Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Kennan Diaries: Part 1





I am currently working my way through the recently published The Kennan Diaries:  George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola.  The journals of interesting people make for compelling reading, and so I expect to finish within a few days.  Born in 1905, Kennan recorded his first journal entry at age 11.  He penned his last 88 years later at age 99, two years before his death at 101 years of age.   
I would venture to say that most Americans today have never heard of the man.  History, however, will be kind to Kennan, I think.  In the realm of foreign diplomacy, commentators and scholars increasingly reference him for insight into the particular crisis of the month.  In time, I believe the writings of George F. Kennan will perhaps be to the 20th-century what Toqueville’s are to the 19th. 

Characterized by endless frustrations and set-backs, Kennan’s career in the Foreign Service did not, on first glance, appear particularly successful.  Indeed, in a fit of exasperation, he declared that he was nothing more than a “glorified clerk.”  An intense man, Kennan immersed himself so completely into Soviet Russia during his first posting there that he suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown.  His two ambassadorial postings—to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in 1961—ended disastrously.  For all his brilliance, Kennan had a penchant for the injudicious and careless remark, which torpedoed his ambassadorships.
Kennan’s legacy, however, is to be found in his written word.  He is best known, of course, for the “Long Telegram” of 1946, from which the Cold War policy of Containment evolved.  He advised neither compromise nor confrontation with the Soviet Union, and advocated the strengthening of institutions at home, as well as the rebuilding of Europe (the Marshall Plan was largely his idea.)  Very quickly, however, successive American administrations molded his idea into whatever they wanted it to mean.  And so, Kennan spent much of the last 50 years of his life explaining why the pursuits of particular policies were not at all what he meant.  As a discredited Cassandra, sidelined from any real input into policy, his warnings went generally unheeded. 

The reason Kennan is somewhat back in vogue now is that History has proven him to have been prescient more often than not.  He scorned the notion of an ideological “war on Communism” (as he would later scorn the notion of a “war on terror”).  He was appalled at the arms race and opposed the expansion of nuclear armaments into Europe, advancing the idea of a united and demilitarized Germany.  Kennan spoke out against the Vietnam War early on, and enthusiastically backed Eugene McCarthy in 1968.  He worried that the fall of the Soviet bloc was “too sudden.”  He opposed our intervention into Somalia upon supposedly humanitarian grounds.   Kennan thought the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe to be the worst foreign policy blunder of his lifetime.  This, of course, was before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  At age 97, he and Eugene McCarthy met in Washington to speak out against this folly.  To dismiss him as a simple isolationist is to totally misunderstand the thrust of his arguments.  Kennan believed that the best approach abroad was to strengthen those domestic institutions that would bind the American people together and give meaning and structure to our larger society. 

The great irony of Kennan’s career is that he is credited with articulating our Cold War strategy against Soviet Russia, while concurrently pursuing a lifelong infatuation with all things Russian.    Kennan even liked to think of himself as Russian, writing “my Russian self…is much more genuine than the American one.”  In a letter to his sister, he noted that he would “rather be sent to Siberia among them (which certainly would happen to me …if I were a Soviet citizen) than to live in Park Avenue among our own stuffy folk.”  Kennan despised the Soviet government, but as his journals clearly illustrate, this was not from any ideological opposition to Communism (for he was scathing in his criticism of American capitalism and the bourgeoisie), but rather from the harsh paranoid Soviet policies that limited the contact he so desired with average Russians.

His journals are a rare treat, and I will be posted some excerpts, in chronological order. 

1928
Washington, March 17
     "I pace the city like a man who is lost:  across the viaduct, into the muddy paths of Rock Creek Park where the snow has not yet melted, through the lines of white-pillared houses between Sixteenth Street and the Park.  I know this city as I know my own name, and yet there is something which I cannot find.  Somewhere, in one or another of these quiet streets, there must be genuine beauty and life, to solve the riddle.  Somewhere there must be the hidden key of significance, to unlock the meaning of this preposterous, mocking Sunday afternoon!
     Or is there no key?  Does all the life and purpose of this country flow so relentlessly into its workshops and its offices that on the days when these are closed there is nothing left but a vast, senseless desolation of stone and steel and aimless motion?  A world of lost faces, drifting helplessly in the vacuum of their own restlessness?"


Reval [Tallinn], August 5

     Week-end visit to Carlson at Hapsal.

     "I leave Reval in an execrable humor.  I feel physically tired and repulsive; I hate the world, and the world hates me.  I resent Reveal, and all the people in it; it angers me that I should have to visit Carlson when I do not want to.... It was kind and good of Carlson to ask me.  He meant well by it.  Yet what right have these people to force on me their drab world and their rigorous, middle-class standards?  What right have they, to demand, as they will, that I adapt myself to their conventions, that I play up to their weaknesses and their prejudices?

     We sit a long time at dinner, the Carlson and the Britisher chatting, while I sulk.... And what can these people know of that hope and that mystery, sitting here and chatting their foreign-colony gossip?  Their whole lives have degenerated into foreign colony gossip and they would like to pull mine down to their same level.

     The Britisher asks me if I play bridge.  I say yes, but that I do not intend to play it in Reval.  I say that I expect to do some studying and in general to be pretty busy.

     The Britisher laughs.  'That's what they all say', he replies, 'but before long they are playing around and having as good a time as the rest of them.'

       That makes my blood boil.  Damn him, do I look like the 'rest of them?'. Does he think that I, too, have so little strength of character, so few resources within myself, that I will be forced to seek refuge from boredom, as they have done, in the dull pettiness of foreign-colony social life?

     In the morning I feel stuffy and bilious.  Sunshine floods the cool garden, mocking my bitterness.  At breakfast, I sense the hostility.  I am not surprised.  I deserve it.  Before the others are through eating, Mrs. Carlson suggest that I amuse myself as I see fit.  I take the hint and excuse myself.  As I walk away, I can feel the remarks which I cannot hear.  They are all against me.  I am not their kind."


Reval, September 5

     "I was overcome with an unbearable depression.  It seemed to me that America was full of puzzled young men living tragedies, seeking pitifully in the results of their occupations some excuse for the throwing away of their own lives."


Reval, September 6

     "I feel, sometimes, the temptation to escape from the ordinary futile trend of our times by visiting strange places, doing strange things, seeing strange people.  There is always the allure about the place where no American has ever been, and one feels, when one gets there, that one has shaken off the shackles of his own environment, and has elevated himself above his fellow-citizens who stayed at home.
    
     It is a dangerous mistake.  The period of discovery is nearing its close.  Scourged by boredom, nitwits pursue the rare and exotic to the ends of the earth.  There is little that remains unseen, undescribed.  Halliburton's travel lecturers, wealthy professors, they all swarm through the few dim regions that have thus far resisted the twentieth century.  Anybody can travel, who has health and persistence.  Talking movies, radio, radio movies, these will soon destroy the few small fragments of the unusual which have still been
preserved from the profane view.
    
     Where, then, lies the escape from the squirrel-cage?  Where is the opportunity to raise one's self, by sacrifice and hardship, if need be, out of the whirlpool of the commonplace?

     It lies in depth, rather than breadth.  Our civilization is like a body of water which, lacking profundity, spreads out over its own banks and floods the countryside with a thin sheet of stagnant water.  Like a glutton reaching for new and rare morsels, heaving undigested those which he already has, it fastens with fleeing, uncomprehending curiosity on one thing after another, strips each of its coverings, gapes idiotically at it, and finally discards it again in a library or museum.  Always something new, for God's sake, something new.

     Yes, the solution lies only in depth.  There is nothing new under the sun, in the ordinary sense excerpt ourselves.  It is not farther away from all that we are familiar with, that we are going to make discoveries, but rather deeper down in our own selves, about which we know everything, and understand nothing.
 
 Reval, October 20

     "That's why I am probably always going to be a considerable radical." [After commenting in letter to sister about how much he despised the "boundless optimism" felt by many Americans about their "perpetual prosperity."]

 
1931

Berlin, May 30
    
     "I rejected the communists, I said, because of their innate cowardice and their intellectual insolence.

     They had abandoned the ship of Western European civilization like a swarm of rats, when they considered it to be sinking, instead of staying on and trying to keep it afloat.  Abandoning the ship, they had grasped at a theory for economic adjustment, possibly right though somewhat antiquated, and had hoped by means of this theory to cross at a bound the gulf across which the rest of mankind had been struggling through centuries of slow and painful progress.  They had credited their own intelligence with powers far greater than those of all previous generations, had laughed at all the things which have stirred and troubled men for centuries, had called all their forefathers and most of their contemporaries hopeless fools.  I was not a religious man, I said, but this impertinence struck me as a form of sacrilege, cultural and intellectual sacrilege, if you will, as a tremendous blasphemy against all the previous struggling and suffering and sacrificing of the human animal.  I felt that it must some day be punished as all ignorant presumption and egotism must be punished.

     I tried to make it clear that this applied to communism only in its international aspect.  As a purely Russian phenomenon it might have a different meaning; for Russia it might be a constructive necessary development in a certain sense.  For us in the West, though, it could only be regarded as a Untergangserscheinung, a sign of retrogression."


1932

Riga, May 7

     "I returned from London on the George Washington, as I recall.  There were several hundred Rotarians on board.  I find this entry in a notebook:  Several hundred Rotarians on board.  I seek their company, somewhat shyly, not because if affords me any pleasure or profit, but because I want to find something in their way of thought to which I can attach myself.  After all, if I am not an American, then I am nothing at all.
    
     It strikes me that while they are all nice people, there is not a real lady or gentleman among them.  These are the people whose interests I am supposed to defend.  I am not sorry to do it; they are good naïve people, most of them--kind and generous.  They work hard at home and deserve their place in the sun.  But they are children, and it is a bore to have to protect children from their environment when you cannot discipline them and teach them to protect themselves.

     Also from the notebook:

     Golf is a game for people who like walking but are afraid of being left to their own thoughts.

     Bridge is a game for people who don't even like to walk."

Thursday, March 06, 2014

My Dad


My dad was born 100 years ago today.  Anyone who lives long enough to say this of a parent must themselves consider the lengthening shadows of their own mortality.  But he has now been gone for almost 29 years, and a day does not pass that I do not think of him.  He was my hero.

My dad was born in the Texas Hill Country, on his grandfather’s farm, about 3 miles up Gann’s Creek from where it empties into the Lampasas River at the village of Maxdale.  The second son of Henry and Lillie, he was given the name “John L Henry” after his maternal grandfather and his own father, who himself was named after a favorite uncle.  For those unfamiliar with our state, the Hill Country is a rugged region in central Texas, characterized by rocky hills of cedar and live oaks, idyllic valleys watered by clear running streams, and home to deer and sheep and goats.  It is, frankly, the best part of our state—not necessarily for just the aesthetics, but rather for the quality of its citizens.  They are a straight-forward people who look life head-on, yet seem to appreciate the simple joys of living.  Hill Country folk tend to look west, rather than east, back to the Old South.  Slavery never tainted the region, and the defeatism and class divisions that weigh so heavy in the South find no home here.  From what I can gather, it was an egalitarian culture, with few of the very wealthy or the desperately poor.  Differences in circumstances were measured in number of acres owned, but most everybody lived much the same.  Today it is increasingly home to the elite, who want a ranch hangout or deer lease within easy driving range of Austin or San Antonio.  But back in the day, it was more of a hardscrabble place, where farmers and ranchers had to work hard to pull a living from the rocky soil.  Except for my college years, I have never lived there.  But I have spent my entire life going back there.  In his youth, my son called it "the Old Country." I like that.

My grandparents, Henry and Lillie, were grade school sweethearts, living on either side of the Lampasas River.  They were a perfectly yoked team, you might say, complimenting each other and making a happy home for their offspring. The stories that came down in our family—and those I’ve added from the cousins now long gone—all speak to the good times of a bygone era.  Decades ago, after our family had been gone from this region for many years, I sought out my dad’s kin.  Once these cousins learned I was the grandson of Henry and Lillie, then all doors opened for me, for it seemed that they were everyone’s favorite cousins.

I get the idea that they were interested in the larger world around them, and not just obsessed with getting the crop laid by, as important as that was.  A town aunt enabled my granddad and his sisters to receive an excellent education at the Wedemeyer Academy.  The sisters went on to graduate from college.  My granddad took a keen interest in politics—perhaps too much so.  He was on the school board for the little rural school down the road from their last farm.  My grandmother came from humbler means, and worked in a department store to help support her widowed mother and unmarried sisters.  Quite by chance, I discovered an article she submitted to a journal in 1916.  During the 1920s, they owned a victrola and would occasionally dance around the parlor together at night.  Lillie was a joyous Christian, faithful to her church.  She usually sang while she worked.  She could play the musical instruments available to them—piano, organ, violin, accordion, French harp, etc.  She bobbed her hair in the mid 1920s.

My dad had a lifelong love affair with horses.  My granddad and his sisters sold the farm when my dad was five.  But even at this young age, my granddad would place his son on old Star, the gentle mare that the family had for so long, and then my dad would ride down to Maxdale.  There, one of the men at the general store would bring the mail out to him, and then the little boy and Star would trot back home.  Within a year or two of his death, I remember my dad racing across our big hay meadow on his quarter horse, lariat in hand, after a steer that had peeled away from the corral.  And so, of my dad’s 71 years, at least 66 of them were spent on horseback.

The family moved around a bit after leaving Maxdale, first living on Lillie’s aunt’s place, then near Henry’s uncle.  In about 1928, they purchased a farm of their own in the Harmon community. They raised a number of crops--vegetables, cotton, grain—and had some cattle, dairy and otherwise, as well as hogs and sheep.  The family, at that time, consisted of four boys and an only daughter.  The four boys were a handful, as the saying goes.  I once talked with a woman who went to school with my dad, and whose two sisters married my granddad’s cousins.  I think she had been a little sweet on my dad.  She more or less characterized the oldest brother as the proud one, my dad as the smart one, the third son as the mischievous one, and the fourth son as the good one—and she had them pegged. 

My grandmother doted on her oldest son, which caused him to hold himself aloof from his brothers.  This attitude insured that he would be the brunt of pranks instigated by my dad and his next younger brother.  What one wouldn’t think of, the other would.  Sometimes they would enlist the services of the good-natured fourth brother, though they could just as easily turn their attentions to his discomfort, as well. These stories are legion in the family, but two of them stand out as favorites—and both concern my oldest uncle’s courting days.  One night, my uncle had a female guest over to the house.  The other children were instructed to stay out of the way, and leave the front parlor to the young couple.  My dad and his next younger brother climbed up the ladder into the attic.  They took a cat with them as they went.  There they opened the stovepipe coming up through the attic from the parlor.  As it was warm weather, there was no fire in the store, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to stuff the cat down the stovepipe.  The courting downstairs quickly broke up amidst the screeching cat and the soot.  My dad shimmied down the ladder and out the back door as quick as he could.  His partner, however, was rolling on the floor of the attic, convulsed with laughter.  By the time my uncle had composed himself enough to effect an escape, it was too late.  My granddad was waiting at the foot of the ladder, belt in hand.  Another story had the two brothers sneaking off to the barn as the older brother was preparing to ride off to visit a neighbor girl.  Before their brother could leave, they got a water hose and gave his horse an enema.  The results were as you would expect when my uncle mounted his horse and spurred her on.  And then there was the story I learned only in recent years.  My grandparents and the younger children had gone into town.  Left at home alone, my dad and his younger brother gave each other Mohawk haircuts, stripped down to nothing or next to it, then spent the day galloping around the neighborhood bareback, whooping and hollering as the wild Indians that they were.

My dad was the entrepreneurial one of the bunch.  His father gave him an acre out of the corner of the place where he could raise whatever he wanted and keep the profits for himself.  From this patch my dad raised enough cotton to purchase an old roadster in his teenage years.  My dad wanted to go to Texas A&M and become a county agricultural engineer.  He graduated high school in 1932, but my granddad talked him into working for a year first.  My dad said that by the time that year was up, he knew that there would be no college in his future.  My granddad was, in fact, deeply in debt.  My dad told me once that he never knew they were poor.  The family lived modestly, but Henry and Lillie enjoyed life and each other, so much so that their children never contemplated the fact that they might be poor. 

In the fall of 1933, my dad, his next youngest brother and my granddad went out to the High Plains to pick cotton.  A cousin made good out there and there was work to be had.  My granddad and uncle returned home, but my dad stayed on a while in the Panhandle.   He returned to central Texas just before Christmas, 1933.  He pulled up to the farmstead and received a shock.  The place was empty—no stock in the barns, no chickens and turkeys pecking around the yard, no furniture in the house, no farm equipment of any sort.  My dad’s own personal horse and saddle were gone as well.  At some point, their kindly German neighbor, Mr. Falkenberg, stepped over and explained what happened.  After the stock market crash of 1929, agriculture prices dropped precipitously, and then leveled off.  My grandfather thought that this would be a good time to expand, while prices for equipment and stock were low as well.  The big mercantile establishment (really a bank) in Lampasas outfitted him in new farm equipment and stock.  Of course, the leveling off after the drop in prices turned out to be just a plateau before they plummeted to new depths.  My granddad was never able to pull out of the hole.  Finally, just before Christmas of 1933, the Lampasas firm arrived on the farm and repossessed everything, including my dad’s personal horse and saddle.

I have often thought about this day, my 19-year old dad standing there in the yard of their lost farm, and how it affected him.  I know this: It marked him, as the old country saying goes.  This, and the events that soon followed, marked him for life.

My dad found his family living in a nearby town.  My granddad was able to keep his old truck, and was earning a bit of money here and there by hauling for hire.  Money had to be found somewhere, for my grandmother, at age 44, was expecting their sixth child.  She had not had a child in ten years, though there had been two miscarriages along the way.  Their doctor warned her about becoming pregnant again.  My grandfather tried to borrow money for a hysterectomy, but to no avail.  And so, in late February, she gave birth to my last uncle.  Their regular doctor was unavailable, and Lillie refused the expense of going to the hospital in Temple.  Complications set it and her condition deteriorated.  At last, they took her to the hospital anyway, but it was too late and she soon died.  Her body was taken to her grandparent’s home, from where the funeral was held, followed by burial in the family plot under the live oaks, not 300 feet away.

Times were desperate.  Family members stepped in to help, as much as they could, but my grandfather resisted the breaking-up of the family.  My dad and his next younger brother took action to help the family and provide for their younger siblings still at home.  In April 1934, my dad joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era government assistance program.  Half of his salary would be automatically sent home for the benefit of his family.  Within the last two years, my aunt--the sole surviving sibling--told me with tears in her eyes how it was my dad’s money that had fed them during these tough times.

The Corps transferred my dad to a camp in East Texas, where he was stationed for two and a half years, with temporary postings in the Pecos Mountains and in Oregon as well.  He learned the skill of land surveying in the CCCs.  This would be the profession he would follow for the rest of his life.  Some might say he was a self-made man, and of course, in some sense he was.  But he never loudly made this claim himself.  He never discounted the assistance and training he received from the government during the mean years of the Depression.  In later life, somewhat awash in prosperity, he never complained about having to pay taxes.  He would say, “If I hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have to pay it.”  My dad was a citizen, in the best sense of that word.  And he remained throughout life, a good Democrat (though with one slip.)

While stationed in East Texas, my dad met my mother.  He saw her at work in a field as he drove down a country road.  Today, my nephew owns that very same pasture.  I cannot think of two people as different in background and temperament as my dad and mother.  And yet, they made a good team.  He could put things together and make things happen, while she would see that they hung on to some of it.  In her own way, my mother was a great woman, but this is not her story I’m telling today. 

Her immediate family was poor, though it had not always been so.  Her great-grandfather had been prosperous, a gin-owner with close to 800 acres of land.  But there were many grandchildren, and so this turned out to be of no great advantage to my mother’s father.  He compounded things by marrying—at age 16—the daughter of one of his grandfather’s sharecroppers.  My mother’s father was a quiet man, peculiar in the peculiar ways of his very peculiar family.  His new bride was of a different sort—domineering, opinionated, stubborn, and not a little crazy.  The well was poisoned early in her relations with her mother-in-law, and with six children in nine years, their lives never rose above the bleakness of a Southern sharecropper’s life.  Unlike my dad’s family, there are no stories of good times or amusing anecdotes—only the struggle to live. 

My mother’s mother doted on the two youngest children, and more or less ignored the others, including my mother.  My mother’s next youngest brother was best of the lot, and the only one who emerged from that family seemingly unscathed.  He was a prince of a man, who died all too soon.  The others—including my mother—carried the scars of their upbringing.  She was not particularly self-reflective, and was often deeply suspicious of those outside her immediate family circle.  She did not understand people that were different from herself.  Looking back, this is such a contrast with my dad’s open and easy manner with everyone.  Only after his death did I fully realize the extent that he had moderated her inclinations.  But like I say, they were a good team.  And if I am still living and blogging in five years, I will tell her story more fully, and (I trust) more sympathetically. 

Her mother never liked my dad.  As my mother was packed and leaving home to make a life with with my dad, her mother followed her daughter out to his roadster, telling my mother that if she left with that man, then not to ever come back.  He was twenty-two, she seventeen.  The newlyweds returned to Central Texas at first, but my dad soon discovered that conditions were even worse there than in East Texas. And so, they did return to my mother’s home—my dad with no visible prospects.  My mother’s mother worried about this no-good son-in-law.  Her solution was to sew him a cotton-picking sack.  He took one look at it and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know I’m not going to do that.”  He realized that there was no future in it, as they say.  His mother-in-law took it that he was too good to pick cotton.  She quipped to a kinsman, “I don’t know what John is going to do.  We already have a President and a Governor.”  No, she never warmed up to him, not even when she died in the house he built her, cared for by the daughter she ignored.  I doubt she would have changed her mind had she lived to see him end up supporting the better part of her family, at one time or another, for the rest of his life.

My dad got a job as a surveyor with an engineering company based in Tyler, Texas.  Soon, he was managing their operations in Arkansas.  My dad always had on-going side ventures.  He built or remodeled a couple of houses in Arkansas, moving his dad and sister and youngest brother into one and renting the other.  He purchased a Lion gas station and grocery story.  My mother ran the store and pumped gas while he was surveying.  Back home in East Texas, he starting running a few cows on my mother’s family place (actually owned by her grandmother.)  One by one, he also started buying out all the heirs.  By the time he was 29, he and my mother owned the entire 200 acre farm that her great-grandfather had given her grandfather.  Other farms have come and gone, but this one—known simply as “the Old Place”—is sacrosanct. 

In 1946, my dad and mother moved back from Arkansas.  In that year, he founded his own land surveying business, with this August marking our 68th year in operation.  He was a hard worker and his company grew quickly.  The 1950s and 1960s were the period of greatest expansion, with surveying crews working in a number of states.  His largest project involved surveying a pipeline route from the outskirts of Philadelphia to the outskirts of Chicago.  My dad gained a reputation as a fair man who treated everyone with respect.  He enjoyed poking fun at pretense, and always dressed in plain work khakis, or in later years, jeans.  He commanded great loyalty from his co-workers and never asked them to do anything that they did not see him do first.  He was my great example of how one is to treat their fellow man.

My dad loved his work, and he pursued it relentlessly.  But at heart, he was a cowboy.  And so, our lives revolved around the farms, cattle, and the feeding and care of same.  In 1962, he purchased his last farm, which we simply referenced as the “the big place.”  He spent the last 20+ years of his life, working on this ranch, first part-time, and then full-time in his “retirement.”  Unlike most, this was a real working ranch.  Most of the time I spent with my dad was in going back and forth to these farms, feeding or just checking on the cattle.  For someone who grew up around cattle all their life, I know as little about them as anybody.  I was never interested, and it simply never “took” with me.  I did, however, relish the time spent with my dad and the conversations we would have along the way.  I would have been happy with far fewer cows and more of my dad.  This is not to criticize him, for he could not have been anybody else than who he was.  He and my brother were closer, I would think.  But for the last ten years of his life, at least, I was the one who was with my dad more.  And in the last year of his life, after my brother's death, I think we came to understand each other better than we ever had.

On occasion, I have had people tell me that I remind them of my dad in some way.  This is getting more and more infrequent as time passes, as there are fewer people living who knew him.  Any commonality is probably accidental at best, as I can never be the man he was.  But I would always smile and thank them, not admitting that this was, in fact, the greatest compliment I could ever receive, nor could I admit that I would always choke-up a bit inside, as well.

Memory Eternal, Dad. 

 

 

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Thoughts on Ukraine


Sometimes history picks up speed, as is currently the case in Ukraine.  Wise prognostications one day may be made foolish by the next morning’s headlines.  Even so, I want to voice a few thoughts, as we try to sort through breaking news.

In light of Russia’s invasion of Crimea (an act that I in no way condone), we will hear a lot about territorial integrity and respect for national borders and that sort of thing.  That is all well and good.  Borders are—or should be—real and tangible things, essential for any peoples self-understanding as citizens of a particular nation state.    Even a brief review of this region’s history, however, reveals Ukraine’s borders to be less sacrosanct than some.  The nation has been downright geographically amorphous.  Ukraine has, quite literally, been all over the map:  sometimes part of Poland, sometimes part of Lithuania, sometimes the heart of Russia, and occasionally—briefly—on its own.  The boundary and size of each configuration have shifted and slid between the Baltic and Black Seas.  In short, Ukraine’s borders are no more etched in stone than those drawn in 1919 on a map of Europe by Woodrow Wilson—on his hands and knees in a Versailles drawing room.

The current configuration of Ukraine is a construct of the Soviet system, and not anything rooted in much of any historical precedent.  Peoples were uprooted from where they had lived since time immemorial and transplanted elsewhere.  In their remaking of the world, the Soviets shifted borders and people at will, with little regard or concern for what had been.  This problem persists throughout the former U.S.S.R., whether Russians in the Baltic Republics, or in Georgia with its break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, each a construct nurse-maided by Soviet internal politics.    

Take Lvov, for example.  The second city of Ukraine--and something of a gem, by all accounts-- has a relatively brief history as anything “Ukrainian.”  For centuries, this Polish and Jewish city known as Lemburg prospered within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In the fall-out following the First World War, the city was lumped into Poland, and with good reason.  But 1939 changed everything.  First the Germans came through going east, and then they came through again, retreating, in 1944.  The Soviets took Lvov for their own and added it to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine.  Now in control, the Soviets shifted Poland west, adding a hunk of Germany on one side, and taking another hunk away from Poland on the east.  Lvov and the surrounding territory then became part of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1945.  The Jews, of course, had been eliminated, and the Polish residents were relocated to what had just become western Poland, whose German residents in turn had been dispatched further west into East Germany.  Only then was Lvov repopulated with Ukrainians and Russians.  The most anti-Russian (and alarmingly, the most Nazi sympathetic) elements of the victorious opposition spring from this region.

Then there is Kiev itself.  The capital of Ukraine was also the capital of what was known as Kievan Rus for over 300 years.  This memory of Rus is the very wellspring of Russian culture, spirituality and identity itself.  I cannot conceive that Russians could ever be totally unconnected to Kiev—as well as much of what is now “Ukraine”, for that matter.

I remember when the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991.  Looking at the new maps, I was surprised to see that Crimea was attached to Ukraine.  This peninsula has been a lot of things to a lot of people down through the centuries, but it was never Ukrainian.  Crimea and its Russian population was attached to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine only in 1954, for reasons solely pertaining to internal politics and policy. 

Well, what to make of the ousted Yanukovych and his backer, Vladimir Putin?  No one laments the parting of Viktor Yanukovych, a classless act if there ever was one.  Nor should anyone regard it as particularly newsworthy that the ruler of Russia is (was, and probably always shall be) an autocrat.  We should pause to remember that Yanukovych, as bad as he was, assumed that office by an election.  He lost his position--however undeserving--as a result of a revolutionary coup.  A commentator in recent months noted that the U.S. and Russia have changed positions in the world.  We support revolutionaries and insurgents world-wide.  The Russians, for better or for worse, are the voice of conservatism, supporters of the status quo.  And if Vladimir Putin was as all-powerful as we sometimes portray him to be, then Yanukovch would not be in exile.

The Russians have always been concerned with maintaining definable, defensible borders.  Not every country is blessed with having an ocean boundary on each side. 
Few Americans have studied Russia closer, or understood Russians better, than George Kennan.  In the years following the adoption of his Containment Policy, he grew increasingly frustrated with the widespread misinterpretation of what he wrote.  The containment Kennan had in mind was against Soviet Russian militarism, not an ideological war against something called “global communism.”  They were communists, to be sure, but he knew that they were Russians first.  Despite Soviet rhetoric, their actions were first and foremost about securing Russia, not advancing world communism.  That is not to say that this Russian concern does not border on the paranoid, for it often seems that way.  Their concerns are rooted in geography and history, and remain largely the same as they have always been.

This is a rough neighborhood.  Despite whatever new arrangements it might make with the EU and/or the US, Ukraine will have to come to some accommodation with Russia.  The same holds for Georgia and the other former Soviet republics.

In discussing Russia, most American commentators and politicians do not have to reach back for their old Cold war rhetoric, for they never abandoned it to begin with.  To cast this as simply a morality tale, with the forces of progress, freedom, democracy and Western-style economics arrayed against a backward, autocratic, revanchist and resurgent Soviet system is, well, to misunderstand events as they are unfolding.  The situation is far more complex than all that.

I once respected George Will as a commentator.  That was a long time ago.  A recent column dressing-down Putin comes off as particularly shrill, silly and disjointed.  He ridicules Vladimir Putin and reduces him almost to buffoonery, in his words “a small, strutting Mussolini.”  I saw the same smug condescension when Putin saved President Obama from his Syrian disaster, and then again later on in the scorn heaped on his letter to the New York Times.  I thought Putin right on both counts.  I do not do so in this instance.  But, while we may not approve of all of his actions, Vladimir Putin is nobody’s fool.  Resorting to Cold War ad hominem attacks just highlights our own naiveté in the realm of foreign diplomacy.

So, what can we do?--beyond praying for peace, not much.  So what should we do?— beyond praying for peace, even less.  Like I say, it is a tough neighborhood.

         

     

    

 

 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Few More Reasons to Appreciate John Lukacs


I have recently finished reading Democracy and Populism:  Fear and Hatred (2005), by one of my favorite writers, John Lukacs.  I believe this is my fifth book by Lukacs, and I could do much worse than to devote myself to reading the remaining twenty-five or so.  He has much to say about democracy and a host of isms:  populism, nationalism, progressivism, capitalism, socialism, patriotism, Darwinism, communism, liberalism and conservatism.  There is much here to offend ideologues across the political spectrum; but Lukacs is pushing ninety now, and long past caring.  A few selections, as follows:
On the Enlightenment, 1789 and misreading of history:
…much of the entire (and so largely French) Enlightenment had become boring.  Or at least irrelevant: because of its mechanical and rationalist philosophy of human nature. But here we come to the mistaken view that many conservatives adopted during the twentieth century and that they have even now.  This is that the rise of nationalist anti-liberalism meant a great historical reaction against 1789….And this is the enduring mistake of many conservatives, who despise the “Left” more than they distance themselves from “extremists” on the “Right.”
Two hundred years after 1789 “Right” and “left” still retain some meaning, but less and less.  And much of the same applies to their once offsprings, conservatives and liberals.  For, if conservatives have a fatal inclination to accept populists and extreme nationalists for their allies on the “Right,” the liberals’ misreading of the latter is as bad, if not worse.
Such a misreading of history…is replete with the –alas, still enduring—myopia of liberals about history, indeed about human nature….people are moved by (and at times even worship) evidences of power, rather than by propositions of social contracts.
Hegel…understood that human history did not move like a pendulum, that actions and reactions of ideas—indeed, historical movements—did not quite follow the laws of physics. That recognition was correct; but his conclusions were not. According to his well-known dialectic, Thesis was succeeded by Antithesis, and then from the eventual struggle and confluence of the two a Synthesis was bound to come. But that scenario was too intellectual, idealistic as well as mechanical….What came after 1870 was the emergence and the powerful attraction of two new enormous movements, nationalism and socialism, that turned out to rule most of the history of the twentieth century—indeed, most of the world even now.  They were not “syntheses”…
On Marx and Marxism:
That was but a consequence of Marx’s greatest failure, which was his profoundly mistaken concept of human nature (a concept not entirely different from that of capitalists, Progressives, liberals, economists, etc.): homo oeconomicus, Economic Man—when it became more and more evident that history was formed, and politics dependent upon, how and what large masses of people were thinking (and desiring, and fearing, and hating). That is: during the increasing intrusion of mind into matter.
We must not kick a man when he is down. Marx was an unattractive man but—at least intellectually—he was taking the side of the downtrodden and the poor, especially of the industrial workers (though not of peasants). Moreover, most of his critics miss the vital points, the inherent weakness of the Marxist body of dogma….we ought to look at Marx historically, not philosophically. Marx and Marxism failed well before 1989—not in 1956 and not in 1919 but in 1914. For it was then that internationalism and class consciousness melted away in the heat of nationalist emotions and beliefs….Marxists would never understand—let alone admit—this. They were (and many still are) thinking in categories of class consciousness instead of national consciousness. Marx…entirely failed to understand what nationalism…was. His heavy, clumsy prose droned and thundered against Capitalism and against the State. Hardly a word about the Nation; and of course, not even the slightest inkling…that State and Nation are not the same things.
This brings us to what is perhaps the fundamental Marxist (and also economic; and often liberal) misreading of human nature….what governs the world (and especially in the democratic age) is not the accumulation of money, or even of goods, but the accumulation of opinions.
On Liberalism’s embrace of Darwinism:
Liberalism, in its noblest and also in its most essential sense, had always meant (and faintly, here and there it still means) an exaltation, a defense of the fundamental value and category of human dignity. Darwinism suggests that there was, there is, and there remains no fundamental difference between human beings and all other living beings. In sum: either human beings are unique or they are not. Either thesis may be credible but not both; and this is not merely a religious question.
It is amazing how unquestioningly and enthusiastically American Protestants embraced Darwinism.  This ought to tell us something about the shallowness of their religious beliefs, together with their belief in the progress of democracy.
On Not Suffering Fools Gladly:
The Rev. Shailer Matthews, dean of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, a celebrated public theologian (and an imbecile)…
On Patriotism, Nationalism and Populism:
Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a “people,” justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion.
…the phenomenon of populism which, unlike old-fashioned patriotism, is inseparable from the myth of a people. Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and cosmopolitan (certainly culturally so). But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism is less racist than is populism. A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side by side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seems to belong to his tribe.
On the Misreading of Communism:
In 1917, wrote William F. Buckley… “history changed gears” – whatever that means.  It is nonsense. The Russian revolutions…were the consequences of a great European war, not the other way around….What matter was not ideological but national. What happened in Russia was Russian….Those were years of mud and ice, smeared and streaked with blood.
Yet Lenin (and Trotsky…) were despicable (and not merely deplorable) murderers and rulers, as was Stalin, if not on occasion, worse. Moreover, compared with Stalin they were fools, without an inkling of statesmanship, without much comprehension of human nature, without the slightest understanding of nationalism—all of these matters that Stalin felt, and learned, and then possessed.
Communism and Communists became more than scapegoats; they were, often thoughtlessly and automatically, attributed as the main sources of anything that was evil.
What was common in the beliefs of just about all of them…was their mistaken view of history—more precisely, of the evolving history of the world. Such a view, at least to some extent, has been shared by myriad other people too who were not necessarily Communist sympathizers: a view which, though badly tattered, remains widespread even now. It is a view inseparable from the general idea of progress, of evolution, of democracy, amounting to the progress of mankind…
There was (and is) Tocqueville’s great maxim: that while the prime sin of aristocratic age was that of pride, that of the democratic age is that of envy….And envy is but one, though widespread, democratic manifestation of the hidden existence of hatreds and of fears. One of the manifestations of the latter was American anti-Communism, the popular substitute for patriotism.
“A beacon on the summit of mountains to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes for a genial and saving light till time shall be lost to eternity, and the globe itself dissolves, nor leave a wreck behind.” There is something strangely unhistorical and profoundly pessimistic in this vision. And disturbing: for the fate of mankind indeed seems catastrophic if Americans do not free themselves from the thought that they are the last hope of earth.
A misreading of the world after 1945. The-well-justified-American concern should have been with Russian power, not with Communist ideology.
On the New Barbarism:
…Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed playing the role of president, or George W. Bush, who enjoyed playing soldier. Here was the duality of the American character: stunning transformations of personal and sexual and civilizational behavior, involving the dissolution of families, including millions of people who identify and see themselves as “conservatives.”
History is not governed by logic: but we must at least consider that this strange duality cannot exist much longer: that sooner or later the very political structure of democracy may undergo a deep-going and at least for a while irreversible transformation, including mutations that may have already begun.
A symbolic and symptomatic example of the confusion of state and nation and people is the cult of the American flag—a cult more sacrosanct than in many other countries.
A new barbarian feudalism is bound to come in the future: but not yet.
One of the fundamental differences between extremes of Right and Left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the later.
And the endless pursuit of justice that may lead, and indeed often leads, to the worst of human disasters.
Meanwhile, liberalism and social democracy have, almost inevitably, altered Protestantism, with its reminder of sin first diminishing, then evaporating. But…here and there a radical and nationalist populism…has merged with the reappearing remnants of a fundamentalist Protestantism…a kind of near-fanatical spirituality which, however-because of its shallowness and individual permissiveness-is ephemeral. Among the Eastern, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches of eastern Europe the nationalist and populist characters of the different national churches remain largely what they have been for almost one thousand years.
 
On Woodrow Wilson:
Since not only the importance of ideas but the very importance of events must be judged by their consequences, let us recognize that the then-great revolution maker, the effective destroyer of an old order, was Wilson, not Lenin. That Wilson’s character was unattractive, that his personality was pallid and cramped, that his mind was immature, that the very workings of that mind were strange, that even the otherwise trenchant observation of his postmaster general (“a man of high ideals but of no principles”) was inaccurate, since those very ideas were less than mediocre and customarily superficial—all this is but another example of the iron, even more than of the unpredictability, of history.  “National self-determination” and “Make the world safe for democracy” transformed the history of the twentieth century more than anything else….American foreign policy—indeed, America’s view of the world—have remained Wilsonian ever since…
 
 

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Road to Ruin: Choniates and Lukacs


Manuel I Komnenos
Over Thanksgiving, I settled-in for some serious reading.  Two titles stand out.  The first, O City of Byzantium, is a 700-year old history by Niketas Choniates, the other, Last Rites, a slim 2009 work by Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs.  At first glance they appear to be wildly dissimilar, but on some level at least, they both deal with the subject of ruin.

Choniates was an up-and-coming court official in Constantinople, serving under the latter Komnenian emperors.  Making good use of his access to records, he began his narrative in 1118--at the ascension of John II Komnenos--and concluded abruptly about 1206.  Choniates' detailed history serves as the primary source for the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

The translation by Harry Magoulias is surprisingly accessible to the modern reader.  Choniates was no court sycophant, nor does he seem to be swept-up with any particular Byzantine faction.  And Choniates is not averse to a bit of salacious sensationalism when it comes to the sexual politics of the day.  Early on, he relates Anna Komnene's retribution against her husband's failure to seize the throne upon her father's death:

It is said that Kaisarissa Anna, disgusted with her husband's frivolous behavior and distraught in her anger, and being a shrew by nature, felt justified in strongly contracting her vagina when Bryennios's penis entered deep inside her, thus causing him great pain.

Well alright then...I may never again think of Anna Komnene in quite the same light.  But there is more of this sort of thing.  For example, the death of Manuel I Komnenos left the Empire in the hands of an empress not yet thirty years of age and her twelve-year old son, the new Emperor Alexios II Komnenos.  In the inevitable scramble for power, a young Komnenos nephew (also named Alexios) seduced his newly-widowed aunt and empress.  In Choniates' droll telling, he sought "to mount both mother and throne."  And in an almost comical telling, the scoundrel Isaakios Komnenos, escaping from prison once again, nevertheless took time to engage in sexual intercourse with his wife--up against the prison wall, no less--"leaving her pregnant with a son" before fleeing his captors.

Alexios I Komnenos is generally credited with saving the Empire in the desperate years following Manzikert in 1071, and indeed the 12th-century witnessed a revival of Byzantium's fortunes.  From Choniates' standpoint, however, it was at best a hollow rebirth.  The rot was set, as they say, and like the proverbial dead fish, it began at the head--the power elites--in this case the Komnenoi themselves.

Of course, had the Byzantine rulers been more saints than sinners, they would have still had to have dealt with aggression from the West.  Choniates savages the Latins, as would be expected.   

Even the serpent, the ancient plotter against the human race, did not conceive and beget such enmity.  But because the land which was our allotted portion to inhabit, and to reap the fruits thereof, was openly likened to paradise by the most accursed Latins, who were filled with passionate longing for our blessings, they were ever ill-disposed towards our race and remain forever workers of evil deeds.  Though they may dissemble friendship, submitting to the needs of the time, they yet despise us as their bitterest enemies; and though their speech is affable and smoother than oil flowing noiselessly, yet are their words darts, and thus they are sharper than a two-edged sword.  Between us and them the greatest gulf of disagreement has been fixed, and we are separated in purpose and diametrically opposed, even though we are closely associated and frequently share the same dwelling.  Overweening in their pretentious display of straightforwardness, the Latins would stare up and down at us and behold with curiosity the gentleness and lowliness of our demeanor; and we, looking grimly upon their superciliousness, boastfulness, and pompousness, with the drivel from their nose held in the air, are committed to this course and grit our teeth, secure in the power of Christ, who gives the faithful the power to tread on serpents and scorpions and grants them protection from all harm and hurt.

Choniates' account of the sack of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 is particularly vivid--sparing neither the living nor the dead (for they looted the tombs) and leaving it "a miserable corpse of a city."  He calls the Latin faith a fraud, noting that even the "sons of Ishmael" behaved with much more magnanimity when they retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders.  "By grasping pearls, they rejected Christ, the pearl of great price."

And while Choniates clearly expected little from the Latins, his real scorn is reserved for the ruling Roman elites of Constantinople.  Over the decades, the Empire weakened in many ways.  Control of the seas slipped away from Byzantium.  The triremes were not refurbished and replaced, but allowed to rot in the harbor.  Money lavished on the army contributed to their decline, as well--making military service a vehicle for financial gain rather than defense of the Empire.  Byzantine strongholds fell to cowardice and disloyalty.  The Empire failed to establish a modus vivendi with the West.  The fabled Byzantine bureaucracy broke down under the weight of graft and nepotism,  But according to Choniates, it was the Komenoi themselves--even with the first three strong rulers--that was the poison working its way through the Empire. 

The Emperor Alexios I Komnenos began placing his extended family connections in all positions of power within the vaunted Byzantine bureaucracy.  In short order, the families Komnenos, Doukas, Byrennios, Kontostephanos, Kantakuzene, Angelos, Palaiologus and Branas grasped the levers of power.  "All of the emperor's relatives were avaricious and grasping, and the frequent turnover of officials taught them nothing else but eagerly to steal and loot, to purloin the public taxes, and to amass great wealth."  Canon law prevented close marriage within families (although more than one Byzantine ruler flaunted this restriction), but the web of relationships rivalled that of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons during their heyday.  And with every generation, a new crop of cousins arose who nurtured the belief that it was they, rather than the Emperor, who was destined for the throne.

And so, while the Emperor Manuel I Komnenos "piled up mounds of money as though they were pebbles," his successors did not "hold on to the wealth they amassed but poured it out with both hands on the excessive indulgence of the body and costly ornamentation....like heaps of chaff and blown away like summer dust to fill the slow bellies."  The latter emperors wallowed in debauchery, and grew reluctant to leave the comforts of the palace, with its banquet tables laden with "carved meat."  Choniates quotes Archilochus who said "that what has been amassed at the expense of much time and labor often flows into the belly of the whore."

It was the Komnenos family that was the major cause of the destruction of the empire; because of their ambitions and their rebellions, she suffered the subjugation of provinces and cities and finally fell to her knees.  These Komnenoi...were the utter ruin of their country, and whenever they attempted to seize and hold sway over our public affairs, they were the most inept, unfit, and stupid of men."

To quote Adam Smith (something I do not ever recall doing before), "there is a lot of ruin left in a nation."  Certainly the Komnenian emperors presided over an additional 125 years between the post-Manzikert implosion and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.  As the decades rolled-on, however, one is hard pressed to find much of anything to admire from this Constantinopolitan society.  The reconstituted, chastened and humbled rump empire that held on from 1261 until 1453 was, on the whole, a more admirable civilization.        

John Lukacs

I laid down Choniates and picked up Lukacs, who writes of another ruin, 700 years later.  He has a compelling biography.  Lukacs was born in Hungary in 1924, the son of a Catholic doctor and a Jewish mother who divorced before the Second World War.  I assume that the mother converted to Catholicism (she lies buried in a Catholic cemetery in Chester County, Pennsylvania) for John Lukacs has been a lifelong committed Catholic.  His maternal ethnicity, however, put him in grave danger during the latter years of the war.  He was assigned to Jewish work battalions , but somehow managed to evade transfer to a concentration camp and survive the conflict.  In 1946, seeing the direction of things in his native land, young Lukacs walked west, towards the promise of America.  He taught history for many decades, primarily at a small Catholic college.  He pursued this course primarily in order to be able to write.  Once, at some academic reception, he overheard a colleague remark that he was not really more of a writer than a historian.  Lukacs was not offended.  And write he did.  As the title suggests, this was intended to be his final work.  "Twenty years ago I was still standing dans les faubourgs de la viellesse, ambling in the suburbs of old age.  The ages and walls of that stony city I saw at a distance.  No longer."  Lukacs had more time than he imagined in 2009, perhaps, for I understand he has since published another, his 30th.

Lukacs adapted quickly--though never completely--to his adopted country.  By the mid 1950s he had married Helen, a Philadelphia editor.  They moved into a small, unfinished house on three acres of a farm her family had owned since long before the Revolution.  He resides there still, after the death of his first wife at age 42, his subsequent remarriage to Stephanie, her death, and his final marriage to Pamela.

This work is hard to pigeon-hole, being a wide-ranging rumination about his life, history, and how America intersects each.  One of the perks of old age, I suppose, is the luxury of speaking plainly and boldly without worrying about any repercussions.  (Personally, I am looking forward to that.)  For example, he dismisses Francis Fukayama's The End of History as "idiotic," and Subjectivist Determinism as "nonsense."  Contra Collingwood et al who argue that history is nothing but the history of ideas, Lukacs counters that "no idea exists without the person who thinks it and represents it--people do not have ideas, they choose them." (And here, Lukacs frames the instinctive opposition I have always felt towards Determinism, whether it be in history, ideology or religion.)  And against Lord Action's "purpose of history is the definite, and final, establishment of truths," Lukas answers, decisively, no.  Rather, "the purpose of historical knowledge is the reduction of untruth" (or what Andrew Louth terms a "process of undeception.")  Indeed, the "method of history is description, not definition."

On the subject of history itself, Lukacs posits that it is not a "science."  He reminds us that "history is not just the recorded past, but the remembered past, and like memory, it is incomplete and fallible."  Indeed, "the purpose of human knowledge--indeed, of human life itself--is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding."

Lukacs writes at length about the end of the Bourgeois Age, long-gone, though not yet fully realized (If one has to have a year to bookend such things, Lukacs suggests 1969 as an outside date.)  He has a fondness for "the European era of five hundred years, that I cherished and to which I belonged," but does not sentimentalize it.  Lukacs finds no contradiction in the fact that "dribs and drabs" of the age persist here and there, for "that is how history proceeds." 

At first glance, conservatives might warm to his writings.  Lukacs, a self-described reactionary, would in no wise categorize himself as such (a traditionalist, yes.)  He is scathing in his critique of modern movement Conservatism, and no doubt would be wryly bemused at those whose cry is "Take Back America."  Lukacs notes that "there are no eternal returns in history."   

Lukacs knows there is no return, but expresses concern about what is taking its place. 

At this time, at the end of a great age when, having liberated mankind from all kinds of fetters, having declared the end of slavery, emancipation of women and of children, entire liberties of speech, of print, of pictures, etc., men's images of men and women are more sordid, more ugly, more desperate than ever?

And, as he notes elsewhere "it could be worse:  but very good it is not."  Lukacs contends that the Bourgeois Age with its hypocrasies, materialism, shallowness, "the mental wasteland of the hollow men," was not entirely wrong.  What was (and is) at fault, however, "is their institutionalization, the acceptance of their formulations as absolutes."  By the late 1960s, thebourgeois convictions--weak and superficial--had collapsed and disappeared, "and the behavior of their offspring changed instantly, together with what and how they thought."

Lukacs loves America, or more exactly, he loves his small corner of West Schuylkill Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania.    Looking farther afield, he sees little promise.

I despair of this country and many of its people.  I think that the 21st century will not be the American century, but that some giant and unprecedented catastrophe may smite this country, probably of its own making, and perpetuated by one or more of their own.--I do not fear an Arab crashing itno the Limerick nuclear towers, but an American in a state of sexual or ideological frenzy.

He also writes of the death of liberalism and the rise of conservatism (in the current parlance.)  Liberalism is "exhausted."  In 1950, no American leader, whether political, intellectual or academic, described themselves as "conservative."  By 1980, however, they were in the majority and proved it by choosing "Ronald Reagan, a divorced movie actor, for their hero, for their president."  Lukacs  describes this as a "tectonic change," though the manners and morals of most Americans "conservatives" differed little from "liberals."

There is one great and grave fault in the thinking of American conservatives as well as of American liberals.  This is their belief in (linear) Progress. The liberals, ever more strained, propaganda for the extension of limitless human "freedoms," their clinging to the Darwinist categories of evolution and "progress," not only compromises but goes counter to their once noble protection and defense of human dignity.  The conservatives' propagation of American power throughout the world and, above it, into space, their thoughtless belief in the endless benefits of technology, amounts to a denial of every conservative view of human nature and of its limits.  Liberals adulate Science; conservatives adulate Technology.  No great difference there.

Lukacs ridicules the extreme notions of American Exceptionalism of a "Chosen People."

...a Chosen People, an exception not only to others but to history itself, that they were living in the greatest and freest and richest country in the world...

...tend to believe not only that they are a Chosen People but also that what is good for America is good for the world:  Yet at the same time they are not much interested in the world outside the United States. 

God will always smite, or chastise, those who think they are his Chosen People.

Agreeing with Tocqueville, Lukas posits that "the character of a people is more important than are their institutions," and "more important than the measure of their material goods is what people think and believe."

Lukacs remains committed to his Church, but he is no Catholic triumphalist.  The fact that his first and second wives, both Protestants, converted to Catholicism during their last illnesses says something about the nature of his faith.  Helen Lukacs remained open to Catholicism the more she was exposed to Catholics during their marriage.  But she was set aback when priests would visit, trying hard to prove themselves "regular fellows, like all other Americans."  Lukacs remembers that she always expected more from American Catholic priests.  Early in 2001, Lukacs went to Mass, specifically to pray for his ailing second wife, Stephanie.  The priest promised to cut his homily short and "spoke of angels and saints in Heaven watching the Superbowl."  Lukacs walked out in disgust.

The Church, my church, must now reconcile itself to be a church of a minority of the truly believing--as it was, of course, in entirely different circumstances and with entirely different prospects after the age of the catacombs eighteen hundred or so years ago.  The Church must remain a single, lonely lighthouse of human comprehension, of wisdom, a proponent of love. 

Lukacs is often at his best in descriptive vignettes of people and places of his experience:

On his mother's Budapest friend:

...Ila knew her own interests very well.  She was sophisticated, intelligent, elegant, demanding, very, very careful with her possessions and money, though not with those of others; acid with her criticism of many people, save for her daughter and granddaughter, two small crystalline vessels wherein she poured just about every drop of her stream of coagulated love.  She lived in that once admired modern but now rundown building of the 1930s in considerable comfort, her apartment filled with good furniture and paintings and lacy things, something that she was able to guard and protect and keep even during much of the Communist regime.

On the character of his first wife, Helen:

H. had something like a historical sense of what the dissolution of her family meant...she evinced no illusions for some idyllic kind of American past lived and experienced by her immediate ancestors.  She understood too much about the fatal limitations of their perspectives, of their characters, of human nature, of the United State of America, of the world.  She was profoundly conservative--in the proper and best sense of that word that began to become corrupted in the 1950s.  She gave up her outside employment, her editorial job, at the very time (the early 1960s) when millions of American women, wives and mothers who had moved to the suburbs, suddenly felt constrained with what life in the suburbs offered to them, and fled their daytime loneliness to their employment in various offices.  Helen thought, and often said, that to be ("to be," rather than "to stay") at home with a family was the best employment that a woman could choose.  She was a traditionalist.  She was a patriot.  And a Democrat, and a liberal.  She was appalled by the Vietnam War, and by Nixon and Kissinger.  She disdained American nationalism and sentimentalism. "The American Dream" was a phrase that she abhorred....Somehow she understood that an entire civilization was unraveling and sinking, that Civilization was more important than Culture.

On the Greenbriar Resort, on a honeymoon trip with third wife, Pamela:

I knew that I did not belong here, not in the least.  I was not an American sportsman but a fortuneless immigrant who had not and could not dare have anything in common with the providers and riflers of this fabulous amount and variety of goods, with these ranks of Sam's and Dick's and Ron's people.  I was a foreigner, alien and uninvited, out of place and out of time as at a Nascar race or the Super Bowl. 

On Pamela's family home in Charleston, West Virginia:

...the bookcases on the wall of their living room or parlor lined with biographies and novels and histories of the America of the 1930s and 1940s, of a decent, honest, still book -reading , middle class.

Lukacs' work is not without hope. 

Ambition and greed invoke, they reach out to a future.  Envy and pleasure insist on the present.  But gratitude:  it comes always from a past.  There is my gratitude to the past, to my past, including those who loved me and whom I loved.  Beneath and above them is my enduring gratitude to God, for both my past and my present.  Will the sincerity of this gratitude suffice to escape His adverse judgment of me:  I do not think so; I only hope.


Both Niketas Choniates and John Lukacs sift among the ashes of history, searching to salvage something of value.  Choniates started his narrative with this admonition:  "Let no one be so mad as to believe that there is anything more pleasurable than history."  He speaks of kindling the fires of memory and ploughing the furrows of the past.  Lukacs would agree, I think, closing with this admonition:

My readers:  please turn toward the past, and dip into its records and remnants, for inspiration.  By doing that you may turn melancholy:  but you will not lose your appetite for life.