BOOKS JUNE 1, 1953
The sense of warmth and reassurance that flows from this occasion means all the more to me because I cannot forget that there are forces at large in our society today that do not inspire me with this same feeling—quite the contrary. These forces are too diffuse to be described by their association with the name of any one man or any one political concept.
They have no distinct organizational forms. They are as yet largely matters of the mind and the emotion in large masses of individuals. But they all march, in one way or another, under the banner of an alarmed and exercised anti-Communism—but an anti-Communism of a quite special variety,bearing an air of excited discovery and proprietorship,as though no one had ever known before that there was a Communist danger; as though no one had ever thought about it and taken its measure;as though it had begun about the year 1945 and these people were the first to learn of it.
I have no quarrel to pick with the ostensible purpose of the people in whom these forces are manifest. Surely, many of them are sincere. Surely, many of them are good people. Surely, many of them have come to these views under real provocation and out of real bewilderment.
But I have the deepest misgivings about the direction and effects of their efforts.
In general, I feel that what they are doing is unwise and unfortunate, and I am against it. They distort and exaggerate the dimensions of the problem with which they profess to deal. They confuse internal and external aspects of the Communist threat. They insist on portraying as contemporary realities things that had their actuality years ago.They insist on ascribing to the workings of domestic Communism evils and frustrations which, in so far as they were not part of the normal and unavoidable burden of complexity in our life, were the product of our behavior generally as a nation, and should today be the subject of humble and contrite soul-searching on the part of all of us, in a spirit of brotherhood and community, rather than of frantic and bitter recrimination.
And having thus incorrectly stated the problem,it is no wonder that these people constantly find the wrong answers. They tell us to remove our eyes from the constructive and positive purposes and to pursue with fanaticism the negative and vindictive ones. They sow timidity where there should be boldness; fear where there should be serenity; suspicion where there should be confidence and generosity. In this way they impel us—in the name of our salvation from the dangers of Communism—to many of the habits of thought and action which our Soviet adversaries, I am sure, would most like to see us adopt and which they have tried unsuccessfully over a period of some 35 years to graft upon us through the operations of their Communist Party.
I would not mention these things if I felt that they were only my personal concern and had no relation to the undertaking which we have gathered today to celebrate. But I fear that there is here a serious relevance which we cannot ignore. Thanks to the vision of wise and generous people,this university is now adding one more important unit to the number of those facilities in our country in which men can cultivate their own understanding and extend the boundaries of knowledge,in the field of arts and letters. Certainly there could be no finer undertaking and none more needed. But I feel that this undertaking, too, will have to deal at some point with the forces I have just described—that by entering upon this undertaking you will eventually find that these forces will be your concern just as they have already become the concern of some of us who have walked in other branches of life.
I feel this first of all because these forces are narrowly exclusive in their approach to our world position, and carry this exclusiveness vigorously into the field of international cultural exchanges. They tend to stifle the interchange of cultural impulses that is vital to the progress of the intellectual and artistic life of our people. The people in question seem to feel either that cultural values are not important at all or that America has reached the apex of cultural achievement and no longer needs in any serious way the stimulus of normal contact with other peoples in the field of arts and letters.
They look with suspicion both on the sources of intellectual and artistic activity in this country and on impulses of this nature coming to us from abroad. The remote pasts of foreign artists and scholars are anxiously scanned before they are permitted to enter our land, and this is done in proceedings so inflexible in concept and offensive in execution that their very existence often constitutes a discouragement to cultural interchange. The personal movements and affairs of great scholars and artists are thus passed upon and controlled by people who have no inkling of understanding for the creative work these same scholars and artists perform.
In this way, we begin to draw about ourselves a cultural curtain similar in some respects to the Iron Curtain of our adversaries. In doing so, we tend to inflict upon ourselves a species of cultural isolation and provincialism wholly out of accord with the traditions of our nation and destined, if unchecked, to bring to our intellectual and artistic life the same sort of sterility from which the cultural world of our Communist adversaries is already suffering.
A second reason why I think you will have to concern yourselves with the forces to which I have pointed is that within the framework of our society, as in its relations to external environment, the tendency of these forces is exclusive and intolerant—quick to reject, slow to receive, intent on discovering what ought not to be rather than what ought to be.
They claim the right to define a certain area of our national life and cultural output as beyond the bounds of righteous approval. This definition is never effected by law or by constituted authority; it is effected by vague insinuation and suggestion. And the circle tends to grow constantly narrower.
One has the impression that, if uncountered, these people would eventually narrow the area of political and cultural respectability to a point where it included only themselves, the excited accusers, and excluded everything and everybody not embraced in the profession of denunciation.
I recall reading recently, twice in one day, the words of individuals who proclaimed that if certain other people did not get up and join actively in the denunciation of Communists or Communism, they would thereby themselves be suspect. What sort of arrogance is this? Every one of us has his civic obligations. Every one of us has his moral obligations to the principles of loyalty and decency.
I am not condoning anyone for forgetting these obligations. But to go beyond this—to say that it is not enough to be a law-abiding citizen—to say that we all have some obligation to get up and make statements of this tenor or that with respect to other individuals, or else submit to being classified as suspect in the eyes of our fellow citizens—to assert this is to establish a new species of public ritual, to arrogate to one’s individual self the powers of the spiritual and temporal lawgiver, to make the definition of social conduct a matter of fear in the face of vague and irregular forces, rather than a matter of confidence in the protecting discipline of conscience and the law.
I would know of no moral or political authority for this sort of thing. I tremble when I see this attempt to make a semi-religious cult out of emotional-political currents of the moment, and particularly when I note that these currents are ones exclusively negative in nature, designed to appeal only to men’s capacity for hatred and fear, never to their capacity for forgiveness and charity and understanding.
I have lived more than 10 years of my life in totalitarian countries. I know where this sort of thing leads. I know it to be the most shocking and cynical disservice one can do to the credulity and to the spiritual equilibrium of one’s fellowmen.
And this sort of thing cannot fail to have its effect on the liberal arts, for it is associated with two things that stand in deepest conflict to the development of mind and spirit: with a crass materialism and anti-intellectualism on the one hand, and with a marked tendency toward a standardization and conformity on the other.
In these forces I have spoken about, it seems to me that I detect a conscious rejection and ridicule of intellectual effort and distinction. They come together here with a deep-seated weakness in the American character: a certain shy self-consciousness that tends to deny interests other than those of business, sport or war.
There is a powerful strain of our American cast of mind that has little use for the artist or the writer, and professes to see in the pursuits of such people a lack of virility—as though virility could not find expression in the creation of beauty, as though Michaelangelo had never wielded his brush, as though Dante had never taken up his pen, as though the plays of Shakespeare were lacking in manliness.
The bearers of this neo-materialism seem, indeed, to have a strange self-consciousness about the subject of virility—a strange need to emphasize and demonstrate it by exhibitions of taciturnity, callousness and physical aggressiveness—as though there were some anxiety lest, in the absence of these exhibitions, it might be found wanting.
What weakness is it in us Americans that so often makes us embarrassed or afraid to indulge the gentle impulse, to seek the finer and rarer flavor, to admit frankly and without stammering apologies to an appreciation for the wonder of the poet’s word and the miracle of the artist’s brush, for all the beauty, in short, that has been recorded in the images of word and line created by the hands of men in past ages? What is it that makes us fear to acknowledge the greatness of other lands, or of other times, to shun the subtle and the unfamiliar?
What is it that causes us to huddle together, herdlike, in tastes and enthusiasms that represent only the common denominator of popular acquiescence, rather than to show ourselves receptive to the tremendous flights of creative imagination of which the individual mind has shown itself capable? Is it that we are forgetful of the true sources of our moral strength, afraid of ourselves, afraid to look into the chaos of our own breasts, afraid of the bright penetrating light of the great teachers?
This fear of the untypical, this quest for security within the walls of secular uniformity—these are traits of our national character we would do well to beware of and to examine for their origins. They receive much encouragement these days, much automatic and unintended encouragement, by virtue of the growing standardization of the cultural and, in many respects, the educational influences to which our people are being subjected.
The immense impact of commercial advertising and the mass media on our lives is—let us make no mistake about it—an impact that tends to encourage passivity, to encourage acquiescence and uniformity, to place handicaps on individual contemplativeness and creativeness.
It may not seem to many of us too dangerous that we should all live, dress, eat, hear and read substantially alike. But we forget how easily this uniformity of thought and habit can be exploited, when the will to exploit it is there. We forget how easily it can slip over into the domination of our spiritual and political lives by self-appointed custodians who contrive to set themselves at the head of popular emotional currents.
There is a real and urgent danger here for anyone who values the right to differ from others in any manner whatsoever, be it in his interests or his associations or his faith. There is no greater mistake we of this generation can make than to imagine that the tendencies which in other countries have led to the nightmare of totalitarianism will, as they appear in our own midst, politely pause—out of some delicate respect for American tradition—at the point where they would begin to affect our independence of mind and belief.
The forces of intolerance and political demagoguery are greedy forces, and unrestrained. There is no limit to their ambitions or their impudence. They contain within themselves no mechanism of self-control. Like the ills of Pandora’s box, once released, they can be stopped only by forces external to themselves.
It is for these reasons that I feel that you, in setting up at this time within this great academic community a center for liberal arts, are taking upon yourselves a great, though honorable, burden. You are going to have to swim against the tide of many of the things I have been talking about.
You are frequently going to find arrayed against you, whether by intent or otherwise, the materialists, the anti-intellectuals, the chauvinists of all sizes and descriptions, the protagonists of violence and suspicion and intolerance, the people who take it upon themselves to delimit the operation of the principle of Christian charity, the people from whose memories has passed the recollection that in their Father’s house there are many mansions.
What you do in these walls will often be unsettling and displeasing to such people. They will view it with jealousy. You will have to bear their malice and their misrepresentation. But, unlike what many of them profess to wish to do to their own chosen enemies, it will be your task not to destroy them but to help in their redemption and remaking, to open their eyes, to demonstrate to them the sterility and hopelessness of negative undertakings, to engender in them an awareness of the real glories and the real horizons of the human spirit.
In this lies both the duty and the opportunity of the devotees of the liberal arts within our contemporary American civilization. It lies with them to combat the standardization of our day: to teach people to accept the great richness of the human mind and fantasy—to welcome it and to rejoice in it, happy that we have not been condemned by nature to a joyless monotony of the creative faculty, happy that there are so many marvelous ways in which the longings and dreams of men can find expression.
It lies with the devotees of the liberal arts to combat the materialism of our time: to teach us how to ride to work in a motor vehicle and absorb the canned music of the advertisers without forgetting that there is also a music of the spheres, to force us to remember that all the manifestations of our material prowess, impressive as they seem, are nevertheless only impermanent auxiliaries to our existence.
That the only permanent thing behind them all is still the naked vulnerable, human soul, the scene of the age-old battle between good and evil, assailed with weakness and imperfections, always in need of help and support, and yet sometimes capable of such breathtaking impulses of faith and creative imagination. Finally, it lies with the devotees of the liberal arts to combat the forces of intolerance in our society; to convince people that these forces are incompatible with the flowering of the human spirit, to remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.