August 23, 1993
One of Jacques Derrida’s more entertaining jeux d’esprit is his “signature” theory. There seems to be, he observes, a curiously frequent correspondence between an author’s name and the title or subject of his/her work: e.g., “North American Songbirds” by Gay Lee Trilling or “Urology Illustrated” by C.M. Passwater. (Derrida’s examples, needless to say, are infinitely subtler.) Perhaps we gravitate toward similarly signed things out of unconscious identification and ontological narcissism, or perhaps it’s just another of Language’s little jokes. At any rate, my favorite example is Walter Karp, who until his death four years ago was one of the republic’s pre-eminent political scolds.
Karp was a member of not one but two endangered species: the independent scholar and the public intellectual. With out academic or journalistic affiliation, he wrote scores of essays and eight books, of which at least two (the only ones I’ve read) are tours de force. “The Politics of War” (1979) is a study of the causes and consequences of America’s entry into the First World War, which drastically— according to Karp, designedly—transformed American politics from republican to statist. “Indispensable Enemies” (1973) reinterprets twentieth-century American history as the reign of a bipartisan oligarchy: viz., the leadership of the two major parties, who perennially collude to maintain the appearance and prevent the substance of political competition. Both books are resplendently amateur performances, utterly lacking in professional myopia, timidity and prosaism (as well as, less endearingly, footnotes), full of embattled eloquence and high civic purpose. Karp was also a frequent contributor to “Harper’s”, whose editor, Lewis Lapham, has collected and introduced these essays from Karp’s last decade and a half.
They range widely, from the contemporary relevance of Thucydides, the Bobby Kennedy legend and the origins of the cold war to soap operas, fallout shelters and the history of Central Park. But they all have the same moral: The enemies of liberty never sleep. “My politics is simple,” he once wrote, quoting Lincoln: “ ‘Give all of the governed a voice in their government; that and that alone is self- government.’ It is amazing,” Karp continued, “how radical that proposition turns out to be and how much of the political history of this country is an effort to prevent its realization.”
Amazing, for example, how little American participation in World War I had to do with making the rest of the world safe for democracy and how much with quelling the democratic stirrings ex pressed in Populism and Progressivism. No less clearly than Randolph Bourne, Karp demonstrates, Woodrow Wilson and the war party saw that “war is the health of the state” (only John Dewey and the other “New Republic” liberals failed to see this), but thought its centralizing, authoritarian and chauvinistic consequences all to the good.
Amazing, too, how stable a condominium the two parties have achieved at the state and local levels, and how eager both leaderships are to help put down independent initiatives of any sort, from within either party. According to standard political science doctrine, parties exist in order to win elections; but in case after case party bosses have favored unpopular hacks, even from the opposing party, over popular insurgents. At the national level, too, collusion reigns. The Southern Bourbon hegemony that throttled Congress until the mid-1970s cannot be explained in terms of ideology, regional interests or the mechanics of the seniority system but only, Karp argues, by an alliance between the Bourbons and the Northern urban machines to maintain control of the national Democratic Party. And the amazing performance of the Congressional Democratic leadership from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s— its persistent undermining of Carter, supine acquiescence in Reaganism and support for the hapless Mondale—is best explained not by Carter’s (hardly unique) ineptness or Reagan’s allegedly invincible popularity but by the leadership’s determination to reverse its defeat by reformers.
In Karp’s account the antidemocratic spirit, like the democratic spirit, is protean and inextinguishable. A discussion of Frances FitzGerald’s “America Revised” suggests that the shift in the curriculum from narrative history to “social studies” was something more insidious than a triumph of nonpartisan banality. Whatever the intentions of curricular innovators (many of them earnest Deweyite progressives), the very form of the new pedagogy, by de-emphasizing individual ambitions and achievements, by leaching out the drama and glamour of the past, starved children’s moral and political imagination, thereby weakening a crucial source of resistance to illegitimate authority. The newly powerful educational bureaucracies may not have aimed at this result, but it did not displease them.
Another essay looks at the cold war from a resolutely noninternationalist perspective. The deformation of American political life that followed World War II, the overgrowth of the executive branch, the cult of secrecy, the national security culture—was not, Karp contends, a by-product of imperialism but the motive of it. “The imperial republic was born not of the strife between capitalism and communism; that is the grand misdirection. It was born of the ineluctable republican struggle between those who would ‘limit,’ in Tocqueville’s words, and those who would ‘extend the authority of the people.’ “As Dean Acheson put it, less elegantly than Tocqueville: “You can’t run this damned country any other way... [than] to say politics stops at the sea board—and anyone who denies that postulate is a son-of-a-bitch and a crook and not a true patriot. Now if people will swallow that then you’re off to the races.”
Although Karp waxes wondrous wroth over all this corrupting of the republican spirit, he can also spin a good yarn. “The Fallout-Shelter Craze of 1961” careers along, droll and sarcastic, through an unexpectedly amusing and revealing chapter of recent history. “The Parliament of Fans” is a brief, witty, surprisingly affectionate survey of the soaps—with, naturally, a republican moral. “The Political History of Central Park” is more explicitly a morality tale, but is also full of fascinating detail about the long struggle between Tammany Hall and Frederick Law Olmsted.
The linchpin of “Buried Alive” is an essay titled “The Two Americas” They are, on the one hand, the republic, the “constitution of liberty and self-government,” the spirit of freedom together with the memories and practices that embody that spirit; and on the other, the nation, a mystic unity that is separate from and greater than its members, and that is best served not by the skepticism and self- assertion of an active citizenry but by in curiosity and automatic deference. This is a fundamental antagonism. One can’t be loyal to both the republic and the nation. Republicans love their country partly because it is theirs, but mostly because it is free, as Lincoln said, a sentiment that enrages “nationists” (Karp’s useful coin age). Republicans are wary of talk about national “greatness” or the “national interest,” especially in support of foreign adventures, always suspecting that such talk means pockets are being picked and liberties eroded. Nationists go abroad, ostensibly in search of monsters to destroy but actually in order to aggrandize the federal executive and whip the populace into shape, to “forge a national soul . . . a new religion of vital patriotism—that is, of consecration to the State,” as one of the pro-war party put it in 1916. Nationists profess to want to maximize prosperity, security and efficiency, but are willing for this purpose to minimize accountability and participation, which is anathema to republicans. Karp does not name names, but as I understand him, William F. Buckley, Charles Krauthammer and—notwithstanding his empty chatter about civic virtue—George Will are nationists, LF. Stone and Ralph Nader republicans.
The difficulty of sorting out the deplorable from the admirable in American history, and of doing justice to both, has bedeviled American radicals. The crude chauvinism of the right is a continual, all too frequently irresistible, provocation, eliciting compensatory inanities about inequality and repression being “as American as apple pie.” Karp’s categories, amply and subtly elaborated, show how to distinguish this country’s republican core from nationist accretions, how to cherish America by giving it hell.
One piece of Karp’s argument sticks in my craw, though. He insists too much on the autonomy of the political. Karp is fond of quoting Thucydides’ maxim: “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can.” In other words, ambition is a given, and arbitrary power is sought for its own sake. We should not look to social or economic forces to explain history but to “our nature as political beings.” Even greed is pretty much beside the point. Party bosses, union bosses, corporate bosses want above all to rule; the perquisites of power are a distant second.
Actually, one of the few things we’ve learned since Thucydides’ time is that the phrase “human nature” does no explanatory work. Like everything else, having power is desired for the sake of its con sequences—which may, of course, be too many or too obscure to yield a usable explanation in any individual situation. And philosophy aside, it’s rash to dismiss all talk of social forces. The Constitution is certainly something more than a “bankers’ plot,” as a few doctrinaire leftists have made it out, but it was not an immaculate conception. “The hardest way to make a million dollars is to become a United States senator,” Karp scoffs. “Any vicious, impudent, brazen, shrewd, gifted person can think of an infinite number of better ways to become rich than to become a crooked politician.” Maybe so, but this is not the last word on money and politics. Individual action is indeed the text, but institutions are the context. In a capitalist society, market power constrains political action. Even an enlightened citizenry and incorruptible politicians are helpless in the face of a capital strike.
This is my only cavil about Karp. No one’s perfect, I suppose. “Buried Alive” does, however, contain one perfect essay. “Liberty Under Siege” may be the finest political essay I’ve ever read, equal to anything by Bourne, Orwell, Macdonald, even Chomsky. It is a chronicle and analysis of the Reagan Administration’s campaign against democracy: Executive Order by Executive Order, O.M.B. guideline by O.M.B. guideline, Justice Department ruling by Justice Department ruling, Congressional capitulation by Congressional capitulation. It’s a horrifying story, yet so august is the theme, so compelling the exposition, so fierce and luminous Karp’s rhetoric, so genuine and generous his passion, that reading the essay is, in spite of everything, an exalting experience. Felix culpa, I felt, the wretched corruption that evoked such magnificent indignation.
Karp was fond of quoting two other phrases, both by Jefferson: “A republic, if you can keep it” and “We are never permitted to despair of the commonwealth.” If we keep it (which is by no means certain), Karp will deserve more thanks than most of us. And if we—I, at least—did not altogether despair during these last dark dozen years, it was in part by the grace of his example.