A REVIEW OF THE FREE WORLD: ART AND THOUGHT IN THE COLD WAR (2021) BY LOUIS MENAND (FEAT. ANTHONY MONTEIRO)
Louis Menand’s book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War is a selective overview of American culture during the Cold War. In a few hundred pages, it tears through communism, the Civil Rights Movement, post-war Franco-American relations (the “Paris effect”) following the Second World War and its consequences for U.S. aesthetics, philosophy, and literature, negritude, the Bandung Conference, Hollywood, the. appeal of Abstract Expressionism and the Pop Art phenomenon, and the growing collaboration between the Western arts, the university, and the American state, rounded off with a chapter on James Baldwin. In addition to Baldwin, its featured cast of characters include Aime Cesaire, T.S. Eliot, Frantz Fanon, William Faulkner, George Kenan, Jackson Pollock, Jean Paul Sartre, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, Andy Warhol, and Richard Wright, among others. Menand sets the stage by noting that after the end of the Second World War, the United States “invested in the economic recovery of Japan and Western Europe,” while extending “loans to countries and around the world.” He acknowledges that in the same period, American citizens were persecuted and sometimes prosecuted for their political views.” He does not deny that “[a]gencies of the government spied on Americans and covertly manipulated nongovernmental cultural and political organizations,” while the “United States used its financial leverage to push American goods onto foreign markets,” establishing “military bases around the globe,” intervening “in the internal political affairs of other states, rigging elections, endorsing coups, and enabling assassinations, and supporting extermination of insurgents.” But these are not his primary concerns. Rather, Menand nostalgically posits 1945–1975 as a kind of Golden Age of art, thought, and education in the United States casting it as a time when “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered,” when one’s aesthetic and philosophical choices carried “implications for the way one lived one’s life and the kind of polity one wished to live in.” This may very well be true; but little is said about which ideas mattered in the ‘Free’ World in the wake of the Second World War and why.
Below, I invite Dr. Anthony Monteiro, retired professor of African-American studies to offer his thoughts on Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. Hailing from Philadelphia, where he leads the Saturday Free School, Dr. Monteiro is a scholar of W.E.B Du Bois and James Baldwin. A student of the Du Boisian Marxist, Henry Winston, organizer of a petition to free Nelson Mandela, and member of a reading group attended by the late Fred Hampton in Chicago, he brings his rich lived experience and philosophical depth to a consideration of this period examined in Menand’s book.
DN: So you were saying about his first book.
AM: His first major intellectual history, published in 2001. And it’s really trying to frame the philosophical scene at the end of the nineteenth century. This is a quite important time because in a matter of a few years, the United States would surpass England as the major industrial country and not long after that, the major financial and ultimately, after WWII, the major military power in the world. So we had this philosophical development which is saying in effect that American pragmatism is the way forward and look what it produces in terms of American education, economics, industrial development, and democracy as compared to Europe, and continental Europe, which is wrapped in metaphysics, Hegel, and Kant and all of those debates and continental Europe, has become stagnant and America is dynamic. I am kind of familiar with the debate; there was the Ivy-League Harvard-centered group around William James, which Du Bois is in and out of, but conversant with, and then you have the St. Louis group which is a kind of American neo-Hegelianism. But what does a nation which has never taken philosophy seriously do without philosophy but with all this financial, industrial, and ultimately military development? Does it look to continental Europe or does it say to hell with philosophy altogether and we’ll do our thing with humanities, “classics,” the social sciences, the natural sciences, and technology?
DN: It’s so interesting that he’s making the same move in this book, this wanting to say that there is this efflorescence of American philosophy in this post-Second World while trying to be race conscious. And you can’t do both at the same time. And that’s where you see how you’re either trying to save Western civilization [or transform it towards a new ideal]. You can’t get to Baldwin otherwise. In the part where he talks about Baldwin, he says that Baldwin is part of these anti-colonial (or he says decolonization) projects but that he was alienated from his broader audience when he turned to the Black Panthers. On the one hand, there is this use of the term “opening up” to describe the apparent liberalism of post-war American culture, with things like now obscene novels are allowed to be published (see Ch. 10, “Concepts of Liberty,” p.233). “Educated” people are listening to the Supremes. (Ch. 15, “Vers La Liberation,” p. 365). Because there is the “levelling” of the high and the low.
AM: Well, one thing I find about this guy. He is at Harvard now but when he was writing the first book he was at the City University of New York. So he is connected with the New York intellectual and artistic elite; he kind of abandoned that for Harvard. I find him to be extremely superficial. I find him to be a pop historian of ideas. He is talking about this period in a way that is so white. I mean, the Beatles. It was something of principled position amongst African-Americans at the time that we were not going to trade the Beatles for Marvin Gaye or for later became the Philadelphia sound or the sounds coming out of the whole R&B music world, desire, and resistance and struggle. That is what we were hearing in the popular mind. But then he wants to talk about the 60s and not mention John Coltrane and that spiritual, musical, epistemological revolution and paradigm-shifting? When I am listening to this guy, I’m saying where were you? There was a whole movement in jazz at this time, I mean, in the late 50s and into the early 60s, and it continued into the 70s, called free jazz or avant-garde jazz. Here you see the rise of a number of people including sun-ra the unbelievable musician, composer, band leader and so on. But there’s also the great pianist Cecil Taylor, there is the great saxophonist Ornette Coleman. And of course then there is Trane. Some would say Miles Davis would introduce his modality, modal music, as opposed be-bop i.e. Parker and Dizz and that crew but it was a cultural explosion that went far deeper than pop music and certainly, the Beatles, who they admit were imitating the early black rock and rollers, like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and whenever they heard anybody that was black from the United States, they tried to incorporate it. The Beatles and the British invasion, with all of their weaknesses — I thought. in a lot of ways it’s superficial compared to black music — but they admitted what Elvis Presley and most of the white rock-and-rollers at the time and that is, to use the language of Muddy Waters, the blues had a baby and they called rock and roll (see . So rock n’ roll comes out of the blues and rhythm and blues and it imitates (see p. 195–196).
DN: It’s so interesting that he says that Elvis was doing R&B and he was good at it (p. 200).
AM: He was as good as a white person could be. And it was imitative. I mean even the gyrations that he was performing, he was looking at Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
DN: And Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
AM: That was the musical side of it. The musical chords, the arranging of things. Sister Rosette Tharpe. Yes.
DN: In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, about his new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand says that “if we don’t adapt, we will wither away.” The book makes a case for the expansion of the American university by referring to two signal moments in American university: 1880–1920 and 1945–1975, when he says college undergraduate enrollment increased by 500 percent and a Renaissance in “serious books” took place. He also points out that “the little worlds of creative writing, the arts, and dissident opinion” became more firmly wedded to the university. What are your reflections on Menand’s thesis about “withering away” and his fixation with the university ?
AM: This idea that the post-WWII and the United States emerging as the most powerful nation because it was not touched by either WWI and WWII. I think that they now say that more than 400,000 Americans were killed in WWII. Compare that to something like 30 million in China over the course of 1930–49. The war against Japan and of course, the Civil War. Compare that to 26–27 million of Soviet citizens killed and the destruction of the industrial base of that country and the destruction of a good part of Western Europe but nothing close to what we see in Soviet Union or China. And so the United State has 75% of the gold in the world, and gold is the reserve currency, and can be transferred to dollars and so the dollar is as good as gold. So the United State emerges arrogant and in a lot of ways, all powerful and prepared to consolidate its position as an empire. Now the U.S. which had pretty much stayed out of foreign affairs and the affairs of European powers after World War II is going to do the opposite. So everything looked real good because the U.S. people did not have real big problems compared to Europe and Asia. So the World Bank and the IMF, and the UN even, and NATO, of course, were instruments of U.S. and Westrn European power over the emerging Asian and African socialist and revolutionary movements. The United States, and I don’t know if he mentions this in the book, we can never forget, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. And five years after the end of World War II, when the U.S. drops these bombs,it is in a genocidal war again in Asia on the Korean peninsula, where they use weapons that are almost the equivalent of atomic bombs — they are weapons of mass destruction and the war in Korea was a genocidal war against the Korean people. And along with that, the United States is building a nuclear arsenal, having a monopoly on nuclear power as a weapon, but that was. for a brief time because the Soviet Union would get its own nuclear weapons. But it wants to build up a nuclear arsenal that could terrorize the world and then to build a navy that the world had never seen. Then, of course, domestically, the Cold War is manifested in McCarthyism, the shutting down of dissent, especially those who speak out for peace. And so what he is calling all these foreign movies and books, and all of that nonsense, is but window dressing. The substance of things was very very different, and if you read Du Bois, if you read radical black thinkers of the time, and I include Henry Winston and others, they will tell you, this was not “happy days on the farm.” But it was out of this crisis of U.S. imperialism as a global hegemon, that the civil rights movement emerges and we can talk more about that, the rise of King, and the rejection of the Cold War as the only way to see democracy and world progress and international relations. But yeah, I disagree with him completely and it is almost laughable the way he presents things.
DN: Yes, the struggle is always framed as one between the fear of totalitarianism and this opening up of liberal democracy on this side of things.
AM: The other thing is that he believes in culture coming from the top down. This elite culturally-informed, creative artists will create the culture that will then inform the masses.
DN: Right. Forgetting that when we think of people like Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington or Ella Fitzgerald — and I’m just talking about the women right now because I’m in that kind of mood — but this is complete fiction.
AM: Well it’s complete white. So white that it is laughable.
DN: What is interesting about what this “withering away” represents is the fear behind it. And why go back to the Golden Age of the American university right now and what the university is facing right now. What are your thoughts on where we are right now with the university and how the people feel about the university — the ordinary people — and its complete breakdown in terms of producing anything worthy of them.
AM: Well one thing is for certain, the period of 1945–1975, where he talks about this Golden Age of the American university, these universities were engaged in some of the worst war research imaginable. All of them were getting money from the Defense Department, and from the CIA, and the other sources that were interested in weaponizing science to be used in war and to contain the Soviet Union. Menand is dealing with the window-dressing. Yeah, the window-dressing looked nice — the Beatles, Elvis, whatever else he was listening to at the time. But the universities were not even this place of pure learning and young students, many with dissident views, but going to learn and so on and so forth. But as bad as they were then, they’re worse now. The period 1989–2020 — I mean, please. We are learning with neoliberal behemoths which have taken over big parts of cities, displaced poor people, and produces knowledge which is against the poor and against the working class.
DN: Yeah. Yeah. So, he begins this book, then, by presenting this whole thing about the Marshall Plan, basically. And what Henry Winston says about the Marshall Plan as a this last ditch effort to save Europe from the collapse of Europe. That sequence of events that you just gave your interpretation of — Hiroshima, the war on Korea — your interpretation of that sequence of events differs so markedly from his. How do you see the work of W.E.B. Du Bois helping us understand that time period in the aftermath of the Second World War, leading into the 60s when we see the rise of King, in the 50s and 60s.
AM: Clearly the Du Bois is so far ahead of all of these intellectuals that this author is talking about and the reason he is because Du Bois’ epistemology is anchored to the anti-colonial and dark nations of the world. So he can see Asia, he can see Africa and of course he publishes in 1946, The World and Africa, and the first chapter is “The Collapse of Europe.” We can’t forget that. And a favorite of mine is the unpublished manuscript, Russia and America: An Interpretation. There he makes it unmistakably clear that China will become the center of world politics and economics. But yes and now we see that occurring. Du Bois was not one of these dilettantes. He was not a New York intellectual, he did not have Bohemian characteristics. He fclt that the intellectual must challenge the institutions. of power and war in the name of a world democracy as opposed to a white democracy of the European capitalist countries.
DN: Where Du Bois begins seems to coincide with the juncture Menand is writing about in what comes across as a somewhat desperate attempt to prevent Western civilization from “withering away.” Du Bois says in The World and Africa, that “We are face to face with the greatest tragedy that has ever overtaken the world. The collapse of Europe is to us the more astounding because of the boundless faith which we have had in European civilization. We have long believed without argument or reflection that the cultural status of the people of Europe and of North America represented not only the best civilization the world had ever known, but also a goal of human effort destined to go on from triumph to triumph until the perfect accomplishment was reached. Our present nervous breakdown, nameless fear, and often despair, comes from the sudden facing of this faith with calamity” (1)
AM: The Du Boisian position is that like any other civilization, Western civilization is not indispensable, that human history is a progressive and forward-moving process and if Europe is to be relevant, he felt then, but certainly now, it must not see itself as indispensable and as other civilizations as having to come to it to find advanced civilization…. And Du Bois is using the “we” almost ironically. He as a black man was not part of the “we” — Du Bois is speaking through the consciousness of white America. But I think your point is well taken about what Du Bois is talking about with the collapse of Europe in 1946 is clearly what Menand is talking about with “withering away.”
DN: That’s the exact title of the article in Chronicle of Higher Education, which is exactly that nameless fear. So there is this sense that what is behind this need to reconsolidate the authority of the liberal democratic tradition at a time when the university is facing serious criticism from all fronts, especially with people asking a) what are our children learning in these institutions and b) what are they paying 70,000 a year to learn that they’re better than their parents, that nothing is real, and truth is not a thing.
DN: So that brings me to the third question. Menand says that between 1945–1975, we see a period where “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered.” Which artists from that period spoke to you and why? How would you compare the state of the arts, philosophy, and history in the time that has elapsed between ‘75 and 2021? Where are we in terms of art, film, poetry, music, and philosophy, and where do we go from here? Which ideas matter today and which ideas do not and why? And you know, in the interview with the New York Public Library, he says that it mattered what you listened to and that said something about your political views. And I was like, yeah I agree with that, that’s true. But the question is then we have to apply that to what you are saying. You believe that the Beatles and Elvis are exemplary. You believe that there is this equivalency between Baldwin and Susan Sontag and you know, people like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. I mean, Baldwin was a witness; he had to see all of this, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t discriminate.
AM: See there are people like Menand that will say to you with a straight face that the Beatles were the greatest musical accomplishment of the twentieth century. I mean at that point you draw a red line. But they will say that. This idea that foreign movies from Europe and that this was such a serious intellectual time is not true. I don’t agree with that. The U.S. intelligentsia was part of the least developed out of the Western European and North American countries. The British were superior. That’s why the U.S. was always importing academic and intellectuals from Britain, France, and even some from Germany.
DN: From there, the question would be: which artists from that period spoke to you and why? How would you compare the state of the arts, philosophy, and history in the time that has elapsed between 1975 and 2021? Where are we in terms of art, film, poetry, music, and philosophy, and where do we go from here? Which ideas “matter” today and which ideas do not and why?
AM: That’s a big question. I can mainly address that from my own experience as you know I went to historically black college, Lincoln University. It was a different world from the world at Princeton or Penn, or Temple University or Villanova. I mean, we were in a different world. We thought differently, we spoke differently, our ambitions were completely different. Our worldview came out of two struggles: the African anticolonial struggle and the black freedom movement. The music that we listened to and we were very sensitive about this. We were not going to allow the oppressors to define our aesthetic — in music, in art, in film and drama. We weren’t going to allow it. We were not going to be imperialized mentally. We were going to resist. If they said the Beatles, we said James Brown, for example. We always appealed to the alternative. For those of us who were more advanced politically and intellectually, we turned deeply to what is called jazz and especially the avant-garde, free jazz. We wanted to understand Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and this Eastern move in music, and it was that — it was a move to the East aesthetically but politically it was anti-colonial. That’s what we identified with. In terms of art, drama, and poetry. I know I was highly influenced by Amiri Baraka, the great poet, playwright, music critic. Sonia Sanchez was very big but Nikki Giovanni was even bigger. So we are talking about the black arts movement. And that’s what we were doing. What Menand is talking about is what was going on at white colleges among white students and white universities. At that time, 90% of us, if not more, went to black colleges. 90% of black people with degrees graduated from black colleges. We lived in a different world. That which he’s talking about was not our world. By the way, Baldwin was a key figure also, especially the collection of essays, The Fire Next Time. And even if we hadn’t read the whole book or even any of it, we knew that part in the beginning — ”God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.” I mean, I laugh. It’s so white. It’s so superficial. But then the “withering” concept: this debate about Howard University closing down its classics department and the op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Cornel West and one of his collaborators, where this whole issue of the role of the “classics,” and as you pointed out, what Du Bois called the “ancient world” which is a very different framing of the issue. But what Cornel West was saying in this op-ed piece, is if we don’t have the classics, we will “wither,” or we will not be able to reclaim our greatness as “Western civilization.”
DN: There it is, I think that’s the heart of it. And I just think of Baldwin’s poetry, Du Bois’ poetry, the Harlem Renaissance. So the first “Golden Age” of American art and thought he says is 1880 to 1920. The Harlem Renaissance between the 20s and the 30s. I mean it’s a long period. But this doesn’t make any sense. Even the periodization.
AM: And this privileging of all white artists. What about Beauford Delaney? What about Jacob Lawrence? What about Bearden? I mean who is this guy? And making them a footnote to American “high” culture.
DN: Therein lies the hope for the redemption of America. It’s completely ahistorical. We don’t have any consideration of the innovations of their aesthetic philosophy, their innovations in form, technique, and color, not to mention history and subject matter. Though full chapters on Pollock and Warhol’s development, which is fine, but that doesn’t substantiate an argument suggesting that Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art are exemplary aesthetic schools.
AM: Norman Lewis, Augusta Savage…Out of the Harlem Renaissance — and we haven’t even mentioned Robeson yet — comes an alternative which is not anti-Western civilization but which is not satisfied with this white definition of art. Alain Locke goes to the Europe and the Soviet Union and Leningrad and spends a month in a great museum, The Hermitage, which is probably one of the greatest collections of European art anywhere in the world, and they’re studying. The Richard Wrights of the world were studying the Russian novel, not the English novel. Dostoevsky is a heavy influence on Richard Wright. The other thing I might say is that the U.S. elite used art as a soft power in the Cold War.
DN: It’s interesting that at the beginning of the book he says, this is not a book about that — how the U.S. used art as a soft power. But it’s this like this ground-clearing gesture so that he can launch into exactly what that was, you know. So, he says, that “One parallel is that the student activists in the 1960s accused the university of being complicity in the state’s operation of the War in Vietnam and that was not something many academics wanted to hear. Today the issue is complicity in the regime of white supremacy.” Do you find this parallel accurate? In the interview he talks about this in relation to Baldwin and BLM?
AM: Well again, he believes that culture and ideas and movements come from above and the universities are always pivotal in triggering movements for freedom. Well, he doesn’t understand the civil rights movement. He understands, in a narrow way, the anti-Vietnam War movement, at least the anti-draft part of it. But he doesn’t understand it in its fullness. And Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King were not opposing the War in Vietnam because they were led by white students at elite universities who were opposed to the draft. They were organic, King and Ali, Diane Nash, Ella Baker — they were organic to the people. And they knew, as King put it, when bombs were dropped in Vietnam, they exploded in the ghetto. So we saw ourselves becoming poorer as the war was intensified. But you see, BLM is not an equivalent to SNCC or the SCLC, or the Congress of Racial Equality. BLM is not an organic movement. It is an instrument of the ruling elite who finance it, who embrace it, who publicize it, and so on. And as such, it is a rhetorical opposition to white supremacy rather than a substantive opposition to white supremacy. But the truth of all of this is revealed in the profound anti-worker sensibility and politics that defines BLM and this so-called “new civil rights movement.” He’s grasping for straws. The larger questions have to do with what will be the relationship of the U.S. people and the U.S nation to the darker nations of the world. We are back to the Du Boisian question. The U.S. is not indispensable. U.S. culture is not indispensabile. What has been the contribution that has been coming from the United States has been black art and black music that sought through many ways a relationship with the anti-colonial struggles of Africa and Asia. And that is why, for example, Art Blakey, the great composer, drummer, band leader, became Muslim. That’s why McCoy Tyner, whose Muslim name is Saud,early on in his career. became a Muslim. This is why Trane sought this great synthesis of the Eastern religions — Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. This is why Sonny Rollins becomes a Buddhist and still is a Buddhist. That is what the U.S. people must determine. Whether we will fall for this fraud of “U.S.” culture. It’s not uncommon for them to equate Leonard Bernstein as the great classical composer and musician coming from the United States. But if you go to Europe, European classical musicians and composers and so on, they would fall off their chairs laughing. For us, it’s Ellington and that’s for real. If you go to India or southern Asia — Pakistan, Bangladesh — they know Coltrane, they know Alice Coltrane. They play that music. They see it as commensurate with the music that defines their civilization. This guy is out to lunch. Even during the Vietnam War, the U.S. soldiers brought Motown to South Vietnam. But it was Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and don’t even mention “What’s Going On.” And Edwin Star’s famous anthem, “War, What is it Good For” and the Isley brothers. This is what made us. Now of course, the U.S. ruling has waged a terrible struggle, a scorched earth struggle against black folk — people are always talking about “defund the police, abolish the police,” they don’t understand where it comes from. It starts after the urban uprisings. The militarization of policing of black people. So the police become an occupying army and remain so. We were treated as a foreign existential threat to the United States. Then of course, the introduction of wave after wave of drugs — heroin, crack — and then the promotion of a form of music which does not measure up to what came before. This has created a crisis. And then, before 90% of black college graduates coming out of black colleges, growing numbers of them now go to white colleges. The majority of their professors are white, the curriculum is pretty white. And if they go to graduate school, they have to measure up to white intellectuals and scholars and the organic relationship that we had historically had between the intellectual and the black community is completely fractured. So that is what we face. And BLM is not the answer. It is the answer for the ruling class, not for the people, and we are still looking as black freedom fighters for that answer.
DN: My last question: why do you suppose Menand equates Baldwin with people like Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and the Beat poets like Kerouac? The book cites Baldwin’s important essay, “Princes and Powers,” also linking Baldwin with Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre with little consideration, it seems, of distinctions in their approach and relationship to Western civilization? What would be good to learn about is Baldwin and Hannah Arendt’s relationship, Sartre and Baldwin, and Fanon, for that matter. They may be in the same time period but they are relating to it differently and with a very different purpose — this salvaging of Western civilization on the one hand and the need to free oneself or to know oneself as free.
AM: You know obviously and clearly Baldwin and Sartre would gravitate towards one another because they opposed the French War against the Algerians, they’re both anti-colonial. And Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, probably the first if not the few, who attempts to deal seriously with racism and that book is published in 1960, I think. And Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room reminds me of Sartre’s biography of Jean Genet, Saint Genet. And the reason I say so, is because like Sartre and Jean Genet, Sartre deals openly with homosexuality as does Baldwin in Giovanni’s Room. So Baldwin had just leaped out in front of everything in this country. He is comfortable in the intellectual world of Europe, of France, at the time, and separated from the intellectual life of the United States. And as he will say in the essay, I think, “Take Me to the Water,” during the McCarthyite period, he saw all these white liberals, progressives and leftists turn on their friends and comrades and turn them into the government because those who were turned wouldn’t renounce their leftist views and that was wholly unacceptable to Baldwin. You had intellectuals in Europe like Jean Paul Sartre who was also a member of the French Communist Party and who was not anti-communist and did not accept the American consensus about the Cold War. Baldwin comes back to the United States because he feels morally obligated to contribute to the freedom struggle of his people. I don’t know what that has to do with Susan Sontag. Hannah Arendt is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-communist, pro-West imperialist intellectual; she’s not the worst of the Zionists, but she is not a progressive revolutionary. Baldwin is gravitating towards the freedom struggle, the liberation movements, that’s what he’s interested in.
DN: Gandhi always said that if the European Jews go to Palestine, they should offer peace, offer satyagraha to the Arabs because if it is their land, it is their land too. But Gandhi also said that the European Jewish struggle is in Europe, if in fact they are European, that the Jews establish through non-violent struggle (in his ideal of waging struggle) their equality with other Europeans. It’s interesting, when you take someone like Du Bois who supported the creation of Israel, following the Soviet defeat of Hitler, but in the Afro-Asiatic frame of civilization.
AM: As I mentioned to you, the language of the majority of Eastern and Western European Jews up until 1945 or thereabouts was Yiddish. And Yiddish was not just the day-to-day language of millions of Jews but also the literary language of the Jewish people. In other words, there is more Jewish literature, poetry, drama, in Yiddish than in any other language. But when the state of Israel was established, they made Hebrew the official language but it’s a broken Hebrew. And then it’s a Hebrew , which is not a literary language. The crisis produced by the Cold War and the West has also produced a crisis of European Jewry. It is a crisis. The crisis was manifested when Jewish intellectuals and leaders turned on the Rosenbergs in the early 1950s and allowed them to be executed. It was a choice. Either we defend the Rosenbergs, which would marginalize them as “radical” and “communist,” which was part of the anti-Semitic language of Nazism against the Jews, or many shifted camps and went with U.S. imperialism. The majority of Jewish intellectuals then and over time have sided with U.S. imperialism, as Baldwin points out, and made the Jewish people and the state of Israel enemies of the struggle for freedom. And that doesn’t mean everybody because you have some outstanding Jewish fighters for freedom in the United States, joining the civil rights movement, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Herbert Aptheker, and Abel Meeropol.
I would like to offer a few personal reflections on The Free World. Menand’s study begins by arguing that the United States became a “center of an increasing international artistic and intellectual life” after 1965, even as it loses, on the other hand, “political credibility.” Menand notes that “In 1945, there was widespread skepticism, even among Americans, about the value and sophistication of American art and ideas, and widespread respect for the motives and intentions of the American government.” However, we don’t see a convincing explanation for the African-American cultural resurgence in the early twentieth century. There is no historically- and politically-anchored explanation, for instance, accounting for the rise of painters like Beauford Delaney, Augusta Savage, Norman Lewis, Archibald Motley, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence, who produced their crucial works within a time frame when blacks were embarking upon another Great Migration in United States. And can we really say that international audiences were. “skeptical” of the “value and sophistication” of musicians like Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, and Fletcher Henderson? Menand’s periodization, though convenient, doesn’t quite work when we apply it as a litmus test to American social, intellectual, and artistic life under color line.
Moreover, the period between 1900–1945 was indeed a time of intense questioning of the motives and interests of American government, if we consider, for example, the formation of the Pan-African Congresses, the NAACP, its flagship magazine, The Crisis, the Council on African Affairs, and finally, the agitations of the American labor movement, both white and black. The social segregation of white and black people, however, in the United States along the color line created different trajectories of socioeconomic development and different social customs prevailed within each group. Indeed, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, we see an immense cultural efflorescence taking place among the African-American people — the ascent of poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, thinkers like Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain Locke, and polymaths like Du Bois (sociologist, historian, novelist, editor, political organizer) and Paul Robeson (singer, actor, lawyer, athlete). By contrast, the general mien of Euro-American philosophy, art, and literature in the early twentieth century is pessimistic, because the future of Western hegemony was seen to be under threat as the darker races sought to rebuild their civilizations. We may consider, for example, The Waste Land of T.S. Eliot, who makes an appearance in Menand’s book (along with William Faulkner, with whom Baldwin famously disagreed). The Waste Land ponders the wreck of Western civilization, its “heap of broken images,” through a litany of irreverent invocations of the Western canon culminating with a turn to Eastern thought for its poetic resolution. However, the speakers of the poem seem unable to take canonical authority, or their own quest for self-fulfillment seriously. Eliot is “doing the police in different voices,” in different registers, literarily, politically, historically, after all, forgetting that the enemy is our own ego; before long he turns to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which ponder matters such as nature of desire, its relation to suffering, the way to liberation, and the realization of Atman or soul, among other subjects. As E.M Forster put it, The Waste Land, “is a poem of horror…And the horror is so intense that the poet has an inhibition and is unable to state it openly.” But another poet of the epoch, W.E.B Du Bois is able to put his finger on this horror more concretely. Du Bois conjures the nightmare of American history, in his poem “Hymn to the Peoples,” which he delivered at the 1911 Universal Races Congress thus: “We be blood-guilty! Lo, our hands be red! […] We hear the stifled cry of Nations all but born — The wail of women ravished of their stunted brood! We see the nakedness of Toil, the poverty of Wealth, We know the Anarchy of Empire, and doleful Death of Life!” Likewise, Baldwin pointed out in The Fire Next Time that “renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not — safety, for example, or money, or power.”
The Western university is at the center of Menand’s take on the Cold War: “The expansion of the university, of book publishing, of the music business, and of the art world, along with new technologies of reproduction and distribution, speeded up the rate of innovation.” The university and the Bohemian artist, the book suggests, joined forces and nurtured a child called post-structuralism. While artists like Warhol and Pollock became the new face of postmodern America, American and later, immigrant writers and cultural critics became professors and publishers. France and America commiserated over the Second World War and became bosom friends with French theory replacing German theory as the philosophical standard of the Atlantic order. Suddenly, it was proclaimed there was no truth beyond the world of text, narrative, and language as hermeneutics replaces phenomenology as the primary mode of explanation. It is worth noting here that the music and art of African-America hardly emerged from the university nor depended on it, as Anthony Monteiro pointed out in the preceding interview. Some of the greatest black artists of the early twentieth century arose organically from the black working class, aesthetically interpreting truth through their experience of it, an aesthetic which was distinctively American though illumines by the light of Africa. Taken together, this body of work may represent the most significant musical accomplishment on the American scene in the twentieth century because at the back of it thrums the spiritual strivings of a people struggling for the realization of their inborn freedom. We may contrast as well as compare the forward-looking vision of the black novel and the “second sight” of the Negro spiritual or the lamentations of the sorrow-song unfolding into the blues and the despairing soul-search of the backward looking Western bard of Eliot’s Waste Land. The former turns to the Eastern spiritual tradition through jazz, poetry, and fiction as a way of asserting the long history of contacts between Africa and Asia, and a political commitment to human freedom, while the latter remains wary of his human kinship with dark humanity, though nevertheless forced to turn to the civilization of India, where it was held the sources of European culture lay, indeed, the same India which freed itself from British rule in 1947.
If we recall the whole stretch of the century, then, we find that it is in the early twentieth century that we see the beginnings of the possibility of establishing a genuine civilization based on international brotherhood and peace in America. Black Americans were not only fighting for their own freedom but were avid participants in the struggle for truth and civilization on the world stage. This is why so many black thinkers welcomed the revolutions of the East, redefining America’s relation to Africa and Asia while recognizing that the destiny of black folk in America was intertwined with the Russian and Chinese revolutions and the downtrodden millions in Europe’s African and Asian colonies. The flames of this smoldering hope were fanned by figures like Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alexander Crummell, W.E.B Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Anna Julia Cooper, Leo Hansberry, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and others. Menand mentions some of these figures in passing, including Du Bois and Robeson; however, a fuller consideration of their contribution to the freedom struggle would perhaps detract from the argument he wishes to make in The Free World.
Menand’s relation to the Renaissance of black thought and art in the early twentieth century is curious. On the one hand, he acknowledges the Harlem Renaissance through his chapter on James Baldwin (see p. 249–250). “Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. The 1920s was the era of the New Negro movement, a creative outburst in virtually all the arts, and many figures associated with the movement lived in Harlem: Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, W.E.B Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston.” To be sure, there were significant philosophical, aesthetic, and political distinctions as well as unities amongst these figures. Strikingly, Menand observes that Baldwin “hated Harlem.” We might remember here that it was not Harlem that Baldwin hated but the conditions in which he saw his people being forced into as they migrated to the North in search of better opportunities for their families in the early twentieth century. Besides, the cost of hatred was greater than its payoff, as Baldwin always recognized in his writing, both fictional and non-fictional. He always wrote, after all, to the children of Harlem. As he remarks in Notes of a Native Son,
If ever, indeed, the violence which fills Harlem’s churches, pool halls, and bars erupts outward in a more direct fashion, Harlem and its citizens are likely to vanish in an apocalyptic flood. That this is not likely to happen is due to a great many reasons, most hidden and powerful among them the Negro’s real relation to the white American. This relation prohibits, simply, anything as uncomplicated and satisfactory as pure hatred. In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind — and the heart — that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose.
Faced with constant adversity of mind, body, and spirit under the color line in Harlem or elsewhere, a black person. can easily give in to a rising wave of hatred and anger. However, this hatred, Baldwin points out, “becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose.” There is, then, a kind of stern love in his protective descriptions of Harlem, treating it as one might treat a cherished friend or kinsman. He never minces words in his descriptions of Harlem’s habits and happenings. However, Harlem remains a persistent refrain in his thought and art, as he always returns to it — as he did, when he left Paris — with the faithful reverence of a native son.
As Du Bois noted in his essay, “The Conservation of Races,” a race is
a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.
Though Menand focuses a bit on African-American thinkers like Baldwin and King, their thought and art are socially and spiritually disconnected from the black literary and ecumenical tradition, which, though distinctly American, were epistemically connected to Africa through historical memory and social experience, the coerced movement of a race to a new continent. Here it is also worth noting that Menand misconstrues Du Bois’ phenomenology of “double consciousness,” defining it in the following terms: “the Black person sees himself the way a white person sees him.” However, we recall from The Souls of Black Folk, that Du Bois did not merely use the term “double-consciousness” to suggest internalized inferiority, i.e. the way white people see black people. Du Bois posits, rather, that the black American “would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa.” nor would “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.”
Moreover, in the early twentieth century, a fine network of relationships were wrought amongst the colored races of the world, each striving for the accomplishment of an ideal of life departing from the social dogma that society must necessarily develop according to the colonial ideal of civilization. For the vast majority of the darker races of humankind, from India to South Africa to China to Russia and Cuba, the end of thought and art was freedom form imperialism, a totalitarian regime based on the social dogma of white dominance, coupled with the economic doctrine of capitalism, which was exported to Asia, Africa, and the Americas by the nineteenth century. An emergent phenomenology of consciousness and philosophy of history based on a new social ideal based on national as well as universal principles of art, politics, philosophy, and religion arose amongst the darker races, who established a common bond in the struggle for peace, truth, and civilization. This bond, however, was not simply skin deep or even cultural but existential. Du Bois, for instance, was personally and politically associated with leading Indian anti-colonial thinkers like Lajpat Rai, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon, and others. He, like his colleague Paul Robeson, traveled throughout the Soviet Union, Africa, and China to study the implementation of a society organized around the leadership and progress of the worker, rather than his coercion, as their own people had experienced under the American system, seeing parallels between the condition of the black man, woman, and child and the condition of the Russian and Chinese serfs. Black religious leaders, including Howard Thurman, Sue Bailey Thurman, Benjamin E. Mays, William Stuart Nelson, Martin Luther King Jr., Mordechai Johnson, and Coretta Scott King traveled to India to establish relations based on cherished traditions of peace. Jazz artists like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra rehearsed in their music the long history of human civilization’s Afro-Asiatic origins, finding refuge in the musical and philosophical traditions of the East in the face of a collapsing West. Female vocal masterminds such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone, emerge precisely at the interval within which Menand is tracking the post-45 shift in American culture. However, any substantial considerations of these developments in American and world history are missing in Menand’s analysis of the Free World. This immense artistic, philosophical, and political progress of black folk in the early twentieth century following Reconstruction regrettably falls to the wayside in Menand’s. story.
To be fair, Menand admits in his recent interview in The Chronicle that “The most challenging chapter for me, because it was not something I had ever researched, was the one on French postcolonialism — Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and so on — and its intersection with James Baldwin. So writing that chapter was really revelatory and, as it turned out, of course, very relevant to the contemporary moment in race relations.” However, here, too, we are hard pressed to recall, despite Menand’s best intentions, that Fanon, like Cesaire, was not a “French post-colonial”; he was a black Martinician who served in the Algerian liberation movement against French occupation and his theory of psychiatry emerges out of this experience. We find that Baldwin is unsatisfyingly bowdlerized in Menand’s book. Readers will recall, for instance, that Baldwin supplies a strikingly different account of why black people’s relation to America shifted in the post-war moment, which we may to Menand’s explanation. As he notes in The Fire Next Time, “The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded…You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a “nigger” by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman (so much for the American male’s sexual security); who does not dance at the U.S.O. the night white soldiers dance there, and does not drink in the same bars white soldiers drink in; and who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands.”
The writing of Baldwin emerged out of his close friendships with painters like Beauford Delaney and fellow black writers like Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright, as well as Sartre and Genet, connections which Menand briefly sweeps over, and a deep gratitude for the struggles waged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Panthers, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed and others to liberate black Americans from the yoke of Jim Crow. Menand does not consider the full extent of Baldwin’s relationship to Elijah Muhammed, positing that Baldwin “was disgusted with Elijah Muhammed’s talk of white devils.” However, when we turn to The Fire Next Time, we find a far more generous exploration of the leader’s role in the freedom movement. Baldwin remarks that while he had initially “dismissed the Nation of Islam’s demand for a separate black economy in America, which I had also heard before, as willful, and even mischievous, nonsense […] two things caused me to begin to listen to the speeches, and one was the behavior of the police.” In a searing critique of the Western Christian Church and the welfare system, Baldwin also says that “Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers and committees and resolutions and reports and housing projects and playgrounds have failed to do: to heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who have come out of prison and to keep them out, to make men chaste and women virtuous, and to invest both the male and the female with a pride and a serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light. He has done all these things, which our Christian church has spectacularly failed to do.”
Writing on the eve of his trial, Du Bois noted that this era in thought and art was indeed “a blow to civilization: by instituting thought control; by seeking to stop the circulation of ideas; by seeking to shut off the free flow of culture around the world…by making it treason to brand the hoary lie that War is the path to Peace…” We find a strikingly different landscape painted in Menand’s book. Ultimately, upon reading The Free World, one positioned within the veil may wonder if Menand is speaking of the same epoch in the Land of the Free, which witnessed the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the interrogation of Paul Robeson by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the use of science to build the atomic bomb that would shatter Japan, the invasion of Vietnam, the Korean War, and finally, the arrest and indictment of Du Bois at the age of eighty-eight for his role in the Peace Information Center. One finds in place of the harmonic universalism which gave birth to Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite (1967), John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1965), Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda (1971), or Sun-Ra’s Super-Sonic Jazz (1957), a woefully cursory survey of the musical scene limited to the Beatles (who are, after all, British), Elvis, and a few others. .
In an essay called “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” Baldwin writes that “I am afraid that most of the white people I have every known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives.” One gains an unshakeable sense that this hypothetical Golden Age of free thought and art Menand imagines to have existed represents, even if we take it at face value, is a redemptive effort driven by a nameless fear of “withering away,” which can only be resolved, it seems, by a coming to terms with the roots of this fear in the first place, for why would something wither away if it is indeed based on truth, love, and freedom? Put another way, recalling Baldwin’s characterization of his relationship with Norman Mailer, “There is a difference, though, between Norman Mailer and myself in tht I think he still imagines that he has something to save whereas I have never had anything to lose.”
For what is true withstands the sandstorms of time and the highest ideal of art, as we have been told for so long, is freedom. Freedom is not possible without the renunciation of the endless desire for “unnameable objects” which inevitably end in “unspeakable crimes,” as Baldwin reminds us, for we cling to people, places, and things rather than the divinity that softly glimmers in one another. Our bondage, moreover, stems from the delusion that the surrounding world exists for our sweet pleasure. However, to invoke the words of the Hindu sage Swami Vivekananda, “This world is not for our sake…Just as much as the world is for us, so we are also for the world.”
Love cannot co-exist with war and pleasure-seeking, which has been the Achilles’ heel of the republic for too long. Being concerned with possession, war is the negation of love, a cry of “me and mine,” an identification with the phenomenal as opposed to the reality of the oneness, which transcends space, time, and causality, though it is also the uncaused cause of relativity, the infinite breaking upon the shores of this finite life. As such, love can only be qualified as such when it is free from attachment to a desire for possession, which creates a deep-seated fear of loss and ultimately, death, or “withering away.”