During the Second World War, boxer Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber” served in the US Army as a spokesman, or “propagandist,” as we’d say today.
Contrary to popular belief today, the 60s generation did not discover racial injustice. Watch old movies on TCM and you’ll see that plenty of people had been bothered by it for some time. Nor did the fact that America was fighting two viciously racist regimes while treating black people as second class citizens escape everybody’s notice.
The story goes that at some point in Joe Louis’ army career, a journalist asked him how he felt about serving in a segregated army, fighting for a country that treated him as second class. He replied, “America ain’t got no problems Hitler can solve.”
So why is it that a pug with a high school education at best could see what a whole lot of highly educated and sophisticated intellectuals can’t?
His contemporary, the superbly talented black singer Paul Robeson, decided that America was irretrievably corrupt and racist, and threw his lot in with the Soviet Union. He paid a terrible price for this — and I don’t mean from McCarthyism.
While living in the USSR he became complicit in the murder of his friend Izchak Babel, which tortured his conscience till the day he died. Robeson was a graduate of Columbia University.
While Joe Louis was in the army, a migrant worker who had never seen the inside of a schoolhouse in his life moved to California and took a steady job as a longshoreman to help the war effort. A few years after the war ended, he published a book that astonished the intellectual community and added a new expression to the Engish language, “The True Believer.”
Eric Hoffer saw America from very close to the bottom, from the perspective of men who work at backbreaking seasonal labor or out of a hiring hall on a weekly or daily basis — and did not find it wanting.
Free men are aware of the imperfections inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect.
They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, and so on are far from absolute, that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect.
The refection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestations of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
Hoffer sometimes spoke of “the childish demand for perfection” and once asked, almost despairingly, “Is there ANY social order which would satisfy the disaffected artist and intellectual?”
I have sometimes been accused of “seeing things in black and white.” This is not true. I’m afraid that I see things in black and grey — and I do not except myself. There is no absolute good that I’ve ever seen, but there certainly exists what answers pretty closely to absolute evil.
What I find disturbing is that a lot of intellectual types in our country and Europe seem to be taking the position that since what we have is not perfect, it’s not worth defending against that which would destroy it and replace it with something immeasurably worse. Or even that it deserves to be destroyed, no matter what replaces it — that nihilism that Hoffer spoke of.
Now I have a confession. I used to hold views very much like these, back when I was a young intellectual.
What changed my mind? I don’t exactly know. Perhaps it had something to do with the experience of working a total of six years as a garbageman, and another half-dozen as a sewage treatment plant worker. That’s close enough to the bottom of society (prestige-wise at least), and it’s not so bad.
Perhaps it was living in Eastern Europe for thirteen years and seeing how our last rival ideology made once-fourishing countries into something like Third-World slums.
And ultimately, having children drove home to me the importance of protecting and preserving (or conserving, as in “Conservative”) what this civilization of ours did right, and leaving something our kids can build on and improve. This presumes that we can educate and prepare them for that task, and that job seems to be in the hands of those “intellectuals.”
Is there anyone who wears that title who will speak for our country and our civilization? A Democrat Irish pol, who also happened to be an intellectual, did once.
Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No I don’t. Do I think that ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes I do!
-- Daniel Patrick Moynihan