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A Question of Measurements

ISSUE:  Spring 1970


The distance between the administrations of Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon is calculable in sundry ways. Chronologically, it is forty-five years. Technologically, it is the distance from the Tin Lizzie to the moon—immense. Politically, it is from Republican to Republican—zero. Culturally, it may be measured as the lifespan of the Virginia Quarterly Review, or, with equal plausibility, as the movement from flapper to hippie—progress, regress, or cycle, as the case may be. Pay your money and take your choice.

In these pages the choice is to consider the philosophical change, if any, since the time when the foundations of this magazine were laid. In that day Good King Calvin ruled the land, but he was significant only to the extent that he mirrored the prevailing mood of the people, and if Coeur de Lion sits enthroned today, as much may be said of him. The significant difference is not that between any two men, but the difference in the activities and attitudes that betray the mental and temperamental—if you prefer, the intellectual and emotional-condition of the typical American, then and now.

The most obvious alteration is negative, nothing added, but something missing, a loss of psychic elasticity, of mental and moral bounce. The American of 1925 was a perturbed spirit, even as he is today, but springier, and his reaction to impending disasters was, in those days, far more defiant. This probably was due to the fact that only a year earlier he had repelled one of the two chimeras that had haunted his imagination since 1917. The fact that the Bolsheviki and the Bishop of Rome were bitter enemies and therefore, if threats, mutually exclusive threats, did not enter into the popular computation of the menaces that hung over us. But one had been demolished. In 1924 Bryan, the Nebraskan Cicero, had discomfited that very curious Catiline, Alfred E. Smith, so thoroughly that even with the aid of the party machinery he could not make a comeback in 1928. In the estimation of an effective majority Smith was totally reprehensible. True, he was the antithesis of the martyred Harding, being financially honest, correct in his private life, and one of the ablest administrators of his time, but what of that? He drank beer, went to mass, and wore a brown derby even in the far-flung domains of the wool hat, the coonskin cap, and the sombrero. He also pronounced radio “raddio.” Against such criminalities there could be no compensating virtues in 1924.

Flushed with this triumph the American of 1925 was confident of his ability to deal with the second chimera, the “Communist conspiracy.” In view of the fact that the Communists were bawling from every housetop their determination to destroy capitalism, this conspiracy was markedly different from other plots that seldom proceed with the noiseless stealth of ten steam calliopes and a Shriners’ band, all going full blast. Some, therefore, have doubted that “conspiracy” is just the word for this manifestation, but it is pejorative, therefore beloved of political orators. The fact that a misleading term often induces a mistaken attitude was brushed aside. Thus the American of 1925 briskly undertook to meet a frontal assault by tactics appropriate only to dealing with an ambush, and was honestly amazed to discover, years later, that he had been firing on his own troops. Repeating the mistake of the Confederates at Chancellorsville, where they shot Stonewall Jackson under the impression that he was a Yankee scout, our anti-Communist witch­ hunt bagged a considerable number of honest men, but very few rascals.

This truth, however, was not to become glaringly plain for something like a quarter of a century. In 1925 the typical American was superbly convinced that his ideas were manifestly superior to all other political ideas whatsoever and were bound eventually to prevail, to the greatly increased happiness of all mankind. Therefore his alarm, however frenzied, at the supposed approach of the Papist and the Commissar was in fact superficial. In his heart he was persuaded that he could, and would, eventually handle both.

Times change. That we all admit, but that we are changed with them, as Holinshed recorded nearly four hundred years ago, is an idea not yet assimilated by large masses of man­ kind, including many citizens of the United States. It is a distasteful idea, implying a passivity that we are reluctant to accept. Yet there is impressive, not to say conclusive, evidence that, if the American of 1925 exhibited the resilience of an india-rubber ball, the American of 1970 shows the bounce of a gob of putty. It is a displeasing alteration that would not have been contrived voluntarily, so it would seem that the American has not changed, he has been changed, willy-nilly, between the times of Silent Cal and those of Loquacious Richard.


To mention all the forces that changed us would be to recount the history of the forty-five years. Fortunately this monumental and dreary task is unnecessary. Every literate man of voting age knows enough of it to understand the essential fact, which is that the American who has survived from 1925 to 1970 has taken a “working over,” as the gangsters delicately put it, whose duration plus its ferocity made it the worst that the Western world has endured since the religious wars in Europe. “Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed,” boasted Henley, but more than one critic has pointed out that this does not exclude the possibility that his brains were addled— concussed is, I believe, the medical term. One economic collapse followed by a decade of depression, one prodigious double war with battlelines half a world apart, one minor war which nevertheless included the most humiliating defeat a United States army had suffered since Bull Run, and another in which we have already fired at a midget nation more ammunition than was required to destroy Germany, finally a series of revolts by dissident elements that to date have cost few lives but hundreds of millions of property damage—all this in less than half a century was battering enough to account for almost any kind of erratic conduct.

But if an explanation of the patient’s condition in 1970 is simple, an exact diagnosis of his injuries is complex in the extreme, and any confident prognosis is flatly impossible. The limit of rational discourse is an outline of alternatives equally possible, with some fairly obvious comment on which one is to be hoped for. Yet that is precisely the point of real interest in the case of any beat up

American of 1970 is no exception. How he is now, and how he got that way may be points of historical interest, but how to bring him around is a matter, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, “of nearer consequence and greater delicacy,” therefore of primary interest at this moment.

One must admit the possibility that the pessimists are right—that the strains of the past forty-five have been too much for the inherent weaknesses of democracy, so that our political structure is headed for inevitable collapse. If that is the case, there is no more to be said, for in that case the current anxiety of the American can only deepen into melancholia beyond cure.

But all the evidence that the pessimists cite in support of their theory may just as plausibly be interpreted in the opposite sense-that the internal structure of democracy has not even been strained, and that if the air is full of dust and resounds with shattering crashes, the explanation is that the blows of circumstance have wrecked only certain excrescences, never solidly built into the fabric, but stuck on precariously by fraud, or by cowardice, or by blackmail. For instance, the deal of 1876, by which the South sold the Presidency to the Republican party in consideration of nullification of the Fourteenth Amendment, was shattered in 1954, when the Supreme Court backed off from the “separate but equal” doctrine. The older gerrymander, always hypocritically denied, was partially wrecked by the Apportionment Act of 1941, further damaged by the census of 1960, and collapsed under a number of Supreme Court decisions requiring that population be counted by numbers, not by political deals. The oldest of all, the electoral college, recognized at the time as an infamy, but adjudged to be blackmail that had to be paid to the smaller states to induce them to ratify the Constitution, is now hanging by a thread that may have snapped before these lines come under the reader’s eye.

The wreckage is impressive in volume, but not so in value. The stressful forty-five years have brought down nothing in our political structure that wasn’t rotten to the core, and if some of the reconstruction has been flimsy, that is our fault, not our fate. Correcting the honest errors we are making now may cost us plenty of money, but need not cost us our faith or our hope.

What does give pause to the cheeriest optimist—excluding those so cheery that they are downright maudlin—is the danger inherent in the rapid advance of our technology not attended by an equally rapid advance in political theory—philosophy, if you will. It is not that the philosophers have stood still. On the contrary they have been moving rapidly on the side of their field that borders the field of science, to the neglect of the side that borders the field of art. They have made great strides in analyzing the processes of learning and the nature of knowledge. The Existentialists claim to have made substantial progress toward understanding the nature of being. But epistemology and ontology do not comprise all philosophy. After those sciences have been mastered there will remain the problem of transforming existence into living, and this problem, although a legitimate concern of philosophy, is not a science, but an art.

It is on this side that the distortion appears, because technology, based on science, has far outstripped polity, based on art, and philosophy has not successfully discharged its function of making a proper adjustment between the two. Here let us take the risk of dropping the exact but little used word “polity,” and substituting the more familiar “politics,” it being understood that politics is used in its broadest sense, as meaning not merely the trick of getting and holding office, but all that enters into the craft of con­ ducting public affairs in an organized society.

In this political phase of his life the American of 1970 faces the necessity of finding instant answers to questions that were only beginning to be formulated in 1925. They are questions deeper and more difficult than the fate of the electoral college, or enforcement of the principle of one-man­one-vote, or even than racism, the population explosion, and economic justice. But they will not wait. They demand here and now at least tentative answers applied in practice. They will get them, because we have no alternative but to supply them. Yet as haste makes waste, some of our answers will certainly be wrong, and survival depends on our agility in discovering wherein they are wrong and in supplying new answers before disaster comes upon us.

For instance, there is the question of reinterpreting the doctrine of individualism and free private enterprise in the light of modern economic conditions. The interpretation given it by Jefferson, and later thinkers as far as William Graham Sumner, no longer serves, because the conditions of life on which they based their thinking have been abolished by technology. So, too, with the concept of liberty under law. Each of these terms is modified by the other, and a change in one necessitates a corresponding adjustment in the other. Daniel Boone’s interpretation of liberty was ten­ able while the frontier existed, but the frontier was closed in 1893. Simon Legree’s interpretation of law worked passably well as applied to a slave population, but slavery vanished in 1865. In 1970 it would be idiotic to accept either Boone or Legree as an authority on the subject.

Everybody knows this, but only recently have we begun to feel it, because only recently have the changes become so extreme as to make delay in adapting to them expensive and uncomfortable. In 1925 a few farsighted people were talking seriously about the housing problem. For the most part, they were stimulated into thinking by conditions that had arisen around the army cantonments seven years previously, and that were reproduced around the war industries. But the pressure was slight, and so was the action. In 1968, however, the murder of the Negro leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, was the occasion, but not the cause, of an eruption of the festering slums that jarred the nation. One hundred and twenty-five cities were set aflame in twenty-nine states, forty-six people were killed, twenty-six hundred injured, and twenty-one thousand arrested. In addition to police, it took fifty-five thousand soldiers to restore order, and the property damage ran into hundreds of millions. That jolted us into some realization that Daniel Boone’s idea of liberty is not only outdated but has become deadly.

The understanding of free private enterprise that prevailed from Jefferson to Sumner died about the time that William McKinley was shot. Many voices were raised to inform us that it had happened, the loudest that of Theodore Roosevelt, but nothing effective was done about it. We knew it, but we didn’t feel it. The science of economics was awake, but the art of politics continued to drowse. Not until the panic of 1929 gave us a kick that lifted us out of the easy chair and sent us hurtling downstairs did we feel, as well as know, that something must be done. At that, we made merely a patchwork job, not a thorough renovation, because we were deafened and somewhat dazed by the uproar raised by the howling monkey (Alouetta ursina) that typified 60 per cent of our political and 90 per cent of our business leadership in those days. We were, indeed, lashed into doing enough to enable the republic to survive, but it was a near thing.

It is a near thing again in 1970. Everyone agrees on that, but there is no agreement on what is the nearest and most dangerous of the threats that hang over us. A diminishing, but still fairly large segment of the electorate clings to the Bolshevik bugaboo, vintage of 1917, now trading under the name of Communism. But a double devil, with one cloven hoof planted in Moscow and the other in Peking, is rather too much for the credulity even of the American. It is not necessary to deny the malevolence of Moscow to perceive that the conquest of America is no longer, if it ever was, the first item in its order of business. Several other projects offer Russia the promise of larger gains with less risk.

That the Politburo may be mesmerized tomorrow by some maniac crazier than Adolf Hitler is, in Sir Thomas Browne’s phrase, “not beyond conjecture,” but it seems pretty far out. Much closer, in time and space, are such threats as Vietnam, Black Power, the collapse of the cities, and the Students For Whatever-students-are-for. As a matter of fact, it is pretty generally agreed that the Embattled Sophomore is not a menace in himself, except to deans whom he shows a tendency to defenestrate. What raises gooseflesh is not the Sophomore’s activities, but what they may imply as to the attitude of his Pop, who pays the bills. If the Old Man, although saying nothing so far, is as disgusted with the existing educational system as his progeny seems to be, that means real trouble, not for deans only, but also for presidents, professors, and press agents attached to the universities. But it may not be so. Even in the dim, distant past of my own youth, some poetaster of the time was portraying Pop’s attitude in the elegiac lines:

He sent his son to college,
  And now he cries, “Alack!
I spent ten thousand dollars
  And got a quarterback!”

Yet nothing happened. If the net return today is a Manifestant instead of a Quarterback, still the Old Man may grin and bear it, without literally raising the roof of the halls of academe.

But if the Sophomore may be regarded as a fire alarm, rather than the fire itself, may not a similar significance attach to some of the other terrors that haunt our dreams? For instance, the cities are staggering under the burden of a vast influx of uninvited, unskilled people for whom there are not enough jobs. They are essentially refugees, evicted from their homes and their ways of life by the invasion, not of a Red army, but of irresistible Technology, most startlingly, but not exclusively, in mining and agriculture. The alarming increase of crimes of violence in the streets is largely attributable to the facts that these people’s skills are useless in the city, which renders them idle, and they are totally unhabituated to urban life, which renders them disorderly. We should have foreseen this years ago, and prepared in advance for handling hordes of refugees. But to say that we should have foreseen the event presupposes that we are more intelligent, politically, than were the Arabs of the Middle East when the Zionists irrupted into Palestine—a supposition based upon slender evidence. Yet to imagine that the problem as it now exists is a city problem, amenable to solution by city planning, is superficial. It is a national problem of displacement of the population in terms of millions, and the woes of the cities are merely symptoms of the deep-lying disease.

Black Power is obviously symbolic—mythical, if you prefer. When the odds against you are nine to one you have no power in the sense of physical force. The question then is, what does this mythical power symbolize, what is the reality behind it? The conventional view has been that it reflects black America’s resentment of the injustice of white America in erecting legal barriers cutting off black America from enjoyment of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which white America has said are inalienable.

But the legal barriers have been swept away, except in a few God-forsaken backwaters in which neither white nor black has ever been really civilized, yet the discontent remains and is ever more publicly and bitterly expressed. The logical inference is that the legal disabilities were merely symptomatic of the real trouble. It can, in fact, be plausibly argued that they were always more annoying than actually destructive. Laboring under them, the blacks have increased in number from four to twenty millions in one century, and in the same time have acquired property in the order of two billion dollars. Obviously, the tyranny was not genocidal.

What, then, can it be? The flat truth is that we don’t know, and our lack of precise knowledge may be a threat that reduces the threat offered by the Red army to a triviality. Thinkers of both races, at least as far back as black Du Bois and white E. G. Murphy, have fumbled around with the idea that what we have been trying to do is to impose a Judeo-Christian-European cultural pattern on African races that it simply doesn’t fit. All the clamor about “African studies” is perhaps another fumbling effort to solve a psycho­ logical problem by historical methods. Under the tyranny of the last century the Negro’s life has been safe enough to enable him to multiply by 500 per cent, and his liberty, including the freedom to acquire property, has been steadily widening, but his right to the pursuit of happiness has been impeded by factors that seem to be beyond our ken. Until we understand clearly what they are, our chance of dealing with them intelligently is remote; and the ability to learn, in either white or black, is, unhappily, not an established fact.

Optimism is not encouraged by the evidence that we have been incapable of thinking fast enough and far enough ahead to deal intelligently with the much simpler problem of massive displacement of population by technology. Optimism is further discouraged by the increasing evidence, provided most glaringly by Vietnam, but impressively, also, by the Aswan Dam incident, by the Suez Canal incident, and by the preposterous assumption that the small island of Formosa is the vast empire of China, all indicating that if we know little about Africans, we have learned far less about Asians. True, we are not alone in this incapacity. The whole Western world, while it has made some progress toward mastering technology, is still practicing an ethnology that is infantile.


As the year 1969 drew toward its end the chief perturbation within the republic was caused by the war in Vietnam. Half the country was afraid that we might lose that war, the other half that we might win it. To accept defeat would be tantamount to an admission that we have sacrificed more than 40,000 brave men, to say nothing of a hundred billion dollars, to no purpose. To win means that we must practice what amounts to genocide, which at Nuremburg the civilized nations branded as the most hideous crime in the catalogue of infamies. In short, whatever the military situation, we have already lost in Vietnam.

So there arises a question in the minds of many thoughtful Americans that obliterates most of their interest in the war itself. That question is, have we lost the democratic form of government in this country? Has the somber prophecy of Eisenhower already been fulfilled? Are we even now in the grip of a military-industrial complex that the people cannot control? If we have lost the republic, who cares what happens in Vietnam?

On the fifteenth day of last October some millions of the people peaceably assembled to petition for redress of a grievance, to wit, the war in Vietnam. But the head of the state anticipated the assembly by announcing two days earlier, “I shall not be affected.” Exactly what President Nixon meant by that nobody other than Mr. Nixon can know. It is beyond belief that he meant to rephrase decorously William H. Vanderbilt’s indecorous pronouncement, “The public be damned!” But the obvious alternative is hardly more pleasant; it is that the President is helpless, his hands tied by previous commitments. The chilling implication is that Mr. Nixon does not accept the theory that when he took the oath of office as President he abjured any and all previous commitments inconsistent with the one embodied in the oath, faithfully to execute the office of President and to defend the Constitution. Since “we, the people” did “ordain and establish” the Constitution, that is a commitment to the people, and to no other authority whatsoever.

This leads to the inescapable conclusion that while the American of 1970 is beset by perils on many sides, yet Vietnam, Red Russia, Black Power, the cities, and the students all sink to the level of minor troubles by comparison with the terrible danger that the ordinary American may come to believe that control of the republic itself has passed into other hands, and he no longer has a voice in it. To whom, then, is the government responsible? Many an American feels that he doesn’t know, but is sure that it is not the people, and that is what has taken the bounce out of him.

One hopes that it is a temporary apathy and that the old resilience will soon be recovered. One must hope so, for without something of the blithe confidence that underlay the surface annoyances of 1925 the American of 1970 will never attain the intellectual vigor and agility that he must have to deal successfully with the other problems.

This, then, is the measure of the philosophical distance from Coolidge to Nixon. There is a famous passage in Mommsen that seems to apply with astonishing precision to the quandary of the American of 1970. The historian of Rome was describing the day when the Romans had to decide to send or not to send an overseas expedition—they had never crossed salt water before—to fight the Carthaginians in Sicily. That was the immediate question, but the real decision was whether to remain insignificant with relative safety, or to become great at great risk. Yet it does seem that Mommsen might have been writing of the American of 1970 when he commented:

It was one of those moments when calculation fails, and when faith in men’s own and in their country’s destiny alone gives them courage to grasp the hand which beckons to them out of the darkness of the future, and to follow it they know not whither.

If faith in our own and our country’s destiny no longer gives us the old-time bounce, then the future history of the country must be written by some Jeremiah in a new Book of Lamentations to be published circa 2015 A.D. But the harder a rubber ball is thrown down, the higher it bounces. The American has been thrown down very hard, but if the old quality is in him, in the rebound of the next forty-five years he will outpace and outtravel the cow that jumped over the moon.


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