The Bible only half counts, as we impose so many modern ideas onto the words that we don’t get the full benefit of standing outside our culture when we read it. Fundamentalists are especially guilty of grafting new ideas onto old texts.
Reading modern books about earlier times does not count. Useful that may be, but it does not lift us out of modern perspectives. People writing in retrospect impose patterns that were not there. When we know what happens next, we construct stories to pretend we understand events. Following events through the eyes of those who do not know what comes next is sometimes arresting, sometimes eerie, but always worth seeing.
Books from another era are also written with different assumptions, and give us some defense against the blind spots of our own age. Values we would not think to question are regarded as unimportant to other times and places, and matters of highest import to them strike us as odd and peripheral. New ideas come from the past.
EB White would be regarded, in retrospect, as a prototypical Eastern liberal. He was the dominant writer for the liberal New Yorker, a great defender of Roosevelt and the United Nations, urbane and ironic; a literary man and a freethinker. He was an original back-to-the-lander, well before Aldo Leopold or Helen and Scott Nearing, and decades before the Mother Earth News. He was suspicious of “progress,” and apprehended entirely positive character changes in himself from living as a Maine farmer. He thought that the populace should be settled on the land throughout the country, because it was good for their independence and self-sufficiency. White was a great admirer of Thoreau and of Nature, and would be quickly claimed by the Green Party were he to show up in modern times.
I doubt they could long abide him, however. As with the current back-to-the-landers, there was a libertarian streak, an insistence on individual freedom and suspicion of do-gooder interference, that would create a parting of the ways.
White wrote the individual essays of One Man’s Meat from 1938-42. It is a technique of his to write about the minor events of his immediate surroundings to illustrate parallels with world events, trying to capture the universal in the specific, much as Thornton Wilder and James Thurber did. He sees echoes of the Paris and Moscow of Europe in the Paris and Moscow of Maine. Amidst the details of keeping the brooder stove warm for his poultry, an observation on the character of Hitler will break in, or a self-examination whether the gifts of the New Deal are eroding his own character.
There is a hawkish lust for liberating the oppressed and sending the military to punish injustice which would alarm not only progressives, but many conservatives as well in our day.
The armies of the democracies that will lead up to my world state will be built for attack. They will be imaginative, bold, and alive, but their minds will not be on conquest nor will they confuse raw materials with the good life.
They will be trained to attack today’s injustice, rather than repel tomorrow’s invasion…
Voice: We tried that once.
Answer: You mean we tried it once after waiting three years. My army doesn’t wait. It is a swashbuckling organization, dealing with a foreign tyrant as brilliantly as with a domestic train robber. It would have started fighting Hitler years ago when he was just beginning to be a nuisance.
Voice: But your army would get us in trouble.
Answer Where do you think we are now, pal? “Compost” June 1940
Yes, he did write “world state,” as the alert reader has noticed. He advocates throughout the essays for a union of democracies, a banding together to throw back the forces of tyranny. With Nazi and Soviet power looming as it did, it appeared to him that freedom’s only chance was in such a permanent union, modeled after our own United States. This eventually morphed into his support for the UN; a different kettle of fish, but one sees the connection. One sometimes hears a proposal for a union of free nations to replace the UN these days, but most progressives continue to regard the United Nations as the last, best hope of mankind, to be clung to despite all evils.
It is a great sadness to me that White came down so far in the world as to settle for a United Governments, Free or Despotic, for he himself wrote before the war
A first step in elevating the character of war and improving the world state is the abandonment of diplomacy. Events of the past few months have demonstrated that diplomacy gives the advantage to liars and tends to weaken democracies…
Diplomacy is the lowest form of politeness because it misquotes the greatest number of people. A nation, like an individual, if it has anything to say, should simply say it. This will be hard on editorial writers and news commentators, who are always glad to have diplomatic notes to interpret; but it will be better for the people.
He was right the first time.
He was right the first time also, but later forgot, in noticing how quickly the intellectual classes in the cities adjust their beliefs in the face of tyranny. The July 1940 essay “Freedom” begins
I have often noticed on my trips to the city that people have recut their clothes to follow the fashion. On my last trip, however, it seemed to me that people had remodeled their ideas, too – taken in their convictions a little at the waist, shortened the sleeves of their resolve, and fitted themselves out in a new intellectual ensemble copied from a smart design out of the very latest page of history. It seems to me they had strung along with Paris a little too long.
I confess to a disturbed stomach. I feel sick when I find anyone adjusting his mind to the new tyranny that is succeeding abroad. Because of its fundamental strictures, fascism does not seem to me to admit of any compromise or any rationalization, and I resent the patronizing air of persons who find in my plain belief in freedom a sign of immaturity.
He meets one friend who contrasts the fine alert faces of the Germans with American youth; another who believes that taking any government seriously is the mark of a gullible fool; a third berates him for loss of detachment; a fourth that democracy is decadent and
…he seemed mightily pleased with himself, as though he were more familiar than most with the anatomy of decadence, and had detected subtler aspects of the situation than were discernible to the rest of us.
I would call it prophetic, but I think he is simply observing in 1940 what we observe in 2007 and is common to all eras among the chattering classes – an adjustment in beliefs to meet the realities of power: “And I for one welcome our new insect overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others…”