America's Lost World
NEW YORK/VIENNA – When the post-Cold War world was still in its infancy, there was a palpable sense of excitement about history’s potential end
Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
Ben Rhodes, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Random House, 2021.
But lurking in the world’s collective subconscious was an abiding uncertainty about the shape of things to come. “Without the Cold War,” wondered John Updike’s character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as the “long-twilight struggle” between capitalism and communism was winding down, “what’s the point of being an American?”
The Cold War, after all, had provided not just an ideological lens for citizens and their leaders, but also a secure intellectual framework and a transparent screen through which to understand and reimagine culture. Without it, there would be a willy-nilly embrace of endless possibility. As the interwar Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci once suggested, cultural “hegemony” – or what others might call “consensus” – is a precondition of political stability. And so, in the immediate post-Cold War years, a new overriding consensus quickly took hold, pointedly privileging the institutions of liberal internationalism that most Westerners – especially those in a position to shape public opinion – assumed had been vindicated.
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Yet those aspirations – that false “end of history” – would prove short-lived. What seemed hegemonic, what had begun to reign as common sense, turned out to be a passing fad. Liberals in many countries went from being perceived as the heroic progenitors of progressive problem-solving to an elite band of mistrusted co-conspirators. Rather than maintaining a consensus, the West twisted itself into a pretzel.
In the books under review, Louis Menand, a Harvard University professor of English, and Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, struggle to make sense of this liminal moment in world history. Menand expertly excavates ideas that buttressed and buoyed the West during the Cold War. Rhodes offers a political bildungsroman in which many of his cherished verities and great expectations are called into question, if not discredited outright. His tone is funereal, whereas Menand’s is more synoptic.
Both Menand and Rhodes come to grips with contemporary realities by radically reformulating many of the standard historical questions that have been posed – and continue to be posed – about the post-World War II era. In his 800-page tome, Menand examines how America originally became the locus of the “free world,” and how Americans then came to stop believing in their “freedom mission.” Rhodes, in his slimmer volume, poses a complementary, if distinct, question: What does it mean to be an American in a “world gone wrong?”
These are two very different books. As a lengthy exegesis of intellectual and cultural history, Menand’s volume is breathtaking in what one might call its “interior design.” In deceptively straightforward prose brimming with subtle insights, he manages to rearrange and reconsider the lives and works of a wide range of Cold War icons, including George Kennan and George Orwell, Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. Menand helps to explain how the early post-war period – defined by the American social-democrat Irving Howe as an “age of conformity” – became a symbol of America’s consonance with the free world.
Reading Menand, one gathers that America achieved that status by never defining freedom with any precision. Instead, the meaning of freedom was allowed to run untethered. It consisted in the multiplicity of styles, wealth of influences, and plurality of interpretations that became emblematic of the American experience, spurring the country’s intellectual growth.
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Menand finds many of that experience’s roots in non-American cultural and literary traditions (from Martinique to Marseille), though these were all duly recomposed for an American audience. American culture has always had mongrel and syncretic elements, but the Cold War allowed them to coalesce around a particular American ethos and form. The role of experimentation and improvisation runs as a through-line in the Cold War era. Cultural borrowings were the intellectual clay that American cultural innovators fashioned into distinctive artifacts.
Unlike the Soviet Union, America eschewed a prescribed model of cultural production. The soft agitprop of the Works Progress Administration period, when art became politicized to serve ideological ends, became highly unfashionable after the war (and would be badly battered in any case by the 1950s Red Scare). In the United States, the “party line” was pluralism itself: artists, activists, philosophers, and journalists enacting their own conceptions of culture and ideas. This “competition” of expression would empower and legitimate the free world.
Menand’s tour of the intellectual horizon doesn’t shy from bias. For example, he regards authenticity as a signal virtue, and thus has a comparatively dim view of Baldwin, who dissembled about his life and his past. Faced with Baldwin’s chameleon-like personality, Menand prefers the more sustained commitments (despite the ideological pivots) of Wright, the author of Black Boy, Native Son, and many other works. In Menand’s view, Wright was truer to himself than Baldwin was.
Menand attempts the same sort of reputational renovation with the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin. A long, odd, and unnecessary dissection of Berlin’s meeting with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in November 1945 adds nothing to his tale; on the contrary, its superfluousness diminishes Menand’s enterprise.
All told, Menand’s expositions are for the most part penetrating, if remote. He is besotted with only a handful of the many supporting actors in his cultural drama. Oddly, he gravitates toward those who exhibited hustle, showmanship, and gumption – that is, those who knew how to market themselves and their intellectual wares as only an American can. Hence, the artist Andy Warhol and the experimental composer John Cage stand out as Menand’s “free-world” cultural figures par excellence.
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In Menand’s story of artistic and intellectual freedom, jazz finds little place. This is rather startling. Where could Menand’s contention that Americans refrain from dictating form or content find greater validation? The familiar story of how US diplomats and policymakers used jazz ambassadors as a cultural cudgel in the Cold War doesn’t require retelling. But to neglect the improvisatory idiom of jazz, which had enormous influence on multiple cultural genres and on the new sense of self in America, is a glaring lacuna.
Reflecting on the ideology of American exceptionalism, Menand concludes that it was the peculiar nature of the Cold War that shaped America’s self-perception over the second half of the twentieth century. The confrontation and competition with Soviet communism unwittingly and unexpectedly helped to liberate American culture. To win the battle, Americans were forced not to live in truth, as Václav Havel once counseled Eastern European dissidents, but to live in contrast with the Soviet system.
Despite the profusion of hypocrisy on both sides, Menand shows that living in contrast had the effect of “opening the American mind.” It also strengthened the impetus toward freedom. Because the Soviets closed their borders and sent untold numbers of people to labor camps, freedom of movement was further ingrained as an intrinsic American value. And because the Soviets criminalized artistic experimentation, Americans learned to valorize it.
After the End of History
Rhodes’s book is a curious counterpoint to Menand’s masterpiece of composition. Tellingly entitled After the Fall, Rhodes interviews a cross-section of people while quietly seeking an answer to a simple but fundamental question: How did it happen that freedom-seeking people around the world went from relying on America to fearing it?
Departing from the White House in January 2017, Rhodes found himself doubly exiled – from institutional power and from the world of his youthful idealism, which had given way to Donald Trump’s America. As a post-Obama-era memoir, the book is suffused with an A-list of reflections from the author’s fellow internal exiles.
As a writer, Rhodes is a long way from Menand, who composes carefully calibrated interpretive analyses of major cultural and intellectual figures of the past. By a methodical approach of imbrication, he aims to show how the US secured its advantage as free-world hegemon. Rhodes, by contrast, seeks out those whom he failed to meet when he was in power: “dissidents, activists, oppositionists – anyone who looked at power from the perspective of an outsider.”
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Moreover, whereas Menand compiles his selection of the “best and the brightest” who advanced America’s forward march, Rhodes focuses on those who were cast out as other countries marched toward illiberalism. Menand describes how the free world was created, while Rhodes looks at how other worlds were infected with opposing ideas, and why the free world was at times rejected.
Customarily, when American officials meet with dissidents (or anyone from civil society nowadays), the reason is to show moral solidarity, provide pecuniary support, or draw inspiration from activists’ courage and commitment to freedom. Most interesting about Rhodes’s peregrinations around the new authoritarian archipelago is that he is chasing something else. His book chronicles a personal mission to make sense of his own life in Trump’s America, and to imagine the future of liberalism in a world tainted by authoritarian populism. Unsurprisingly, Rhodes identifies with critics of Hungary’s autocratic, kleptocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán; the valiant protesters in Hong Kong who stood up to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he tightened his grip on the island; and unfathomably courageous Russian resisters like Alexei Navalny.
For somebody just out of the White House, Rhodes evinces a sympathetic connection with his subjects that is surprisingly credible. He genuinely admires these outsiders, and he is careful not to instrumentalize them as liberal saviors lying in wait once authoritarianism implodes. Whatever naivete he once had is gone now. Rhodes has come to the plaintive realization that he himself may someday end up in a similar position as today’s dissidents in countries under illiberal rule. This sensibility informs his narrative’s plangent tone.
If Rhodes displays greater affinity for dissidents and protesters in distant, depressing places than for his own liberal crowd in America, the reason, it seems, is that he shares their anger about the post-Cold War period, and their resentment of the establishment liberals who held it up as the best of all possible worlds. Navalny’s self-loathing over his support for Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s resonates with Rhodes’s own anger for believing the US government’s lies in the run-up to the Iraq War.
What makes Rhodes’s book especially poignant is that he summarizes the experience of the post-September 11 liberal generation that despises Trump, while avoiding any nostalgia for the preceding period of America’s post-Cold War triumphalism. Rhodes’s generation feels both outraged by America’s toxic polarization and betrayed by its post-9/11 unity, which led to jingoism and decisions that fatally undermined the values of freedom and liberalism.
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Indeed, as soon as Trump entered the White House, the Obama revolution was stripped of its historical aura. America’s first black president began to resemble Alexander Kerensky, the Russian leader who toppled Russia’s Czarist autocracy in 1917, only to see his own liberal project upended by the Bolsheviks a few months later.
Ideology and Nothingness
Menand ends with a meditation on the changing cultural atmosphere that accompanied the Vietnam War, when links between some of the exponents of American freedom and the CIA were exposed. Suddenly, the explosion of cultural creativity was framed as an intelligence operation whose only purpose was to hurt the enemy.
In this context, one figure who is notably missing from Menand’s mosaic of cultural icons is the sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. The absence has an unwitting symbolism to it, considering that Dick’s 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, arguably signifies the moment when Americans stopped believing in America as a “free world.”
More powerfully than any of Menand’s cast of characters, Dick redefined freedom as a kind of shared paranoia. Writing an alternative history in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan triumphed over America in WWII, he realized that one can never know what would have become of the bad guys if they had won.
What do our present actions say about our past victories? What if the “victorious” West’s proclaimed freedoms are mere window dressing for a darker reality? If Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan really had won the war, it might be in their interest to pretend that the West had triumphed and that Americans were living in a free world. Freedom would no longer be a transcendental goal, but rather merely part of the enemy’s master plan to control you.
Dick was channeling a leftist suspicion that America was no freer than the Soviet Union. During the Vietnam War era, American progressives increasingly became convinced that the Cold War was making America undemocratic.
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Dick’s absence from Menand’s book points to a gap that stands between the world Rhodes explores and the one Menand recounts. In Rhodes’s world today, the enemies of freedom don’t want to defeat it or exploit it as a means of control; rather, they want to convince people that freedom does not exist, and never has. “All over the world it is the same rules,” the new authoritarians insist. They come not with a promise of a radiant future like the communists of old, but with the message that no other world is possible.
But Menand’s world can also instruct Rhodes in his quest to beat back the new authoritarianism. His historical account suggests that the return of a great-power clash – this time between the US and China – will not re-establish America’s identity as a land of freedom. In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans’ style of painting or poetry mattered because the Soviets had tried to one-up the West artistically. Claiming to have created a “new man,” they sought to transcend normal sociology. For a while in the 1920s, the Bolshevik revolution had captured the imagination of the most creative artists in the world.
Throughout the twentieth century, Cold Warriors on both sides of the divide believed in the power of ideas. Is that still true today, when artificial intelligence, not artistic freedom, is at the center of the new power competition? Do the Chinese believe in the power of ideas?
More to the point, do Americans? Rabbit Angstrom’s query – “What’s the point?” – remains unanswered in these arresting and deeply felt books.
Leonard Benardo is Executive Vice President of Programs at the Open Society Foundations