Politics As A Substitute For Life
"Politics you consider regressive" …? Savor the implications of that phrase for a moment. Zweig expects, and perhaps rightly, for the current generation to be so alienated from books written only twenty or forty years ago as to require a caution to make allowances.
The alienation has entirely to do with politics. The politics have become central to life, affecting everything, so that even a book written for light entertainment comes under political scrutiny for political messages. Zweig does not caution, for example, readers of THE THREE MUSKETEERS or KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE to hold in check their disagreement with the political and religious system of the Catholic Monarchy. No such warning is needed. Readers can enjoy the adventures of D'Artagnan or Lancelot without suffering a choking wrath and disdain at the political systems governing their kingdoms. "Politics" in that sense of the word—the art of government—is not meant. "Politics" here refers to an all-embracing system of opinion and belief.
Note the use of the word "regressive." Charming word. Notice what it implies.
Zweig does not caution readers to tolerate books whose politics the reader might hold as the opinion of honorable and loyal opposition. The idea that one could disagree with another political party, and still hold it to be a worthy and honorable party, is forgotten in modern thought. The operative word here, "regressive", is one that the conservative would not use. The word means that the political opposition comes from an earlier, more primitive (and hence inferior) stage of the evolution and progressive enlightenment of man. As men stand to apes, so (in the mind of the Progressive) the Party stands to the old regime.
Zweig's caution is repeated on another page: "The mores and prejudices of the writers will rarely match our own. Their books may strike today's readers as racist or sexist or intolerant or naive. Fair enough: Ours could as easily strike them as godless or obscene or pornographic or naive -- and I'd love to know what faults people half a century from now will find in our favorite works..."
Note, again, there is no mention of the art of governing. "Politics" these days is taken to include a set of attitudes and beliefs about relations between the races, between the sexes, the moral stance of toleration and related (progressive) beliefs.
In additional to being central, politics is also more divisive than before. Previously, a book was written in for an audience that could be fairly assumed to agree with the author on a number of basic, unquestioned, assumptions and values. At that time in America, the two political parties agreed on the basics: both were patriotic and religious, honoring God and Country. The disagreements, with few exceptions, were about means to achieve agreed-upon ends: the preservation of the civilization of the West, the American Way of life.
The disagreements these days not as deep as before the Civil War, but they are deeper than postwar America. The disagreement now centers around whether morals are objective or subjective, whether the West merits preservation or destruction. There can be no rational debate and no compromise where disagreement runs so deep: small wonder our political debates these days are little more than name-calling shouting-matches. The common ground needed for a civilized debate of issues is absent.
I am not disagreeing with Zweig, by the by. I am merely horrified that politics has taken all the all-embracing aspect of a religion and a culture, and that two cultures, mutually incompatible, now exist in America.
When the children can no longer understand the thoughts of their neighbors, or read the books their fathers wrote, something barbaric has happened.