To Refuse to Be God: History as Antithesis

By Eksteins, Modris | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

To Refuse to Be God: History as Antithesis


Eksteins, Modris, Queen's Quarterly


  ... the only original rule of life today: to learn to live and die,
  and in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god.... It is time to
  forsake our age and its adolescent rages.
  ALBERT CAMUS, L'Homme revolte (1951)

A front-page article in the Sunday New York Times of 26 September 2004, a little over a month before the American presidential election, had the headline: "Kerry as the Boss: Always More Questions." A highlighted text box contained the words: "Careful, Curious, and Deliberate Style Can Slow Responses." The article went on to describe Senator John Kerry as "a meticulous ... decision maker, always demanding more information, calling around for advice, reading another document," but then pointed out that there was a serious downside to this intellectually cautious executive style. Were he to become president, it would take Mr Kerry too long to make decisions.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This was a perplexing piece to appear in such a prominent position in the Times, whose motto, "all the news that's fit to print," has always suggested that more news, more information, is exactly what we need in order to make intelligent decisions. The implication of the article, presumably unintended, was that the frontier ethic--shoot first and ask questions later--might be the appropriate approach in a world where the enemy could be lurking anywhere.

What role this assessment of Senator Kerry played in the outcome of the US presidential election in November is hard to say, but some role it did most likely play. In an America firmly in unilateralist pre-emptive mode, intent since 11 September 2001 on lashing out at enemies before they can strike at the homeland, this kind of prominent criticism of caution as a political style must have been seen at Kerry headquarters as a deeply damaging blow.

This idea of spirited engagement and vital instinctive response has of course been central to much American thinking, and indeed to the modernist personality of the past century. However, it contrasts sharply with contemporary European attitudes whose hallmark is indeed caution, delay, reconsideration. In much of Europe, American activism and impatience are seen as a great danger, and Senator Kerry was regarded by most Europeans as the preferred candidate for the American presidency. To many in America, however, Europe is a ponderous, self-absorbed Leviathan, a bureaucratic monstrosity, where caution is simply a polite word for paralysis and indecision.

THE IMAGE of the New World--specifically the New World in North America--has nonetheless always held a powerful attraction for Europeans. For many, America has been the antithesis of Europe, representing opportunity and freedom beyond the confines of tradition, dogma, and even history. That image attracted the first settlers to the American colonies; later came idealists of all sorts, as well as scores of immigrants and adventurers fleeing servitude, hunger, persecution, or boredom. The American frontier became a symbol of what Europe was not. Karl May was so enamoured of the idea of the Wild West that he wrote a series of enormously successful novels about it without having ever crossed the ocean. The view of America seemed always directly related to the condition of Europe, and one might argue that the image of America among Europeans became less a statement about the reality of life in America than a reflection of the state of affairs in Europe.

Never was the appeal of America, as progenitor of hope, greater than in the years after the First World War. Woodrow Wilson, the American president, was greeted as a saviour when he arrived in Paris for the peace conference. Jazz, the Charleston, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker, and Charles Lindbergh had a similar suggestive power in the years that followed. "Americanism is the new European catchword," wrote Rudolf Kayser in Berlin's Vossische Zeitung in September 1925. (1) Not all Europeans were pleased. …

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