Max Lerner

America As A Civilization, Part I

VTR Date: January 2, 1988

Guest: Lerner, Max


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Max Lerner
Title: “America as a Civilization”, Part I
VTR: 1/2/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You know, one of the rewards of growing old, and older still, is the ability to simply to think back warmly and gratefully upon the men and women whose genius you have greatly admired and whose friendship you have dearly valued. And sometimes, too, an even more cherished reward of age is – later on, much later on! – the opportunity publicly to think those whose words and thoughts have so effectively informed your own.

Max Lerner, historian, journalist and commentator is just such a master teacher…has long been so for me and for many other Americans. And so it is a particular pleasure to greet him here on THE OPEN MIND once again to mark the publication of the 30th anniversary edition of his now-classic America as a Civilization. And, Max, it is good to have you here. I was looking back at some of our transcripts of programs together they go back to the very beginning of this program. In fact, I had looked at one, one that we did with Gilbert Seldes and Virginia Peterson, the day before America as a Civilization came out. And, I just wondered whether it wasn’t true that then, as now, the major question before us, isn’t whether there is peculiarly an American civilization?

Lerner: It is still a question. I tried to wrestle with it and assert that there is. I had some interesting encounters with scholars, including Arnold Toynbee who felt I was wrong. For me, a separate civilization is a culture, a society which as moved beyond its own limited, national boundaries an has been creative enough so that it has cut a wide swath in history. In that sense, China was a civilization, Russia was, Greece was, Rome was, France was. And I think America started as a civilization probably somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. When Emerson declared that there was, in fact, an American scholar.

Heffner: And today?

Lerner: I think we are very much a civilization. For many around the world we seem to be Rome, perhaps a perverted version of Rome. But at any rate, very much a civilization, the center of a Western imperium.

Heffner: But Rome fell.

Lerner: Yes. And some day America will fall, of course. Civilizations are organisms. The difference between a civilized organism and a human organism is that our lifespan is limited rather strictly, the lifespan of a civilization is not. And sometimes when we think a civilization is in decline, it goes on for centuries and centuries.

Heffner: Of course, that’s why in the new postscript that you’ve written to America as a Civilization…it’s so interesting that you raise the question at the end whether there is an end and whether we have come closer and closer to it. Your answer seems to be “no”. Your answer seems to be, as you described yourself once, I notice you’ve done it many times but once on THE OPEN MIND many, many years ago, you said you were a “possiblist” and you seemed to believe that the possibility, the likelihood is that this nation shall survive now. That we’re not in the death throes, this isn’t Rome yet. Is that fair to…

Lerner: Yes, I think so. I would say that those who talk about the decline of America don’t have a very long perspective. And they don’t really think in civilizational terms of the organism. I would say that America is not senile, but probably it’s juvenile.

Heffner: Still, Max, still?

Lerner: It is…yes, I think so. It is not senescent, probably adolescent. And our energies, if we die, we will not die as Rome did of a running down of energies, but perhaps from an explosion of energies.

Heffner: You note in the new chapter in the book, it’s here on page 958, and it always astonished me that you would have constructed back thirty years ago and more, a thousand page book. You say here, “When I lectured at Warsaw shortly after this book’s publication, one of Poland’s young intellectuals, doubtless an exile now, asked whether there was one word to sum up American civilization. I demurred, saying I had written a thousand page book, but he insisted. Well, I ransacked my memory, was it ‘uniqueness’, ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, ‘dynamism’, ‘pluralism’, suddenly I heard myself say, ‘access’. We know that we are all born unequal, with unequal abilities and potentials. But we insist on equal access to life’s chances, so that every youngster will be able to stretch his unequal potentials to the fullest”. There are a lot of people in this country today, Max, who would disagree with the optimism, if I may, that characterizes that comment.

Lerner: It’s not optimism. Again, it’s possibilism. I think that we have made our mark in the area of equal access. Not equality of result, but equality of opportunity. I think that has gotten built into our civilization by now. I think our problem has become a different kind of problem.

Heffner: What kind?

Lerner: It’s not so much access, but to use a Latin word, nexus. The question of the connectedness of people, together, and to the civilization. Cohesiveness, I think that is our problem. Problem is one of fragmenting. Problem of flying away from the center. Flight from center rather than searching to the center.

Heffner: Yes, but Max, again, this notion of access. Aren’t there increasing numbers of persons in our own country who do not have access to that center? And that movement away is not an intellectual movement, but simply the fact that they can’t get close to the center of things.

Lerner: I’m not sure that there are increasing numbers. There are certainly numbers. But one reason we feel it more intensely than in the past is that, as I say, the idea of access has become built into this civilization and so the expectation has been raised. It is there and because the expectation is so publicly and fully there, the discontents about the failure of genuine access multiply.

Heffner: That’s a way of sort of pushing aside the failures, isn’t it?

Lerner: Oh, I don’t by any means mean to push them aside. Again and again in my columns and my writings I’ve fought for increased access, going as far as we can toward equality of opportunity. Whether for Blacks or Puerto Ricans or women or whatever. Of course. But what we need to understand, I feel very strongly, is that the fact that we are deficient in terms of our ideals on that particular ideal, does not mean that we have not made very considerable advances in moving toward that idea. And I feel the same way, by the way, about our own personal lives. One of the things I feel about a good many of the intellectual elite today, is that they expect a perfection in our public lives that they know and we know does not exist in our personal lives. There isn’t a single one of us who really believes that we have become perfect in any area. And yet we expect in the public area a degree of perfection of completion of an ideal that we know isn’t there in our personal lives. And so my plea is that we understand that the journey of the civilization, civilizational journey is not deeply different from the personal journey. And that the question is how energetically are we moving toward our goals, not have we accomplished them.

Heffner: It’s interesting that you refer to some intellectuals. And I note that as I begin the new printing, the new edition of America as a Civilization, you write something very interesting. Referring back to the decade and more that were taken devoted to writing the book in the first place, forty-seven to fifty-seven, forty-five to fifty-seven, you say, right here, so interestingly, “A civilization overview like this, stretched the information sheath that I needed. But it evoked a cooperative response from an intellectual community which at that time still had a considerable nucleus of shared values”. And then in your next paragraph, you write, “Thirty years later I offer a book again with an added chapter at a time when there is probably less scholarly consensus than at the original publication”. Why do you write that? Where has that consensus gone? What has happened to it?

Lerner: I wish I could answer it very, very summarily or definitively. I’m pretty sure the consensus is not there. I think it was broken somewhere along the way, between the time I wrote in fifty-see, finished writing, and now in eighty-seven. And I think it broke at several points in the stormy decade of the sixties and the Viet Nam war and the Watergate crucible. And I’m not sure that we’ve been able to achieve it again. But somewhere the break came and what has happened has been the emergence of a dominant, liberal intellectual elite which has become rather intolerant of those that don’t live up to their own preconceptions.

Heffner: Were you or were you not a part of the intellectual…liberal intellectual elite, to use your phrase now, when you wrote this book? And for the decades before then that I can remember?

Lerner: The answer is (laughter) I was, but I was moving away from it. And the very act of writing the book was an act of assertion of my independence. Independence from that elite, independence from, in fact, being soldiers in any political army. In a sense the book was very critical of many things in my America, but the book was also a declaration of belief in America. An affirmation of American life. And in the process of reaching that kind affirmation, which my liberal intellectual friends didn’t share, in effect, I broke with my gang.

Heffner: And, what was the reaction of the “gang”, the old gang?

Lerner: Well, some of them were…perhaps hadn’t realized it yet, I’m not sure. Some of them were quite supportive. But a number…

Heffner: Hadn’t realized…

Lerner: I don’t think they understood what the book was saying. But, many of them were very grudging about the book, yes. And I don’t, I don’t blame them in any way. I think if you write a book, you take the consequences of it. You take all the javelins that are thrown at you. But I can only speak of my own feeling. And my feeling was in Jungian terms I had become, at a rather advanced age, I was, when I finished that book, I was fifty-five, I’d become my own man.

Heffner: And the odyssey since that time? The thirty years since that time?

Lerner: It has been a continuing one. Now, at eighty-five, I feel even more my own man than I have ever been. Of course, the fact that I know that there aren’t many decades ahead gives me a perspective about what is critically important and what isn’t. And one of the most important things is intellectual integrity and intellectual independence.

Heffner: But that integrity and that independence must be touched upon by an orientation, a philosophical, a political orientation. Are you disclaiming any devotion to a political ideal?

Lerner: Not at all. In fact, if anything my devotion is greater than ever, but it is not an exclusive devotion that can be put in terms of left or right, of liberal or conservative. I’ve tried to develop a sense of, how shall I put it, equilibrium between them. I call myself a “centrist”. And in terms, not of middle of the road, but the way a healthy organism…in a healthy organism the energies move toward the center, not away from it, and try to establish an equilibrium between the polar opposites that involved in every problem. And try to integrate it. And in that sense I have a real commitment, real devotion to that kind of political angle of vision.

Heffner: And, that angle, that vision, how does it manifest itself now in terms of contemporary problems, in terms of contemporary solutions?

Lerner: In every column I write, after all, I expose myself twice a week in a number of newspapers around the country and around the world, dealing with every controversial problem. And I try in every column and every magazine article, to move toward that ideal of mine.

Heffner: The ideal, again, being the center.

Lerner: Being, yes, an equilibrium, an equilibrium. For example, let me give you a specific example. Jerry Hart…Gary Hart, rather, it’s interesting to see how so many people who made a star out of him in 1984 and at the beginning of 1988, now make a scoundrel of him. I never made a star of him to start with, but I reject the idea that he has become a scoundrel. He’s still the same man. I think what is involved is that, as civilization we have suffered a politicizing of the erotic and an eroticizing of the political. And Gary Hart’s been part of that. But we have never found any true relation toward the erotic in our lives. Just as I feel the erotic in the individual life is an integral part of it, so I feel that the erotic in the life of the civilization is an integral part of it. And there is somewhere a healthy relationship that we may possibly be able to achieve in our approach to the erotic. We haven’t done it yet.

Heffner: You know, one of the first programs that we did together three decades ago, was part of the trilogy that THE OPEN MIND had done on the subject of homosexuality, which became a general discussion of sexuality in America. And you and Margaret Mead, note I say “Margaret Mead”, I didn’t call her Maggie, that’s the thing she had been concerned about when she knew that she and you would be on the program together…

Lerner: (Laughter)

Heffner: …whether you would call her Maggie.

Lerner: One must never be familiar with a Queen.

Heffner: And she was that.

Lerner: Yes.

Heffner: The program we did was January 12th, 1957. And here at one point, you say, “I don’t know as much as Dr. Mead knows about the savage and primitive societies. But I’ve been spending a little time recently trying to study this very complex society of ours…our American one”. And the first thing that hit you very hard, of course, is that we have superimposed upon a tradition of a simple, rather Puritanical society, we have superimposed upon that an extremely sensual society. And you seemed to think, because we were discussing here the origins of homosexuality, culturally speaking, you seemed to say that that juxtaposition was crazy-making. Do you still feel that way?

Lerner: Oh, very much. We’ve become a hedonistic society. We’ve not ceased to be a Puritan society. And we have never made a resolution of those polar opposites. We’ve never come to terms with it, as every individual must come to terms with it in his own life.

Heffner: But that’s the question that I mean to ask you and when you mentioned Gary Hart, it triggered that for me. How can we explain the fact that we have never resolved that one way or the other? We have lived full-score, full force in each.

Lerner: Well, it takes a long time. And it’s a difficult thing in the individual life as well. Here I am toward the end of a very long life and I keep asking whether I have made a resolution of it, and it’s partly because I’ve thought in terms of my own life, that I’ve come to ask these questions of the civilization. There are not many civilizations by the way, that have done it. The Germans, for example, were evidently incapable of it. And, to a considerable extent, the emergence of Hitler to power, came after a decade of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s in which the question of sexuality and the erotic was more strongly polarized than perhaps in any civilization in history. And when you get rages and outrages emerging among ordinary people, particularly the middle class, from the way in which these things are treated, then you get something coming out the individual in a primitive way that can arouse the destructive forces within him.

Heffner: Well, you said, thirty years ago and more, that we had not resolved this juxtaposition of the Puritanical and the highly sexual, the provocative. What has happened in these thirty years? I know you continue to say, “We’re young, don’t expect a resolution”. But certainly we’ve moved, and I wonder how you would characterize the movement.

Lerner: We’ve moved toward the extremes of both directions. We moved in the sixties toward an extreme of total freedom, which did evoke a sense of rage and outrage from the middle class. And that resulted in a backlash. And the backlash began somewhere in the mid-seventies. We still are not free of that. What will happen in the late eighties and nineties is anyone’s guess. I happen to believe in cyclical approach to the history of a civilization, particularly in terms of the values clusters. In a little book I did on values and education a decade ago, I traced the cyclical swing of values systems in our history. And the sixties, like the thirties, represented a very deep structural change. Whether this will be true again in the nineties, one can’t tell, but I have a hunch it may well be true and I would look forward to a movement back again to more considerable freedom as in the sixties.

Heffner: Why would you look forward to that, Max?

Lerner: Well, I mean not “look forward” with any welcome…

Heffner: I see.

Lerner: …but I mean “look forward” in terms of predicting it, predicting it.

Heffner: Well, once you say you don’t mean that you look forward to it with any welcome, then I would ask you, why not?

Lerner: Because, again, I don’t like extreme swings. Now one way of establishing an equilibrium, I suppose, is to probe the extremes. When the Greeks talked of the “golden mean”, it’s interesting because few peoples in history have been as emotionally extreme as the Greeks, as witness their great tragedies. Americans don’t have much sense of the tragic. That’s one of our defects as a civilization. But we have certainly moved toward extremes, constantly. And I don’t think that’s healthy. And, again I say I think the healthy thing is center-seeking, rather than center-fleeing.

Heffner: Where do you put yourself now? The center, of course. But where do you put yourself in terms of others’ formulations of liberal, conservative, in social matters, in political matters, take your pick.

Lerner: How do you mean “where do I put myself”?

Heffner: How would you identify yourself in terms of the struggles that go on now? Politically? Socially?

Lerner: Well, again, I say I try to embody both the neo-liberal and neo-conservative trends in some kind of fusion in which I’m constantly making the effort to get at the center and to make a synthesis.

Heffner: Do I understand that what you said before was that it was at the beginning of your writing of America as a Civilization, which was shortly after the Second World War…

Lerner: Yes.

Heffner: …that you begin to abandon…

Lerner: Yes.

Heffner: …extremism and embrace this notion of centrism.

Lerner: Yes. Particularly the extremism of political collectivism. In forty-five I was a foreign correspondent, I saw something of the war. That’s when I started my book, actually, sitting in…curled amidst the ruins of Europe. In forty-nine I visited the death camps. I don’t think anything in my whole intellectual and moral journey has shaken me as much as the perception of what the Holocaust means. What it means in terms of radical evil. That was something new to me. My conviction of radical evil because in true secular fashion, I used to believe that evil was simply a construction of moralists. I came to understand radical evil and I came to understand that it was partly, in Hitler’s terms, the outgrowth of the obsessive belief that through some kind of social engineering you could achieve your ideal. And so I moved away. That along with traveling around the world a good deal at that point and finding that collectivism didn’t work.

Heffner: Max, I’m getting the signal that our time is up now. But I’d like to pursue this matter of collectivism not working and the impact of the recognition of evil, absolute evil, upon your political thinking, so if you’ll sit there, we’ll end the program and then we’ll pick up again for what the audience will find will be next week. Thank you Max Lerner for joining me today.

Lerner: Good to have been with you.

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 Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.