May 21, 2008


Mr. Sammler’s City: Saul Bellow’s prophetic 1970 novel captured New York’s unraveling and remains a cautionary tale. (Myron Magnet, Spring 2008, City Journal)

The year Sammler appeared, Tom Wolfe jeered at the white elite’s embrace of the Panthers in his hilarious essay “Radical Chic,” describing a party Leonard Bernstein had thrown to introduce the paramilitary-garbed black-power group to such friends as Richard Avedon, Lillian Hellman, Robert Silvers, and Barbara Walters in his Park Avenue duplex. But for Bellow, despite his keen sense of the absurd, such antics were no laughing matter. They were part of the reason why New York was falling apart.

Since the nineteenth century, bohemians, writers, and intellectuals have toyed with the “romance of the outlaw,” as Sammler puts it. “He thought often what a tremendous appeal crime had made to the children of bourgeois civilization. Whether as revolutionists, as supermen, as saints, Knights of Faith, even the best teased and tested themselves with thoughts of knife or gun. Lawless Raskolnikovs.” But in Sammler’s New York, and in elite culture generally in the sixties, that romance of the outlaw focused primarily on blacks, whose status as social victims and outcasts transformed their criminal acts (ex officio, so to speak) into manly, quasi-heroic revolts against oppression, however inchoate. Another of Sammler’s nieces, a rich, pretty Sarah Lawrence grad, embodies this prevailing worldview: she regularly sends money to “defense funds for black murderers and rapists.” Her uncle has no patience with this attitude. You can’t excuse a crime by saying it has been committed by a victim. “To whom would this not apply, if you start to say poor creature?” he dryly objects.

But though this exculpatory impulse springs partly from a widespread wish to make amends for centuries of racial injustice and to see “the unity of the different races affirmed,” its roots go deeper than that. The American elite, Bellow saw, had lost confidence in its core values. “The labor of Puritanism was now ending”; the Puritan outlook that had guided America for three and a half centuries, the bourgeois outlook that “formerly was believed, trusted, was now bitterly circled in black irony.” Without faith in their core bourgeois values and in the social order that rested on those values, the old elite had ceased to believe in its own legitimacy. Not surprisingly, “Mr. Sammler was testy with White Protestant America for not keeping better order. Cowardly surrender. Not a strong ruling class. Eager in a secret humiliating way to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs, and scream against themselves.”

Perhaps he had in mind Johnson-administration attorney general Ramsey Clark, son of Supreme Court justice Tom Clark, who was asserting at that moment that white America’s racism and oppression (rather than black criminals) were responsible for black crime and that evil America was the world’s chief perpetrator of “crimes against peace, war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity.” (In later years, he became a defender of Saddam Hussein and the blind terrorist sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.) Or perhaps he had in mind Mayflower descendant William Sloane Coffin, son of a Metropolitan Museum board president, who as Yale’s chaplain and then as minister of Riverside Church went from being a civil rights Freedom Rider to becoming the country’s leading Vietnam War protester, draft-resistance advocate (for whom civil disobedience seemed to be his creed’s main sacrament), and denouncer of America’s lack of “social justice.” Or hundreds like them, including New York’s then-mayor John Lindsay, whose Dutch ancestors arrived in Manhattan in the seventeenth century.

America’s elites, at least the most vocal among them, no longer believed in the importance or legitimacy of policing their own streets—or the world. As we only later came to grasp clearly, all the resultant disorder that Bellow cataloged—public spaces despoiled by drunks, drug dealers, addicts, and madmen; unchecked vandalism; the stench of human and canine waste everywhere; the sordid parade of prostitutes of all genders around Times Square (whose modern romanticizers either weren’t there or else have a rarefied taste for the squalid and perverse)—all these so-called victimless crimes turned out to be the great incubator of serious crime. Potential wrongdoers accurately concluded from the lack of order-keeping policing that the authorities didn’t care, so they could rob, mug, steal cars, and so on with impunity, right up to a gang of black 14-year-olds shooting another kid to death, as Sammler’s nephew casually reports. To the elites, in fact, all the “victimless” disorder wasn’t just harmless but healthy: drugs were mind-expanding, madmen were marching to the beat of a different drummer, blasting boomboxes were the exuberant expression of what we hadn’t yet learned to call multiculturalism, and restraint was oppression. As Bellow understood, social disorder flowed from cultural change.

Of all the Puritan restraints, sexual restraint was Number One on the elites’ hit list. The opposite of a virtue, it was now deemed harmful, malignant. As the ascendant psychotherapeutic worldview had it, Sammler caustically notes, “the bad puritanical attitudes from the sick past . . . have damaged civilization so much.” In the 1960s, the elites wanted “the final triumph of the Enlightenment—Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery!” With the “struggles of three revolutionary centuries” finally won and the constraints of church and family cast off, the American elites demanded one ultimate liberation. They clamored for the “privileges of aristocracy, . . . especially the libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa.”

Because black Americans, as elite culture saw it, already enjoyed this sought-for sexual freedom, white Americans, Bellow says, “had formed an idea of the corrupting disease of being white and the healing power of black.” They saw blacks as the mythical noble savages, free from hypercivilized inhibition, their natural potency unimpaired. “From the black side,” Bellow writes in Sammler, “strong currents were sweeping over everyone. Child, black, redskin—the unspoiled Seminole against the horrible Whiteman. Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.” Hence, as Sammler’s pretty niece tells him after a few drinks, “A Jew brain, a black cock, a Nordic beauty is what a woman wants.” And men have similar ambitions, Sammler muses. Did not LBJ, according to an apocryphal but plausible story, expose himself to reporters, “demanding to know whether a man so well hung could not be trusted to lead his country”?

Trouble was, Americans wanted two mutually exclusive things, Sammler observes. They sought “the privileges, and the free ways of barbarism, under the protection of civilized order, property rights, refined technological organization, and so on.” But you can have only one or the other. That is the meaning of the camel’s-hair-clad robber’s self-display. Yes, here is the big black member that everyone wants; but it is attached to a criminal. Its freedom, power, and authority are lawless, ready to make use of anyone, barbaric, bestial. Throughout, Bellow describes the robber as an “elegant brute” with the “effrontery of a big animal.” He is an “African prince or great black beast . . . seeking whom he might devour”—as Saint Peter described that incarnation of evil, the devil. His gesture expresses to Sammler that he has the power and the will to devour him if need be. President Johnson might claim the authority to rule the world; the robber claims the alpha male’s authority to rule the jungle, the state of nature, by force and violence.

As the classical political philosophers held, the civilized order that protects our lives and property rests on restraint. We curb our freedom of aggressive impulse to ensure the safety of all, ourselves included. The resultant freedom to go about our cities unmolested and to channel our energies into the civilized arts and sciences that generate human progress is a higher freedom than the liberty we relinquish. We limit our sexual freedom in order to form stable families that teach children to internalize civilization’s self-restraint and make it part of their character, a process that turns the raw material of nature into human beings. “I thought everybody was born human,” Sammler’s pretty niece tells him. He replies, with this civilizing process in mind: “It is not a natural gift at all. Only the capacity is natural.”

All the old impulses persist in all of us, of course, which requires a perpetual effort of restraint from both the individual and the society. When the curbs break down enough, whether within the individual’s conscience or the order-keeping activity of society at large, what results is the “elegant brute” of a robber or the 14-year-old murderers or the black urban underclass that was forming at the very moment Bellow was writing—a subgroup of blacks whose sexual freedom produced skyrocketing illegitimacy rates and weak families whose children crowded into the ranks of robbers and murderers. For many middle-class people, like Sammler’s pretty niece, a sexual adventurer who “has done it in too many ways with too many men,” the result was an epidemic of divorce that left a generation of wounded children, determined either never to get divorced and inflict the same pain on their own children or else never to get married in the first place. Bellow himself, who had five wives, plus affairs and one-night stands beyond enumeration, came to judge the sexual revolution “a thirty-year disaster.”

The Enlightenment, emphasizing reason, liberation, and dreams of human perfectibility, lost sight of these fundamental truths about human nature and the social order. It expelled the old world’s demons, Bellow says—those imaginary embodiments of the human evil that everyone once knew existed. But the heirs of the Enlightenment notables who freed mankind from superstition and vassalage now threaten to bring the demons back through sheer ignorance of the reality they represented. Sammler wonders “whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments—attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom.” Ignorant of what they are doing, they hack away at the basic conditions of the civilized order by which they live.

Sound thoughts, confused terms: relinquishing freedom is the source of liberty.

Obama faces an uphill battle to win over Florida's Jews (Jodi Kantor, May 21, 2008, NY Times)

At the Aberdeen Golf and Country Club on Sunday, the fountains were burbling, the man-made lakes were shining, and Shirley Weitz and Ruth Grossman were debating why Jews in this gated neighborhood of airy retirement homes feel so much trepidation about Senator Barack Obama.

"The people here, liberal people, will not vote for Obama because of his attitude towards Israel," Weitz, 83, said, lingering over brunch. "They're going to vote for McCain."

Grossman, 80, agreed with her friend's conclusion, but not her reasoning.

"They'll pick on the minister thing, they'll pick on the wife, but the major issue is color," she said, quietly fingering a coffee cup. Grossman added that she was thinking of voting for Barack Obama, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, as was Weitz.

But Grossman said she did not tell that to neighbors. "I keep my mouth shut," she said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 21, 2008 7:53 PM

Isn't the Obama campaign the second round of the Bernstein party with fewer Wasps.

Posted by: narciso at May 21, 2008 8:33 PM

I know Obama is playing the grievance card, but he is no Black Panther. He is effeminate through and through. Michelle, on the other hand, is more rapaciously feline.

Posted by: ratbert at May 21, 2008 10:05 PM

"They'll pick on the minister thing, they'll pick on the wife, but the major issue is color," Grossman added that she was thinking of voting for Barack Obama, as was Weitz.

So every concern is a cover for whities' racism. How enlightened Obama's guilt-ridden white voters are!

Posted by: ic at May 22, 2008 12:55 AM

How anyone of Orrin's sensibilities could read "Sammler" and not become a Bellow fan is beyond my powers of comprehension.

Posted by: ghostcat at May 22, 2008 1:23 AM

Who could like it that isn't terrified of Mandingo?

Posted by: oj at May 22, 2008 6:12 AM

I have a liberal, middle-aged Jewish woman neighbor whom I generally avoid saying anything other than hello for fear of her starting an anti-Bush rant. For the last few months, she has been starting in on Obama. She's been a visitor in the past to Rev Wright's church as part of outreach program. She is voting for McCain or not at all.

Posted by: Rick T. at May 22, 2008 7:44 AM

A bad rap about the so-called "racism." We dispise this man as an enemy of the folk not because he is af mixed African descent, but because he speaks and acts an an enemy of the American folk, and he closely associates with enemies of the American folk.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 22, 2008 10:28 AM

Who could not discern the essential brotherhood of Mandingo and Emile?

Posted by: ghostcat at May 22, 2008 10:48 AM

Lou Gots: don't try, you just pick on "he closely associates with enemies of the American folk" thing, "but the major issue is color,"

Of course you can also just "pick on the dishonesty thing, the exaggeration thing, the Bill thing" against Hillary, but the major issue is her gender.

Just vote and thank our Founding Fathers for instituting secret ballots. We can be racist, sexist, whatever-ist in the voting booth, and you don't have to justify your vote, except to yourself. Workers would soon be forced to join unions with their "card-checks". No more secret ballots but intimidations for them.

Posted by: ic at May 22, 2008 2:02 PM

No, Bellow just feared his enormous member. It's a caricature for classic sexualized fears.

Posted by: oj at May 22, 2008 2:44 PM