Pericles and 'Big Bill' Thomson

Pericles and 'Big Bill' Thomson

Mini Teaser: James Ceaser's Reconstructing America locates the "real America" in the ideas and values of the Founders. But a purely political conception of America is inadequate.

by Author(s): Clifford Orwin

 James Ceasar, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Canadian couch potatoes naturally enjoy curling up with a book attacking the United States; the more fit among us even enjoy writing them. It is unclear how large a market James Ceaser can expect to command up here in my adopted country, as he has gone so far as to write a book repelling criticism of the United States. If it's any consolation, what at first appears a resounding vindication proves in the end a somewhat ambiguous one.

In Reconstructing America, Ceaser sets out to defend "the real America" against the symbolic one. By the "symbolic" (or sometimes "metaphysical") America he means the United States treated as a symbol of something other than itself, of something "grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, rootless, uncultured." This symbolic America is closely associated with the notion of "Americanization", "which refers to such fundamental developments of modernity as cultural homogenization, democratization, and degeneration." "Once this point is reached, it is clear that the real America is no longer at issue: an idea or symbol called 'America' has taken over." Symbols matter, however; indeed they matter very much, and this one, according to Ceaser, has proved pernicious at home as well as abroad. For American intellectuals, particularly those denizens of the university who practice "cultural studies", have taken the symbolic America to their bosoms. "One objective of this book is to free the real from the symbolic America, thus liberating a country from the mastery of a metaphor and the tyranny of a trope."

What is most significant about the real America, according to Ceaser, is the ideal to which it is dedicated. The question at issue between America and its critics is nothing less than that of the possibility of genuine republican self-government among human beings, whether, as the authors of The Federalist put it, "societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." In a move that will startle some readers, Ceaser proudly identifies himself with his discipline of political science, and offers its insights as the counterpoise to the "symbolic" America. By political science, however, Ceaser does not mean the positivistic scientism current in departments of that name. He means the science of the American Founders, not academic but statesmanlike, aspiring not to precision but to prudence. "In seeking to free the real America from the symbolic America, I am also hoping to restore political science to its rightful place in our way of thinking. The two objectives are parts of the same enterprise."

Ceaser's concern is not to refute every criticism ever urged against America. He writes "not with the intention of defending everything American (for an unreflective patriotism can be almost as harmful as a reflexive hostility to one's country), but with the aim of removing the prejudices that prevent us from clearly assessing our situation." Chief among these prejudices is "the abandonment of political science as the intellectual guide for political actions." This is the error common to the various versions of the symbolic America, and it is fraught with dangers.

"[Whenever] an alternative discipline [has taken] the place of political science, either reducing politics to the subpolitical (for example, natural history) or elevating politics to the suprapolitical (for example, the movement of History), the result was disastrous."

Ceaser has in mind racialism in the first case and fascism, communism and Heideggerian existentialism--itself both anti-liberal and anti-democratic--in the second. He argues that the genuinely political understanding of freedom supporting the real America is not only more ennobling but more moderate than those promoted by the purveyors of the symbolic America.

Ceaser first takes up the threat to the autonomy and sovereignty of politics emanating from determinisms of nature. His account begins with the claim of eighteenth-century French natural historians, including the illustrious Buffon, that in the Western Hemisphere all organisms including human ones were inferior to their European counterparts. For climatic reasons (excessive humidity was the favorite hypothesis) it was alleged that everything in America dwindled. This thesis must strike us as bizarre, indeed ludicrous. Americans remember it, if they do at all, primarily because leading Americans of that day felt bound to reply to it--most notably Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia.

For Ceaser, however, this episode is more than an historical curiosity. It set the pattern for the symbolic America. It also marked the irruption into European (and even American) thought of a pernicious biologism. For Jefferson, in refuting the comprehensive climatic determinism of his adversaries, substituted a partially racial one. While denying that the white or red inhabitants of the New World were inferior as claimed, he conceded that the black ones were, but for reasons of race rather than climate. While manifesting the greatest respect for Jefferson as a political thinker, Ceaser deeply regrets this fatal foray into natural history which so anticipated (and encouraged) the European and American racialism of the nineteenth century and beyond.

To the thus only partly political understanding of Jefferson, Ceaser opposes the thoroughly political one of The Federalist. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, in their joint capacity as Publius, are the true heroes of Ceaser's account. They too saw fit to address the degeneracy thesis, in Federalist 11, which Ceaser describes as "one of the most splendid texts in American political literature." They did so, however, in a wholly political manner, which "rejected any pretension of natural history to be a valid social science."

"The Federalist stresses the common nature of human beings. Hamilton proposes overcoming the arrogant pretensions of the European, not by complaining of unjust hegemony or by claiming the status of victim . . . but by accomplishing an objective [sc., the establishment of republican government] that will surpass anything achieved by those who believe they rank higher on the scale of human biology."
When Ceaser turns to the nineteenth century, the symbolic America to which he devotes the most attention is that of Gobineau. The elaborator of a race-based social science that he claimed held the key to understanding the human past as well as to predicting the human future, Gobineau was to exert an immense influence on the racists who followed him, including Hitler's experts in these matters. He presented America as Exhibit A of his science of racial determinism: initially ascendant because of the predominance of the "Aryan" Anglo-Saxon race, but fated to fall into disarray due to too much mixing with inferior races both European and non-European.

Ceaser's emphasis, however, is not only on the baneful political consequences of pseudoscientific claptrap like Gobineau's, but on Alexis de Tocqueville's response to it. The two men carried on a lengthy correspondence, Tocqueville's side of which Ceaser offers as a shining example of a defense of the primacy of politics. Taking Tocqueville's political critique of Gobineau's racial determinism as his model, Ceaser assails Herrnstein and Murray's discussion in The Bell Curve of the alleged genetic component in the inferiority of black Americans to white ones.

Ceaser's discussion of racialist interpretations of America culminates in a brilliant and provocative discussion of contemporary American "multiculturalism." He acknowledges the wide range of meaning of this last term as well as the differences between multiculturalism, however understood, and classical racialism. Even so, he contends that its adherents display a disturbing tendency to break with the liberal democratic consensus of the last five decades by reintroducing race as the foundation of both civic and cultural identity. He offers a powerful critique of the multiculturalists' division of the world into the pseudopolitical categories of the Hegemon and the Other, as well as an analysis of their amazing ability to combine cultural relativism with political dogmatism. "Victimization is the transfer point where theoretical relativism is laundered and turns into moral absolutism."

In the second half of the book Ceaser's emphasis shifts from French scientism to German historicism. It is no longer the subpolitical stratum of nature that subverts a political understanding of America and of the world in general, but the superpolitical ones of History or Fate. America figures in these various critiques as the graveyard of the hopes of humanity, the fagend of the Western political and even metaphysical traditions, a heartless technological dystopia and nightmare of sterile superficiality. The consequences for political life of such historical/metaphysical determinisms are the same as, or worse than, those of natural determinisms: a discrediting of moderate political action in favor of a debilitating pessimism, on the one hand, or an apocalyptic and irresponsible activism on the other.

In this part of his argument Ceaser focuses on Martin Heidegger and the neo-Hegelian Alexandre Kojve, whom he recognizes as by far the most formidable purveyors of this symbolic America from an historicist perspective. He attends as well to the German "revolutionary conservatives" (Spengler, Ernst Jünger et al.) who preceded and influenced Heidegger, and to our contemporaries the postmodernists who succeeded Heidegger and were influenced by him. The German-Jewish-American thinker Leo Strauss plays a part as having responded to Kojve (and implicitly to Heidegger) in defense of the primacy of politics and moderation, much as Tocqueville had responded to Gobineau.

As Ceaser is not shy about confronting multiculturalism, so he takes sharp aim at postmodernism. In particular he disputes the claim that, as the homeland of Reason and the Enlightenment, America is the relentless proponent of homogeneity and thereby the mortal enemy of "difference." While he readily acknowledges the tendencies of the radical Enlightenment toward dogmatism and even tyranny, he insists that the American founders rejected these tendencies. "The most elementary study of history teaches that [the] political science [of] the American founding produced one of the most profound criticisms of the excesses of abstract ideological thought."

Ceaser's survey of European anti-Americanism is incisive, informative and urbane. It provides an unusual but highly illuminating angle on several of the most powerful tendencies of modern thought, all of which, he shows, both share a theoretical "anti-Americanism" and foster a practical one. He is not shy about urging a return to that political science that he presents as synonymous with the genius of America.

Ceaser's achievement is impressive, but it does invite a number of questions. It is so different from what we have come to expect in a defense of the American way of life (from whatever point on the political spectrum) that it may well seem a brilliant tour de force. Let us grant that the America Ceaser defends against its sinister symbolic double is a real America. But is it the real America? Is America identical with American constitutionalism and the noble yet moderate aspiration to political liberty that animated its foremost advocates? Hasn't there been much more to the real America than this--more for better as well as for worse? A lot has happened since 1787 that can neither be subsumed under the political science of Publius nor dismissed as unreal or symbolic.

Even the Founders, after all, saw the Constitution and the political science on which it rested as appropriate to the American way of life, not as determinative of it. Given Ceaser's admiration for Tocqueville, one is struck how different are their respective approaches to the "real character of American life." Tocqueville greatly respected the Founders, but even writing in 1835 his view was that that was then, this was now. The Founders were, as human types, pre-democratic; neither their like nor their lofty conception of statesmanship would be seen again. (He was wrong, but who could blame him for not foreseeing the miracle of Abraham Lincoln?) For all Tocqueville's admiration of the American federal system, he did not regard it as the spring of American democracy. Here he followed Montesquieu and Rousseau: not laws and institutions but moeurs were the bedrock of political life. It was, then, to the everyday customs and usages of the Americans that Tocqueville looked. In this view Publius himself may be said to have concurred, for he stressed the "republican spirit" to which all American institutions had to conform, as he did the vigorous morality required in a republican people.

So too today, what we look for in a defense of the "real character of American life" is something more (and less) than a display of the political wisdom of the Founders. We look for a defense of that life as it is lived today, into which the Founders enter only tangentially. In an essay evoking his youth in Chicago, Saul Bellow recalls the vivid contrast between the plaster bust of Pericles in the school assembly hall and the jowly red face of Mayor "Big Bill" Thomson beneath his straw campaign boater. That contrast, it seems to me, is very much on view in Bellow's novels. The high is always present in American life (if sometimes only as a plaster cast) but the tension between high and low has pervaded that life and accounted for much of its extraordinary vitality. The populism, boosterism and graft of Big Bill are as American as the aspiration to constitutional self-government; Chicago a more American city than the Founders' Philadelphia or Charlottesville.

To which we must add that the Coca Cola Company is as much an aspect of the "real America" as separation of powers, and jazz as much a part of it as judicial review. The unfolding genius of America has been at least as manifest in the subpolitical realms of commerce and culture (and especially in the nexus of the two, ˆ la Broadway and Hollywood) as in politics. America stands for a freedom that certainly includes self-government but presents itself most obviously today in the two guises of economic opportunity and cultural license. When my wife and I lived in Moscow in 1975, the mostly literary malcontents with whom we associated were occasionally lucky enough to be permitted a trip to the United States. The most prized trophy of such a trip was an inflatable doll from Times Square. This was not because Russian bohemians suffered from boring sex lives, but because such commercial/cultural trash symbolized for them the boundless freedom of America. There is something to be said these days for analyzing the character of American life less in terms of political conditions than of economic and cultural ones--and to hold that the truly significant strands of politics itself are those of economics and culture. (Does Ceaser disagree? Or is his book a self-conscious venture into cultural politics?)

But let us return to the political domain. The greatest poet of American constitutionalism was also its greatest practitioner: Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed the necessity of a "new birth of freedom." The work of the Founders remained to be completed, and could be preserved only by being transformed. A problem for Ceaser's thesis is that one inexpungible aspect of the American character is progressivism, and so a powerful yen to go beyond the Founders even as one honors their memory. From the outset, the country's leading political figures have advanced agendas intended to improve upon the achievement of 1787. In almost every case these agendas aimed at an increased democratization: both the "progressive" aspirations of elites and the "populist" ones of the people have proved to be in tension with constitutionalism. For all these reasons, a defense of "the real America" today may begin but it cannot end with a vindication of the Founders.

Be this as it may, Ceaser's fine book underscores a striking anomaly. On the one hand, the United States was the first modern nation, not least because of its reliance on a new political science that was the fruit of modern reflection. On the other, the presumption of the autonomy and supremacy of the political is not a modern presumption, or at any rate not one that has survived the onward march of modernity. Precisely because it flouted the subsequent tendencies toward sociological reductionism on the one hand and the political eschatology of the Dialectic or of Being on the other, the distinctively American perspective on politics was bound to come to appear passŽ. And, America itself being the land of progress, a progressively radical modernity was bound to take its toll on American self-understanding as it has on liberalism elsewhere in the West. "La Cina vicina", chanted Italian student radicals enamored of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: "China is near." Fortunately for Italy, it wasn't, but even Ceaser would agree that for most Americans today Madison and Hamilton are far away. And "most Americans" here emphatically includes the intellectuals.

It thus appears that Ceaser's book is above all a critique of contemporary American culture for its manifest indifference to the "real America." It is a paradox, to say the least, that however hard we look, the so-called "real America" is hardly to be found in America today outside the pages of Ceaser's book.

Ceaser, following the Founders, takes his stand on common sense or our prescientific experience of the world, which reveals it to be composed of spheres that differ from each other qualitatively and to which therefore qualitatively different arts and sciences apply. Political science must therefore be political in its approach, differing fundamentally from natural science: it cannot consist of the application to political life of models drawn from the latter. It must depend on political judgment. Modern science, on the other hand, rejects both the authority of common sense and its experience of the world as heterogeneous. If the world is as modern science presents it--if it is to be such that science can comprehend it--then politics must be reducible to the subpolitical. Political science must rely on psychology, sociology (including sociobiology) or economics. If, alternatively, the world is as Kojve or the later Heidegger presents it, then the possibility of a significant politics fades before our global destiny: what matters is only the suprapolitical.

Ceaser offers a political critique of the various modern understandings of the world that have issued in symbolic Americas. He appeals to an indignation, a concern with maintaining human pride, which is itself political. Yet in a sense this begs the ultimate question, which is just that of the status of the political. To establish the autonomy of both politics and political science today would be to fill a tall order indeed. Is Ceaser bluffing? One thing you can bet on is that the partisans of postmodernity won't fold.

Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, works hard at being both Canadian and American.

Essay Types: Book Review