Sometimes It's All About What We Leave Out

In his New York Times column today, David Brooks examines a Lewis Mumford essay from 1940. Brooks also writes of “Those who threaten civilization — Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now” and he says that Mumford was examining “liberals’ tendency, in 1940, to hang back in the central conflict of the age, the fight against totalitarianism.” There’s a jackbooted elephant in the room that Brooks ignores: Fascism. Though some of them had once supported the Soviet Union, those on the left were at the forefront of the struggle against fascism (many would be called Premature Anti-Fascists or PAFs once the United States got into the war).

Though Nazi Germany was allied with the Soviet Union for the moment and though, just a few years earlier, many leftists had made common cause with the USSR in Spain, the political geography had shifted. Many who had poorly understood the realities of Stalin’s regime were now realizing that they had been duped. Still, the reality of the time was that Hitler’s fascism was a much more immediate threat than Stalin’s totalitarianism. It was predominately the right that hung back from American entrance into the war, not the left (though, admittedly, certain groups on the left did as well)–and the country as a whole would soon be forced into an uneasy alliance with Stalin, anyway. By conveniently leaving Hitler out, Brooks makes it seem like it was isolationists on the left who were stalling American intervention and that the USSR was the real enemy of the time.

Brooks, slyly, does not define his terms. He conflates several different meanings of “liberalism” then slides into use of “pragmatism,” holding that to be the same as Mumford’s “pragmatic liberalism.” That leads him to opposing “pragmatism” to emotionalism and “universal principals.”

Mumford does distinguish, for the purposes of his essay, between pragmatic and “ideal liberalism.” He does not disparage all liberalism, and he is not talking about those who are politically liberal today. He defines the pragmatic liberal:

Evil for the pragmatic liberal has no positive dimensions: he defines it as a mere lack of something whose presence would be good.

I doubt there are many on today’s political left who would be quite comfortable with that. Nor would many Pragmatist philosophers, most of whom would also be a little perplexed at their supposed lack of universal principals. William James writes:

Pragmatism represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist attitude, but it represents it, as it seems to me, both in a more radical and in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed. A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth.

There are universal principals aplenty in that, though they may not be of the sort Brooks narrowly (and covertly) defines.

Mumford ends with Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. He matches Krishna’s advice, saying “one should attend to the overwhelming duty of the moment.” In 1940, that duty was the fight against Hitler. The struggle against Stalin had to wait, consequences of that, for the moment, be damned. So it seems strange to me that Brooks leaves Germany out of his column completely, especially since the United States, today, also has to juggle “evils.” Brooks ignores the obvious question, which is worse, Hitler or Stalin, ISIS or Putin. He ignores what Mumford implies, that one has to choose one’s fights based on the demands of the moment.

Brooks argues that “Mumford makes the case for leaders who understand evil down to its depths, who have literary sensibilities and who react with a heart brimming with moral emotion.” Maybe so, but those leaders might not be the ones Brooks wants his readers to imagine they are. By eliding definition, he is able to imagine for himself, I think, that our current leaders are pragmatists of the sort Mumford wrote of during the early years of World War II, during the time when Hitler and Stalin were allied and England had not yet even had to evacuate its troops from Dunkirk. To compare leadership needs of that time to those of today without providing the context of either and by forgetting to define terms that have changed over time accomplishes little. It merely makes for continued smug attitudes in the minds of those on the sidelines.


One thought on “Sometimes It's All About What We Leave Out

  1. Given Brook’s support for such crimes as the Iraq war, maybe he is the evil one. Many people, including myself, find U.S. policies “evil”, including the current disaster we have midwifed in Ukraine. And of course,there is Iraq, Honduras, Haiti, Venezuala, Palestine and on and on.

    Concerning Brook’s argument, if he wants to look at which past doctrines have been successful, and recommend them for today, then he needs to do this in a systematic way and not just pick one example.

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