What Does America Mean?

by Alexander Meiklejohn
[Norton, $3.00]
THIS is a book written at white heat and with an earnestness and sincerity that are disarming, even when the reviewer cannot always accept some of the author’s postulates or deductions. The theme is the nature and workings of that passion for liberty which Dr. Meiklejohn holds to be the essence of Americanism.
He pleads most eloquently for the restoration of earlier ideals: for the recovery of ‘Spirit,’ without which man is nothing. ‘The Spirit of Man has direction. To have the sense of that direction is to be a man.’ And again, ‘A man is a man in so far as he is aware of life, sensitive to the qualities it offers for his experience.’ Discriminating clearly between the two kinds of liberty, he is driven to the conclusion that ‘our external independence has been won. But the making of our spiritual freedom still lies before us. As we face that future task, it is a curiously bitter and tragic fact that, perhaps more than any other single influence, it is our misunderstanding of liberty which threatens to enslave us.’
It is Dr. Meiklejohn s intent to lift the whole question of liberty, ‘Americanism,’ and life itself to a higher level than that to which, of late, we have been accustomed, and he succeeds to admiration. ‘ Excellence, not happiness’ is the object of living: freedom cannot be severed from duty, and in the end we come ‘face to face with the most puzzling and important issue with which we must deal as we attempt to understand ourselves. It is the problem of making human institutions serve human purposes.’
In his study of the problem of liberty, the author strikes out many new and fruitful ideas. One is the fact that the ‘frontier’ type of mind and quality of action that so characterized and determined the nature of the Colonies and the early Republic did not cease with the ‘winning of the West.’ The new science and technology and industrialism are. in fact, frontier adventures and marked by the qualities of the old, but ‘the essential tragedy of the rough and ready pioneer is that he is forever getting ready to live, but never lives. His blunder lies in thinking that getting ready to live is living.’
When he comes to the question, ‘ What shall we do?’ he does not hesitate at somewhat startling propositions that are bound to elicit a measure of sympathy. He would recast education, foot and branch. ‘Nothing is more clear than that, taken as a whole, the present attempt of our schools and colleges to establish our young people in the ways of sensitiveness and intelligence is a ludicrous failure.’ He would establish freedom of the press by emancipating newspapers from their bondage to advertisers and a moronic reading public, and he would do the same for radio, the theatre, and the movies. In economies he would find some substitute for money capitalism, for he has, like so many others, found out that men on wage, the proletariat, are not free and cannot become so unless they own (and live from?) their land. ‘Men as workers and consumers have not had a fair chance against men as owners and profitmakers.’ Finally he would abolish class warfare, which is the worst possible device for accomplishing liberty and justice. Here Dr. Meiklejohn’s programme is not very clearly detailed. How could it be? The question is Cosmic, even astronomical in its dimensions. This does not much matter, for as a whole this is a very illuminating and stimulating book.