This is one of the books and many articles we’re reading as we prepare Who Shall Be God. WSBG concerns American political and social change filtered through two families’ conflicts. Our goal is to digest the nonfiction materials in support of our fiction writing.
At the outset, we must say that Professor Siegel has helped us understand the experiences we had growing up in NYC during the Sixties. Rising out of the lower part of Inwood, through East Harlem, and to the Upper West Side, via a Mephistophelian deal by which my mother sacrificed herself for my betterment, I attended an upper middle class public school. Yes, from the world’s point of view, who you know is as important as merit. Lucky breaks are, often as not, quid pro quo.
In the feeder Intermediate School (IS) I attended, I learned educational tracking served to segregate and alienate economic groups. Naively, I asked one acquaintance, who got into trouble a lot, why he didn’t study harder since, it seemed to me, he was smart. He (again, we’re talking eleven year olds) said his family and social group wouldn’t permit it. I saw him many years later from a distance and got the impression he was trying to make a life for himself.
At least one child was pushed down an IS staircase the week when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The retributive aggression at the IS broke along economic rather than racial lines. I was subject to abuse at this time because my mother always made sure I wore a white shirt and tie to school. Ironically, my mother raised me to regard a person by their character, not the color of their skin or their economic status.
From there, I qualified for two specialized high schools but selected one over the other from the desire to satisfy the head over the heart. The only preparatory coaching I received during an ongoing teachers strike were group art lessons held by a dedicated teacher in her home. These few classes helped the many children she invited fill out our portfolios.
During my tenure at Stuyvesant, I witnessed the radical movement first hand. Some of those kids (you’d recognize them) are now on the national stage. Inadvertently, I also witnessed one of the last protest marches down Broadway from Colombia University. Of course, while in high school, I experienced the ostracism and mockery of those who thought they were better than me. I ask you, is adult life really any different?
Having gained entrance to Cooper Union though grueling exams, I learned how loosely those trusted with stewardship could act when they changed the rules in their favor. This revelation prompted my one and only act of protest against the irresponsibility of those who were extraordinarily privileged toward those who were not. I did not have Professor Siegel as my teacher while at CU.
Growing up in pre-Giuliani NYC, I experienced age appropriate crime. By that, I mean I was always mugged by those my own age. However, my defining memory of the city was the night someone dragged heavy garbage cans repeatedly along the concrete sidewalk in the common courtyard at the center of the block, or so we all thought.
Turns out that was automatic machine gun fire aimed at police officers guarding a city official who lived in the neighborhood. The siren of patrol car after patrol car signaled the fate that was meted out. I read of the perpetrators’ demise years later (but can no longer find the story online).
We thank Professor Siegel for his book and plan to touch on individual and groups of chapters in coming weeks. The following is an inadequate commentary on and condensation of chapter one.
CHAPTER 1 Progenitors
Men, like E. L. Godkin, Charles Francis Adams Jr., Henry Adams, H. G. Wells, Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, H. L. Mencken, and G. B. Shaw shaped opinion prior to, during, and after WWI. They advocated instituting an American intellectual aristocracy, overthrowing middle class values, and destroying American democracy.
Quoting E. L. Godkin, “Plenty of people know how to get money; but…to be rich properly is indeed a fine art. It requires culture, imagination, and character.”
Charles Francis Adams Jr., [grand]son of John Quincy Adams, thought businessmen didn’t have the right temperament to govern. Aristocrats like him should hold office.
His brother, Henry Adams claimed superior men’s intellectual alienation from American life arose because they were underappreciated by the common-man.
H.G. Wells and Herbert Croly, The New Republic’ editor and co-founder, shared Adams’s anti-capitalism. However, they believed the experts Adams hated could be used to destroy the unrestrained capitalism disapproved by the elites.
Wells, heralded as a secular prophet, explained, “The book [Well’s Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought] was designed to undermine and destroy… monogamy, faith in God and respectability, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electrical heating.”
Herbert Croly and Randolph Bourne were the two intellectuals most responsible for liberalism’s ideology.
Croly rejected Hamilton’s commercial republic, Jefferson’s self-reliant landowners, and America’s adherence to the Constitution, political parties, and law courts. Croly said, “The average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conceptions of his responsibilities as a democrat,” and, “Democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility…”
Progressivism [at that time] embraced conventional morality. As a movement, it pursued control over society’s unruly passions. Progressives sought restoration of America’s traditional promises by taming large corporations and major city political machines. Their expression of a social gospel led them to reduce class divisions by outlawing child labor and instituting an income tax. This progressive movement split between those who supported American involvement in WWI and the pro-German opponents of the war.
Bourne, the prophet of multiculturalism, called for southern and eastern European immigrants, not yet corrupted by capitalism, to create a “Trans-National America” to free the country from a puritanical Protestant culture.
Bourne wholeheartedly approved of French preparations for war with Germany. He also liked that Germany’s “war on squalor and ugliness was being waged on every hand,” because “taste is, after all, the only morality.” Bourne wrote, “The world, will never be safe until it has learned a high and brave materiality that will demand cleanliness, order, comfort, beauty, and welfare as the indispensable soil in which the virtues of mutual respect, intelligence, and good will may flourish.”
H. L. Mencken, critic of “Mr. Wilson’s War,” derided Prohibition, preachers, anti-evolutionists, and American democracy. He defined the American people as a “rabble of ignorant peasants.” Mencken was guided throughout his career by a sentiment from G. B. Shaw’s play Man and Superman, “we must eliminate the Yahoo, or his vote will wreck the Commonwealth…”
Both Mencken and Shaw exploited Western culture’s self-defeating vulnerability: its capacity for self-criticism. …Mencken advised Theodore Dreiser, “There can never be any compromise in future men of German blood and the common run of ‘good,’ ‘right thinking’ Americans. We must stand against them forever, and do what damage we can do to them, and to their tin-pot democracy.”
Mencken wrote three revealing articles for The Atlantic magazine. “The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,” proclaiming Nietzsche’s “contemptuous of weakness” attitude as Germany’s inspiration. Mencken quoted Nietzsche, “the weak and the botched must perish… I tell you that a good war hallows every cause.” The second article exalted [German] General Erich Ludendorff as a hero. The third, never published essay—“After Germany’s Conquest of the United States”—advocated America’s rule by hard men of a superior Kultur…’
In this light, American liberalism of the early twentieth century, as distinct from classical liberalism of the nineteenth century, was driven by hatred of the common man, his morals, and his liberty. Those motives sound familiar, don’t they?
Bernhardt Writer is Adolphus’s older, more mature, and handsomer brother. He will contribute reviews, commentary, and essays from time to time. He has contributed anonymously and pseudonymously before on this blog. Please forbear him, he carries on sometimes.