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How Americans Lost Their Fervor for Freedom

Louis Menand’s new book traces the decline of a defining ideal.

In America today, the right has a monopoly on the word “freedom.” Conservatives talk about “freedom” at every opportunity, while liberals and leftists do so only with embarrassment, shielded with qualifying clauses. “First they came for our Free Speech, then they came for our Free Markets, next they’ll come for our Free Shipping on orders $50 or more with promo code: FREEDOM50,” Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina tweeted on January 28, 2021. Cawthorn’s tweet—which rewrites Martin Niemöller’s famous denunciation of German quietism in the face of Hitler’s rise as a sales pitch for his official campaign webstore—is a joke, of course: a play on different senses of the word “free.” But it’s a joke only a conservative could make, because it relies on the assumption that freedom, of whatever kind, is a self-evident, and preeminent, good. A moral crusade against fascism, the unrestrained action of capital, promotional shipping for a cotton t-shirt that reads THE REAL VIRUS IS COMMUNISM: All are worth defending, because all are free.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War
by Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 880 pp., $35.00

The rhetorical move Cawthorn so blithely executes—conflating different senses of the word “free,” and declaring them all sacrosanct—is one that Americans on both the left and right used to make regularly. This, anyway, is the claim advanced by Louis Menand’s sprawling new cultural history, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. “Freedom,” Menand remarks in a brief preface, “was the slogan of the times.” In the middle decades of the twentieth century, “the word was invoked to justify everything.” First and foremost, “freedom” was an anti-communist shibboleth: America had free elections, a free press, and free markets, in contrast to the dictatorships, state-controlled media, and planned economies of the Soviet Union. But the word escaped this context easily and often, and when it did, it usually “promised something more, something existential.” “Freedom” was a word to conjure with for both civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King Jr. used it 20 times, and “equality” only once, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech) and white supremacists (George Wallace, speaking earlier in the same year, appealed to “the call of freedom-loving blood” to mobilize Southern whites to defend “segregation forever”). It was beloved by foreign policy realists advocating containment of Soviet communism, French philosophers wrestling with the legacy of the Nazi Occupation, African intellectuals at the fore of the decolonization movement, libertarian economists agitating for economic deregulation, and student radicals demanding the dismantling of the military-industrial complex.

In the arts, the idea of freedom was equally powerful. “Art is, always, the sphere of freedom,” Susan Sontag wrote in a 1964 review of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, an experimental film starring drag performers that climaxes with a combination rape-earthquake-orgy sequence. “In those difficult works of art, works which we now call avant-garde, the artist consciously exercises his freedom.” A series of precedent-setting obscenity trials pertaining to controversial works of art—Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1957, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1964, and Louis Malle’s film Les Amants the same year—redefined the boundaries of artistic liberty. By the end of the ’60s, Menand observes, bestselling American novels by John Updike and Philip Roth “used words and described acts for which their publishers just ten years earlier would have faced jail.” Other artists exercised their freedom in more peculiar ways: John Cage by composing silent music, Robert Rauschenberg by wrapping an automobile tire around the midsection of a stuffed goat, Ornette Coleman by abandoning chord changes and regular meters, Carolee Schneemann by covering her naked body in snakes and raw meat. All of these gestures, however outré or anti-social, could be claimed as part of a common project: the desire to see how free the free world could get.

Menand’s book has been a long time in the making. It is a sequel of sorts to The Metaphysical Club, his 2001 Pulitzer Prize–winning history of American pragmatism; some of the material in it dates from as far back as the Clinton administration. He’s been writing it, in other words, over the course of the same period that the types of intellectuals Menand is most interested in—artists, writers, and philosophers of a liberal or left-leaning persuasion—lost interest, and faith, in “freedom.” In his preface, he describes the book as a reckoning with a concept he’s not sure he believes in anymore. “If you asked me when I was growing up what the most important good in life was, I would have said ‘freedom,’” he writes. “As I got older, I started to wonder just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean.” The unvoiced answer that haunts the book is that it might not mean anything at all.

What made mid-century Americans’ loose talk of freedom coherent and convincing was the fear of a type of society supposedly defined top to bottom by unfreedom. This was totalitarianism, a term applied in real time to the Stalinist Soviet regime but also retroactively to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The collapsing of communism and fascism into a single sinister category had a lot to do with making an anti-totalitarian politics, in Menand’s words, “close to universal” in Cold War America. Anti-totalitarianism animated the liberal and socialist left as well as the right, the center, and those who preferred to think of themselves as off the ideological chessboard entirely.

The use of totalitarianism as an umbrella term encompassing both communism and Nazism was popularized (though not originated) by Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, an overview of recent European history that attempted to explain the Holocaust as a function of the breakdown of the liberal state. The word “totalitarianism,” Menand notes, did not actually appear in Arendt’s early plans for the book; the term she favored there was “imperialism.” But by the time Arendt actually wrote the book, “she had gotten involved with writers and editors at Partisan Review, for whom Stalinism was a far more pressing issue than imperialism.… The shift obliged Arendt to take what she had already written as an explanation for Nazism and use it as an explanation for Stalinism as well.”

Totalitarianism terrified mid-century intellectuals, and gave them a sense of personal mission. “I believe … that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences,” George Orwell said upon the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, his dystopian science-fiction novel that imagined a future where thought was tightly controlled by the state. “I live with a deep fear of Stalinism at my heart,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1946. “I am willing to say that I think of my intellectual life as a struggle, not energetic enough, against all the blindnesses and malign obfuscations of the Stalinoid mind of our time.”

The language of totalitarianism infiltrated personal relationships as well as geopolitics. Sontag described her husband in her journal as “an emotional totalitarian.” When two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson delivered the commencement address at Smith College in 1955, he urged the graduates to think of their impending marriages as a contribution to the Cold War:

You may be hitched to one of these creatures we call “Western man,” and I think part of your job is to keep him Western.… [I]t is important work worthy of you … because we will defeat totalitarian, authoritarian ideas only by better ideas.

Whatever practices mid-century Americans wanted to support or justify—avant-garde art, academic literary criticism, heterosexual marriage—could plausibly present themselves as a stand against totalitarianism.

In the postwar years, then, American intellectuals thought of, and were encouraged to think of, their activities (whatever they were) as a validation of an underlying political commitment to liberty. And the project of demonstrating the intellectual superiority of Western liberalism to Soviet communism was tied up with another project, that of staking American culture’s claim to be taken seriously by European elites. If the main narrative strand of The Free World is the contest between freedom and totalitarianism, its primary subplot is America’s cultural exchange with Europe—principally, in Menand’s telling, France. At mid-century, Paris was “the capital of the modern”—“the laboratory of the twentieth century,” in the words of art critic Harold Rosenberg—and The Free World spends as much time there as it does in any American city, if not more. Many of the figures whose stories Menand narrates at length (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Duchamp, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida) are French.

One well-known version of the story has it that, after World War II, New York gradually supplanted Paris as the capital of world culture, a process that was helped along by the U.S. government and private philanthropic foundations. Menand is skeptical of this narrative. While there was an influx of émigrés to the United States during the war years, he points out that most of the artists among them “were never fully integrated into the American art world, and when Paris was liberated, they went back as quickly as they could.” He adds that the abstract expressionists, usually held up as the poster boys for U.S. artistic hegemony, in fact struggled for attention both at home and abroad. There were, Menand acknowledges, government-backed efforts to promote American artists and writers with anti-communist politics; funds were diverted to organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom and The Paris Review for this purpose. (The CIA also infiltrated the student movement via the National Student Association, a scandal exposed by the leftist magazine Ramparts in 1967.) But Menand is sanguine about the practical effect of these covert operations, which caused (and continue to cause) a scandal among purity-minded intellectuals who imagine themselves as autonomous, but which ultimately did little to advance American interests.

It’s not that the American government didn’t want to seed pro-American, anti-communist sentiments among European intellectuals; it’s that they tried, and it didn’t really work. “The final irony of the whole American cultural diplomacy effort after 1945 is that what the CIA, the State Department, the museums, and the foundations tried to do—sell American art and ideas to other countries—was accomplished by other means and with little state involvement,” Menand writes. “The world was not colonized by Partisan Review or the Museum of Modern Art. It was colonized by Pop Art and Hollywood.” When we tried to export our avant-garde literature and art, we got polite disinterest; it was coals to Newcastle. When we exported our popular culture—the music, films, and fiction that American intellectuals like Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald dismissed as kitsch—we got a reaction. Not only that, this detritus returned to us with an alienated majesty. We sent advertising and got back the pop art of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi (which preceded that of Warhol and Lichtenstein by almost a decade). We sent Southern Gothic fiction and got back existentialism. We sent gangster movies and got back the French New Wave. Menand’s summary of the case of the Beatles—who revived American interest in rock and roll years after it had fallen off the pop charts in the States—can stand, mutatis mutandis, for a range of postwar phenomena: “In the 1950s, the United States exported a mass-market commercial product to Europe. In the 1960s, it got back a hip and smart popular art form. Americans were happy to believe that it was theirs all along.”

In foregrounding these examples, Menand is trying to complicate a familiar story about “the American century” that has been equally attractive to America’s boosters and its critics. It’s not that a hegemonic United States exported an ideology of freedom in the form of its cultural products (though we did sometimes give it a try). Instead, what happened is what always happens: Ideas and works of art created in one context were received in another, where they were stretched, distorted, and retooled. “In the business of cultural exchange, misprision is often the key to transmission,” Menand writes. Other cultures took liberties with our freedoms, and made them their own.

The Free World is a very long book—727 pages, plus notes—though not a dense or difficult one. Menand’s style is reliably crisp and lively, and he has a great eye for the incongruous anecdote. (A favorite moment: Lionel Trilling inquiring of the 19-year-old Allen Ginsberg: “What is Batman?”) The book’s imposingness is also offset by the fact that it relies quite heavily on reworked or republished material: Much of it originated as review-essays in magazines like The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and it sometimes feels more like a gargantuan collection of articles on related topics than a true narrative history.

Even if you haven’t encountered its contents before, there’s another reason The Free World might seem familiar. Postwar America has been so thoroughly documented, represented, interpreted, and mythologized that it can be difficult to see it clearly or without bias. Part of this is generational: Those who lived through the era—at this point, mainly the baby boomers—are understandably prone to seeing it as uniquely exciting and epochal (and it was, of course, important, especially from the perspective of civil rights). But this self-satisfied nostalgia has permeated the culture industry for decades, and the highlights are now so burnished and familiar that a mere enumeration of events can feel like pandering. There were moments reading The Free World when I tried very hard not to break out into Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Menand is a boomer (born 1952), but he’s not Billy Joel. He doesn’t pander to nostalgia. The temperature of his prose is low. Writing in this magazine in 2003, David Bromwich described Menand’s default attitude as “suitably unimpressed,” and commented that it was “hard to think of another critic who has made such a virtue out of not having strong reactions.” In small doses, this blasé sensibility can be a tonic, an antidote to the hyperbole the material usually attracts. Sustained over 700 pages, though, it feels like an overcorrection: At times, Menand’s tone is so disenchanted that we wonder why we’re supposed to care about the events, ideas, and figures he chronicles at all.

Superficially, The Free World resembles a traditional “great man” history: Its protagonists are all world-famous writers, artists, and intellectuals, most of them “white men with lots of gray matter” (to borrow a phrase that Menand uses to take a jab at mid-century sexism, though it could fairly be applied to his own book’s dramatis personae as well). But Menand is allergic to hagiography. He doesn’t tell stories of great and important men and women; he tells stories of how, in a certain light, people were mistaken for great and important.

A case in point is James Baldwin, who features centrally in two separate chapters. Baldwin has been, if anything, cast in an overly heroic role in recent years (as Joel Rhone argues in an excellent essay in The Drift on the recent Baldwin renaissance). Menand, characteristically, views him with a much cooler eye, and tells his story as a kind of cautionary tale. The young Baldwin, in Menand’s analysis, “had a pitch-perfect command of the critical voice of the anti-Communist left,” which he used to endear himself to white intellectuals and magazine editors. He made his reputation attacking the social realist fiction of his friend and mentor Richard Wright; his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which went after Wright’s Native Son, was first published by the short-lived Zero magazine and later brought to wider attention by Partisan Review. Baldwin, Menand implies, was rewarded by the white establishment for assuaging their guilt for having no interest in Black protest fiction.

But Baldwin’s increasing involvement with the civil rights movement over the course of the 1960s threatened his privileged position as “one of a handful of Black writers who had a white audience.” “Baldwin found himself riding a tiger,” is how Menand puts it. “On the spectrum of civil rights politics, he kept getting pulled to the left.” His writing became more confrontational, more engaged. This triggered a Baldwin backlash among white liberal intellectuals who “resented being told they were not ‘getting it.’” In 1962, Hannah Arendt deplored the sentimentality of his rhetoric (“In politics, love is a stranger.… Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive”). After the 1963 publication of The Fire Next Time, he drew criticism from F.W. Dupee, who feared he would “scare white reactionaries into running and barking fits”; Susan Sontag, who disparaged his “inexhaustible self-perpetuating oratory”; and Robert Brustein, who considered him exemplary of an era of “show-biz moralists” and “outrage exploiters.” (These last three attacks all appeared in The New York Review of Books, a bellwether of white liberal intellectual opinion.) What’s more, he would soon come under fire from more militant Black leftists like Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver.

This sociological analysis is not incorrect, as far as it goes. But what should we make of this story, and why is it the one Menand wants to tell about Baldwin’s career? Should we understand him merely as a social climber, who betrayed Wright when it was convenient and was in turn betrayed by his fellow intellectuals for similarly cynical reasons? Did he make a mistake by “getting pulled to the left”—and if so, what kind of mistake? Was it merely a tactical error? Is there anything at stake here (or anywhere) other than tactics?

Baldwin was one of those who committed himself to the language of freedom. “Human freedom is a complex, difficult—and private—thing,” he wrote in 1959, after visiting the Jim Crow South. “If we can liken life for a moment to a furnace, then freedom is the fire which burns away illusion. Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began.” This is a good example of how the emphasis on freedom can be both moving and vague: moving, maybe, because it’s vague. Menand seems to think Baldwin’s error lay in believing he could convince white Americans (or, at the very least, white liberals) to live up to the standard of freedom they constantly evoked in other contexts. It didn’t work: “This was raising the bar much higher than most white Americans wanted, or believed it was necessary, to jump.” But does Menand think it was too high? Should we?

The further one reads in The Free World, the more one gets the sense that Menand has organized his account of postwar history around a concept he finds appealing but doesn’t believe in. Freedom, we come to understand, is subjective: It describes a psychological state more than it does a material condition. “The feeling of freedom does not necessarily align with external conditions,” Menand writes. “To use a banal example, many people feel free when they are driving a car, even though few everyday activities are more heavily regulated.” Though human beings seem to be naturally compelled by the idea of freedom, freedom itself “is not natural; it is carved out of a system of socialization and coercion, and it requires its own system of coercions to be maintained.” This makes it especially tricky to disentangle my freedom (which may depend on your coercion) from your freedom (which may depend on my coercion): It’s what produces absurdities like Martin Luther King and George Wallace appealing to the same value to justify diametrically opposite ends.

This is an old liberal paradox, and the difficulties it presents may go some way toward explaining why progressives have abandoned the discourse of freedom to the right. (The right, by the way, barely features in The Free World, despite its spanning the rise of the modern conservative and libertarian movements: a curious lacuna.) Menand shows that an idea of freedom once motivated a great deal of valuable activity, but he seems unconvinced that freedom itself has any intrinsic value. In this, he’s not alone. Should we care that the very notion of “freedom” now appears empty to so many of us? Would we be better off—electorally, intellectually, spiritually—if we cared as much about freedom as the people Menand writes about did? Or was “freedom” always empty after all, an ideological fantasy we are ultimately better off without? Menand, for all the insight he provides on a lost world where freedom was regarded as “the most important good in life,” can’t help us answer that question.