Evening in America
I first met them on a sidewalk outside a friend’s house at the end of a party. She was somewhat drunk and he was comforting her. I could not remember where I had met her previously, but I had the distinct impression our paths had already crossed at the university we both attended. Everything was hazy when I was young, which made me very impressionable. She spoke both quickly and loudly, switching from English to French and back again with facility, though on this occasion she spoke mainly to say she had drunk too much. Her man was bigger and older, a burly soft-spoken gentleman who took it all in his stride. When he spoke he spoke only in French, soaking up her distress and commenting on her somewhat of a rant with a reference or two to writers I had only recently come across in the pages of a journal dedicated to the liberation of Quebec. The writers had impressed me. The journal had impressed me. The liberation of Quebec had impressed me. But not him, who spoke of them with a slight intellectual disdain. I learned later he had known them or known their type from the clerical colleges he had attended, potential Jesuits who had traded their frocks for a red star with no real feel for what the ordinary workingman had to deal with. He could quote Hegel if necessary, but that too I only learned later. When he spoke of socialism it was Jean Jaures who escaped his lips and the fate of Belgian coal miners, which left me the impression I was in the presence of someone who, had he been an artist, would have been like Van Gogh painting his potato eaters. But at the time I knew little of Van Gogh and even less of the potato eaters. Nonetheless, I was impressed and drawn to the two of them, the man and the woman, and we became friends.
I went to their wedding. They came to mine. I saw them again in Paris a month before students tore up the city’s paving stones in a repeat performance of the Paris Commune. When she talked, I felt as though Paris were her second home. The street they lived on was straight out of Alexandre Dumas, though I did not know it at the time. He spoke in his usual low voice, methodical and melodious, explaining yet disparaging the vagaries of French political philosophy spearheaded by a man who would one day leap out of a window when he realized the Marxist gig was up. I left them a little less impressed by the world I was coming to know, a little better armed for the dialectical jousts that awaited me back home. But I was still a novice, definitely a novice, barely coming into his own.
And a novice I remained through setting up a municipal political party, bringing out an anarchist newspaper, organizing monthly talks in the city’s cafes to tease out the history of Montreal’s counter-culture, which included a sold-out crowd to witness a boxing match debate between the anarchists and Marxist-Leninists of the 1980s. My friends came to see the show and we had a good laugh afterwards when I told them how one of my respectable colleagues, who still leaned to the philosophy of the man who had not yet leaped out of the window, told me at least I and my anarchist friends had fun doing the political work we did. We did have fun, but we were naïve, even if our freedom-loving hearts were in the right place.
I fell off the grid after that, settled down to being a sociology professor who thought about the world instead of trying to change it. Even then I got in with the wrong crowd, still trying to marry dialectics to a picture of the world that saw it as inherently unjust, unfree, drastically in need of change. I must have been instinctively resistant to the task, for one of my colleagues with whom I played badminton always chided me for not being dialectical enough, even in badminton. One day I got a call from the woman of my friends the man and the woman. She had been asked to work on the new edition of a journal that had been in circulation three decades earlier. The journal had made a splash because it had challenged the hidebound Catholic culture of the times. In a climate of mounting separatist sentiment in Quebec its founders decided to relaunch it and asked her to help. She said she needed my help to say yes. I remembered that first time we met on the sidewalk outside a friend’s house and said yes. What else could I do, especially as now I was less impressed with the liberation of Quebec; less impressed indeed with everything?
Bringing out that journal was not quite like bringing out an anarchist newspaper, but it was fun. The editorial group was eclectic, our monthly meetings were uproarious. I penned articles on a computer for the first time and had trouble believing in their substantial reality even when they came out on paper. The woman half of my friends the man and the woman was ebullient and headstrong as usual. When she got an idea into her head which she could connect to a bit of history she would run with it, turning up the volume. Her husband, on the other hand, would turn it down, linking her impassioned outrage to his long-standing conviction that improvement was impossible without decency. He might even quote Victor Hugo, and she would come around, remembering the literature on which she had grown up rather than the one that grew up around her now. And though I was more and more taking a back seat from engagement with the world, turning more and more to observation which my reading of Luhmann taught me was my first and only sociological task, I was bound to this small enterprise with these two friends by a quarter century tie of affection and the need to get out of my house now and then.
The enterprise eventually wound down. I left the wrong crowd at the university and stopped playing badminton, dialectically inadequate as I was. I found solace in simply observing the modern world as it unfolded until my attention was drawn to the Middle East. One day I saw Egyptian students calling for Jewish blood on my television set and decided to return to study the country I had studied in my youth and the quagmire in which Israel now found itself, with Palestinian terrorists blowing up Jerusalem pizza parlors and supermarkets. I put my sociological training to work and wrote a piece on the situation which even the policy wonk journals would not publish. No one, it seemed, wanted observations that did not confirm their prejudices about justice, about who should merit it and who should pay for it. And so late in life I took up a cause again, better armed, less easily impressed by what the right-thinking left-wing crowd thought and about where history was leading us. All to no avail. My students attacked me when I defended Israel in the French press, my illiberal colleagues joined in, and I lost many of my friends. The woman half of my friends the man and the woman phoned me to talk about the situation, but her passion clouded her judgment and her husband was not around to temper the mindset which swirled about in the press. I took note. We gradually lost touch. I moved away from Montreal. But the other day her daughter got in touch with me via Facebook and asked if I could reach out to her mother. I did. I found out her husband had died. I was sad to learn that. She told me about him during his final hours. I could imagine him as she spoke, firm, quiet, agnostic, a man with goodness in his soul. I could sense her sadness and the comfort he still radiated though departed, like the comfort he radiated at her side on that sidewalk long ago and from which I drew sustenance myself when young and impressionable I rode to harriers.
I told her I would phone again, and I did. We talked about her husband, our children and grandchildren, the state of the world. She was as impassioned and voluble as ever. She went on and on about President Trump, of whom she thought as little as she thought of Ariel Sharon when he was Prime Minister of Israel, even as I sought to temper her remarks with some observations. I could see the press still swirled about in her head and when she put the phone down no husband would be there to calm her. I could see I had my work cut out, but that would await another call. For now I talked about how I learned to dry lettuce in a salad spinner that time I visited them in Paris, and when I put the phone down I thought about how from some people you can never really break off. You carry them around in your heart as you carry yourself when young, because they were part of your folly who did you no more grievous harm than you yourself did. Together you were part of the casual comedy. So now she and I will talk as crazy Jane talked to the bishop. And this is what I will say.
It is evening in America. In fact, it is evening all over the western world, a term which refers to a sociological rather than a geographical space. As a student of history, you remember Gibbon’s celebrated work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which many took to be a veiled commentary on the coming decline and fall of the British Empire in which he lived. Today there are no shortages of people ready to announce a similar fate for America, whose decline was foreseen with glee by one of Quebec’s celebrated filmmakers in a film which I had never seen in its entirety, though I took perverse delight in savaging it at dinner parties. When we spoke the other day, you readily took up the general disdain our intelligentsia still has for America, which they hide under their outspoken contempt for President Trump. I wish to assure you that this contempt is solidly unwarranted. One has only to look at his policies rather than at his person to see that, if anything, he has worked to reverse America’s decline, not as an empire, but as the most vibrant democracy of the western world. That his person has got in the way of his policies is one of the unfortunate paradoxes of our time, no less unfortunate, I might add, than the fact that his person is what stands for now in the way of precipitating that drift.
None of this hides the fact, however, that the sun is setting on that great experiment called modernity of which America has been emblematic. Not on the American empire, mind you, for America has never been an empire. Which does not mean America has not expanded its way of life across the globe and resorted at times to the usual dirty tricks of powerful nations in the course of doing so. It does however mean that America’s essence is its democracy, as de Tocqueville realized a long time ago, a democracy more full-fledged than the ones that painfully installed themselves in the Old Europe whose thinkers contributed to its advent. For democracy is the political expression of a functionally differentiated society as opposed to a hierarchical or class stratified society. Democracy is accompanied by a free market, an independent judiciary, the rise of science and art as domains independent of religious or moral censorship, and a host of other institutional features which make for a modern society at once complex and exhilarating. To this exhilarating complexity our generation contributed its share with our constant protests against unjust wars, unjust discrimination, demanding the unfettered expression of human liberty, pro-choice far beyond the abortion clinic. Only things have not worked out quite as we had anticipated.
The Black Lives Matter movement turned out, like the African-American political leadership in the United States, to be viciously anti-Semitic. Free thought is now heavily censored in western universities, the classics on which we were educated condemned as expressions of racists, misogynists and who knows what else. Language itself has been subverted to the point where the gender distinctions of male and female are legally ignored in a culture rampant with narcissism far beyond what the critical theorists themselves ever dreamed of. De Tocqueville’s nightmare vision of America, a generalized dissipation of the wellsprings of liberty intelligently and forcefully defended and advanced, seems to be riding triumphant. My favorite sociological theorist, Niklas Luhmann, put it differently when he wrote three decades ago that the antagonism between government and opposition risks making intelligent policy difficult, if not impossible, in the welfare state. All this has come to pass with nary a protest from the intellectuals ensconced in the academies of higher learning and the arts. Instead, the intelligentsia in the social sciences and humanities now proliferated in the media have exacerbated this antagonism, otherwise functional for the working of democracy, by deciding for themselves what is appropriate policy and what is not and excoriating the politicians and parties who disagree with their judgment.
The institution of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was a signature step in the evolution of human society. It meant that henceforth power was to be shared at the top. From this bifurcation of power the rest of democracy flowed, not least the extension of the suffrage, which meant that henceforth government and opposition would have to compete for the people’s favor. Conservatives and liberals, in the broadest connotations of those terms, would henceforth jockey for power, even though both government and opposition knew that every government would both preserve and innovate because that’s what modern society required. The opposition might resort to all kinds of dirty tricks, but the loyal component of the term loyal opposition signified that this jockeying went on within limits compatible with what society could support. When intellectuals decide that all this is a sham, that this functional compromise is a cover to prevent true, revolutionary change, and impose that version of politics on the political and social culture, they radicalize the prevailing discourse, turn opposition into denunciation, and burst asunder compromise in government and civility across the dinner table. Turning culture into politics under the guise of emancipating humanity and every oppressed minority they can think of which stands in for humanity, these intellectuals have absconded from their duty of observing and analyzing society, dictating instead how it should be. In short, they have become politicians without having to do any of the legwork involved in being a politician. Sociology, and the rest of the humanities which have taken to doing sociology, has become nothing short of moralism dressed up as social commentary. Its practitioners have become the new priestly class, dictating to society and the citizens who live in it how they should behave, much as the religious orders they despise used to do when the successors to the Holy Roman Empire sought to control social life under the aristocracy. I suppose it is fitting that they do so, given that they think the modern society we live in still suffers from the oppressive hand of privilege of all sorts.
It is this cognitive picture of society that is completely wrong. As usual with cognitive error, it brings in its wake all kinds of moral turpitude, not least of which is the current cultural implosion running rampant across western society and threatening its survival. There is a totalitarianism afoot in the domain of political and social thought, but it comes not from above, from the party or government, but from below, from citizens united against oppression, from major sports organizations supporting racist movements like Black Lives Matter, from universities condemning professors who dissent from the prevailing cognitive picture, from media hounding the duly elected President of the United States and accusing him of crimes when all he may be guilty of is an uncouth and unpleasant personality incapable of explaining to his public the policies he intuits but does not comprehend enough to articulate. People love to hate Trump, I would tell my friend, love to disparage him as you do much as you once disparaged Sharon. They call him an autocrat, a fascist, a threat to democracy in their hyperbolic assault on the very democracy they purport to defend and enlarge. But what has he done that is so bad aside from read speeches without conveying conviction that he endorses them and adopt policies whose strategy he cannot convey other than in three-word slogans? The economy prospered under his watch until Covid19 wrecked it. China’s ruthless quest to assert her hegemony was challenged for the first time since Nixon opened the door on the assumption that integration into the world economy would lead to her democratization, an assumption that proved terribly false. Iran’s ruthless expansion has been checked and the Palestinians have been held to account. All good things, you would think, but somehow the media and the spin doctors in the social sciences have deemed them all wrong and baneful. Which only shows that the famous fourth estate is now one more political party against which Trump is governing and running.
It was much the same in Canada when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister, the most intelligent one we have had in a long time, but detested by the media because they disapproved of his personality and ascribed to him authoritarian tendencies for running a tight ship, much tighter than Donald Trump’s. Say what you want, neither Stephen Harper or Donald Trump could be accused of anti-Semitism, which is not what you could say of the Liberal Party of Canada or the Democratic Party in the United States; though I do have friends, Jewish friends, who keep asserting that Trump is an anti-Semite. But then Jews also like to vote for political parties and leaders who throw Israel under a bus. Which only goes to show how stupid our culture has become when even the Jews rush to defend the rights of people who bay for their blood.
I can hear my friend say she thinks I am exaggerating. But God is in the details and so is the devil. When President Obama went to Israel he lectured Israeli students on their need to make compromises with the Palestinians; but when he went to Ramallah he made no such demands of Palestinian students he did not bother to address. And when Trump proposed one more American peace plan which this time called on the Palestinians to democratize or endure Israeli sovereignty in parts of Judea and Samaria, Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada joined his other western counterparts in dissenting and rushing to the defense of Israel’s avowed enemies. Again Israel, I can hear my friend say, but for years I have warned that Israel is the litmus test of western democracy. In this global world of ours where less than half of the nations are truly modern democracies, questions of government are complex indeed. China and Russia still conceive of themselves in terms of empire. Africa is a continent of failed states when it comes to the rule of law, and the Muslim world in the Middle East and beyond is in many ways worse. Latin America, Costa Rica apart, is still up for grabs on that question. Which leaves Canada, the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India and Israel. This group of countries, whatever their differences in trade and welfare policies, should be lining up together when it comes to international disputes. Instead, tiny Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is thrown to the wolves, as much by the European Union which keeps funding the corrupt and genocidal Palestinian Authority as by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has denounced Israel as an apartheid state outpost of colonialist America, and its Democratic Party allies. If people in western democracies who claim to champion democracy cannot tell the difference between Israel and its enemies, little wonder that statues of Christopher Columbus and Winston Churchill are vandalized and toppled across the western world. Little wonder too that no one realizes that the freedom which modern society ushered into human history is being toppled as well.
Our generation has done much to contribute to this moment. We thought we were protesting against discrimination and that discrimination was systemic. We did not see that to the contrary, such discrimination was on its way out because it is incompatible with a modern society. We were simply the vectors of what modern society was going to unfold anyway. And so instead of valuing freedom we have helped to suppress it, and with it the civilization older than modern society which helped to inaugurate it. You, I will tell my friend, know something of that, for you were active when young in the Catholic Workers Youth League. That’s how you met your husband, and the values you learned there were the ones which inspired your lifelong commitment to the values of freedom and emancipation which instantaneously enlist your support as it did his. Doubtless this is why our first reaction always is to side with the oppressed, the oppressed we picture when we think of Van Gogh’s potato eaters or remember The Family of Man from the MOMA exhibit of the 1950s. But a picture is not always worth a thousand words, and sometimes it takes much more than a thousand words to learn to distinguish not only right and wrong, but also how society works and what is going on. Frantz Fanon wrote the Wretched of the Earth, but Luhmann wrote hundreds of articles and tens of books that take much time and effort to comprehend. Not everyone has the time and capacity to read them, but the intellectuals who get trained and paid to do so should at least do their job. And if only the synagogues and churches of the western world were not closing down, people everywhere would still be reading the Bible, as they used to do when we were young and learned there, long before Marx and Fanon, the lessons of compassion.
But I fear, as I have said, that the sun is setting not only on America, not only on the western world’s experiment with democracy, but on the Judeo-Christian civilization which the Hebrew Bible inaugurated. The founders of the American Republic were deists, steeped in the Hebrew Bible, and looked to it for inspiration for the liberty they enshrined in its constitution. God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness the Declaration of Independence reads. Let my people go, cried the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s. But even more important, the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the saga of the Jewish people written therein speak to the unbridgeable gap between God and man, between the place of injunction and compassion God occupies and the place of waywardness through which men and women stumble. They speak as well to the irony that accompanies human existence, the one which arises from the actions of human beings blind to their passions and the thundering voice of an omniscient God asking: where art thou? In the gap lies freedom, and ultimately it is the work of man to understand it and build it upon this earth and during his earthly existence.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book of empire. The Lord chose the Israelites, it is written, precisely because they were the smallest of nations, for what He had in mind was a new way of life, not a new form of dominion. It took centuries for that design to work its way into human history. The upshot was modern society, but it seems human beings are no more aware of their passions today than they were at the outset of this story. And so they seem bent on destroying this enterprise from within, as happens when people abandon the very wellsprings of their culture, substituting for their classics the new idols of age-old hubris and rage. But I cling to the classics as I cling to our friendship because I cannot do otherwise. As I look back upon my life, I wish I could rewrite our story, rewrite my story, knowing then what I know now, but that too is not possible. We are caught in the web of time, which is the web of our past, not our future, as Moses told his children of Israel over and over at the end of his life. It is no different for society. History is too big and too long, the sun will set on every civilization given enough time, and the vast and cold universe will one day set on the sun itself. And if that is true, how silly to think we can alter the world’s drift, let alone foretell its future, as our latter-day academics think they can do, taking their cue from the very Hegel whose Phenomenology my friend’s late husband first talked to me about so long ago in Paris. I wish he were still alive so we could talk about all this, he, she and I, over coffee, over a glass of wine, in the courtyard of their house, in this sunset of our lives.