Roger Rosenblatt

New Ideas … Buy Now, Pay Later

VTR Date: February 24, 1990

Guest: Rosenblatt, Roger


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Roger Rosenblatt
Title: “New Ideas…Buy Now, Pay Later”
VTR: 2/24/90

I’m Richard Heffner, you host on THE OPEN MIND. Americans like to buy now, pay later. And, led by the press as always – after all, how do we know what to know unless the media tells us? — Recently we Americans have bought heavily into an enormous enthusiasm for the changes that mark out times: the seeming breakup of the Soviet Empire, astounding internal reforms in Russia and all of Eastern Europe; the fall of the Berlin Wall; German unification; hopefully the beginning of the end for apartheid; and so on…to many, all this proof that American ideals have prevailed, the supposed triumphant end of history. Yet the question remains: must we pay later?

Well, Edmund Burke once wrote: “I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one”. This was quoted by our guest today, Roger Rosenblatt who is a columnist and Editor-at-Large at Life magazine; a contributor to MacNeil-Lehrer, he has also been the Editor of U.S. News and World Report, before that an essayist and senior writer at Time magazine.

And I want to begin by asking Roger Rosenblatt today if now he’s already publicly to congratulation humankind for these recent world events. Are they unmixed blessings? Roger, what do you think?

Rosenblatt: Well, when you look at the Soviet Union, just the Soviet Union for the moment, it has to be a mixed blessing. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently is the…in the enormity of change when you’ve lived 72 years, 72, 73 years with a lie, or with a series of lies, the Big Lie of the ideology, and the little lies told by the citizens, to themselves, to others, and what happens in one day or one weekend, which happened recently when the government says, “Just kidding, we really didn’t mean this, this system is not the be and end all, and now you can start to begin to tell the truth”. I don’t think it’s so hard for them to begin to tell the truth about the Big Lies, there’s the little lies…the neighbors talking or telling on neighbors, the lies that you tell yourself when Vaclav Havel says “You put the sign ‘Workers of the World Unite’ in your, in your window”. So for the Soviet Union, I think, it’s a mixed blessing. Not to say that it isn’t a blessing that they’re beginning to say “no” to the things to which they ought to say no. But the things to which they’re going to say “yes” are very problematical, and perhaps the same thing applies to the countries of Eastern Europe.

Heffner: Do you think though it’s a mixed blessing for, for us. Should we embrace what has happened quite as much as so many Americans have?

Rosenblatt: Well, it really depends on what we think we can do with and about it. I’m not sure we can do so much for the Soviet Union, even though Havel says that that’s what…how we ought to help Czechoslovakia, or that we…

Heffner: You rejected that notion?

Rosenblatt: I don’t reject the notion…that is I don’t reject his saying it. His speech was probably the best thing Congress has ever heard, but how much we can actually do, given our own economic situation to help the Soviet Union is problematical. Whether or not America, or the West, should always celebrate the reconstruction of national boundaries in Europe, given the fact of history and what last happened when those boundaries were secure, and Germany was last re-united, I think a certain amount of caution is in order.

Heffner: Tell me about that caution, Roger, because that’s…you’re, you’re phrasing that cautiously, and I want to know how much caution we should exercise in reference to that unification of Germany, in your estimation.

Rosenblatt: Well, I don’t want to start down a road that would indicate some sure feelings about foreign policy. I do know this, that, of course, it’s a cause for celebration to watch Communism, which was a poorer system, at best, disintegrate, even at its source. To watch the countries of Europe find themselves again, also ought to be a source of celebration. To see Germany re-united, yes, that ought to be a celebration, too, as walls are not…perhaps not…the best idea among people and terrible ideas among nations. Having said that, then it really becomes time…it becomes incumbent on America to look at the re-constituted Europe as a new entity, to which it can bring, not only dollars, but it’s own moral sense, and as Havel said in that speech, again, “the moral sense is the thing that ought to predominate now, about government structures, and above the particular concerns, the practical concerns, of new governments. It’s a wonderful chance for Europe to re-invigorate itself, from the inside, to reinvigorate its soul, and it’s a good chance for the United States to do the same.

Heffner: That’s interesting, you say “it’s a good chance for the United States to do the same”, and it is a point that you made in the wonderful Life magazine article that I addressed myself to recently, the Coming To America”. You said, “for us in the grandstand”, talking about what was happening in Europe and Eastern Europe, “for us in the grandstand, it was like having someone play our music for us, and play it very well, perhaps better than we…we hold that all men are created equal. Americans have heard those words somewhere before…hearing them shouted by people in the process of self-realization has been elating, overwhelming” and then…paragraph…”It should be chastening, too”. Why “chastening”?

Rosenblatt: We’re in a very interesting point in history in relation to what’s happening in Eastern Europe, what’s happening in the Soviet Union, or so it seems to me. It would be too much to say that we were the models for these changes. In fact, we sat back sort of passively while they were happening. But something we were doing was right, when, when I cite the quotation from our Declaration of Independence, when I cite that I’m merely quoting a Czech brewery worker who got up on a platform and addressed a massive crowd quoting the same words, “All men are created equal”, so we’re in there somewhere, I think we’re in there in wonderful rivulets in their minds, that we are a place where not only democracy may be achieved, or imitated, but where equality with democracy might be achieved. Now having said that and having said that to themselves, and having said that to us, or so that we could overhear, then we start to look around us and say, “Well, have we done it?” You know, ”Are we as good as we were supposed to be? Have we fulfilled those original intentions”? There’s no question that we’ve gone some of the way, but when we look about the cities, when we look at problems of health and education, crime, when we look at poverty, homelessness and so forth, we know we haven’t done it. So when I say “it has been chastening”, I hope also it’s been instructive, that we might use this moment of celebration of the achievement of an abstraction, that is democracy and the equality, to then pin it down at home, to celebrate it in the best, most, most useful ways.

Heffner: It seems to me that there might be those in Eastern Europe who would say to the brewery worker you refer to that it doesn’t work, those are words that are 200 years old, that clearly it doesn’t work, look at the people about whom it was said, who supposedly believed them.

Rosenblatt: Yes. But I think…you’re absolutely right, I think they would say that, I think they might say something else with a deeper irony…”so well, if you want equality, wasn’t that what Communism was supposed to give us? Everybody’s the same here”, you know, with the usual wry reference to the…to the exceptions in absolute power. But equality under Communism is equality under the thumb, and they’ve learned that in these 70 plus years. Equality at least in the abstract in the American vision of it, was not equality under the thumb. Equality yoked to democracy so that freedom and an equal status would work hand-in-hand. Now, if they said, “look at the people to whom this was a, a principle, a guiding principle”, and see if I read your question right, “how rapacious they have become, how avaricious they’ve become, how they’ve used competition to beat down their altruism, etc.”. Given, you know, allowances for exaggeration, you might say, “Well, that’s, you know, that’s right, we haven’t become the model civilization”, but we are a lot closer in their minds, at least in the abstract, in terms of abstract principles to a model civilization of what we want to do. Tocqueville saw it right from the start. It’s never changed. Equality was always more important to Americans than freedom. It’s a weird thing, but it’s true. We wanted, it’s not so weird in terms of our history, in the sense that our first impulses, our first anti-British impulses were to achieve equality…equality under the British. But it is a very strange thing when we see how much difficulty that truth has given us over the years.

Heffner: Isn’t it particularly strange to note that we seem to have achieved freedom, much more thoroughly than we have equality?

Rosenblatt: Absolutely. It’s a much easier thing to achieve. See, we don’t even know that that principle is intellectually possible…that all men are created equal. In fact, most of our deepest fears and concerns as citizens, is that maybe all men weren’t created equal, that they’ll never be created equal and that we will be stuck with this glorious hypocrisy for the rest of our existence as a, as a civilization. Having said that, then say “what do you do about that?”, and then I think you say, “well, if it’s hypocrisy, so be it”. There are two kinds of hypocrisy…you deceive others and you deceive yourself. Deceiving yourself is the worst. We should still do what we can to try to make true something that may be, in the long run, never, never able to be realized.

Heffner: You’re still a very young man…

Rosenblatt: (Laughter)

Heffner: …but you’ve studied and written and thought, and I just want to ask you, whether you think that this combination corresponds to the nature of human nature.

Rosenblatt: Tell me what combination?

Heffner: The combination of freedom and equality?

Rosenblatt: Yes.

Heffner: Achievable?

Rosenblatt: Yes…well…the achievable thing is a wonderful thing to ask because then we assume that achievability is also part of human destiny, and I’m not so sure that that’s true. As a matter of fact you can make a pretty good case that we were designed not to realize all these things, but to be more an amalgam of our aspirations than our achievements. Certainly America is that. I mean more of an amalgam of our aspirations than our achievements, and if that’s so and if you believe it, it puts a wonderful burden on the quality of one’s aspirations. In fact it really insists that you have aspirations in the first place. The thing that I love so much about Havel, watching him, much less the anticipation of him as a national and then a world leader, is that Havel is not ashamed of these things. We grow up in a world in which you say, “Oh, God, can you really say that…that goodness and that generosity, that care for others, the decency, that morality is really at the center of political structures…gee, I don’t know if you should say that”. Havel has no trouble saying it. Either it’s Havel because he is who he is, or Havel because he’s an artist, or a combination of the two plus his circumstances. But he is a clear, moral voice…it is very n ice to have a clear, moral voice in world leadership now. So when he looks to America, he says, “I don’t really want to imitate America now, but I do want to hold on to those ideals. I don’t want to just exchange one form of modern industrial society, i.e., Communism, for another form of modern industrial society, i.e., Capitalism, I want to have…I want to have a moral strain running through the form of democracy that we, that we adopt”.

Heffner: roger, what’s happened to that moral strain in this country? I think when…I won’t say “when Hector was a pup”…when I was a boy, one believed that there was a moral strain, it was appropriate, it wasn’t laughable in, the New Deal days.

Rosenblatt: Right.

Heffner: That was the assumption that you worked off of, and out of…from a moral standard. What’s happened?

Rosenblatt: Well, I’m not sure. I’ll do my best. Certain external things help to reinvigorate a moral strain in any nation…a war, for example. You don’t want to make the trade-off, but a war will do it, particularly if you think you’re doing the right thing. The Depression did it, too. You’re all in the same bag, and the bag is uncomfortable. Let’s work together, etc., so that automatically begins to insist on a kind of morality. Things get fat, things get comfortable, people start thinking more of number one, than of the whole, and morality begins to get strained a bit. Certainly that was true, I think, during the Reagan years in which there was a…not nearly a tolerance of, but an enthusiastic, and enthusiastic cheerleading for everyone out for himself. Now, this isn’t to say that Reagan actually believed that, but Reagan did enough to indicate that he believed it…set up an administration that indicated it believed it, and encouraged, I think, the baser rather than the higher instincts of…of the people. Either that or they just gave up. And that’s a very easy thing to do because the achievement of the equality, if we can go back to that for a moment, is very hard. It always involves something revolutionary. Revolutions are tough on people, whether we’re talking about the recent Civil Rights revolutions of the last…of recent decades, or the Civil War, or the post-Reconstruction period, or the Progressive Period…these are always…these always involve upheavals. People don’t like upheavals, so that’s another aspect of it. That’s another reason why it may have slipped. And maybe finally this, even the business world may have contributed to our forgetting that this country still has a moral center because the basis of a moral center, at least the instrument by which one discovers, or re-discovers one’s moral center , is to believe that we’re one country. That we are a generous, social, intelligence organized on…in a geographic area, for purposes which we commonly recognize. Now what has happened in, and this affects journalism interestingly enough, in recent years, is that America’s being divided up into markets. The reason I said it affects journalism is that the idea now is that if you and I wanted to start a magazine, and we were very young men and we were going by the wisdom that others gave us, we would look for golfers or left-handed dentists, or actuaries who collect stamps, or so forth and so on, and divide…design our magazine accordingly, hoping to make our bundle because we have located our particular consumer correctly. If we were doing this 40 or 50 years ago, we never would have done that. 40 or 50 years ago we would have simply asked, and I…I would parenthetically say, I believe it’s the question that we ought to ask now, too, “What’s the best magazine we can give them? What is the thing that we can show them that will please them the most, that will instruct them the most, that will give them the most for their money, and will make us a bundle, too?”

Heffner: The moral impulse to ask that question, “What’s the best magazine we can produce?” must be fairly high on the surface and not have tentacles that reach down very far, if indeed in this past half century that notion could have gone by the boards as it has.

Rosenblatt: That’s the logical conclusion, but you know bad ideas can drive out good ideas, too, without any merit at all. See, I think that this time, of all times, is a time when a general magazine that makes that appeal…I don’t mean to go off on a digression of journalism for a moment, but at least we have something concrete to talk about in the general question of general social intelligence…that such a magazine would be successful, that it would insist on the thing that I think most Americans believe anyway, that we are not divided among markets, but that we do have thoughts in common. It’s just a question of whether they are kept in some state of suppression or they are celebrated. You know…I could not prove this, but I am sure there is a relationship between saying “All America is divided among dentists, southpaws, children, very wealthy manufacturers”, there’s a relationship between saying that on the one hand, and saying “there’s a stratification between the rich and the poor and that one stratum has nothing to do with the other”, because in the latter, which is far more morally serious, if one stratum has nothing to do with the other, the other will die.

Heffner: But isn’t the more important point that this notion, this division of America into individual markets, which you, which you stress so, so wisely, isn’t it an indication again, and I’m asking the question once more, that the strength of our moral basis is minimal? And it’s paid off. The marketplace notion, including the marketplace of ideas, it’s all paid off.

Rosenblatt: How’s it paid off? It’s paid off in a very short term. We don’t know that it’s paid off. We only know that people…let’s stay with magazines for a moment…are willing to invest in magazines that turn a profit in 15 minutes. We don’t find people willing, as say Henry Luce was, to stay with Sports Illustrated for ten years, because he simply thought it was going to be a fine magazine, and that it was going to find its own niche in America by insisting on its quality, which, in fact, it did.

Heffner: But the question then is whether he was the maverick, whether he was the strange American, and the ideals that characterized his empire were so much stranger than what we’re into now, is much more acceptable to, appropriate to the American psyche.

Rosenblatt: Well, it certainly seems acceptable. I’d argue that it’s appropriate. I think it is short-lived, and I think we’ll pay a penalty for it. I don’t want to get on a high horse, defending Luce’s high horse. His ideas can be as wacky as anybody’s…wackier…but Luce did have this wonderful sense that there was a country to be addressed. Even this terribly irritating essay that he wrote, that still had a wonderful effect, The American Century, and you remember this essay…

Heffner: I do, indeed.

Rosenblatt: And you remember its effect on people…people still refer to it who have never read it…it’s really much tamer than it’s made out to be, and much more reasonable than it’s made out to be. But here’s a guy who said, “It’s ours. This century belongs to us”. Not in an acquisitive way, certainly not in a tyrannical way. He said, “We owe it to ourselves and the world to give our best abroad”, and he wasn’t only talking about making a dollar, he was talking about giving our best principles abroad, which brings the circle back to Eastern Europe quoting us back in our own face, and saying, “thank you for saying it, now we’ll see if we can do it”.

Heffner: Do you think we can do it? Do you think we will do it, never mind, can we do it, because you’re going to have to say…

Rosenblatt: Yes.

Heffner: …”we might well”.

Rosenblatt: Yes. No. I think, I think, I think we will do it. Meaning, I don’t think we will ever achieve the total perfection of equality that is implicit in that phrase. But, so much of what one understands about America and you know this, depends on almost kinds of cycles of intuition. I don’t think we can go a very long period, and we’ve gone about ten years now, without remembering who we are. And who we are…you know, among other things, but who we are…we’re a gloriously naïve people, and I emphasize the adverb. It’s not the naivete that…on which we will depend for strength. It’s the fact that we really don’t care if we look foolish in these things. We really don’t care if we look as if we’re always looking through rose colored glasses about things. We were created out of rose-colored glasses. That’s the way…that’s America’s vision, and no other vision could have produced “all men are created equal”.

Heffner: Do you see anything on the horizon to indicate a resurgence of the kind of leadership that led us…

Rosenblatt: Oh.

Heffner: …to “all men are created equal”?

Rosenblatt: Now, leadership is really the question. No, I don’t. I don’t see any individual who would do this…once in a while you get a peep from a politician but…

Heffner: So what makes you so hopeful?

Rosenblatt: It’s what you see in, I suppose in the, in the leadership of the people qua people…that you don’t hear the kind of talk that you heard even five or six years ago. The sort of collective resentment about Wall Street greed now coming to a, coming to a head, with the proper ad mixture of say, the collapse of Drexel Burnham, saying “I told you so”, on the other hand, real sympathy for those employees who are out of work and so forth. The condition of the market itself may reflect all of this. So that’s, that’s one area in which they say, “You know, greed is greed, but enough is enough”.

Heffner: Roger, you’ve gone overseas watching others. Are they watching us in the same way?

Rosenblatt: They’ve got to be. I haven’t been overseas recently, but from what we read of the eruptions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland and certainly in the Soviet Union, they’ve got to be watching us…in a way we’re the only thing to watch, you know. They’ve got…they’re in a terrible fix…in a terrible, wonderful fix…they know what to cast off, they don’t know what to adopt, they don’t even know how to create the instrumentation, the managerial instrumentation, to put all the good ideas into effect. Here I’m talking about Eastern Europe more than the Soviet Union for the moment. The Soviet Union has a panoply of other troubles. So when that brewery worker climbs on the ladder and says “all men are created equal”, he’s got to be looking West, and they’ve all got to be looking West, even if at that same time they say, “but we’re not going, we’re not going to become those people”.

Heffner: Right after the Second World War developing peoples everywhere were looking…were quoting…they may not have been brewery workers, they may have been Presidents of new republics, but they were quoting Jefferson, and they were quoting the Declaration of Independence. We helped them at that point, we inspired them. Do you think we’re capable of doing that now? We accepted that burden.

Rosenblatt: Yes, we did. At the time…now I don’t want to dilute the morality with practicality, but at the time we didn’t have a $150 billion dollar deficit, or paid in just interest on our own loan hundreds of billions of dollars, so there really…there’s a real question of how much we can do and still attend to those problems which I was talking about before: the state of American education, the state of American health, state of crime and so forth, homelessness and so forth, and if you were to say, “where would you rather see your money go?”, including that money that might be saved as a result of cutting back on military expenditures, I’d say let it go home first.

Heffner: That’s quite a statement, Roger, that you would say “let it go home first”. A new kind of isolationism? That’s a question I put to you just as I get the signal that we have no more time, but maybe that’s a subject that we should be discussing at some future date on THE OPEN MIND.

Rosenblatt: Yes, isolationism in the interests of our own principles might not be so bad.

Heffner: That’s a little like Barry Goldwater, but…

Rosenblatt: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Heffner: …let’s pick it up at another time. Thanks, Roger Rosenblatt, for joining me today.

Rosenblatt: My pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.