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On Memories as a Starting Point: A Review of “Encounters” by Paul Gottfried

Posted By Mircea Platon On August 14, 2009 @ 12:21 am In Culture, High & Low,Philosophers & Saints | 8 Comments

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(An Eastern-European Reading). In a scene from a great movie called Transsiberian, a Russian traveler tells some innocent American tourists about the “Gulag” and the millions of people killed and buried into the frozen land of Siberia; he concludes by explaining them the difference between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union: “If you want to find the truth about America, you pick up a book. If you want to find the truth about the Soviet Union, you pick up a shovel.” Unfortunately, nowadays, in order to provide political truth, a book about America has to be something like a surgical knife.  We need a book as radical as  a “surgery”  because the U.S.A. establishment sends overseas all industries, except that of propaganda. The American people consume foreign-made goods and homegrown lies, also known as pesticized “truths”, or “values” that keep you fat and satisfied while filling you with manipulated fact.

Paul Gottfried is one of the best practitioners of the much needed dissections of the hokum that passes as reality in today’s corporate-neoconservative America. He recently published a book of recollections called Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers (Wilmington, ISI Books, 2009).

Full of wry, often self-deprecating humor, insightful analysis, and frank statements, Encounters is a book written by someone who has never had to be “mugged by reality”. Neither a disenchanted cynic, nor ideologically reborn, Gottfried did not go from Stalinism or Trotskyism to neoconservatorism or to neoliberalism. As a historian, Gottfried wants to understand the world, not to change it. And this marks him out as a radical among the supporters of “creative destruction” and of “global democratic” wars. It is the radicalism of a conscience that stands for a reality that will not vanish into thin air. Gottfried’s stance is that of a mild-mannered Central-European university professor radicalized by the fact that our society chose, or was lured into choosing, to abandon traditional bourgeois standards of political and cultural judgment in order to become a society in which quantitative accumulations is constantly leading into qualitative extinctions. That is the reason why Gottfried’s books have met with success in Eastern Europe. Having to confront a brutal and ideologically violent form of “modernization”, Eastern Europeans grasped the radical potential of normality sooner than their Western neighbors.  In Communist Eastern Europe, normality has not been  a commodity, as it is in the West. In Eastern Europe normality did not have the chromium sparkle of American “wonder kitchens,” or the metallic taste of “space age” canned soup. In Eastern Europe, normality was not an advertising slogan, but a form of opposition. In a Communist regime that distorted reality with Orwellian propaganda, Huxleyian regulations, and Kafkaesque laws and statistics, to wear a hat instead of the proletarian cap, to address someone as “sir”, instead of  “tovarisch”, or to go to one of the few remaining tailors in your town –who might have been family friends – to order a suit, were acts of subtle resistance. Repressed at the discursive, ideological level, conservatism became in Eastern Europe not an ideology, but the silent perpetuation of an identity. This is exactly what I discovered reading Gottfried’s Encounters: a live conservatism of ideas linked to an authorial presence. I also discovered the intrinsic decency of a man:  Gottfried  avows frankly that, as a Yale student, he “learned true liberal intellectual exchange from a declared Marxist-Leninist.”

In the first chapter of Encounters, Gottfried talks about his father, Andrew Gottfried, and about the huge influence that this Central-European patriarch had on him. What Paul Gottfried admired in his father was a” sense of presence,” combined with “Old World charm,”  “auctoritas,” and fidelity to manly virtues that excluded mindless regimentation or cowardly compromise. After he came to the U.S.A. in 1934, Andrew Gottfried had to change jobs in the vocation in which he had been trained. In order to work in a fur shop, one had to be a union member, and only card-carrying Communists were allowed to become union members: “Apparently only bona fide Communist Party members were supposed to work in these shops, and my father, who found the Communists to be vulgar and annoying, refused to join their movement. At one point he had to hide in a fire escape when the Communist organizer came into his place of work in order to check on the party membership of the employees.” To escape such harassment, Andrew Gottfried took a job in a factory, and once he had enough money,  he opened his own fur shop.

Paul Gottfried was also influenced by his father’s world. Gottfried did not grow up in a mononuclear family, or in a family of culturally isolated immigrants. He grew up in an extended family, with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The large community of Hungarian-speaking and German-speaking Central-Europeans exposed Gottfried to a way of life that taught him to appreciate the social nuances and the articulations of a stable, organic community.

At Bridgeport’s Bassick High School, during the Fifties, “blue collar kids” still studied Walter Scott’s novels, Shakespeare’s historical plays, or ancient Greek history. They acquired a historical consciousness and the intellectual tools that allowed them to have a better grasp of reality than many of the historically warped college students of today. Bridgeport’s “Hunkeytown,” with its different social categories, was a world where the rural roots were still recognizable;  “blue collar” people had not yet been transformed into “middle class” by the corporate magic wand and the “middle classes” had not yet been reduced to corporate “white collar proletarians”. It was such a place that informed Gottfried’s grasp  of social complexities and his subtle sense of the conceptual nuances needed to express it: “In the Hungarian community he [Paul Gottfried’s father, n. M.P.] was always respectfully addressed as Gottfried Úr, a term that suggested something more exalted than ‘Mister’ but did not quite indicate gentry stock. Others of peasant origin (parasztság) were referred to as csi and néni, uncle and aunt, terms that were also used to cover all blood relatives of an older generation.”

Refusing to buy any shares in the global lie, in the corporate production of deteritorialized “values,” refusing to become a member of any ideological “union,” Gottfried, like his father, had to open his own “shop” – it is still open, despite the attempt of others to close it. To ideological leasing, Gottfried preferred his own identity. And it is precisely his clinging to the proper meaning of words, his refusal to instrumentalize language in order to manipulate reality, that allowed Gottfried to appreciate others who could not be reduced to the status of Communist fellow-travelers or “anticommunist” democratic revolutionaries. Among those spirits discussed in the book, are: Thomas Molnar, Will Herberg, Paul Piccone, the long-standing editor of Telos magazine, Erik M. von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, John Lukacs, Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk, Sam Francis, Murray Rothbard, Christopher Lasch, Peter Stanlis and Mel Bradford.

Gottfried’s appreciation for Central-European Catholic traditionalists such as Molnar and Kuehnelt-Leddihn, his long and fruitful friendship with Marxists like Piccone and Genovese, with Lasch, a populist Socialist,  with the libertarian Rothbard,  the undisguised rightist Sam Francis and the traditionalists Bradford and Kirk, indicate someone with a moral center, who could relate to other intellectually honest people, even if he disagreed with them. Gottfried’s “center” is not transactional. It does not move with the rest of the political spectrum. It is a center that “holds”. In many ways, Gottfried is a forerunner of what might become an alliance between a responsible Right and the localist Left, between those elements on the Right and on the Left interested in politics and economics on a “human scale.” It is an alliance among  those who understand that our mission is not “to finish the job of distributing mobile phones and sneakers and DVDs to the last backwaters of our planet”, as Adam K. Webb, an advocate of such a “third force,” rightly puts it.

Gottfried wonders to what extent we are still representing a recognizably “Western civilization,” and to what extent we have become “merely consumers who occupy the space of what used to be the Western world.” In the battle between the champions of Nature and those of History, “I generally side with those who stress historical contexts and power relations.” Gottfried rejects consumerist-egalitarist “values” forced upon us by the corporatist-neoconservative and “politically correct” bureaucracies and supports going back, if possible, to “the moral value of habituation,” “the social, hierarchical preconditions for virtue,” and the true “historical continuities”.

Like any true populist, Gottfried is conscious of the elites’s value for defending, illustrating and refining any “public orthodoxy”. Like any true elitist, Gottfried is also conscious of the role of the people in the creation and transmission of any sound axiological system. That is why  the gist of Gottfried’s political attitude is to reject social engineering. By switching criteria, social engineering grants to the elites the power to invent “values,” while imposing on people the task of assimilating and living according to those “values”. Hence, one encounters the state-supported socialization of the “democratic masses,” and the proliferation of “experts”. As he did in his previous books, Making Sense of the American Right, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, or After Liberalism, Gottfried attacks in Encounters the social engineering of  the Left, embedded in  the Communist regimes, or in Habermas’s “constitutional patriotism,”and some bogus conservative ideas such as  “global democracy,” “populations are interchangeable” or  the concept that we, as   merely  “‘individuals’,  can be socialized in the same way, providing we are molded by a “suitable public administration and by a steady diet of human-rights talk.”

On the Left, Encounters shows us Gottfried talking with Piccone or with Lasch about how we could fight efficiently against those “bureaucratic structures that stood in the way of renewed, self-governing communities”. The Socialist Lasch, we find out from Gottfried, maintained through his last years of life “his lifelong hatred of consumer capitalism”. Following the example of the social-Catholic Dorothy Day, Lasch struggled to find,   “A religiously based communitarianism that could serve as an alternative to multinational capitalism.” Also on a very old Left, Piccone, writes Gottfried, denounced capitalism: “The libertarian illusion that the market as the universal organizational mechanism makes it possible for society to do away with all collective values, now privatized within the confines of particular individual projects.” Piccone and Gottfried had different visions about “bourgeois liberalism” and about the nation-state, considered by Marxists as an integral part of this paradigm. But Gottfried notes that Piccone also believed that: “National governments were both destroyers of communities and convenient rallying points against internationalist structures.” The debate on the struggle against provincial, nation-state sponsored  leveling versus the merits of the nation-state as bulwark against supranational managerial elites, is extremely relevant today.

Equally relevant are Gottfried’s ruminations about Molnar’s and Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s denunciation, from the Right,  of the ravages produced by consumerism, by the cult of technology and by certain “Disney World conceptions of the democratic freedom” entertained by the American establishment. Sam Francis, who occupies a special place among Gottfried’s friends, defined the American establishment as a combination of social engineers, corporate elites with corporate interests, and the media industry. Francis pointed out that the modern managerial elite could  not in any meaningful way be considered “conservative”: “Constituting a status quo is not the same as standing for a social order. Today’s conservatism, Sam never tired of pointing out, means keeping those in power from losing out to those who might challenge them.”

Sam Francis’s definition of the managerial elites defending a corrupt status-quo applies very well to my native country, Romania. In the last twenty years, under an “open society” agenda, American neoconservatives have been exporting to Romania  consumerism as well as  intellectual and political corruption – as if Romanians did not already have their  own local brands. After the fall of Ceausescu’s regime, the Communist orthodoxy was replaced by a supposedly universal neoliberal/neoconservative creed. According to this orthodoxy, those who praise peasant parties are flirting with “authoritarianism.” The same applies to the defenders of  local traditions, “especially the agrarian communal bonds,” and  to those who consider neoliberalism to be “atomistic” or “mechanical,” or to the critics of turbo-capitalism. Banned are  the critics of the social effects of mass-emigration or the persons who publicly deplore the plight of a whole generation of children growing up without their parents ( the  parents  left their homes to do menial work  in the European Union.) Equally unwelcome are the responsible persons  who are concerned  by the fate of the Romanian peasantry, a peasantry despised by the subservient, neoconservative funded,  Romanian elites. And  one might add the  “curse” on those who talk about the malign effects of Western mass-culture. According to the current orthodoxy of Romanian neoliberal elites, all of the above are either Communists, or Fascists. Or both.

When I  came to this country, I was somehow puzzled to discover that in the USA the Right talked about “global democracy” and SUVs, while the Left talked about organic gardening. That is why I felt closer to some voices and publications outside of what passes today as mainstream American politics. In the last years, I’ve seen the signs of a new possible alliance between those, both on the Right and on the Left, who care about ecology, good urbanism, civic economy, small property-owners, and classical education. I noticed the signs of a realignment, of a “third force” that could offer a credible alternative to the unsustainable supremacy of the globalist-corporate forces and the managerial elites.

As a Bildungsroman,  Paul Gottfried’s intellectual autobiography is the story of one individual’s journey through life. A great story that can jumpstart us along the  road to human recovery.

Mircea Platon is a Romanian writer.


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