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In Defense of the Open Society

David Brooks Reading Thomas Mann

By Kai Sina

Not quite a year after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, The New York Times published an op-ed entitled “The Glory of Democracy” (December 14, 2017). In the article, David Brooks, one of the newspaper’s most influential commentators, made an announcement: In the face of new authoritarian tendencies, which appeared to be gaining influence and power not only in the United States, he wanted to present some basic texts of liberal democracy to the readers of the Times in the forthcoming months. Brooks immediately put the announcement into action and selected a speech that Thomas Mann gave on his first major lecture tour through the USA in 1938 and that was published as a book the same year: “The Coming Victory of Democracy.”

The fact that for an American journalist in 2017 nothing seems more natural than to refer to a German writer as an essential and still relevant inspiration for questions of democracy is remarkable, especially since Thomas Mann operates with a rather dazzling notion of democracy: “I wish to give the word ‘democracy’ a very broad meaning,” he explains in his speech, “for I am connecting it with the highest human attributes, with the idea and the absolute; I am relating it to the inalienable dignity of mankind, which no force, however humiliating, can destroy.” Just as Thomas Mann pleaded with great, almost religious enthusiasm for the “self-determination of democracy, for its recollection, reopening and awareness” in the late 1930s, so David Brooks aims to reinforce an understanding of democracy that seems to be undergoing a deep crisis in present days.

Thomas Mann, ‘The Coming Victory of Democracy’, 1938.

The last paragraph of the Times article shows, in its tone and its choice of words, how urgent the author’s need for democratic self-confidence, also for edification, seems to be: “Mann’s great contribution is to remind us that democracy is not just about politics; it’s about the individual’s daily struggle to be better and nobler and to resist the cheap and the superficial. Democrats like Mann hold up a lofty image of human flourishing. They inspire a great yearning to live up to it.” Brooks’s conclusion resembles Mann’s speech not only in content, but even in its verbal gestures: “Democracy wishes to elevate mankind, to teach it to think, to set it free. It seeks to remove from culture the stamp of privilege and disseminate it among the people — in a word, it aims at education.” Both Mann and Brooks choose pathos as their rhetorical strategy to underline the importance and urgency of their concern. The German writer, however, has certainly reflected on the status of his speech as a kind of role-playing game (which is characteristic of some of his political writing). While working on the lecture, at the end of November 1937, he noted in his diary: “American Idealism. Do I believe in it? Don’t I just think myself into a role?” Despite his inner skepticism, the historical purpose of his plans seems unquestionable to him: “In any case, it is good to remember this world.” For the literary scholar Hans Rudolf Vaget, “The Coming Victory of Democracy” is Thomas Mann’s “first great campaign” in his insistent fight against Hitler’s Germany.

Thomas Mann visiting Alfred A. Knopf in New York, 1940.

Transatlantic Literature and Ideas

The American journalist’s reference to the German Nobel laureate is less surprising when viewed against the background of the history of transatlantic literature and ideas. Indeed, it seems to be the continuation of a process that reaches quite far back into the past. Since the American discovery of German literature in the first half of the 19th century by the New England Transcendentalists — namely by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker — it has served as an important reference point for the young nation’s cultural and political self-image. To put it in a nutshell: while Emerson intensively began in the 1830s to examine Goethe’s works with a view to the relationship between individuality and society, deriving from them a cultural concept of the young immigrant nation (his great essay “Goethe; or, the Writer” is nothing other than a call to American writers to follow Goethe in his literary footsteps), Brooks, at the onset of the 21st century, turns to Mann to find inspiration for his defense of liberal democracy.

With the reference to American Transcendentalism, however, the background of Brooks’s article is not fully illuminated. If, on the other hand, we focus on the German side, we can see that its understanding of liberal democracy is itself essentially determined by cultural exchange with the US. To stick with the authors mentioned up to this point: Goethe’s ideal of a flourishing social life, developed in old age, was decisively shaped by his intense interest in North America. After reading a diary of an America traveler, he noted with astonishment: “There are ninety different Christian denominations in New York, each of which confesses God and the Lord in its own way, without going astray.” For Goethe, the rapidly expanding city on the Hudson River was proof of a freedom that is not only eloquently invoked but also lived: “For what does it mean that everyone speaks of liberality and wants to prevent others from thinking and speaking in their own way?”

A century later, Thomas Mann cultivated his idea of democracy primarily through American literature. For him, no one understood like Walt Whitman “to elevate and translate a social principle like democracy into an intoxicating song.” How exactly the speaker knew what he was talking about when he referred to Whitman as the singer of American democracy can be seen from his collection of books, which is now kept at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich: Mann’s 1922 edition of Whitman’s works (in the translation of his friend Hans Reisiger) is covered with annotations and marginal notes and provides a detailed account of the motives, ideas, and reflections that founded his conception of democracy. This reading goes back to a highly complex period in Mann’s life, during which he transformed himself from a conservative monarchist to a convinced republican. This turning point manifests itself above all in his 1922 speech “Von deutscher Republik” (“On the German Republic”), in which Whitman, alongside the German romantic Novalis, is the main point of reference.

Accordingly, Thomas Mann begins his speech on “The Coming Victory of Democracy” with a tribute not only to Lincoln, but also to Whitman and addresses it directly to his American audience: “It was your American statesmen and poets such as Lincoln and Whitman who proclaimed to the world democratic thought and feeling, and the democratic way of life, in imperishable words.” In view of this constellation, it may not be a coincidence that Brooks followed up his article on Mann’s speech with a piece on Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” (“What Holds America Together”, March 19, 2018).

The Order of the Day

In order to adequately contextualize David Brooks’s reference to Thomas Mann, we must assume a mutual cultural transfer. For his reflections on contemporary democracy in the USA, the American journalist takes the position of a German writer whose political thinking was itself deeply marked by American democracy. What we have here is a re-entry of exemplary validity: with his article Brooks continues a central strand of the transatlantic history of literature and ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries, which can — although not in the sense of a direct influence, but of an intellectual correspondence — be associated with Karl Popper’s concept of the “open society.” Popper thinks of society as a form of mediation between the one and the many, or, to put it in American terms, as the implementation of the great social promise “E pluribus unum.” For him, the open society is the only way to sustainably guarantee freedom and humanity, while the return to a closed society, “to the heroic age of tribalism,” must ultimately lead to “Inquisition,” “Secret Police,” and a “romanticized gangsterism.” To defend the open society as an intellectual and social achievement against its enemies — this is exactly what Thomas Mann, like David Brooks after him, considers to be the principal task of the public intellectual.

Kai Sina is a literary scholar at the University of Göttingen. His research focuses on the history of transatlantic literature. In 2017, he published an essay on Susan Sontag and Thomas Mann. It will be followed this year by a book on “Collective Poetry.” Its subject is the relationship between modern literature and the open society. It includes studies on Goethe, Emerson, Whitman and Mann.




Thomas Mann House | Residency center and space for transatlantic debate in Los Angeles, California |

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Thomas Mann House

Thomas Mann House | Residency center and space for transatlantic debate in Los Angeles, California.

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