Paradise and its Discontents
I enjoyed The Publisher, Alan Brinkley's biography of Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, who went on, in his lifetime, to also publish Fortune, Life Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and other publications. Luce died in 1967, and while for the vast majority of his adult life he could be called a Progressive Republican, supporting Republican presidents and presidential candidates from Theodore Roosevelt through Dwight Eisenhower, in his last years, he was swayed by JFK's style and charm, and LBJ's vision of a Great Society. Luce's death coincides with the period when it all went wrong, and the New Left would fracture American society -- and their influence could be seen in the post-Luce Time magazine as well. But in the postwar 1950s, it was quite a ride. Having won World War II, Luce's vision of an American Century seemed well in hand, with peace and prosperity finally at hand for the men and women who suffered through FDR's Great Depression, and the sacrifices of World War II.
Naturally, for Brinkley, all that happiness while a Republican president was in the White House was just a facade, and near the very end of an otherwise fairly sober and more-or-less evenhanded book, he goes completely off the rails:
But for others, most prominently the members of the liberal-left intelligentsia, Luce was someone not just to disdain, but also to fear. His magazine empire, many intellectuals came to believe, was a powerful vehicle of propaganda, capable of narrowing the horizons of readers while at the same time manipulating and mobilizing them. To many such intellectuals of the postwar era, the great danger facing democracy was the easily deluded middle class, which they believed could easily fall under the influence of a powerful and persuasive media. Ominous examples of this power, they argued, were the propaganda that fascist and Communist regimes used to delude and control their own populations; or the McCarthy-like American demagogues whose manipulation of propaganda directed at many narrowly informed people caused them to lose faith in democracy and to become convinced that they were victims of conspiracies. The social scientist Theodor Adorno warned of the specter of totalitarianism and denounced the tame middle class that embraced mass culture and rejected the skepticism and independence that a democratic society required. To such critics, Luce and his magazines were a kind of anesthesia, drawing readers into an imaginary world of consensus and homogeneity and numbing them to the active inquiry that citizens needed to understand their world.
There's a passage in a new book by one of Luce's successors, which unpacks the above paragraph quite nicely. In Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World, Andrew Breitbart, who like Luce, is someone for what passes as the "modern" left-wing intelligentsia to disdain and fear, writes:
Critical theory, says [Max] Horkheimer, is “suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as those are understood in the present order.” So if you liked ice cream better than cake, or thought a hammer might be more useful than a screwdriver in a particular situation, you were speaking on behalf of the status quo. The real idea behind all of this was to make society totally unworkable by making everything basically meaningless. Critical theory does not create; it only destroys, as Horkheimer himself openly stated, “Above all… critical theory has no material accomplishments to show for itself.” No wonder my thought upon graduating was that getting a job was selling out.
When Horkheimer took over the [Franfurt School] in 1930, he filled it up with fellow devotees of critical theory like Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. Each agreed with the central idea of critical theory, namely that all of society had to be criticized ad nauseam, all social institutions leveled, all traditional concepts decimated. Marcuse later summed it up well: “One can rightfully speak of a cultural revolution, since the protest is directed toward the whole cultural establishment, including the morality of existing society…. What we must undertake is a type of diffuse and dispersed disintegration of the system.”
Again, where am I going with all of this philosophical jabberwocky? Well, all of these boring and bleating philosophers might have faded into oblivion as so many Marxist theorists have, but the rise of Adolf Hitler prevented that. With Hitler’s rise, they had to flee (virtually all of them—Horkheimer, Marcuse, Adorno, Fromm—were of Jewish descent). And they had no place to go.
Except the United States.
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We always feel that our incredible traditions of freedom and liberty will convert those who show up on our shores, that they will appreciate the way of life we have created—isn’t that why they wanted to come here in the first place? We can’t imagine anyone coming here, experiencing the true wonder that is living in this country, and wanting to destroy that. But that’s exactly what the Frankfurt School wanted to do.
These were not happy people looking for a new lease on life. When they moved to California, they simply couldn’t deal with the change of scenery—there was cognitive dissonance. Horkheimer and Adorno and depressive allies like Bertolt Brecht moved into a house in Santa Monica on Twenty-sixth Street, coincidentally, the epicenter of my childhood. They had moved to heaven on earth from Nazi Germany and apparently could not handle the fun, the sun, and the roaring good times. Ingratitude is not strong enough a word to describe these hideous malcontents.
If only they had had IKEA furniture, this would have made for a fantastic season of The Real World.
Brecht and his ilk were the Kurt Cobains of their day: massively depressed, nihilistic people who wore full suits in eighty-degree weather while living in a house by the beach. As Adam Cohen wrote in the New York Times, these were “dyspeptic critics of American culture. Several landed in Southern California where they were disturbed by the consumer culture and the gospel of relentless cheeriness. Depressive by nature, they focused on the disappointments and venality that surrounded them and how unnecessary it all was. It could be paradise, Theodor Adorno complained, but it was only California.”
Adorno was wrong. It was paradise. To the rest of the world, America’s vision was a vision of paradise. And these Marxists were here to try to destroy the best lifestyle man had ever created. If I could go back in a time machine, I would go back to kick these malcontents in their shins.
And say what you will about Time and its spin-offs while Luce was alive and at the helm. But as much as they may have loathed FDR, Truman and Stevenson, and as salty as I'm sure the language was inside the office, none of their editors who went on TV or radio ever had to ask if the seven-second delay was on before giving his assessment of the president.