Grand Illusions

The Politics of Hysteria

by Edmund Stillman, by William Pfaff
Harper & Row, 273 pp., $4.95

Politics today presses in upon a world that once, for the artisan as well as the peasant, had some privacy, some prescript of decent refuge from the all-encompassing claims of the political life of the state. Now politics is everything, it seems.

The obsession with politics, not in the immediate sense of an absorption in the governmental processes close at hand, but as a much deeper trait of character—an inability to see the unfolding of world history other than in passionate moral terms—is the concern of this coruscating and unsettling book. For it is the author’s contention that precisely this obsession with politics, this insistence on forcing the events of history into preconceived and dogmatic “meanings” gives to our age so much of its special capacity for historic mischief. Other ages have had their share of misery and brutality, their conquests, disasters, successes, disintegrations. But only in the modern age has the process been sanctified by pleading that these terrors and tragedies were justified in terms of their political (i.e., historic and ideological) content.

This ideological suffusion (which originates in the French Revolution) has frequently been remarked upon. Indeed it is the commonplace premise of our current political orientation that we live in a time in which “two great systems of thought” (etc., etc.) collide. But it is to the credit of the authors that when they pin down the specific villain of modern history, they do not find it to be that arch-enemy, Russia. Instead, the source of this overwhelming ideological fixation is the West itself. To repeat a joke in point: We have met the enemy and they are us. For the unique “contribution” of the West to history, Stillman and Pfaff point out, is that it alone has infused its enormously dynamic technological and administrative thrust with the fervor of political rectitude. No other religion, including Islam, no other military system, including that of Genghis Khan, no other economic structure, including the Egyptian, no other popular culture, including the Roman, has been so proselytizing, so fire-eating, so zealous, as that of the West. Those sacrosanct symbols of the West to which every “serious” work must pay homage—the Judeo-Christian ethic, democracy, the Faustian spirit—all turn out to be, upon dispassionate scrutiny, banners which have all too frequently led bloody processions down the paths of history. “When the intransigeance of human history has balked change and action,” write the authors, “the West has been capable of violence on an appalling scale, and has justified that violence as indispensable to a heroic reform of society or of mankind.”

Thus Stillman and Pfaff have the courage to place the West in an historic illumination that reveals the full depth of its shadows as well as the lustre of its highlights. Yet this book is in no wise a diatribe against the West. It is rather an attempt to explain the condition of modern times as a consequence of the tremendous penetrative power of the violent …

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