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SOURCE: Providence Sunday Journal ()
When Hadden, barely 31 years-old, died from a bacterial infection in 1929, his name immediately disappeared from Time’s masthead. For the next 40 years, Luce tried to insure that the world would associate Time only with him.
Isaiah Wilner, himself a former editor of the Yale Daily News, takes advantage of unprecedented access to Time’s files, including both founders’ personal papers, to bring Hadden back into the light. The result: a breezy, readable, if somewhat one-dimensional study of two smart, driven men and their complicated partnership.
The well-connected Hadden, the more charismatic of the two, apparently conceived his big idea while still in prep school. He and Luce, the missionary’s son, debated, shaped, and reshaped the idea. By the mid-1920s Time was a success, and more projects—including what became Life and Sports Illustrated—were in the works.
Through it all, says Wilner, Hadden “rushed about with his coat collar up, chewing gum, chain-smoking, and swinging his cane. When he talked, he often barked. When he liked a joke, his raucous laugh shot through the room as if fired from a machine gun. Writers called him ‘The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang’ because he growled and stamped his feet if they used a word he didn’t like, but it was all part of his act—a beautiful insane act that swept people up within his orbit and filled them with the magic of his grand persona.”
Luce, on the other hand, was “penetrating where Hadden was witty, analytical where Hadden was creative, organized and careful where Hadden was spontaneous and reckless.” It was Luce, for instance, who insisted that the magazine stop satirizing automobile mogul Walter Chrysler because, after all, Time needed the advertising revenue. The irreverent Hadden briefly edited a newsletter, puckish called Tide, that questioned the truthfulness of corporate advertising; Luce preferred a friendlier stance toward business—and later created mogul-friendly Fortune.
Wilner depicts the rivalrous friendship clearly, but doesn’t probe too deeply. Hadden ran himself ragged alternating between work and play, was an alcoholic and quite possibly (given Wilner’s evidence) manic-depressive, too. Wilner eschews psychological analysis, however, and doesn’t go beyond the simplest explanations of, say, why Luce was so determined to erase the memory of his late friend.
Of course, Luce succeeded in becoming a force in American culture and politics, and he controlled Time’s “master narrative” for a long time. Wilner’s vivid book provides a welcome, engaging corrective.
I recalled that brief if unsatisfying exchange while reading Fritz Stern’s compelling book. During the anti-liberal Age of Reaganism he had written a N.Y. Times Op Ed in defense of liberalism, then and now under bitter assault by everyone from the Bush-Cheney administration to their army of liberal-haters. For Stern, the liberal path has been one of “America’s noblest traditions” [which] created “the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” Not to mention Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, et.al. (Which is not to say that liberals have not committed memorable self-inflicted and unforgivable wounds, most significantly Vietnam).
Today, Stern remains an outspoken liberal, tolerant in the face of intolerance on and off the campus, his life forever marked by the destruction of the liberal if flawed Weimar Republic in his native Germany. Five Germanys includes analyses of Weimar, the Third Reich, West and East Germany and united Germany and is a valuable recognition of the absolute necessity for democratic societies to accept and welcome open debate and the questioning of authority. Stern only hints at the possible similarity with the current breed of American policy and opinion makers who have created so much damage at home and abroad, though he is quite serious about their incompetence and intolerance, characteristics his family witnessed in the destruction of the short-lived democratic, if flawed Weimar Republic.
Weimar struggled to survive onslaughts by the punitive Versailles Treaty, hyperinflation, far rightwing groups, and the Communists (in those years, acting on Moscow’s directives, they excoriated the Social Democratic Party, the only group strong enough to counter Hitler, as “Social Fascists.”)
Still, liberals, Catholic Centrists, socialists, pacifists, free labor unions, even communists were all doomed when the Nazis won a plurality of the electoral vote. About Germans, Stern shrewdly comments, “Their submissiveness, perhaps servility or fervent complicity, sealed the fate of the first victim—and ultimately the fate of the country. Never before had a modern, educated, proudly civilized class so readily abandoned, betrayed, and traduced the most basic rights of citizens. Why? Fear? Willing acquiescence and complicity? Indifference? The questions haunt us still. There are no simple answers.”
Born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1926 where his family had resided for many generations, Stern, University Professor Emeritus of History, former provost of Columbia University (a notable figure in defending the university during the student unrest in 1968) and author of the seminal Gold and Iron: Bleichroder and the Building of the German Empire, was the child of a professional and intellectual class destroyed by the Nazis. Most of his clan became Protestants, though Nazi racist policies would define them as Jews.
His father, an eminent liberal physician, had been a loyal officer in the Kaiser’s army during WWI and his mother was a physicist, but who later became prominent in the Montessori-style educational movement. The family and their formerly Jewish friends and relatives lived comfortable lives before and after WWI, and contributed much to the well-being of their fellow Germans as scientists, physicians, artists, lawyers and journalists. Five years later. the Sterns fled to the U.S. Still a student, his mother took him along for a meeting she had with Albert Einstein in Princeton, N.J. Stern recounts that Einstein asked him what he’d like to study in college. Medicine or history, the teenager answered. “That’s simple, said the famous man. “ Medicine is a science, and history is not. Hence medicine.”
For Stern, the collapse of Weimar symbolized the vitriolic attacks against liberalism and moderation by reactionary German writers, dating to the late 19th Century and is reflected in the “pseudo-religious attraction” many American now seem to have for a “new authoritarian” in the so-called age of terror and the attacks on liberalism by the extreme left and right. “I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster, and I came to realize that no country is immune to the temptations of pseudo-religious movements of repression such as those to which Germany succumbed.”
He rightly singles out the bellicose and heavily subsidized neocons, “illiberal ideologues,” who, until their illusions of a painless victory in Iraq were destroyed and their imperial dreams of endless wars shattered (temporarily?) by an aroused electorate last November, have nevertheless achieved “wealth and power”—but have also, I would add, led directly to the death and maiming of tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, while they and their families remain safely behind the walls of their inflexible think tanks.
Who knows how it will all turn out? Another invented “cakewalk” against Iran and Syria, as the neocons and Israelis are now demanding? Or perhaps an exhausted superpower, its moral bearings lost to war and ignorance?
The seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophical movement that came to be known as the Enlightenment was once the crown jewel of the western intellectual heritage. It promised lives based on order and reason. It seemed to offer the promise of human perfectibility.
Such claims, however, have for some time not gone unchallenged. In the middle of the last century, especially during the cold war, the Enlightenment came to be viewed as the precursor of vast and bloody attempts to re-order social and political life. As such, it was scorned as the intellectual underpinning for cruel, fumbling, self-assured idiocies such as fascism and communism. Now, with the growth of postmodernist thought, the Enlightenment is seen as the source of the depredations visited upon the world by evil westerners—the iron cages of materialism, racism, imperialism, economic rapacity, and the subjugation of minorities.
There is much that must be surrendered to these points of view. There can be no doubt that the more vociferous of the Enlightenment philosophers often overstated the value of reason, consequently undervaluing other important human capacities and modes of experience. Just as seriously, one must acknowledge that various forms of Enlightenment rationalism and rationalization (its evil twin) have served as props for illegitimate power and deeds so shameful they make one blush for being human. The problem becomes, then, where do we draw the line? What can reason accomplish? Must we jettison the entire project, abandoning our faith in our rational capacities and our dream of progress toward a world that would be freer, more egalitarian, and more spiritually and materially prosperous? What can be saved? Surely, coming to terms with the glories and failures of Enlightenment thought might bring us to greater self-consciousness, both as individuals and as a species, and could possibly sober us when we tend toward hubris and encourage us when we are apt to sink into timidity.
With so much hanging in the balance, reassessment is always in order, and interested readers can only welcome such a sturdy and thoroughgoing contribution as Louis Dupre’s The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. Within the confines of a single volume, Mr. Dupre takes up a wide range of issues related to the value of the Enlightenment, surveying the works of scores of thinkers who revolutionized western thought from the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth. Although this sort of approach usually forces an author into easy and glib generalization, Mr. Dupre has refused to fall victim. His single volume is carefully and warmly argued, and it is based on vigorous research. This survey is not only a valuable contribution to the literature of the Enlightenment. It is also a bracing, extended essay on how, for better or worse, our mental horizons continue to be set by boundaries established in airy, philosophical discussions and polemics that now lie more than two centuries from us. For Mr. Dupre, there is no escaping the Enlightenment. As moderns, we are its creatures.
In Dupre’s judgment, a sea change occurred in western thought around the middle of the seventeenth century, that is, around the time of Descartes and the spread of cartesianism. Previously, the ancient Greeks and the premoderns had believed reason to be embedded in the natural order of things. These earlier thinkers had believed that discovering the reason that lay beneath the surface of reality was an essential expression of our human nature. Enlightenment philosophers, according to Dupre, fatefully departed from this course, making the human mind solely constitutive of meaning and the sole source of reason. Cartesian duality placed reality at a discount. It existed merely to answer our questions and submit to our manipulations. Whatever did not conform to human rational constructions could be ignored or swept away. In its most extreme manifestations, man’s material environment, indigenous peoples, socialists, kulaks, Jews, the bourgeoisie--anything or anyone that might slow the holy trajectory of history and progress--could be either exploited or expunged, with nary a twinge of conscience.
Dupre believes that this all resulted from unwarranted intellectual confidence. Drunk with possibility, many Enlightenment thinkers, as well as their heirs, simply lacked the humility that would have helped them recognize how tied their ideas were to time and place. They were too naïve to acknowledge that the particular historical conditions that give rise to an idea rob it of its universal applicability. Kant, for example, yearned for universal truths because there was no universal truth in pre-Bismarckian Germany. The region that later became the nation of Germany was sunk in particularity. Indeed, it was a welter of petty principalities and divergent customs, and Kant’s ceaseless pining for universal truth can now be seen as a historically conditioned overreaction to his time and place. The career of Karl Marx, a child of the Enlightenment and the holder of a PhD in philosophy, is similarly instructive. Marx’s work was conditioned by his experiences in industrialized western Europe, and his insights were, for the most part, particular to his time and place. His claims for the universality of his doctrine and his insistence that it would bring about a new millennium of freedom and social justice later crashed against the social and political realities of Russia, China, and Cuba. Those nations did not conform to his hopeful, universal schemes, they became prison camps.
Mr. Dupre relates how the intellectual overconfidence of Enlightenment polemicists also sprang from the prestige gained by science among those who prized rationality so highly. In an increasingly secular world, Newton and Franklin were very nearly worshipped as gods. The quest for the unification of the sciences was a quasi-religious quest for certainty. Science reigned supreme. That is why Darwinist capitalism, socialist fantasy, and fascist racial doctrine, so divergent in their premises and goals, all claimed to be based on scientific, therefore unchallengeable, world-views. Opposition to these thundering locomotives of history was seen as backward, ignorant, unscientific obstructionism. Of course, all of these grandiose ideological claims were entirely bogus for they were scientistic, not scientific. They were merely decked out in the trappings of science. Dupre chillingly quotes Karl Mannheim with: “Nothing is more removed from actual events than the closed rational system. Under certain circumstances, nothing contains more irrational drive than a fully self-contained, intellectualistic world-view.”
All of his criticisms aside, however, Mr. Dupre is chiefly a defender of the Enlightenment tradition. He believes, for example, that Enlightenment values seeped into religious discourse resulting in outlooks that were still fundamentally religious, but more ecumenical and tolerant. He also maintains that enlightenment political doctrines were essentially emancipatory and, in their less doctrinaire forms, still serve as the theoretical foundations for modern democratic projects. Even more crucially, Mr. Dupre puts forth the clever argument that critics of the Enlightenment operate within the Enlightenment world-view, attack it with its own tools, and still pay allegiance to the same ideals. Even when we attack it, we show our stripes as followers of what Peter Gay has referred to as the “party of humanity.”
Dupre’s defenses are based, in large part, on the notion that the Romantic corrective to the Enlightenment, from Rousseau and Herder forward, was an example of the Enlightenment’s capacity for self-correction, an extension of the original project. Even if not entirely wrongheaded, this viewpoint is controversial and readily assailable. Thinkers from Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke through Vilfedo Pareto and Michael Oakeshott have viewed Enlightenment rationalist political doctrines as morally repugnant and crippled by an infantile optimism. There really was a highly self-conscious Romantic counter-Enlightenment that sought to promote countervailing values. Many Romantics, from Southey and Coleridge through Ernst Juenger and D. H. Lawrence promoted the primacy of intuition and emotion at the expense of reason, as well as obedience to traditional forms of authority at the expense of the moral autonomy of the individual. Mr. Dupre’s thesis is provocative, but the Enlightenment, in all its doctrinaire glory, would lose its identity under his latitudinarian definition.
Despite its flaws, The Enlightenment & the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture is a hard-headed attempt to assay the very foundation of modern western intellectual history and our relationship to it. One of its chief merits is that it offers us the curious example of a work whose weaknesses are as instructive as its strengths. The questions raised by Mr. Dupre, though not definitively answered, still ring with significance for every person. Reason is at stake. Human possibility is at stake. What greater drama?
As the failed American war in Iraq drags on and the same people who dreamed it up are now promoting an attack against Iran, the question of reinstating the draft arises repeatedly in editorials, op eds, and the Internet. If Washington’s home front warriors are reckless enough to try forcing more young people onto some new battlefield then clearly tens of thousands will apply for CO status, not show up, or simply disappear. The outcome will most likely be a renewal of widespread social disruption. Not too many of our young are willing to fight and perhaps die in yet another worthless conflict instigated by today’s crop of bellicose theoreticians.
Many questions raised by the anti-war and anti-draft movements of the sixties remain unresolved. What to do when our nation primarily conscripts its less privileged young? Who goes: a President’s daughters, a prominent neoconservative’s sons or a waitresses’ kids? More essential questions remain: What, exactly, does a citizen owe his or her government? What shall a young man and his parents make of shibboleths like national honor and national interest? Does the state have a moral right to demand that a 20-year-old risk death or dismemberment, especially now since only a handful of pro-war Washington politicians and their young have ever served or will serve on active military duty?
Peter Brock, the preeminent historian of pacifism and conscientious objection and professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto offers insight and perspective. It takes courage and powerful beliefs to withstand the pressures and punishment that an all-powerful state can bring against potential draftees. A former British CO during WWII, Brock has spent his adult life scrupulously pursuing the subject. His earlier books (Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War and Twentieth Century Pacifism) have allowed others to examine why and how people refuse to kill when called upon to do so by their governments. Against The Draft carries the story to 1945.
From the French Revolutionary era into the latter half of the 19th Century, most European nations introduced conscription—prompting millions to flee their homelands, largely to the U.S., which would institute its own draft in the Civil War and later during WWI. In Britain, those who did not fight were assumed to be mad and sent to mental institutions, a practice which allowed the state “to rid itself” of dissidents. In Tsarist Russia, Tolstoyans, also known as Free Christians, followed the teachings and practices of the great writer and nonviolent resister who preached and taught nonviolence. Russia, Brock tell us, produced more war resisters in WWI than any nation save Britain because of its “rich tradition of sectarianism.” (It’s interesting to note that contemporary Russia is witnessing an extraordinary amount of draft resistance). When the Russian Civil War ended in 1921, Tolstoyans managed to survive for a number of years until the emergence of Stalinist terror, which severely punished any and all nonviolent dissidents. And during WWII, Germany and Japan were just as brutal to all those who refused to join their military crusades.
Against The Draft closes with the end of WWII. There is much more to be explored by historians, especially in the growing insistence by many that they are selective rather than absolute conscientious objectors, that is, they would have served in, say, the “Good War” but not in Vietnam or Iraq. In any event, conscientious objection needs to be accepted as a human right. Should that ever happen Peter Brock’s books would be an unerring guide.
After William James’s death in 1910, newspapers teemed with stories of psychic mediums who claimed to have communicated with his spirit. On Oct. 2 of that year, the New York Times responded to these stories with an interview with inventor Thomas Edison, an icon of the scientific worldview. Edison candidly denied the existence of the divine creator, the soul, and the afterlife. He asserted (in a stunningly reductive stroke) that human beings were merely an “aggregate of cells”—indeed, that even in life humans had no real existence as individuals and therefore could not possibly continue to exist after death. Edison also dismissed the work of psychical researchers affiliated with James because they were “desirous of believing,” which made them unreliable inquirers. In short, although Edison expressed hope that humanity might someday better understand the mind, he declared supernaturalism bunk.
Had he been alive and within earshot, William James would have strenuously objected to Edison’s comments. James stated, and Edison would have agreed, that “Science means, first of all, a certain dispassionate method,” but James qualified this point considerably by declaring: “To suppose that [science] means a certain set of results that one should pin one’s faith upon and hug forever is sadly to mistake its genius, and degrades the scientific body to the status of a cult” (James, 1890, quoted in Blum, 171). Edison and most scientists ruled out the reality of the supernatural in advance, thus violating the basic spirit of inquiry, as defined by James. Furthermore, as James argued in his famous 1895 essay “The Will to Believe,” in some cases “a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.” He thus would have found Edison’s criticism reflective of “an insane logic.” James defended the right to explore beliefs that lacked empirical justification. For decades he supported research into the paranormal, committing himself to open-minded, open-ended, yet still purposeful inquiry.
Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death (New York: Penguin, 2006) shares some but not all of these qualities. Drawing on thorough archival research, Blum weaves an engaging and provocative narrative that lacks clear purpose. Blum’s fascinating series of stories about séances, mediums, and psychical investigators add up to a substantial account of the attempt of a small group of respectable, well-heeled researchers to put the study of psychical phenomena on a scientific footing, thereby unifying the study of the natural and supernatural. James, a Harvard medical school graduate who made important contributions to philosophy and the blooming discipline of psychology, was the most prominent supporter of psychical research in America. In 1885, James became a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), an organization modeled on the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). James closely followed the ASPR and promoted its work for a quarter century by writing supportive articles for Scribner’s Magazine and the Psychological Review. Occasionally, James even participated in psychical research himself.
The most important medium studied by the ASPR was Lenora Piper, an unassuming middle-class woman from Boston. Richard Hodgson, the Australian-born workhorse of the ASPR, did over 130 sittings with Piper, who, in a trance state, frequently revealed to pseudonymous guests information that she had no apparent means of possessing. Hodgson and other ASPR researchers used unsavory tactics (such as filling Piper’s mouth with detergent and salt) to verify her trance state. Piper passed these tests. They also spied on Piper and used private investigators to confirm that she was not relying upon informants. They found nothing suspicious. After years of study, Hodgson became convinced that Piper was channeling a deceased friend of his. James also did sittings with Piper and found her powers “baffling.”
Many readers, too, will be baffled by these stories. The book abounds with accounts of mediums who possessed information that they, by all appearances, could have received only by paranormal means, whether from spirits or via telepathy. Blum also describes numerous incidents wherein researchers believed that they had observed telekinetic effects, from floating tables to blowing curtains untouched by earthly wind. (The closely studied Italian medium Eusapia Palladino, despite her known penchant for cheating, convinced a number of researchers that such telekinetic effects were possible.) Skeptics will find hearty fare here, as Blum’s stories reveal that the researchers carried out many badly flawed experiments and found few trustworthy mediums. But because Blum reports uncritically on the ASPR’s research, skeptics more than believers will find this book troubling. She occasionally allows criticisms both from within and without the society to enter into her narrative, but she over-privileges the perspectives of the ASPR researchers, declining to overlay her narrative with critical analysis.
Blum might seem to be adopting a Jamesian posture by withholding judgment, but she actually makes it too easy for readers to conclude that the book confirms their preconceptions. Skeptical readers can nod and sigh alongside Edison, while believers can see the book as proving the reality of the paranormal (as some reviewers on Amazon.com clearly have). It is not possible to provide a definitive explanation of what happened during the ASPR sittings, and it is not a flaw of the book that Blum did not do so. But the most interesting question to ask about the ASPR does not involve the outcome of the sensationalistic ghost hunting of the book’s title; rather, it involves the spirit in which those investigations were carried out. The significance of the story lies in the fact that William James, one of the most important intellectuals to emerge out of 19th-century America, spent decades investigating a fundamental question about the nature of scientific inquiry. Blum might have done more to address this reverberating issue in American intellectual life.
Consider, for example, intelligent design (ID) theory. On the surface, it might seem that the open-minded James would approve of the ID project of demonstrating the intelligent creative force behind life. Both psychical research and ID challenge scientific orthodoxy by accepting the possibility of a supernatural reality. On a number of counts, however, ID theory violates the Jamesian spirit of inquiry. While James argued that scientists should try to study a mysterious supernatural reality that may exist, advocates of ID necessarily assume the existence of an intelligent creator and deny well-established knowledge in favor of identifying “irreducible complexity.” Furthermore, James drew on his intellectual predilections (his “passional nature,” as he would have said) to guide his continuous inquiry rather than to serve premeditated conclusions. In his 1909 article “Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher,” he declared that he was no less baffled at that time (a year before his death) than he had been two dozen years earlier. The only firm conclusion that he could draw was that there was a subterranean “cosmic consciousness” whose influence did sometimes “leak in” to the individual’s consciousness. If this tentative conclusion were true, it could have helped advance the understanding of the human mind. ID theory, on the other hand, seems to have little potential to produce new knowledge beyond reaffirming the presupposition of its advocates that complex forms of life must owe their existence to an intelligent creator. To label something as “irreducibly complex” is to declare further exploration pointless, an act that James would have found anathema.
For his part, James accepted the idea of biological evolution, but he did not believe that Darwin’s theory, with its dual emphases on accident and fitness, should be considered the last word about the meaning of the universe. He refused to grant any single idea this status. For this reason, his acceptance of evolution did not rule out the possibility of religious belief. James may have warmly anticipated the unification of inquiry into natural and supernatural worlds. He would not, however, have welcomed any attempt to pass religion off as science or science off as religion—as the last word about the meaning of the universe. We could do worse than to be guided by his vision of the “intellectual republic,” with its “spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory.”