The Clare Spark Blog

January 13, 2010

Three moderates: Judt, Posner, Ware

Caroline War shows labor friendly hands to U.S. Senate

[From Evan R. Goldstein, “The Trials of Tony Judt,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan.6, 2010]  “In Judt’s mind… his “greatest achievement” is his book Postwar. In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Some 36.5 million of its inhabitants died between 1939 and 1945. Most of those who survived were starving or without shelter; Germany had lost 40 percent of its homes, Britain 30 percent, France 20 percent. Yet in the next 60 years, Judt writes, Europe had improbably become “a paragon of the international virtues,” and its social model—free or nearly free medical care, early retirement, robust social and public services—stood as “an exemplar for all to emulate.”

Postwar tells the story of how that happened. The book is ambitiously organized to combine the whole of the postwar history of Europe—Western and Eastern—into a single conceptual framework. The result is not a work of dispassionate scholarship. In the preface, Judt describes his approach as an “avowedly personal interpretation” of the recent European past. “In a word that has acquired undeservedly pejorative connotations,” he writes, Postwar is “opinionated.” Judt’s thesis, developed through 900 pages, is this: Europe remade itself by forgetting its past. “The first postwar Europe was built upon deliberate mis-memory—upon forgetting as a way of life.” And there was much to forget: collaboration, genocide, extreme deprivation.” [end Goldstein quote]

    What Judt has forgotten, if Goldstein’s report is accurate,  is the invention of social democracy by 19th and early 20th century organic conservatives, fearful of the looming political power of  the industrialized masses, and later, of the Soviet Union. But then that has been the tactic of moderates since the second world war: to imagine the Western social democracies as the political and moral antitheses of fascists and Nazis, rather than as countries fighting the same radical specters, and often with similar statist strategies.

   Moreover, Judt revels in his subjectivity, for he is an activist scholar and a prominent public intellectual. In his book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard UP, 2001), jurist and professor of law Richard Posner, cited Tony Judt’s writings frequently. Posner railed against academic public intellectuals who were straying far afield from their academic specialties, either as authors of crossover books appealing to an educated public and specialists, or as expert witnesses at various trials: Posner wants to expose and punish them for over-reaching. Although a bit fanatical himself, Posner was especially hard on extremists of any sort, for instance abolitionists, or those 1930s-type literary critics (yawn) who made moral judgments on works of art, rather than hewing to the New Critic, “art for art’s sake” line. Posner, a pragmatist, doesn’t like fanatics of any stripe, finding “political truth” in compromise. (Oddly, Posner did not object to the domination of leftists in departments of the humanities in the major universities, though he is a strong believer in balance.)

   Physician, heal thyself. Posner is not trained in intellectual history, and obviously did not research the ideology of the New Critics, who were also “moderates” of a sort, and who reformed the humanities curriculum in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I wrote about them as protofascists/ organic conservatives here:, and before that in Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. Some of these New Critics were contributors to the pro-fascist American Review, but what matters to our argument that moderates are not above suspicion, is the New Critic notion of the exemplary poem: it should hold opposing qualities in tension, and embody paradox, ambiguity, and irony. Such matters as the personal biography of the author or his ideology were off limits to the literary critic or historian. Might the author be a racist and antisemite? Not to worry. Such poetic perfection should be a model for the improved society, including its students, mired in moralism (a.k.a. New England style rationalistic, individualistic Puritanism) and romantic adolescent defiance (qualities linked by Talcott Parsons in his article on the sources of Nazism). New Critics aped the Southern Agrarian strategy with their allergy to modernism and educated black folk.  Of course, Melville (who once declared “I write as I please” inside one of his texts–in blackface?–) had exposed such neoclassical perfectionism as crazy-making, so, either deliberately or unconsciously, included a certain incoherence to much of his writing.  I suppose such insight into “America’s greatest writer” was outside Posner’s skill set, though he couldn’t have seen that, being emotionally wedded to his own omniscience,  and a confidence in his versatility that I almost envy.

   Turn now to our illustrated moderate, historian Caroline Farrar Ware, devoted progressive reformer and wife of New Deal economist Gardiner Means. I have quoted Dr. Ware’s adjurations on behalf of interdisciplinarity and community cohesion in prior blogs and in , but here is her most significant pronouncement for our purposes: “Writing on behalf of the American Historical Association in 1939, Carolyn Ware advised that the cultural historian should not ‘rest upon the prescription of the scientific historians to let the facts speak and to be guided wherever the material may lead.’” Dr. Ware welcomed the culturalist turn in history, evacuating the radical Enlightenment and science in one fell swoop. There were no more autonomous individuals: they were relics of the bad old days of laissez-faire. In the new progressive dispensation, the [selfish, narcissistic] individual disappeared, transmuted into “the individual-in-society,” and no longer a threat to order.* Look at her extended (mannish, soiled?**) hands, she is obviously not an aristocratic libertine or fashion plate: rather she will give a hand and a lift to labor.   [This illustration is from Harvard Magazine, May-June 2009, and accompanies historian Anne Firor Scott’s article, “Caroline Farrar Ware: Brief life of a multifaceted public citizen: 1899-1990,” 38-39]

*This is my reading of her introduction to her book The Cultural Approach to History  (1940), a book promoted by the American Historical Association. I don’t think she was resolving the nature-nurture controversy by noting that environmental influences constantly interact with inherited characteristics, but rather replacing empirical or scientific history with the new cultural anthropology, a discipline that such political scientists or anthropologists as Ralph Bunche and Melville Herskovits deplored as lacking economic savvy. 

** Her left hand looks gloved, while the right hand is bare, but the body language is priceless. The resemblance to Eleanor Roosevelt is perhaps a coincidence.

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