Swans Commentary » swans.com May 19, 2008  



Human All Too Human


by Michael Doliner





"Mendacity is the system we live in."

—Brick, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


(Swans - May 19, 2008)   Humanism, by which I mean the idea that all men are created equal in dignity, caught on like an infection and began to spread inexorably throughout the world starting with the French Revolution. One might trace its origins, as Allan Bloom does in The Closing of the American Mind, to Rousseau's Social Contract, but it was perhaps bubbling in the vast proletariat soup even earlier (see the Levelers). Be that as it may, starting in the last part of the eighteenth century it spread throughout the world so completely that it is almost impossible to imagine a politician not paying homage to it. In the United States the Founding Fathers engraved it in the Declaration of Independence itself, and it must have inspired the yeoman farmers and others to press that war through the misery they endured fighting it. I don't know military history, but I would bet that many of Napoleon's victories owed more than a little to the fervor the ideas of the French Revolution inspired in his troops and the effect this idea had on the enemy. For it must have made the ordinary Austrian soldiers, for example, feel they were fighting against themselves. Hannah Arendt, in the Imperialism section of Origins of Totalitarianism, emphasizes the paradox of imperialist conquest. For with British conquest of India, for example, Britain infected that country with the bacillus of humanism with which Gandhi finally overthrew them. It is worth noting that Gandhi became so effective precisely by avoiding the imposing trappings of aristocratic rule.

Humanism has two great works that can justify it in the grand museum of inspiring ideas. The first is the vast scientific edifice produced for the most part in the twentieth century. Scientific talent is indifferent to lineage and family wealth. It sprouts up where it will and the only way to nurture it is to offer education to all and develop objective tests for advancement. Since scientific truth is itself objective it is true for all, rich and poor, refined and rustic. To achieve what the twentieth century did achieve involved the collaboration of millions in a cooperative effort. Science is the democratic art. Because scientific achievement is difficult, requiring long years of toil even for the most talented, it tends to discourage those who are rich enough to have the opportunity to enjoy more pleasurable pursuits. It offers an opportunity, primarily, for the working class to get ahead and move into what we usually call the middle class.

Humanism's second great work is the system of law. Law, of course, existed before the spread of humanism. The Magna Carta's purpose was to limit the English king's ability to abuse the aristocracy. It did limit the king's powers and establish the principle of habeas corpus, but it did not establish a system of law with a mechanism for revealing, one hopes in any case, objective truth. The idea that guilt or innocence should be determined by objective truth rather than by the opinion of some magistrate, is a humanistic prejudice. Since objective truth is the same for everyone, the rich and poor should be equal before the law. On the other hand, if the rich and highborn rule the earth it is only right that they administer law so as to enhance that rule, regardless of what actually happened. The Magna Carta indicated a shift in the power relationship between the nobles and the king, but not really a move towards an objective rule of law. One interesting little quirk that emerges from this history is that "jury of one's peers," as it appears in the Magna Carta meant jury of peers, that is members of the house of lords, who would presumably be sympathetic to another lord on trial, given the opposition of the lords to the king. That "peers" has come to be ordinary Joes and the principle enshrined in the American judicial system is both a joke and a tragedy. For in a judicial system supposed to be designed to extract objective truth, the jury selection system that attorneys make an art of manipulating is one of the least rational elements. Of course it should be obvious that law based on the discovery of objective fact is just a manifestation of the humanist scientific spirit.

But there is also humanism's dark side. Total war is one of humanism's progeny. Machiavelli devotes a large portion of The Prince to discussing soldiers. He dismisses mercenaries and auxiliaries as useless because they have no motive, regardless of their pay, for loyalty unto death. He concludes that the prince must have his own soldiers. But what will inspire loyalty unto death? Clearly only a real stake in the battle. Shakespeare, in Henry's great speech at Agincourt, appeals to the desire for honor. Honor is glorious memory. In the course of invoking this he says the following of someone in the future:

Then shall our names, Familiar in his mouth as household words -- Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester -- Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

They are all, of course, noblemen. Of the famous longbowmen not one is mentioned, not one known. Notable for its absence is any appeal to the idea of freedom and democracy with which modern politicians try to inspire the troops. Henry's army was small, perhaps 7,000 men.

In contrast let us look at Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It ends with this:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Of course nothing of the kind was at stake. Had the war not been fought and the United States split into two states, both of them could have continued as democracies, the outcome depending only on their own internal politics. But humanism inspired high feeling, and that was what Lincoln wanted.

Henry's nobles, with their complex web of obligations and rights, had an interest in his success. When a king fell, many fell with him. But in a democracy no such self interest is involved. Humanism itself must inspire the soldiers, and for the most part it does so. Every fight is a fight for freedom and democracy. Since humanism's appeal is broad, armies could be much bigger, and if the enemy can amass a big army you must do so too. Combine this with the rapid technological advances humanistic science also creates, and you have made a large murderous killing machine. The American Civil War is often considered to be the first total war. More than 600,000 Americans died in it, but the two world wars really displayed just how monstrous total war could be.

To fight a war, humanism must be restricted. Otherwise there would be no one to fight against. We might call this humanism in one country. First World War recruiting posters do not usually appeal to defending democracy and freedom directly. They ask for national service. "Don't be a slacker. Do your bit." It's us over here and the Huns (read barbarians) over there. Sometimes the appeal was to the defense of civilization. Implicit in this was the idea that we, the English or Americans, are all in it together, and that being English or American was something that you would lose if the Huns won. Within England, or America, we are all English or American of course, and it is this great thing, of being English or American, that we want to preserve. Among ourselves rich or poor doesn't matter, we are all English (or American.)

The idea of transferring humanism's electric charge to nationalism came early. When confronted with the French Revolution, Edmund Burke invoked nationalism and gave birth to what has come to be known as "Conservatism." Burke argued against the rights of men and for the "Rights of Englishmen." He claimed that people could only be happy and free under their own institutions that had endured the test of time. He argued that only English institutions could preserve "our ancient liberties." Burke admitted humanism's basic principle. "Kings, in one sense, are undoubtedly the servants of the people: because their power has no other rational end than that of the general advantage." What he denied was that that gave anyone the right to depose them for the sake of some abstract principles. He transferred humanism's lofty feeling to nationalism and thus blunted its revolutionary barb.

Burke's persuasive arguments make the connection between humanism and nationalism that provided the recruiting propaganda for World War I. When Woodrow Wilson made his speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany he said:

Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles. Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.

Our goodness (as opposed to their badness) and our humanism are one. Nationalism is a useful proxy for humanism when war is your aim. We must protect The United States, as the home of democracy and freedom, from Germany, who wants to take our precious freedoms away from us. The war propaganda, for the most part, carries the message, "let's all pitch in together and win this thing. If you don't do your part you are letting all the rest of us down." The idea that we are all somehow in it together carries with it the idea that we are all somehow equal.

When humanism is identified with nationalism it follows that the enemy is not human. Because patriotic humanistic wars require us to dehumanize the enemy, these wars are particularly brutal. In fact, total. I would not want to say that other pre-humanistic armies did not also dehumanize their enemies, but it was not so essential for them. Their wars did not obligate them to do so.

But humanism has a far darker secret even than its having supplied the fuel for the conflagration of total war. Although humanism has conquered the world, not everybody truly embraces it. The rich and highborn, though they are forced to mouth humanistic platitudes, do not really hold these ideas. It should surprise nobody that this is so. No one likes to give up his wealth, his privileges, or his power. Burke implored the British parliament to liberalize its rule in America and to end the rapine that was its rule in India. There is no doubt that he believed English Institutions were the source of liberty in spite of all evidence to the contrary. What Burke refused to accept was that there were many in power who had no real interest in promoting English liberty. They were interested in power and wealth for themselves. But because humanism had gained the ascendancy so completely that it was almost impossible not to profess it, they lived in lifelong hypocrisy.

Because so many of those actually in power only mouthed humanistic principles to cover their real intentions, the political structures of most, if not all, democracies are systems of mendacity, as Brick would put it. The writers who came out of the Great War -- Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sassoon, Robert Graves -- condemned that war completely. The British Government and High Command's conduct during that war went a long way towards a cynicism with regard to the connection between humanism and patriotism. During that war these men's human loyalty was so great that Owen and Sassoon, though detesting the war and those who had sent them into it, still returned to it out of loyalty to and love for their comrades. Owen was killed on the war's last day. The gradual erosion of the connection between patriotism and humanism continues whenever anyone finds out that the government's motives were far less humanistic or patriotic than it professed them to be. Slowly it leaks out that World War I was an imperialist war for foreign possessions, that FDR virtually forced Japan's attack by depriving them of oil, that many war profiteers, with the aid of the government, looked out for their own interests while everyone else was pitching in to help the war effort, and that the United States Constitution is an oligarchic document disguised as a democratic one. Leftists reveal these facts with outrage, an outrage predicated on humanism. These revelations blunted the rhetorical tools statesmen used to tie patriotism to humanism. With all this, Burke's argument for a humanistic patriotism grows weaker.

Not only is the connection of humanism and patriotism cracking, but the very value of humanism itself is crumbling. Communism was probably the high point of pure humanist sentiment, and perhaps also its mortal wound. Burke's complaint that after a revolution people who don't know what they are doing gain power proved true. The forced collectivization and Moscow show trials revealed to many just how brutal humanism taken too far could be. Most people first thought that communism was a nice idea that simply couldn't work, but soon thought it evil incarnate. Command economies violate all economic principles. People need the motive of self interest to really do anything. Most importantly, communism deprived people of freedom, and tortured and killed them. People conveniently forgot that their own governments had to inspire their own armies with that same selfless loyalty to essentially humanistic ideas of freedom, democracy, and communal all-working-together to defeat the enemy to get them to fight, and that this effort had been successful. That the failings of the Soviet Union were the failings of communism itself went without saying. What nobody realized was that it was impossible to demonize communism without demonizing humanism itself.

The demonization of communism was not the only cause of humanism's wane. But the demonization of communism provided a wedge with which the government could pry apart and break up the labor unions and smash forever the idea of communal action. For communism is nothing more than an idea of working together for the common good. Without this hope humanism remained as an idea, but an impotent one. We may all be equal, but what of it? It doesn't mean anything.

When working together for the common good proved to be nothing more than a chimera, a childish and dangerous dream we had to grow up and discard, we had to admit that humans operated selfishly. Everyone was looking out for his own interest, and it was good. The intellectual elite canonized Milton Friedman and everyone quickly embraced the idea of the free market and everyone's right to participate in it. By identifying freedom with the free market, Friedman managed to hitch his wagon to humanism's star too. Friedman wanted no government interference, and even thought that Government testing of drugs such as thalidomide was going too far. The market will punish the makers of bad drugs. For Friedman everything was permitted -- except labor unions. Or rather unions were permitted, they just couldn't strike or do anything else to benefit their members at the expense of the enterprise owners. Those who embraced Friedman's ideas entered a social Darwinian world in which screwing the other guy was a matter of course, just so long as you didn't get caught. In this world, anyone who claimed that he had rights just didn't know how to play the game. Friendship without venal motive was stupid. It was a war of all against all.

There was only one little teeny tiny problem. If freedom means freedom to operate freely in the market according to the dictates of selfishness, how can it also mean going to war inspired by a Burkean unselfish identification of patriotic chipping-in-to-do-your-bit with freedom? It sure as hell is not in my self interest to go over there and get my friggin' head blown off especially when I can stay home and dabble in real estate. The Friedmanian attack on the communal spirit in action attacked the already weakened Burkean patriotism as well. Lies and misrepresentations, and especially the chicken hawk buffoons who made up the Bush administration added to the cynicism. By the end of the Vietnam War, cynicism over patriotic humanism was widespread. The government had to abandon the draft because soldiers believed so little in their officers' humanism that they were blowing them up with fragmentation grenades. By the time of Bush the Lesser's wars it was no secret that soldiers joined primarily because of an "economic draft." It was in their financial self interest to do so. In other words they were mercenaries, not citizens responding to Burke's appeal. To be sure the military basted them with patriotic humanistic drippings once they were in, but young men and women joined because they had no other economic options. There are pitifully few Americans leaving college to go and fight in Iraq. Those with even remotely better moves to make stayed away in droves, and the military had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill its quotas.

In such a tattered state, humanism survives, and will survive, for it is far deeper within us than any simple idea. When the lowliest person, without any special talent or place in the world, still insists upon being treated with dignity, humanism shows just how deeply it has dug in. When people call themselves "progressives" they are trying to invoke an idea World War I smashed. As an idea, humanism is finished, but as a way of life, a mentalité, it goes on.

So where are we today? The Bush administration is filled with people who profess humanism hypocritically while planning a final coup de grâce against the humanist mentalité. When it came time for them to serve they had "other priorities." Like good Friedmanians, they are out for themselves and their class, and make a sharp distinction between what the Greek's called "the few" and "the many." At a fundraising dinner for his first presidential campaign, Bush looked around and observed that those in attendance were the "haves" and the "have mores" and then called those people his base. He spoke truly then. What does Bush think about his humanistic buzzwords? I wouldn't be surprised if he believes sincerely in what he says even though his words are empty of content and his deeds brand him a hypocrite. One cannot mouth falsehoods interminably and continue to keep the true and false apart. Plato talks about the "lie in the soul," a lie that is believed by the liar. That is likely what we have here. But who cares?

Even as the humanist ideal, contaminated with communism, was becoming impossible to mention, the humanist mentalité allowed for success in the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements. Deep in our humanist hearts we knew these injustices were wrong, wrong because all men and women are created equal. But the administrations, not just of Bush, but of all presidents since the Second World War, have been chipping away at the humanistic advances in the interest of the "few" who clearly control the government. They must always do it with twisted words and convoluted logic, for no one can oppose humanism directly. Or can they?

Bush and a large faction of "the few" have always harbored a dream of killing humanism once and for all so that they might emerge as an acknowledged ruling class. Human dignity is the target. They would like to roll back first the New Deal and then the French Revolution, perhaps all the way back to Rome. They have taken to trashing humanism's two greatest achievements, law and science. They have produced Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, secret renditions, and many other obviously unlawful actions that violate humanism's requirement for universal dignity. And they have corrupted the scientific process whenever the findings were not to their liking. In so doing they hoped to convey that the president and the interests of his class were the law, and that objective truth was beside the point. Yet they continue to spew humanistic noises.

Such a megalomaniacal dream is obviously a kind of madness, running counter to everything Americans are. Those dreamers know nothing about Iraq and even less about the United States. But why should they, since they plan to change them both? They may draw hope from the common citizen's confusion between the conflicting demands of Friedmanian and Burkean humanism, and his impotence in a Friedmanian war of all against all, but it seems to me that the common citizen's mind is clearing up a bit. No one is eating Bush's war pancake, no matter how much patriotic syrup he pours over it. The surge produced little or no bounce in Bush's popularity. Opposition to the war is still overwhelming. The old buzzwords seem to have lost their umph.

We are left with a humanism soiled by unholy alliances, manipulated by cynical con men, and tainted with an identification with communism, but which we nevertheless embrace in our depths in spite of every denial. Because of our need to reconcile the unacknowledged contradictions between Burkean and Friedmanian humanism all our thought is a jumble. Talk about humanism has become impossible and must resort to irony, and when that runs out, silence.

Humanism and its enemies have produced a politics of hypocrisy going back now many years. This hypocrisy is almost as deep as humanism itself. "All politicians lie," the wise smirkers say. Those who have been spouting lies for a long time, like Hillary Clinton, have learned well how to speak gibberish in many words. Her mind is obviously gone, drained of function by crippling empty rhetoric. Obama seems to be learning on the run. His star dims as his ability improves. McCain? An obvious madman, and stupid and nasty to boot.

Isak Dinesen visited Germany in 1938. When one of her hosts commented on the skill of German propaganda she replied that using propaganda was like spending your capital. The meaning of the language itself is exhausted in lies. That is where we are now. We are left with a political language so corrupted, so drained of content, that I for one want to puke whenever the voice of a candidate worms its way into my consciousness. We are adrift in a sea of dangers with no way to find out what we need to do. Without humanism, of which we can no longer seriously speak, we have no compass. On the prow of our drunken lifeboat three dwarf vaudevillians, with canes, top hats, and tails, do a goofy and inept soft-shoe to distract our wavering attention away from the gathering storm.


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The Rape of Iraq

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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published May 19, 2008