To the Editor:
In an inevitable reevaluation of the 1950’s [“In Defense of the 50’s,” September], John Mander states: “It was the happiest, most stable, most rational period the Western world has known since 1914.” Mr. Mander is writing as a white, prosperous, moderately Left Englishman. But the 50’s was the decade of Little Rock and the acquittal of Emmett Tills murderers; of poverty, before Michael Harrington roused the conscience of America; of “Communist” witch hunts. For the non-white, the poor or underprivileged, the radicals, or those stalked as radicals, it was not happy; stability meant stagnation, and the demagoguery of McCarthy was irrational.
Indeed, Mr. Mander’s whole article is an attempt to cling to the spar of Western, over-thirty happiness and stability. Talking about colonial wars, Mr. Mander says: “In each case a compromise was eventually struck: unsatisfactory to the Dutch and the French, rather more satisfactory to the British.” But were the compromises satisfactory to the people fighting for their freedom? Should there even be a compromise between liberation and colonialism?
John Mander accuses Fanon, and by implication the under-thirties, of glorification of violence. But is the man who is fighting for his freedom more violent than the man who is suppressing him? (I am sure that Mr. Mander would not say that the Hungarians in 1956 were more violent than the Russians.) Are the draft resisters and pacifists more violent than those who stockpile herbicides, gases, bombs, and missiles?
Despite his disclaimer, “I do not think we were smug,” Mr. Mander seems to think that he and his generation have a special fief on truth and perspective: “. . . the true history of the 50’s is now as distant to today’s under-thirties as was the long summer afternoon of the Edwardian peace to those of us who grew up in the 50’s”; “. . . a difference between the generations of ’49 and ’69 that is fundamental: I mean the presence, and the lack, of a sense of historical perspective.” But truth and perspective are not the same for everyone. History for many young people is not just European history, but includes the perspective of the wretched of the earth and the invisible men, for whom Mr. Mander’s article is largely irrelevant. In 1969 there is a new way of looking at the world, the whole world, not just Europe. . . .
Mr. Mander’s own sense of history is conveniently selective: “Governing men of another color (or your own) against their will is not to be advised: liberating those governed unwillingly liberates their governors as well. These simple, almost banal truths are to be found in the philosophes, in Jefferson. . . .” On page 27 of the same issue of COMMENTARY, Theodore Draper quotes Jefferson: “The blacks . . . are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” Mr. Draper adds: “Jefferson freed only a few of his over a hundred slaves because he felt that his financial obligations took precedence.” A rational, stable, and—for Jefferson—a happy decision, but for the slaves?
Anthea Mander Lahr
New York City
Mr. Mander writes:
Mrs. Anthea Mander Lahr makes many good points at my expense—though some of them were hinted at, I think, in the original article, “In Defense of the 50’s.” On some points we disagree; on others I think we are more in agreement than she would allow. In particular, our concern with the Third World (a term still unknown in 1950) has far more in common, I am convinced, than she makes it appear. I, too, am an anti-colonialist; and I still think Britain’s postwar record in the liberation of colonial peoples good, though, again, not as good as some British apologists like to imagine.
But there is more to it than that, I fear: there is the troubling phenomenon—urgently in need of demythologization—of the “generation gap.” Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien has written (in the Listener) that “The spiritual children of Ismene are more numerous than those of Antigone . . . and their arguments are, as always, reasonable. . . . But Antigone will not heed such calculations: she is an ethical and religious force, an uncompromising element in our being, as dangerous in her way as Creon, whom she perpetually challenges and provokes.”
Mrs. Anthea Mander Lahr is plainly an Antigone; and I think she would like to force me into the role of a Creon. If she will allow me—Dr. O’Brien sees these three as basic human archetypes—I would prefer to settle just now for the role of Ismene, who “resisted Creon’s order, but did not flout it.” As if to prove the endurance of the myth, Mr. Donald Davie has recently argued, taking up Dr. O’Brien’s suggestion (I quote again, this time from a recent Encounter), that the trouble with Britain (and Mrs. Lahr and I are both British and, let’s face it, white and—by Third World standards—highly prosperous) is that Britain’s Creons since 1940 have lost their nerve, that the Ismenes have opted out, and that the British intelligentsia “are all Antigones really. Creon’s is such a thankless role in modern Britain that there is no one left to play it with conviction.” One does not have to go along with all of this (it smells too authoritarian to me) to see that Mr. Davie has a point: Sophocles’ Antigone would not be a play without Antigone, but nor would it be a play without Creon—or, indeed, poor, forgotten Ismene.
Still, I have one strong reason for being glad that Mrs. Anthea Mander Lahr has turned out to be so determined an Antigone—that Antigone who, the reader will remember, performed the funeral rites for her brother against Creon’s will. As the reader may have gathered, she happens to be my sister. That gives me hope.