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Watching Our End: A Conversation With William Pfaff



Is there any great cause today that can be said to unite the American people? While we were in Paris a couple of weeks ago, we thought of two: the control of drugs and the defeat of AIDS. But neither cause finds the people altogether trusting of government or confident that our country is doing the best it can. There's a hope that other countries will help pull our chestnuts out of the fire. Maybe Peru and Colombia will cut off the drug supply; maybe the Pasteur Institute can come up with something.

There may be another cause, even if it isn't lodged firmly yet in popular language. This would be America's need for a fresh sense of national purpose. As was said about Britain after World War II, it's a need to find a role. While George Bush prattled on about flag burning, the French press was full of news from Madrid about the steps being taken to bring 12 Western European nations into economic union by 1992. Today it is Europe that acts under the spell of destiny. In Europe, these are serious times.

Or so we observed. Our observations were colored to no small degree by the book we took along, Barbarian Sentiments: How the American Century Ends, by William Pfaff, an American journalist who has lived in Paris since 1971. Pfaff contributes frequently to the New Yorker, and he writes a column for the International Herald Tribune that is syndicated to several American papers, including the Chicago Tribune.

We've long admired Pfaff as a gracefully meditative writer with a keen sense of the importance of moral authority in history. He declares in Barbarian Sentiments: "For four hundred years European civilization has dominated the world--for better or for worse. It is convenient, and flattering, for Americans to assume that this is all over; but it is very rash to do so. . . . So long as intellectual and moral energy radiates from Europe, its preeminence is not over; and the evidence today is that Europe's dynamism, far from lost, is in fact intensifying."

And what of America? "The American Idea, of unlimited possibility and the transformation of humanity," writes Pfaff, has become increasingly impossible to sustain. "In successive elections in the late 1970s and the 1980s, Americans elected or reelected Presidents whose principal, even sole, qualification for that office was their ability to make Americans feel better about themselves and about their country."

When we called on Pfaff in Paris we asked him if he thought America has lost touch with itself.

"Well, I think the United States has no doubt about who it is, as a nation, vis-a-vis the outside world," Pfaff replied, "even if we're not sure of our relation to that outside world, whether we ought to cut ourselves off from it or whether we're supposed to remake everybody else.

"I think, though, that the United States as a civilization itself is very much in doubt. When I was growing up, there was no doubt about what the United States was then. The United States was a white Protestant country, and if you happened to be a Catholic as I was, or a Jew or a black or whatever, you were left in no doubt there was something defective about you and you needed to conform." (Pfaff, who's 61 and describes himself as a product of wartime Georgia, graduated from Notre Dame and was himself a member of Army special forces during the Korean war before entering journalism.)

Now, he said, confusion reigns over such elemental matters as what books to teach in college. Education has collapsed, the dilemma of the underclass confounds society, and the government has talked itself into the ridiculous position that the wrong way to tackle any of the nation's ills is to spend money on them.

"Pat Moynihan came in a couple of weeks ago, and we had dinner," said Pfaff, "and he was saying that the one taboo thing in Washington is to suggest anything that involves raising taxes." Moynihan wondered rhetorically why Europe has been so much more successful dealing with housing, transportation, medical insurance, and such matters. "They spend money," he told Pfaff. "But that's what is unacceptable in Washington. You can't spend money."

As measured by Pfaff against France, the United States comes up short in fundamental ways. In France, he said, the "political class" emerges from a brutal but "highly meritocratic" system of grandes ecoles that produces leadership that "knows what it's talking about, and deals with issues at a sophisticated level." On French TV, he said, serious issues are seriously discussed; politicians "speak not only in sentences, they speak in paragraphs."

Pfaff said, "When you see all of these issues being dealt with in the United States at the slogan level--you know, you despair." He recalled a conference set up to introduce leaders of Ronald Reagan's new administration to "the European crowd--the intellectuals, journalists, politicians, what have you.

"And I was there. And after the first day or two, everyone on the European side--they were rolling their eyes. It was not a disagreement on what to do. It was that these people from the United States didn't know what the problems were! They were living in a conceptual universe so sloganized and so remote from real possibility--you know, from the density and complexity of the real issues. I mean, they were giving people lectures about, 'Don't you understand? The Russians are bad!'"

Was this stupidity? we asked him. Was it intellectual immaturity?

"I don't think it's either. I think it is ignorance, a certain canonization of ignorance in American society. I think it's a breakdown of schools. The people are not really seriously taught. It's certainly a consequence of the trivialization of issues by television, and the press, which has deteriorated very seriously. But it sort of disqualifies us from grown-up discussion."

We asked Pfaff about America's retreat to the margins of world affairs.

"When you go into Eastern Europe they don't ask 'What does America think?'" he said. "They ask 'What do the Germans think?' The United States is now--irrelevant. The United States is big and can make a difference if it throws its weight around, so everybody is a little wary of what the United States might do. But as for solving their problems or getting on with the important things, they've got to humor the United States and get on with it themselves."

It doesn't strike Pfaff as a particularly bad thing that America's "abnormally large role" in the postwar world should have dwindled down to size. "My objection would be not that we're not ruling the world anymore, but we're not playing the hand we do have very intelligently. . . . We haven't had the resources to recast our role in terms of what our real possibilities are. Instead, you get what I find rather disturbing, we find the American Decline talked about. 'Oh, well, so it's all over for us, but that happened to Britain and Spain and so forth.' It's an alibi! We're not responsible!

"Responsibility is one thing I find very scary about the United States today, and I think it's a big change. I sort of half grew up in the U.S. Army, where they said do this, do that, and if it were impossible you still went through the gestures, and if you screwed up you were handed your head on a platter. And now--you know, the Marines are blown up in Lebanon and President Reagan says I take responsibility and that's the end of it. The United States Navy cannot distinguish a fighter plane from an Iranian airliner and nobody's career is ended, nobody is court-martialed, nobody apologizes. I mean, I was outraged by that. Carol Bellamy, who's a New York liberal Democrat and politician, was here, and I had lunch with her and I said something about this, and she was shocked that I would say that. You know, it was a normal mistake and you can't blame people. Now I find that really corrupt, that nobody seems to be held to responsibility. I mean, they're held responsible for moral issues--currently that's a great preoccupation of the press and all, fiscally and morally. But nobody seems to be held professionally responsible. Duty doesn't seem to mean anything.

"I think of somebody like George Marshall--who's the equivalent of a George Marshall today?--who was offered a million dollars in 1950 for his memoirs and refused, saying one does not profit from public service."

Thanks to Watergate and thanks to Ronald Reagan, we observed, public service became unseemly.

"That is true," said Pfaff, "except for the ideological crowd. The George Marshall of the present day is the Oliver North. Who, whatever one thinks of his politics, also just doesn't have the brainpower . . .

"The idealism is not gone," Pfaff reflected, "but it seems to exist only among the frustrated. There are all kinds of people who are terribly idealistic . . . but there doesn't seem to be a political class--and I'm not talking about an inherited class because this was a meritocratic class too, it sort of came from all over America, out of the universities and so forth.

"When I came out of Notre Dame, it was at a period when America was straightforwardly confronting totalitarianism, and our older brothers had won the war but we had this great challenge. And so people weren't talking about, am I going to get a good job? They were talking about, should I go into the State Department? or the CIA? or should I go into politics?

"And that, you see, exists here now. My children's friends very much have a sense of 'We're at a great moment in European development, and it's up to us to meet the challenge and create Europe, and it's all very exciting.' Sure, they expect to have good careers while they're doing it, but there's a sense of corporate and collective responsibility which it is their generation's obligation to meet.

"And the children of friends of ours who come over, college age, same kids and same backgrounds and so on--this doesn't exist with the kids who are coming over from America."

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