The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism, by Paul Hollander (Lexington Books, 291 pp., $39.95)

Sociologists do not always write with clarity, let alone with grace. A friend of mine studying sociology once showed me some of the writing of the late Talcott Parsons, a longtime professor at Harvard, and I thought that anyone who waded through its obscurities deserved a degree for effort and determination alone, though not for wisdom and judgment.

Paul Hollander is not one of those sociologists who disdains to make his meaning clear to the average man, or at least to the average educated man. Though English was not his mother tongue, he writes with force, clarity, and even elegance. More important still, he does not treat human beings as if they were iron filings in a magnetic field. He knows that the search for meaning is one of man’s most salient characteristics, and he is capable of taking a comparatively small phenomenon and extracting the deeper significance from it.

Hollander is preeminently what one might call a sociologist of ideology, or perhaps a psychosociologist of ideology, because the history of individual intellectuals, of which he has accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge, interests him as much as that of groups. He is best known for his now-classic book Political Pilgrims, which examined the phenomenon of twentieth-century Western intellectuals who allowed themselves to be seduced and duped by radical revolutionary regimes of the most patent despotism and brutality. How and why did so many intelligent, cultivated, and educated people come to believe such obvious nonsense? Pilgrims was a tragicomic study of how the cherished ideas of the self-important can so easily overwhelm their common sense, and how education can serve to blind as well as to enlighten.

His most recent book, a collection of mainly short pieces, takes its title from Hollander’s acute observations of anti-Americanism, both foreign and domestic. America, he notes in The Only Superpower, is seen as the most modern of all countries, in the vanguard of almost everything, so all the discontents and disappointments of modernity—which are many, serious, and often contradictory—are laid at its door. For Hollander, anti-Americanism is a form of inverted utopianism: if it weren’t for America, mankind would be living in a latter-day Garden of Eden.

Other essays offer insight into the life of our societies. Hollander can find social significance in the apparently trivial detail, like the phrase uttered by all of his retired friends and colleagues: “Busier than ever.” (I have used it myself, often, since I retired from hospital practice.) Why should the elderly in our society be busier than ever rather than, say, contemplative, as they are in other societies? Secularization has led to the general belief that human life has no transcendent meaning beyond itself; it is necessary, therefore, to pack as much into it as possible, to prolong it as long as possible, and to ward off disturbing thoughts of dissolution. Ceaseless activity will accomplish these things. The hyperactivity of American retirees suggests that religious belief is much less rooted in American life than is commonly believed. Americans, and modern Europeans, have no answer to Dryden’s question:

Hast thou not, yet, propos’d some certain end
To which thy life, thy every act may tend?

Another small phenomenon that Hollander analyzes with wit and compassion is the personal ads in the New York Review of Books. He finds them significant for two reasons. First, they suggest a degree of social isolation: substantial numbers of intelligent and educated people are unable to find partners by the customary routes of work, friendship, community, and so forth. There is an underlying melancholy in this.

Second, the self-descriptions of the people who place the personal ads are revealing of the tastes, worldview, and ideals of a sector of the population that is important well beyond its demographic size. Readers of the Review are, of course, likely to be members of the liberal intelligentsia. Their ads give a powerful impression not so much of hypocrisy as of lack of self-knowledge. The ads’ authors claim to be profoundly individual, yet there is an underlying uniformity and conventionality to everything that they say about themselves. Their desire to escape convention is deeply conventional. Their opinions are democratic, but their tastes are exclusive: Tuscany and good claret mean more to them than beach resorts and the Boston Red Sox. They think of themselves as funny and demand humor in others, but they succeed in conveying only earnestness and the impression of deadening solemnity. (Demanding that someone be funny is a bit like demanding that he be natural for the camera.) Contented with, and even complacent about, their position in the world, they somehow see themselves as enemies of the status quo. They are ideologically egalitarian, but psychologically elitist: Lord, make everyone equal, but not just yet.

With their memories of the sixties, when to be young was very heaven, they still believe that an oppositional stance in pursuit of perfection is virtuous in itself—indeed, is the prime or sole content of virtue. And it is this belief that renders them interesting to Hollander, for it makes genuine moral reflection about the nature of various governments and policies impossible. It transforms merely personal discontents into matters of supposedly great general importance.

Near the end of the book, Hollander provides an understated account of his own intellectual development. Born in 1932 a bourgeois, assimilated Jew in Hungary, he escaped death toward the end of World War II by successfully posing as a Gentile. The Communist regime installed in Hungary after the war was less life-threatening than the Nazi occupiers had been, but still horribly despotic, economically disastrous, and suspicious of his family because of its bourgeois past. Having witnessed slaughter in the streets in the 1940s, he saw it again in 1956, the year he managed to escape to the West.

These experiences were surely enough to make anyone distrust totalizing ideologies of whatever stripe; but studying in England, Hollander also came under the influence of Isaiah Berlin, who taught that human desires and desiderata are permanently in conflict with one another. (Hollander’s piece on travel in this volume illustrates how educated, prosperous, but slightly dissatisfied Westerners roam the world in search of self-contradictory gratifications; I blushed to see myself portrayed in this way.)

His background makes clear why Hollander has always been interested in evil, and why he sees the avoidance of evil as politically even more important than the quest for the good. Man is permanently dissatisfied with his lot because he wants contradictory things simultaneously: excitement and security, anonymity and community, routine and variety, and so on. No political arrangements will ever satisfy him entirely; this does not mean that hell on earth is unavoidable, though it has been often enough produced by those who believe they can reconcile the irreconcilable by means of absolute power.

It is a pleasure to read a sociologist who can distinguish so clearly and with wit the less than perfect from the evil; who understands the benefits of environmental conservation without turning such conservation into a quasi-totalitarian ideology; who can see the frivolity, vulgarity, and worthlessness of industrially produced popular culture while appreciating just how quickly dislike of such culture can mutate into contempt for the people who consume it; who, in short, keeps the limits of human possibilities constantly before him. Paul Hollander’s work is an example of the dialectic between lived experience and abstract reflection, of which all work in the humanities should—but alas, seldom does—partake.


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