Everything That Was Old is New Again – Unfortunately

Arts & Letters linked to a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Alan Wolfe, “’The Authoritarian Personality’ Revisited.” Wolfe argues (not all that persuasively) that unfortunately, The Authoritarian Personality (by Theodor Adorno, et al) should have become a classic. It asked, “whether the United States might harbor significant numbers of people with a ‘potentially fascistic’ disposition”? Unfortunately, the fifties was not friendly to its aim “to draw a composite picture of people with authoritarian leanings.”

Actually, reading his remarks. I remembered my first day at work in Chicago; the work-study crew in the reserve library had been run ragged and I insisted they try to make the place look presentable. (Why is beyond me, now – neatness wasn’t a big thing for me even then.) Probably one of them wasn’t all that wrong when she muttered I was obviously an “authoritarian personality.” If there’s much truth to the theory, probably such a person as I was that day is most likely to display symptoms – insecure, unsure of my authority, uncomfortable with both power & responsibility. Creon exhibits these flaws; Oedipus’s are different. My feeling, however, was that in the late sixties on some campuses (certainly Chicago a good deal more than Nebraska, which was less sophisticated, less radical, and peopled by students with a different attitude toward work, authority, duty) whipping out the tag “authoritarian personality” was a convenient way to do in the other.

And my memory of that period would, I suspect, be exactly what impels Wolfe. I don’t want to relive the sixties. I hope I’ve grown up. If not, well, hell, I’m not going to. For some of us, it was quite enough. Not surprisingly, he returns to the heady days in which the personal reigned. He wants to test the factors of authoritarianism against “prominent politicians successful in today’s conservative political environment.” That Wolfe takes such an Olympian view of the political other is no surprise. We have seen this persona before – social scientists seem quite comfortable with the fit—they did in the late sixties and they do now. And we are not surprised that he applies it to John Bolton. Wolfe takes the description of Bolton – as “a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy”- and notes how this “one pithy sentence. .. perfectly summarizes the characteristics of those who identify with strength and disparage weakness.” Well, that takes care of Bolton. The “other” as specimen: the cool & objective scientist takes his measure. We’ve seen this and if we hadn’t, Prufrock could have told us; “the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, / And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, / Then how should I begin / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? / And how should I presume?” Well, indeed, should the other “presume” in Wolfe’s world?

Wolfe pins Bolton & attaches to him the stories of “temper tantrums, intolerance of dissent, and black-and-white view of the world.” Of course, Bolton, immersed in the real world of action and commitment, attempts to define the purpose and future of the UN, tries to nudge other diplomats. By those standards, he quite probably fails sometimes & succeeds others. But Wolfe measures him by the personal, using Adorno’s gauge. In hearings earlier (when the Democrats, in the minority, blocked his appointment) and now as he reports to that same Congress, Bolton sees his role in terms of duty; I can’t imagine he pursued it for the benefits & glory. He appears to be no fool & realizes the United Nations as a good deal bigger than he. He can’t impose his will upon it – it is real and big and complicated. It isn’t an idea, like the idea of an authoritarian personality. It exists. What it is, of course, is a mixture of potential and past as well as present, of useful dialogue & problematic practices. It is, at best, an institution in process – anyone who believes it a static embodiment of real values might listen to Wednesday’s Lehrer report, with heartbreaking stories of the U.N.’s role in Darfur.

I haven’t finished Civilization and Its Enemies by Lee Harris, but have reached “How Reason Goes Wrong.” He distinguishes between “abstract reason” and “concrete reasoning.” He argues that “the error of abstract reason is, in short, forgetfulness. It forgets that its abstractions are designed to try to capture the infinitely elusive real. It begins to use these same abstractions as yardsticks by which to judge the real.” (137) Concrete reasoning on the other hand suggests that “reason always involves making a concept and not merely taking it over as a finished product.” And so, we see in this small but not unrepresentative case an academic who has an idea of what a “normal” human might be. He classifies the other – undoubtedly made the “other” because his politics are the “other” to Wolfe – as an “authoritarian personality.” We aren’t surprised when he acknowledges faults in the early work’s methodology were noted by critics, ready to attack it because it denigrated quantitative social scientists. This was theory – spun from long interviews with a small sample.

We have become increasingly self-conscious and with that we have become increasingly willful. Our separate selves have exercised muscles; we see that energy in much libertarian thought. But we have plenty of historical (and literary) warnings that our wills are likely to betray us even as they appear to serve. After all, Satan’s problem was hubris; it led him, as it has so many of us, to alienation. It’s not like those old archetypes have nothing to do with human nature.

Shortly before the passage above, Harris argued that “Liberal Cosmopolitanism” arises from a belief rather than any actual experience; that here, the “cosmopolitan thinks he can live in a world where he never needs to take a side, but the only way you can have a world where you don’t need to take sides is to create a world without conflict.” And in such a world (post 9/11 we know; pre 9/11 we should have known) we need to do something “with the people who want a world with conflict, if only because they don’t want the world without conflict that has been imposed by you.” In “Tolerance: A Case Study” he discusses what we have forgotten:

we no longer pay any attention to what in Locke’s time was a necessary condition of tolerance, namely, the willingness of the various sects to abide by the ideal of tolerance, whereby they relinquished all desire to have their own sect impose its faith on the state as a whole. (145)

Humility is not my strong suit – our motives for throwing up our opinions on others’ screens arise from a certain amount of hubris; bloggers are also a bit isolated, our rough edges not always rubbed off; we are somewhat protected – who are we? No one knows. But I suspect humility is a virtue that we could value more – that and duty. They restrain but also comfort with an external sense of purpose. They come naturally when we see our “team” in Harris’s world, our institution, our nation, our family as larger than we. We see this mixture of pride & humility in the code of honor; we hear “Oh, and I don’t want to die for you / but if dyin’s asked of me / I’ll bear that cross with honor / ‘cause freedom don’t come free” and recognize one of the great paradoxes of human nature – that purpose leads to both humility and pride.

We see that purpose around us – and the people who feel humility before something they consider larger than themselves are seldom authoritarian. They are, indeed, driven by a certain pride coupled with a real humility. When John Roberts, who appears to be often the smartest guy in the room, showed deference during his questioning, it wasn’t pretense. He respected the institution, the right of Congress to advise and consent, and, most of all, he respected the Supreme Court. (Many found Bork off-putting – pride is hardly a monopoly of the left.) Roberts described how he was moved every time he ascended those imposing steps–moved before the reality of the Supreme Court. And law – well, a lifetime will not be enough to puzzle out its truths. This is, of course, hostile to the world of those with “abstract reasons” who wanted him to bring the world to heel. Harris argues that:

“While abstract reason wishes to prescribe to the world, to tell it how it ought to be, concrete reasoning does the very opposite. It exists to understand the world—in the belief that by understanding the world it will come to find itself already present in this world and in the social and political world just as much as in the natural world” (138)

So many of the current abstractions are little – like the authoritarian personality. And so often is our humiity before the unknowable – like justice. There isn’t much that’s bigger or more unknowable than religion. I’m returning to the old horse I beat a few posts ago, but it does nag at me. Perhaps I’m merely airing a personal problem, but I suspect this anecdote tells us more. And perhaps it is because I want to understand why & how it nags at me. So I come back to it and hope others comment, argue with me, help me understand.

Second time around: Christianity emphasizes humility; we need it as we approach the unknowable. Faith is not what Harris talks of (at least as far as I’ve gotten) nor does Wolfe. But Christianity, with its long history, with its beauties and its mysteries, is based upon the words and the life of Christ. These words lie before us in the text we read and discuss; the life is recorded, embodied in those words. And our understanding of the world, even if we are unsure of our faith, is guided by the pragmatic and transcendent reality of those words & that life.

I like my Sunday School class a lot. Many (especially the teacher) are models of goodness and tact. Nonetheless, when my classmate, a social scientist, concluded Lincoln was a hypocrite to both believe that a divine spark shines in all – Yankee or Confederate – and yet take his nation to war, he was making judgments that came from abstractions about spirituality, war, hypocrisy – not from an understanding of human nature, human history, or, frankly, 1861. This ahistorical approach also leads him to a certainty that God, too, is changing – has, indeed, become more like a social scientist’s god. He posited that idea, immediately followed by an aside that he doesn’t see why others feel insecure facing this obvious truth. Hesitancy must arise, he implies, from a lack of imagination. Since I haven’t thought a great deal about this, I murmured and let it lie. I might have inquired whether another lack of imagination might lead one to think that because man has evolved, so has God – standing Genesis 1:26-27 on its head. I always go back to literature – that is all I know. But I think, Eliot, Milton – didn’t they speak of time past and time future, held in time present. I’d always liked that idea, even if I didn’t, not really, understand it. But, I sigh, knowing nothing of theology – my weak understanding of some old poets is no proof. And, besides, I don’t want to be labeled “narrow” or unimaginative. I don’t want to be that bug pinned upon that wall.

But weeks passed, and we turned to the gospel of John; here, my classmate interpreted Christ’s speech: “I am the way”: surely he didn’t mean his own particular path, reaching out his own particular hand to mankind. Surely, the social scientist said, Christ could not be that arrogant. This would betoken, I realize as I read Wolfe, an authoritarian personality. A few passages later, he warned us against demonizing the other, as Christ did when he talked of those who rejected his teachings. At times in history when churches like ours were persecuting Jews or Catholics, his openness might be a corrective – weighing against our tribal loyalties to our own. In Belfast, for instance, a little more sense of different “ways” might have been useful. Nonetheless, the history of our church, full of bloodshed, is also a history leading to a remarkable tolerance, a faith (which our drooping enrollments might make us question – or question what exactly we are selling) in the open marketplace of religion. I don’t sense that the national church’s intolerance (and what else could it be called?) is inspired by narrowly defining “the way” as much as bizarre political stances hopelessly influenced by retro economic theories and trendy racist ones. More importantly, what the hell are we doing sitting here and reading about this person, so flawed from the point of view of modern sociology?

What strikes me about my classmate and Wolfe is that their stances arise from a lack of humility, a desire to score points. Obviously neither is a Ward Churchill. Both are conventional academics, just ones, I suspect, with a bit more chutzpah than most. We might hesitate, I would think, before judging Lincoln. Yet more humility, surely, is in order when someone publicly and repeatedly professes a belief in Christianity before he feels comfortable judging Christ.

Of course, Wolfe can judge Bolton – that is hardly in the same league. I suspect there may be much – especially from Wolfe’s point of view – to criticize in Bolton. But is it true? How much does Wolfe really know, how “real” is this personality type, from what was it derived? Theory upon theory–circular theories that clearly find what they set out to discover, idea imposed upon evidence. And, in the end, how useful is such a discussion? Of course, it is not totally ineffective; many readers of the Chronicle, would much prefer not to be seen as incipient fascists. So, it has effect. But, outside that charmed circle, we might observe that, although Wolfe speaks from an Olympian distance, it is hard to think of this as a mature view of the world. In this little review, we see the pride & smallness of mind those of us on the right suspect dominates thinking on the left. Of course, once the left (and not always the right) thought in terms of big ideas. Now we are left with prattle.

The social sciences can encourage a false objectivity, a false distance. This allows a distance from the real; Harris describes this as “the danger of the intellectual, of whatever persuasion”: the intellectual

will end by elevating his own particular subjective idealsx—which may well be nothing more than whims or caprices or even fantasy daydreams—into a destructive and all-consuming fantasy ideology. For fantasy ideology is the preserve of the intellectual; unless he is very determined to fight against this natural tendency within, this is the risk that he will invariably run when setting about to improve the world. Such improvements are always characterized by one essential quality: they are improvements that the intellectual wants but that the world believes it can do without, as it has done without all such improvements for so much of its not altogether unsuccessful career.

While the analyst may believe he is privy to truths above God Himself, he has a rather puny view of himself as well as the other. Ad hominem is generally wielded against the other to increase our own power. But this is a paltry game – where we belittle the other by applying the thinnest of psychological constructs. When we recognize nothing larger than the self then that is all we attack. Speakers in the great marketplace must now spend time making sure their slips aren’t showing, lipstick isn’t on their teeth. This distracts from the ideas – we are flawed human beings; if all becomes ad hominem we will never hear the speech itself. Our discussion is degraded by this: so, Bolton puts his hands on his hips. And, since this seems to work so well in the political realm, let’s take this attitude, this cynicism, this pride into our churches as well: Christ, well, he may have had tendencies toward arrogance.

Mentioning something of Harris, one of my husband’s more charming colleagues (small praise, but he is a decent human being) said, “But ah, Ginny, I think ideas are real.” Of course, he does. The problem is that if ideas aren’t derived from the real, aren’t puzzled out & concluded from experience, they can harm the reality they are supposed to explain. Sure, ideas, even ones that are completely severed from human experience and nature, can take on a reality. Think of the boys brought up as girls because of an idea. That idea was quite real in an important way – it had consequences. We’ve seen far too much of that in the twentieth century – and now the twenty-first. But the fact that ideas have real consequences does not, unfortunately, mean that they describe reality. And such ungrounded concepts as these that categorize the “other” in the terms of ad hominem argument cheapen discourse, trivialize issues, give us an unearned sense of our own superiority.

1 thought on “Everything That Was Old is New Again – Unfortunately”

  1. The problem arises precisely when people think that ideas, which may be useful models of reality, are actually real things–ie, when they concretize the abstract. In business, for example, some people might take a tool like Boston Consulting Group’s growth-share matrix and assume that because it classifies a particular business as a “cash cow” (low growth–high market share) that the cash-cowness of the business represents some kind of Platonic Form, rather than simply being a possibly-useful indicator. I am quite sure that real harm has been done to actual businesses by such misplaced concretization. But in business, the damage is limited by market feedback…in academia and government, it can be much worse.

    I am pretty sure it was Hobbes who wrote eloquently about the tendency of people with limited intelligence to take abstract ideas for actual things, but I have been unable to find the reference.

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