essay about Aristotle's influence on our history and government (prior to January 21, 2017). If this is (fair & balanced) philosophical cricism, so be it.

[x The Weekly Standard]
Stuck In The Middle With Virtue — Lessons From Aristotle For American Self-government
By Harvey Mansfield

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Here is a fine comparison of America’s founders with Aristotle on the value of a middle class. Aristotle wrote the first treatise on politics, and the world still uses the word “politics” as abundantly as if there were none other that would do. And Aristotle’s politics featured the middle class, which we also call by name but do not praise so markedly. Our liberalism based on individual rights makes us suspicious of politics and of reliance on the virtue of a class. Is the similarity between Aristotle and America merely nominal or has Aristotle stated a truth on which we depend? This is the question of Leslie Rubin’s compact and important study, America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class (2018).

It begins by establishing Aristotle’s thought on the middle class. The basis for politics, given at the start of Aristotle’s treatise, is the reasoned speech with which men distinguish good and bad, useful and harmful, just and unjust. With these notions they claim the power to rule their city or country not merely in order to be on top but to be there for a purpose. In that purpose—some view of the good life chosen and defended—lies the nobility of politics as opposed to mere power-seeking. The purpose can be stated in many ways, but the most characteristic difference is between those who want to include all in the city and those who want to prefer the best or strongest or richest. The former are democrats calling as they do today for inclusiveness in the common good; the latter are oligarchs, insisting on recognition of the greater value of their contribution to the common good. Between these two extremes lies the middle class, the “middling element” that is Aristotle’s concern and Leslie Rubin’s topic.

Both democrats and oligarchs seem to have a point, a partial truth that seems opposed to a corresponding partial truth. For how can everyone be included without lowering the standard for inclusion? And if on the other hand the standard is high, how will one supply the needs of the rulers and deal with those who are excluded? Some compromise in the rule of a middle class seems necessary and desirable. But Aristotle in his treatise on ethics, where he describes virtue as a mean, goes further than compromise. The way of virtue is at a mean between too much and too little of a quality, for example the virtue of courage between rashness and timidity. Here the extremes are not two partial truths but two vices, and the mean is not a compromise of extremes but the better way between them of virtue. Applied to politics, the virtuous mean turns democracy and oligarchy into failures. Whether the middle class between rich and poor can reach this standard of moderate virtue is very uncertain, but at least by its middle situation it remains pinched between two classes it fears, eager for self-defense and ready for compromise.

This is the Aristotelian analysis Rubin finds especially in Book 4 of Aristotle’s Politics, devoted to modes of improvement and reform and setting forth the model of “polity,” the standard of reform that stands between oligarchy and democracy. How, then, does America fit this analysis, based on the possible virtue of the middle class? For this Rubin addresses the Founders, but not so much Publius. Publius was the pseudonym of the authors of The Federalist, written in defense of the Constitution and relying on institutions and a large, various country to provide checks and balances. Rubin studies John Adams, John Dickinson, Noah Webster, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, and others describing and promoting in addition to constitutional structure the value of a middle class to a new republic.

Our liberalism, deriving from the thought of John Locke, begins from the state of nature, to escape which government is instituted by consent, rather than from Aristotle’s picture of political argument in an active regime. Liberal “consent” means consent to the rule of others elected to the job rather than ruling oneself or participating in a party of others similar to oneself. Political power is exercised not for a version of the good life but for the defense and security of one’s rights, hence “power” for whatever purpose suits that necessity. Thus Publius in The Federalist speaks most obviously of the dangers of power rather than of its disputable ends: the danger of too much power in the government when one power encroaches on another, or too much power in the people when a majority threatens the rights of individuals or the aggregate interest of the whole people, or too little power when government lacks energy or proves unstable.

As to middle-class virtue, Locke’s liberalism centers on the increase and security of property as the main business of a free people rather than the business of self-government as with Aristotle. The result in America is the fashioning of what is today called “bourgeois virtue”—honesty, reliability, frugality, and industriousness—with the passion for nobility lacking or trimmed down (think “thank you for your service”).

Added to bourgeois virtue, but separate from it, is the sort of life of professionals in science and technology, who work for progress in knowledge as well as improvement in the standard of living. They have a touch of nobility for being in a common enterprise of human perfectibility, but for that reason they share in the apolitical character of bourgeois virtue. Propertied virtue and intellectual progress were designed by Locke (and of course his philosophic friends) to distract a free people from an Aristotelian notion of rule and to prevent them from destroying themselves by disputing over who should rule. The middle class according to Locke’s liberalism can protect its security and satisfy its cramped ambition by participating in elections that rotate politicians in office—rather than decide between or somehow mix the few and the many by ruling directly.

Still, the question remains whether attenuated liberal virtue is a testimony to Aristotle’s wisdom or a more or less successful replacement of it. These two judgments are not entirely inconsistent, but Leslie Rubin clearly prefers the former. For her, America’s Founders and America today would be at a loss without Aristotle, and particularly without his understanding of the middle class, on which America’s Founders depended to describe the people whose government they legislated. Her book is divided into a discussion of “Aristotle’s Republic” and “The American Founders’ Republic,” the first a careful analysis of the best text on politics ever composed, the second a collected discussion of the Founders on what she calls the “moral self-governance” of the middle class. The self-government of a free people is incomplete and unavailing if the free do not rule over those who are free because of their virtue. To be free one must take responsibility for rule, as Aristotle showed, and be neither distracted from nor disdainful of politics, as are so many today.

One must add that Leslie Rubin died in a street accident in October of last year. It is terrible to welcome this book and at the same time have to say adieu to its author. # # #

[Harvey Claflin Mansfield Jr. is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1962. Mansfield is the author and co-translator of studies of and/or by major political philosophers such as Aristotle, Edmund Burke, Niccolò Machiavelli, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Thomas Hobbes. He has held Guggenheim and NEH Fellowships and has been a Fellow at the National Humanities Center; he also received the National Humanities Medal in 2004 and delivered the Jefferson Lecture in 2007. Mansfield's most recent book is The Spirit of Liberalism (2014). See his other books here. Mansfield received both an AB (government) and a PhD (political science) from Harvard University (MA).]

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