In the preface (dated 1907) to the first German edition of The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw issued a warning about trends that he saw in German character and culture. What struck me upon reading them was not just their insight into the Second Reich (1871-1918) and their prescience about the Third Reich to come (1933-45), but their insight into certain aspects of American character and culture today.
The worst fault of the “typical modern German,” Shaw wrote in 1907, “is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Being convinced that duty, industry, education, loyalty, patriotism and respectability are good things (and I am magnanimous enough to admit that they are not altogether bad things when taken in strict moderation at the right time and in the right place), he indulges in them on all occasions shamelessly and excessively. He commits hideous crimes when crime is presented to him as part of his duty; his craze for work is more ruinous than the craze for drink …”
Yes, a craze for doing one’s duty in the name of a state-defined and state-glorifying patriotism can be taken too far, as events were to show. Shaw went on to say that he struggled himself with the “mania” of wanting to be seen as “loyal and patriotic, to be respectable and well-spoken of.” But the typical German abandoned himself to this mania, or so Shaw argued.
The result, Shaw warned, “may end in starvation, crushing taxation, suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions, in snobbery, jobbery, idolatry, and an omnipresent tyranny in which his doctor and his schoolmaster, his lawyer and his priest, coerce him worse than any official or drill sergeant: no matter: it is respectable, says the German, therefore it must be good, and cannot be carried too far; and everybody who rebels against it must be a rascal.”
That is a remarkable line: the suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions. It’s exactly how the Nazis couched their radical and murderous tyranny – as an experiment in greater freedom (for the Aryan elite, naturally, not for “inferiors”). And most “respectable” Germans went along with this; they saluted the Leader smartly and obeyed. Or they dared not outwardly to disobey, which had the same effect.
It’s easy to slough off Shaw’s words as a period piece, words that applied to certain Germans at a certain point in history. But there’s more here than that. Shaw is warning us that unthinking allegiance to state-defined duty, loyalty, patriotism, all in the name of “respectability” as defined and judged by supposedly sober superiors, is open to exploitation as well as perversion by authoritarian interests.
Subsequent German history proved Shaw to be right. Tragically so.
But what about the typical modern American? Are we immune from this exaltation of the self in the service of state interests? An exaltation that takes its meaning from toil and conformity? Are we as unwilling as most Germans were to challenge authority before it becomes corrupt and authoritarian?
Consider these words of Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tomdispatch.com about the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. and around the world, as our government hunts the dissident Edward Snowden:
“It’s eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows. There, an increasingly ‘totalistic’ if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.”
Yes, the echoes are eerie. Part of the answer is to listen to Shaw. Better to act as a “rascal” in pursuit of a more equitable and ethical society than to crave respectability as defined by the state. The rascal challenges state authority. The dutiful man? As Shaw argues, the latter may commit hideous crimes simply because some authority figure told him to do so.
In these days of increasing governmental authority and state intrusion into individual privacy, it may well be wise for us to tap our inner rascals.