Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 1999 /22 Teves, 5760

George Will

George Will
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
David Corn
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Arianna Huffington
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Robert Samuelson
Debbie Schlussel
Sam Schulman
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports
Weekly Standard



A Stark Perspective On a Radical Century -- IN THE FIRST DECADE of this century, in Linz, Austria, August Kubizek would take walks with another adolescent. Years later Kubizek remembered:

"My friend would sometimes be taken by a certain mood and begin to change everything he saw. That house there was in a wrong position; it would have to be demolished. . . . That street needed a correction in order to give it a more compact impression. Away with this horrible, completely bungled tenement block! . . . This inclination to be dissatisfied with things as they were . . . was ineradicable in him."

This boy who chafed against everything became the most radical person of a century convulsed by radicalisms far fiercer than the (relatively) demure dream that justice would reign when the last king had been strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Radicalism no longer aimed merely to change elites. The nature of man would be remade.

Kubizek's friend Adolf Hitler appears in what surely is the century's most remarkable photograph. Snapped Aug. 1, 1914, in Munich's Odeonsplatz, it is of a crowd jubilant about the coming of war. Clearly discernible is 25-year-old Hitler, ecstatic. The era of restraint and reticence was ending. Do today's intellectuals who celebrate "transgressive" acts, erasing limits on willfulness, know there was a kindred spirit in the Odeonsplatz?

To this day French plows turn up soldiers' bones. But buried forever was the pre-1914 world of castes and durable hierarchies. Also gone were other fixities, moral and intellectual. In the universal flux and contingency, language itself seemed to have become a realm of indeterminacy, as T. S. Eliot wrote:

. . . Words strain

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

"It was," writes Modris Eksteins (in "Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age"), "as if words had become like the mud on the Somme." But, then, the 20th century has become used to a fact not known in 1900--you are used to it, aren't you?--that the cup that holds your coffee, and the table that holds the cup, are mostly space.

In the first half of the century, physics radically changed our understanding of physical reality and what we can do with it. The second half of the century belonged to biologists, who may be changing what we can be. Einstein's axiom that the world is more apt to be destroyed by bad politics than bad physics needs a corollary: Good biology without good philosophy will be a calamity.

As the century closes in a triumphalist mood, it may seem churlish to wonder whether such contentment is quite the right reaction to a century in which there was so much tragedy and murder to be triumphed over. Still, health, wealth, freedom and respect have been expanded more rapidly and distributed more broadly than could have been anticipated, or even imagined, in 1899. Socialism is now as barren an ideology as fascism.

Suppose the problem of producing prosperity has been solved and tyranny (other than that of ungoverned appetites) has been rendered unfeasible. To what should we now aspire? Never mind Robert Frost's question:

How are we to write

The Russian novel in America

As long as life goes so unterribly?

But before congratulating ourselves for making history an upward spiral, it would be well to know what, if anything, we mean by "up," beyond material comfort.

We have so lost the talent for admiration--for looking up--that a 1984 movie ("Amadeus") presented Mozart as a gibbering ninny. People seem more comfortable with compassion, looking down. That may vindicate a prophecy made 70 years ago by Jose Ortega y Gasset, who foresaw "vertical barbarians" who would storm their cultures from within, rising for the purpose of lowering things to their moral level.

There is a perhaps telling fact about some of this century's noblest heroes of freedom--Churchill, Adenauer, de Gaulle, both Roosevelts. They who (in Stephen Spender's phrase) "left the vivid air signed with their honor" were formed by the Victorian and Edwardian era, and the certitudes that died 1914-18.

In November 1911, Arthur Balfour, an aristocratic philosopher-politician emblematic of that era, abruptly resigned as leader of Britain's Conservative Party. A colleague explained: "He knows that there was once an ice age and that there will be an ice age again." Today's triumphalism should be leavened by such a sense of how long the long run is, and of the impermanence of things, especially triumphs.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


12/20/99: Soldiers' Snapshots of the Hell They Created
12/16/99: Star-Crossed Banner
12/13/99: Hubert Humphrey Wannabe
12/09/99: Stupidity in Seattle
12/06/99: Bradley's most important vote
12/03/99: Boys will be boys --- or you can always drug 'em
12/01/99: Confidence in the Gore Camp
11/29/99: Busing's End
11/22/99: When We Enjoyed Politics
11/18/99: Ever the Global Gloomster
11/15/99: The Politics of Sanctimony
11/10/99: Risks of Restraining
11/08/99: Willie Brown Besieged
11/04/99: One-House Town
11/01/99: Crack and Cant
10/28/99: Tax Break for the Yachting Class
10/25/99: Ready for The Big Leagues?
10/21/99: Where honor and responsibility still exist
10/18/99: Is Free Speech Only for the Media?
10/14/99: A Beguiling Amateur
10/11/99: Money in Politics: Where's the Problem?
10/08/99: Soft Thinking On Soft Money

©1999, Washington Post Writer's Group