Our latest Silicon Graffiti video was inspired by one of the key themes in the late Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom wrote that by the middle of the 20th century, American universities had essentially become enclaves of German philosophy. As a result, “the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family,” according to Bloom. Last year in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman famously asked, ‘Can Greeks Become Germans?’
Why not? If we could, any nation can. This video looks at how and why that happened, and the results — or at least scratches the surface of those concepts, inasmuch as any six minute video can.
And when you’re done watching, check out David P. Goldman at his “Spengler” column (and that nom de blog dovetails remarkably well with our theme, doesn’t it?) on “Philistinism and Failure,” and follow David’s link to Fred Siegel from the April issue of Commentary, for his brilliant article on “How Highbrows Killed Culture,” for much more on this theme.
A handy, portable, easily embeddable YouTube format of the video is available here. And click here for three years worth of earlier editions of Silicon Graffiti. The script of this week’s show, with plenty of hyperlinks to the books and blog posts that inspired it, follows on the next page.
Hi, this is Ed Driscoll; welcome to Silicon Graffiti.
In 1945, America emerged victorious from World War II. We were the super power, with the power to simultaneously destroy the world, and—we thought at the time—remake it in our image. But little-known to us, in a sense, America had lost the war with Germany—not to the Nazis, thank God, but to the Weimar Republic, which lasted from the end of World War I to the rise of the Nazis.
America’s infatuation with all things German began, arguably, with journalist H.L. Mencken. In 1908, he published his second book, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In the late 19th century, Nietzsche simultaneously announced that God was dead, and as such, a new set of morals were needed, since notions of good and evil and morality in general were suddenly all relative.
Mencken’s love of Nietzsche won him few favors while WWI was in force and the Wilson administration punished any pro-German thought. But by the 1930s, numerous German intellectuals fled Nazi Germany, and many landed in America. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus in 1919, and Mies van der Rohe, its last director when the Nazis permanently shuttered its doors in 1933, both became influential architects in America.
But they were even more influential as teachers in America, instructing a generation of prominent architects in the ways of the German Bauhaus, forever transforming the American skyline. In Tom Wolfe’s blistering early 1980s look at modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe wrote that Gropius, Mies, and other German artists were welcomed by American intellectuals in the 1930s as…the equivalent of The White Gods! Come from the skies at last!
Similarly, as the late Alan Bloom wrote in 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind, by the middle of the 20th century, American universities as a whole – not just their architecture departments –had essentially become enclaves of German philosophy. Bloom wrote:
This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.
Which isn’t to say that German influences on America were all bad, or that this was some sort of sinister plot. Sigmund Freud’s efforts have been left in the dust by modern neuroscience, but research into the hidden caverns of the human brain had to start to somewhere. Albert Einstein’s theories led to the splitting of the atom, which both won World War II and provided the basis of nuclear power, which has been remarkably safe in America and Europe. After the war, America’s jet aviation – first the Air Force, then commercial airlines – benefitted enormously from brilliant German engineering work even as America was, thankfully, destroying Nazi Germany’s ability to implement these designs. Similarly, America landed a man on the moon thanks to the efforts of Werner Von Braun, and other German émigrés.
On Park Avenue in 1966, a businessman could have lunch at the Four Seasons, a restaurant designed by Philip Johnson (who dug both Weimar and its successor culture…) in a building designed by Mies van der Rohe, he could then walk over to the Pan Am building, designed by Walter Gropius, to catch a helicopter to JFK Airport, and on the way, read about Werner Von Braun’s latest efforts to land a man on the moon. If he was worried that von Braun’s missiles could be used to deliver payloads designed by Albert Einstein and Edward Teller – well, his Freudian analyst would soon set him at ease. At least until he saw the April 8th 1966 cover of Time magazine, which echoed the words of Friedrich Nietzsche nearly a century earlier. And all the while, likely never thinking of where these additions to American life originated. The following decade, our businessman would struggle with Weimar-style risqué sexual mores, hyperinflation, and what the then-president’s administration ultimately termed a malaise and a crisis of confidence amongst his fellow liberal elites.
But to respond to the query by Thomas Friedman last year in the New York Times, ‘Can Greeks Become Germans?’
Well, 50 years ago, we did, didn’t we?
For Silicon Graffiti, I’m Ed Driscoll.