Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lippmann: 'Brains are suspect in the Republican Party'

In these uncertain times, the enduring intellectual challenges of the GOP are, I suppose, comforting. If you can't depend on anything else, you can always depend on the GOP to come up with something assinine. Walter Lippmann came to that conclusion as an entire generation tried to make sense of an era of violence, uncertainty and violent uncertainty. Little has changed in almost 100 years.
Brains, you know, are suspect in the Republican Party.

--Walter Lippmann

A conclusion so obvious does not make one a genius. How you deal with it might make of one a radical, a revolutionary, an existentialist, or, worse --a liberal!!
Walter Lippmann, the son of second-generation German-Jewish parents, was born in New York City on 23rd September, 1889. While studying at Harvard University he became a socialist and was co-founder of the Harvard Socialist Club and edited the Harvard Monthly.

In 1911 Lincoln Steffens, the campaigning journalist, took Lippmann on as his secretary. Like Steffens, Lippmann supported Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in the 1912 presidential elections. ...

In 1920 Lippmann left the New Republic to work for the New York World. His controversial books, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), raised doubts about the possibility of developing a true democracy in a modern, complex society.

Spartacus, Walter Lippmann

Critics and historians describe Lippmann's A Preface to Politics of 1913 as a "penetrating critique of popular prejudices" found in abundance in America. It so influenced President Woodrow Wilson that he chose Lippmann to help formulate and draft the famous Fourteen Points and the concept of the League of Nations. Wilson sent Lipmann to the post-World War I peace negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles.
When men and women begin to feel that elections and legislatures do not matter very much, that politics is a rather distant and unimportant exercise, the reformer might as well put to himself a few searching doubts. Indifference is a criticism that cuts beneath oppositions and wranglings by calling the political method itself into question. Leaders in public affairs recognize this.

--Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics

These feelings resonate as well today, another age that will be characterized by profound disillusionment in almost every institution, primarily those institutions which presume to govern.
No writer writes in a vacuum. Shakespeare may have been by Johnson's reckoning "of all time". But every other writer is of his/her age. Vera Britain's autobiographical Testament of Youth, covering the year's 1913-1925, come to mind.

It was in that "no man's land" that Lippmann sought to balance the interests of the state against those of the individual. Lippmann's most productive years spanned a period which witnessed:

  • the slaughter at Verdun, the Somme, the Marne
  • the Bolshevik terror in Russia
  • black-shirted, brown-shirted hysteria in Italy and Germany
  • the Great Depression of 1929-1935
  • Stalin's purges
  • the Spanish Civil War
  • Nazi concentration camp and the Holocaust
  • the destruction of whole cities -- Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki
Lippmann is a product of that world just as surely as were Kafka, Sartre, and Brecht. Kafka likened his times unto awakening as a cockroach. Sartre declared that "man is nothing else but what he makes of himself". As my generation was scarred by Viet Nam, Lippmann is shaped by America's WWI experience.
What most distinguishes the generation who have approached maturity since the debacle of idealism at the end of the War is not their rebellion against the religion and moral code of their parents, but their disillusionment with their own rebellion. It is common for young men and women to rebel, but that they should rebel sadly and with out faith in their own rebellion, that they should distrust the new freedom no less than the old certainties—that is something of a novelty.

-Walter Lippmann, Preface to Morals
That explains to a limited degree my own generation's disillusionment with the "establishment" we inherited. When revolution was required, the pre-war generation settled for half-measures.
There is no doubt, I think, that President Wilson and his party represent primarily small business in a war against the great interests. Socialists speak of his administration as a revolution within the bounds of capitalism. Wilson doesn't really fight the oppressions of property. [emphasis mine, LH] He fights the evil done by large property-holders to small ones.

--Walter Lipmann, Drift and Mastery (1914)

In retrospect, in light of Bush's corporatocracy, Lippmann seems to describe at best a program of half-measures. At worst, a problem left future generations to solve or make peace with.
When the forces of oppression come to maintain themselves in power against established law, peace is considered already broken.

--Che Guevara, Guerilla Warfare, Chapter I: General Principles of Guerrilla Warfare

The concept was not original with Che. Thomas Jefferson said the same thing in the Declaration of Independence. Given the contempt with which our current regime treats the established peace, revolution is overdue.

It was not only the Post World War I generation who were disillusioned "with their own rebellion", it was the Viet Nam generation as well. Of our times, I can only add that we confronted Viet Nam as Kafka's Gregor Samsa confronted the fact the had awakened as a bug.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as if it were armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1916)

None of us, nor the whole of the US, ever made sense of Viet Nam. [See: The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University ; Also: BBC: 'Bottom Line, 911 is an inside job' ]

The spirit of the "Viet Nam" generation was more akin to Dylan Thomas. We would "rage against the dying of the light." The target had been fixed and described by President Eisenhower himself: the Military/Industrial complex. It is still with us, awaiting the Beowulf who will kill the beast.

I still find it troubling and absurd that in three articles of impeachment drawn up against Richard Nixon, there is nary a word about his illegal orders to bomb and invade Cambodia, a neutral country. There is nary a word about US support for the "string of faceless" generals in South Viet Nam, most of whom were installed and propped up by the CIA. That Bush is "President" is evidence that we failed despite Nixon's ignominious resignation in the face of impeachment. Had we won, Ronald Reagan could never have destroyed the labor movement, corporatized society, erased the middle class, crushed dissent, and, in countless other ways, pruned the nation of its soul. Lippmann would have been appalled.
Yet there was the fact, just as indisputable as ever, that public affairs do have an enormous and intimate effect upon our lives. They make or unmake us. They are the foundation of that national vigor through which civilizations mature. City and countryside, factories and play, schools and the family are powerful influences in every life, and politics is directly concerned with them. If politics is irrelevant, it is certainly not because its subject matter is unimportant. Public affairs govern our thinking and doing with subtlety and persistence.

--Walter Lippmann

Pascal wrote, "When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, and the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then." Given the "finiteness" our our existence, it is easy enough to rage against those interlopers into "our" lives.

To be fair, Bush is not the only vainglorious idiot to have have considered the rest of us fodder. The war against Iraq is not the first folly to trespass against the sovereignty of our very selves. We have awakened cockroaches and if there is to be any peace at all, it is the peace we must make with our unwelcome circumstance. As Voltaire said: "I have no name but the name that I have made for myself". Likewise, Sartre: "A man is nothing else but what he makes of himself". We must make of ourselves a "resistance". As St. Thomas More said: "our business lies in escaping" but not, I may add, at the expense of losing. Voltaire said "Ecrasez l'Infame" as to William Wallace is attributed the existential question: what will you do without freedom?

Addendum:
Drift and Mastery

Walter Lippmann

Drift and Mastery, originally published in 1914, is one of the most important and influential documents of the Progressive Movement, a valuable text for understanding the political thought of early twentieth-century America. This paperback edition of Walter Lippmann's classic work includes a revised introduction by William E. Leuchtenburg that places the book in its historical and political contexts.
Additional Resources


Engineering of Consent: A Post War Story

President Wilson and his party represent primarily small business in a war against the great interests. Socialists speak of his administration as a revolution within the bounds of capitalism. Wilson doesn't really fight the oppressions of property. He fights the evil done by large property-holders to small ones.

--Force and Ideas, Walter Lippmann






Walter Lippman




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