The Magazine

1917 AND ALL THAT

We Are Still Living in the Shadow of World War I

Apr 28, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 32 • By DAVID FRUM
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You open a magazine and there's an advertisement -- for blue jeans, for perfume, for a radio station, it could be anything. The ad copy says something like, "Breaking all the rules."


Our culture, high and low, is suffused with a gleeful contempt for traditional forms of authority and traditional standards. This contempt inspires rock videos and the proceedings of the Modern Language Association; it can be seen in situation comedies and dictionaries. And yet, paradoxically, one can at the same time sense in contemporary America a desperate hunger for rules and standards. This hunger has made millionaires of the popular authors and broadcasters who can speak to it -- William Bennett, Judith Martin, Laura Schlessinger, and the two New York area women who composed The Rules. Across the country, aspiring politicians have won thousands of elections to school boards, to district attorney's offices, to Congress by promising stricter and tougher enforcement of moral norms. Intellectuals as diverse as communitarian philosopher Michael Sandel and immigration critic Peter Brimelow have tried, each in his own way, to formulate some new vision of a coherent America. President Clinton himself won his uphill battle in 1992 by identifying himself with a "forgotten middle class" that "plays by the rules."


Human beings yearn for rules to live by. And yet it's equally clear that these rules -- whether of language, of aesthetics, of etiquette, of academic excellence, of the most fundamental areas of morality -- aren't there, that they haven't been there for a very long time, and that they therefore cannot be enforced. The Supreme Court has gone so far as to claim that the very idea of agreed-upon norms may contravene the fundamental promises of the American Constitution. It said in the landmark 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."


The problem is, of course, that most of us simply aren't capable of defining our own concepts of meaning. We take them secondhand or third-hand from others -- from the leaders of our society, from our elites. John Maynard Keynes described this transmission of values in his characteristically blunt way: "Civilization was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and will of the few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved." No wonder, then, that so many feel their civilization is corroding. American and European elites have declined to do their job of putting across and preserving the rules and conventions most people yearn for. It's not that our elites have ceased to govern. It's that they govern in a curious, arguably unprecedented, way. They present themselves less as elites than as anti-elites. They rest their legitimacy -- their right to rule in politics, their right to lead intellectual opinion, their right to decide aesthetic questions, their right to construe the law, their right to instruct the young -- not on their ability to interpret and preserve society's inherited rules, but on their eagerness to emancipate their fellow citizens from those inherited rules. It has been the great theme of the 20th century, and it threatens to dominate the 21st as well.


Moral certainty has been ebbing out of our culture for a very long time. One can trace the loss as far back as one wants to go. Matthew Arnold heard the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith at Dover Beach 130 years ago. Or one can put the finger on a time much closer to us: For Americans, that would be the 1950s and 1960s, when the disaster in Vietnam and complicity with segregation discredited their parents in the eyes of today's forty- and fifty-something baby boomers. And yet despite all the complexities and subtleties of history, perhaps one can discern a single epicenter of the great shock that still convulses the culture of the Western world: April 1917, 80 years ago this month, when President Wilson took the United States into the war raging in Europe.


The Great War was fought a long time ago, and since then our century has suffered no end of atrocities, some of them even more appalling than the slaughter in the trenches. But it is not wrong, I think, to continue to see the war as the central event of modern times, the caesura that cleaves the Western world's 200-year-old experiment with bourgeois civilization precisely in half.