Don't be impressed with the fact that this column is built around a John Dos Passos essay. I've found his work just as inscrutable as you have, and for the life of me I can't reconstruct the train of events that led me, just the other afternoon, to pick up a copy of his writings, to open the volume at random, and to encounter an essay called "Farewell to Europe!" that he wrote in 1937. But I did, and it got me to thinking.
Dos Passos was first the darling of the left, and then of the right, and eventually of the literary establishment - he assumed the very chair in the American Academy of Arts and Letters held by Theodore Roosevelt and Willa Cather. If you read "Farewell!" a few times - and you have to read Dos Passos a few times or you're hopelessly lost - you won't be able to figure out whether (to use an Iberian device and to look at Dos Passos in the way you might look at Picasso) his blue period had begun or whether his rose period had ended. It may not matter. He had plenty of lousy things to say about British conservatives ("the heavy industry-big banking clique") and some scathing things to say about the communists ("the Trotsky witch hunt and all the intricate and bloody machinery of Kremlin policy").
But it isn't what Dos Passos, who in the course of his life moved from being a declared enemy of big business to declaring war on big government, had to say about Europe, which he described as a "stifling cellar," that caught my eye. It was what he said about his own country that stopped me short.
"Sure, we've got our class war, we've got our giant bureaucratic machines for antihuman power, but I can't help feeling that we are still moving on a slightly divergent track from the European world," he wrote. Remember that the European road in 1937 would lead in a year's time to the allies' appeasement at Munich and in two years' time to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and then the invasion of Poland and the opening of World War II.
He continued: "Not all the fascist-hearted newspaper owners in the country, nor the Chambers of Commerce, nor the armies of hired gun thugs of the great industries can change the fact that we have the Roundhead Revolution in our heritage and the Bill of Rights and the fact that the democracy in the past has been able, under Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln, and perhaps a fourth time (it's too soon to know yet) under Franklin Roosevelt, to curb powerful ruling groups."
We know now what Dos Passos, who voted for the Communist candidate against FDR in 1932, could not have known then, that Roosevelt won two more terms in the White House, that he helped win World War II for two nations (the United States and Great Britain) that called themselves "the Democracies," and that his presidency is regarded as the model by which modern presidencies are judged.
Now the last two sentences: "America has got to be in a better position to work out the problem (of) individual liberty vs. bureaucratic industrial organization than any other part of the world. If we don't, it means the end of everything we have ever wanted since the first hard winters at Plymouth."
This essay is more than two-thirds of a century old, and yet it is the only thing by Dos Passos, whose real ideology was individualism, that I have ever understood. But that's not only because of my own dimness. It's also because what I have cited above is a remarkable passage, a clear statement of what is important and a clear vision of what is at stake at a precise (and exceedingly troubled) period of history.
Our own time is different, and yet some of the themes in the essay by Dos Passos are eerily relevant and resonant. In our time we have settled the important question that was at stake in the 20th century, the tension between industrial might and individual liberty. World War II gave a preliminary answer, telling us that the free men of the new world, in the argot of the time, could go and rescue the old world from slavery. But that was only a preliminary lesson; the Allied victory of World War II was only prologue to the second struggle, the Cold War, which would put the West in a half-century struggle with Soviet Russia.
The problem with history is that there is no such thing as final victory. (A good thing, too, if you think of the way Europe looked in 1942.) Now we are engaged in a struggle completely different, and the big question that faces us is no longer how to organize society for industrial might. And yet the answer may be the same.
But before we get to the answer, let's examine the question. This is my best distillation of the challenge: How does a free society protect itself from outside enemies, some of them motivated by envy, some by religious zealotry, some even by a sober calculation of the gap between the poor and the prosperous, while retaining the freedom that makes that society distinctive?
That's the question of the age. It requires a new definition of national security, new kinds of defenses and new kinds of technologies. Almost everybody agrees with that. But it also requires decent respect (the phrase comes from the Declaration of Independence) for the founding idea of the nation - individual freedom - and for how Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt kept their eyes on liberty while addressing the challenges of their very different times.
The War on Terror is a foreign war for freedom, but it is also the gravest domestic threat to freedom of our age, and we have to assure that freedom wins on both fronts of this war. If we don't, it means the end of everything we have ever wanted since the first hard winters at Plymouth.
- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.