Editor’s Note: In our current issue, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger on John Dos Passos — specifically, on The Theme Is Freedom, a collection that Dos Passos published in 1956. Mr. Nordlinger has expanded his piece in Impromptus. Here are the preceding parts: I, II, III, and IV. The series concludes today.
In a 1948 essay, Dos Passos remembers a time when capitalism and its slogans were riding high. But
during the past twenty years a new set of words has gradually become charged with a virtuous aura in the public mind. Now public ownership, planned economy, controls and socialized have become words heavy with virtue, while profits, free enterprise, investment and even dividends have taken on an evil context that needs to be explained away.
Even now, in 2016, few people speak of “free enterprise” without blushing. You will be hard pressed to find Republican candidates speaking the phrase.
Last summer, I was shocked by something Carly Fiorina said, as she was campaigning for president in New Hampshire. Shocked and delighted. On the subject of health care, she said, “The one thing we haven’t tried is the free market.” She thinks we should.
‐That 1948 essay by Dos Passos is called “The Failure of Marxism.” He writes,
… we have seen enough of the working of socialized enterprises, successful and unsuccessful, to begin to understand that from the point of view of the wellbeing of men and women the contradiction is not between “capitalism” and “socialism” but between the sort of organization that stimulates growth and the sort that fastens on society the dead hand of bureaucratic routine or the suckers of sterile vested interests. The road must be kept open for experiment.
Many years ago, I met a man in West Virginia who had worked with Sargent Shriver on the War on Poverty. The man was a proud Democrat, a proud liberal, a judge. I asked him a blunt question: “Did the War on Poverty help anybody?” With some pain in his eye, he said, “No.”
Incidentally, I love Dos Passos’s thought “The road must be kept open for experiment.” Federalism is invaluable. The cliché about “50 laboratories,” referring to the states, is true.
‐Dos Passos says something extraordinary, but first I have to set it up. He writes,
The very humane and wellintentioned people who are running the Labour government [in Britain] are the first to deplore the losses of liberty you bring to their attention. They reassure you with pious hopes that the “direction of labor” measure, which limits the individual’s right to work where or when he likes, will be only a passing phase. Listening to these pious hopes, I couldn’t help remembering similar reassurances from equally humane and wellintentioned Russian communists who used to tell me, in the early days, that military communism was a passing phase which would disappear as soon as reactionary opposition was crushed.
Okay, here is what I want to deliver — what Dos Passos delivers:
If there is one thing that mankind should have learned from the agonies of the last four decades it is that it’s never safe to do evil that good may come of it. The good gets lost and the evil goes on.
‐Here is Dos Passos writing in the mid-’50s:
Our college population isn’t exactly socialist, but its hackles rise if you try to clear any of the socialist preconceptions out of the way in order to discuss industrial society from some different point of view.
I wonder what Dos would think today. And “its hackles rise” is a perfect phrase (isn’t it?).
‐When Dos Passos was young, he says, “we used to wisecrack that the colleges were geared to turn out football players and bond salesmen.” But “today,” in the mid-’50s, “you could say that they are turning out football players and bureaucrats. The college man is educated to identify himself with government.”
Since the business of a college president is to raise money, he has to be the type of man who will appeal to those who control the available funds. Forty years ago he had to be congenial with the individual capitalists of the day. Now the money, even when it has the names of individual fortunes still attached to it, is in the hands of institutions. So the college presidents of our day have to have the institutional mentality. How can they help feeling tender toward socialized institutions, whatever form these may take?
Dos continues, “The institutional mind drifts naturally into concepts of socialism, which, after all, only means a society run from one central office.”
Oh, there is much meat here.
‐Listen to this, on terminology:
When we like our new rulers we call them public servants. When we are mad at them we call them bureaucrats.
‐In 1950, Dos Passos wrote an essay called “The Changing Shape of Society.” Here is a passage that seems especially important, to me, in light of (what I regard as) the disaster of 2016’s presidential politics:
The creation of a world view is the work of a generation rather than of an individual, but we each of us, for better or for worse, must add our brick to the edifice. A generation can’t go much further than the average of the achievements of the men who comprise it, but every outstanding effort affects that average. Every one of us has to go as far forward as he can.
What else can you do?
If we are to save the republic we must continually be aware of the aims of the republic. Our safety lies in the fulfillment of these aims.
Okay, and what are those aims?
Lincoln said that the United States differed from other nations in that it was dedicated to a proposition. That proposition has remained basically unchanged through our history, though the means of putting it into effect change as the shape of society changes. That proposition implies that the cohesive force which holds our nation together is not a religious creed or a common ancestry but the daily effort to give to every man as much opportunity as is possible to fulfill himself in his own way, protected by law from the arbitrary measures of those in authority.
Amen (say I).
‐“Every society has to be born again from time to time,” writes Dos Passos. Again I say amen. And I think now would be a very good time for such a rebirth. But 2016 does not seem promising, not promising at all, to me.
‐More from Dos:
We have to remember, before it is too late, that this nation was founded not to furnish glamorous offices for politicians, or to produce goods and services, or handouts of easy money, but to produce free men.
Is it too late? (Heaven forbid.)
‐Please have one last “dose of Dos Passos,” before I say goodbye. In this essay, “The Changing Shape of Society,” he writes,
The ordinarily decent impulses the ordinary man learned at his mother’s knee are our last line of defense against the wickedness of overweening power at home and abroad.
Are mothers still doling out decency? They’d better be — or we’re cooked.
And I can’t help quoting, once more, what Dos Passos says elsewhere in this book, The Theme Is Freedom: “… even in a riot the members of the mob and the members of the police force will behave as they have been brought up to behave.”
That’s the ballgame, isn’t it? Upbringing.
It has been greatly rewarding, to me, to become reacquainted with John Dos Passos, with whom I feel I have a faint connection, given his connection to National Review (and mine). I have been quoting from pieces he wrote decades ago (and he died in 1970, remember). But it seems that he is speaking right today, about what’s going on.
Thanks for joining me, and see you later.