The Corner

‘The Lowest Common Denominator’

On the homepage today, we publish Part III of my series on John Dos Passos — and, specifically, his collection The Theme Is Freedom.

In this installment, I quote from his essay “The Use of the Past,” written in 1941. He says,

When we wake up in the night cold and sweating with nightmare fear for the future of our country we can settle back with the reassuring thought that the Englishspeaking peoples have these habits engrained in them.

By “these habits,” he means the habits of self-government. The habits of the Anglo-American political tradition. Can we still reassure ourselves in the night?

Here is something I do not quote in my series, but that seems important this morning:

Under the stresses of the last years [the 1930s] we have seen nation after nation sink to its lowest common denominator.  Naturally it’s easy for us to see the mote in our brother’s eye [our brother in Europe].  The question we have to face is:  What is the content of our own lowest common denominator?

Dos Passos warns of a “personal despotism that has so often been the style of government” outside “the Anglo-Saxon family of nations.”

One more bit:

If, in the bedrock habits of Americans, the selfgoverning tradition is dead …, no amount of speechifying of politicians or of breastbeating by men of letters will bring it back to life.


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