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A True Capacity For Governance’
Despite his feeling that “we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society can be like,” the senior senator from New York—a lifelong student of history—remains an optimist about our system of government and our extraordinary resilience as a people
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Recently I was asked to write an article on the Statue of Liberty for the centennial celebration. I agreed, then refused. 1 had nothing whatever to say about the statue. But my thoughts turned to that sonnet Emma Lazarus wrote for the original fund-raising effort, and it came to me how extraordinarily wrong she was about the immigration of the second half of the nineteenth century. She writes about the Lady standing there by the Golden Door saying, “Give me your tired,/Your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” referring to Europe. “Wretched refuse.” I thought, what on earth ever gave her that idea? Because surely this was one of the most self-confident and capable bunch of people who ever crossed an ocean. All those immigrants at that time paid their own way, knew what they were doing, and did it very well.
I looked into her life and found an interesting story. She was the daughter of a well-to-do Sephardic family in New York City. Her first poems were privately printed. Emerson asked her to spend a week at Concord. She wrote articles for Scribner’s Monthly , that most uplifting of journals; wrote a five-act verse play set in seventeenth-century Italy, and such like. Then came the 188Os, and she became horrified by the pogroms that were going on in Russia—the murder of Jews by mobs. When in turn I looked up pogroms in the Encyclopaedia Judaica , 1 found that perhaps two hundred persons were murdered by mobs in Russia at the time. The last major pogrom in the 188Os took place in Nizhni Novgorod: nine Jews were killed and the authorities sent seventy rioters to prison with severe sentences. Now you could say, “Only nine people were killed?”—that would be a quiet weekend in New York City today. Well, for the second half of the nineteenth centuy, it was an outrage! And of course, it is an outrage—the nineteenth-century world was outraged—but it wouldn’t be outrageous among people whose sensibilities have been brutalized as ours have been. The crux is that we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society really can be like. It all came to an end in 1914 with the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand.
If I had a hero in contemporary American life, it would be Gerald Ford … he helped heal our country.
How, then, has life changed?
We don’t have a memory any longer of a world in which technology did not have the means of mass destruction. To give you an example: On the day the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815—after twenty-one years of conflict with France and the United States—Palmerston, who was Britain’s secretary at war, reported to Parliament exactly what British casualties had been. In a near quarter-century of war, they had lost something like twenty thousand dead, sixteen thousand of these in the army, of whom one-sixth died in the last week of the campaign that ended in Waterloo. A century later the British lost sixty thousand men in just one afternoon on the Somme.
Since World War I the prospects of democracy as a system of government in the world have faded. We seem to be under attack the world over. These are themes you have reiterated over the years. But you have also said that our strength lies in our capacity to govern ourselves. So again, how can we endure?
Just as we have all but lost the memory of how civilized the nineteenth century was, by the standards of the twentieth century, we have forgotten that at the turn of the century the expectation that the future of the world would be one of democratic societies was deeply ingrained. It was a progress that seemed inevitable. Look into that wonderful book The American Commonwealth by Lord Bryce (we have a bust of him in the Senate on the third floor—one of the few foreigners in the building). He wrote this grand, great work about the American commonwealth. In his preface he asked, “Now why am I doing this?” And essentially what he said was: “The answer is evident, is it not? that across the globe people assume that it is American arrangements—the arrangements specifically of the American democracy, their political arrangements—that are going to be dominant in the future, that are going to prevail.” But then, at the very moment when that expectation attained its greatest ascendancy, in 1918 with Woodrow Wilson—no man in the history of the world, before or ever since, has ever had the hold on the imagination of the world’s population as Woodrow Wilson did—at that very moment the totalitarian state appeared. It came with Lenin to Russia. And suddenly, the world had a new future—wholly new, wholly different. Just as the Holocaust was something wholly different from pogroms, and the Somme something wholly different from Waterloo, the totalitarian state was something wholly different from czarist Russia. Czarist Russia was a mild form of government compared with the one that succeeded it. The whole twentieth century has declined in all these matters. What can history do but tell you where you are by measuring in terms of where you have been? You don’t know much about the future but you know a lot about the past—and if we don’t recognize this decline in our expectations of the general way people behave, we are apt to take as necessary or normal what is neither necessary nor normal but simply very specific to our age.
You’ve said that from examining the past one can arrive at certain foresights that can help in the effort to govern.