Tuesday, May 02, 2006

All-American Seduction: Jean-François Revel’s Mistake

They’re dropping like philosophers. First Jane Jacobs, then J.K. Galbraith, and now Jean-François Revel, whose occasionally excessive gloom and desperate pro-Americanism was tempered by his gift for irony, his curiosity, his occasional fallibility. Here’s what he wrote in How Democracies Perish, a book published in the Year of Our George, 1984: “Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.” The observation is correct. Democracy is as fallible as ever. The cause, as Revel sees it, seems less correct: “Exaggerated self-criticism would be a harmless luxury of civilization if there were no enemy at the gate,” he wrote. “But if it is repeated often enough, it is finally believed. Where will the citizens of democratic societies find reasons to resist the enemy outside if they are persuaded from childhood that their civilization is merely an accumulation of failures, and a monstrous imposture?” There are a couple of problems with Revel’s anxiety.

First, the self-criticism is not “exaggerated.” It may occasionally be loud and squeaky, it may be aggravating, it may be incoherent. But “exaggerated” implies an efficiency of numbers that has, if anything, been lacking in the West: what criticism exists here, in the mainstream anyway, is meek, cowardly, predictable, and conventional enough for the Babbitts of the world to sip it with their martinis. Read the rest...