Possibly the Greatest Political Speech in U.S. History


I’m sort of a fan of political speeches. This despite the fact that I agree with H.L. Mencken that politicians are sociopaths by definition. They must lie to at least half the people half the time and be really good at it. Mencken thought politicians lied all the time, because they said they wished to serve the public when obviously they were just in the racket for themselves.

Many politicians become so good at dissemblance, diversion and subterfuge, they enjoy it, or at least they seem to. I do not envy them. Politics is a profession built on fooling large mammals. And like our goofy, domesticated cousins, dogs, we are pitifully disposed to believe our masters.

One day I might take time, then, to praise that rarest thing in political letters, a great speech made by a politician who is actually in power. Occasionally one of our leaders steps up to tell us attractive, unalloyed truths, but most of the time, the politician’s need to appease two opposing constituencies forces him to intermix falsehoods with facts.

Speeches made in opposition, though, tend almost by definition to be the best. They need only appeal to one constituency, usually made up of the better angels of our nature. Opposition speeches can soar freely.

Last week I came across such a speech by Frederick Douglass. It is an opposition speech. In it, Douglass is battling the proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that sought to ban Chinese immigrants from attaining citizenship.

In the campaign for the act, America’s power elite openly proclaimed that American democracy was exclusively for whites. Douglass’s speech against this idea was miraculous in its force, clarity, and, most importantly, charity. Douglass argued that an open,  generous version of our country was gestating even inside the the narrow, bigoted vision of whites-only democracy still alive in Reconstruction America. The good country we had planned on paper was still waiting to be achieved, as James Baldwin would put it 100 years after Douglass.

Douglass lost the argument at the time; the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882. But he was clearly right in the longer term. His speech outlines exactly the pluralistic model of citizenship we would eventually enshrine in our laws and constitution. (A perfect pluralism is, of course, still waiting to be achieved, a story that needs its own telling.)


After three thorough readings, I came to believe that Douglass’s speech might be the best one in the history of our nation.

Let me begin by caveating that I dislike the term nation. It is too abstract and usually too grand. Country is more concrete and usually humbler. I realize the two terms refer to different things, but I think even on occasions where nation is semantically apt, country strikes the better tone. (I think Baldwin consciously chose it over nation.) It reminds us that we are a first and foremost collection of physical bodies on a real patch of ground. Anything more abstract we would wish to say about our collective self would require that some serious critical thought first pass through our meaty brains.

With that in mind, the thing that overwhelmed me about Douglass’s speech is how marvelously it captured the present-day conception of what our nation is. Yes, nation.  Douglass is so spot on about pluralism and the power of diversity that it’s easy to read through his speech and assume that he was laying down the principles that were to solidify into convention and take their present form. But, as I mentioned, this was not the case. Douglass lost the argument at the time of his speech. The Chinese were banned, Jim Crow flourished, and, in a sign of ruddy good health, the Ku Klux Klan held thousands of picnics, baseball games, and beauty contests across the country as late as the 1920s.

How far we’ve come, I hope.

Rather than singing any particular praise of Douglass’s speech, I think it would be better to post it in full and let you form your own reactions. It is without doubt a high water mark in American letters, even if you disagree with me that it is among the best. If you’re short on time, skip to the peroration in the last paragraph. It is a rare jewel of political speech, which all our children should be led to memorize and meditate on.

As nations are among the largest and the most complete divisions into which society is formed, the grandest aggregations of organized human power; as they raise to observation and distinction the world’s greatest men, and call into requisition the highest order of talent and ability for their guidance, preservation and success, they are ever among the most attractive, instructive and useful subjects of thought, to those just entering upon the duties and activities of life.

The simple organization of a people into a National body, composite or otherwise, is of itself and impressive fact. As an original proceeding, it marks the point of departure of a people, from the darkness and chaos of unbridled barbarism, to the wholesome restraints of public law and society. It implies a willing surrender and subjection of individual aims and ends, often narrow and selfish, to the broader and better ones that arise out of society as a whole. It is both a sign and a result of civilization.

A knowledge of the character, resources and proceedings of other nations, affords us the means of comparison and criticism, without which progress would be feeble, tardy, and perhaps, impossible. It is by comparing one nation with another, and one learning from another, each competing with all, and all competing with each, that hurtful errors are exposed, great social truths discovered, and the wheels of civilization whirled onward.

I am especially to speak to you of the character and mission of the United States, with special reference to the question whether we are the better or the worse for being composed of different races of men. I propose to consider first, what we are, second, what we are likely to be, and, thirdly, what we ought to be.

Without undue vanity or unjust depreciation of others, we may claim to be, in many respects, the most fortunate of nations. We stand in relation to all others, as youth to age. Other nations have had their day of greatness and glory; we are yet to have our day, and that day is coming. The dawn is already upon us. It is bright and full of promise. Other nations have reached their culminating point. We are at the beginning of our ascent. They have apparently exhausted the conditions essential to their further growth and extension, while we are abundant in all the material essential to further national growth and greatness.

The resources of European statesmanship are now sorely taxed to maintain their nationalities at their ancient height of greatness and power.

American statesmanship, worthy of the name, is now taxing its energies to frame measures to meet the demands of constantly increasing expansion of power, responsibility and duty.

Without fault or merit on either side, theirs or ours, the balance is largely in our favor. Like the grand old forests, renewed and enriched from decaying trunks once full of life and beauty, but now moss-covered, oozy and crumbling, we are destined to grow and flourish while they decline and fade.

This is one view of American position and destiny. It is proper to notice that it is not the only view. Different opinions and conflicting judgments meet us here, as elsewhere.

It is thought by many, and said by some, that this Republic has already seen its best days; that the historian may now write the story of its decline and fall.

Two classes of men are just now especially afflicted with such forebodings. The first are those who are croakers by nature—the men who have a taste for funerals, and especially National funerals. They never see the bright side of anything and probably never will. Like the raven in the lines of Edgar A. Poe they have learned two words, and these are “never more.” They usually begin by telling us what we never shall see. Their little speeches are about as follows: You will never see such Statesmen in the councils of the nation as Clay, Calhoun and Webster. You will never see the South morally reconstructed and our once happy people again united. You will never see the Government harmonious and successful while in the hands of different races. You will never make the negro work without a master, or make him an intelligent voter, or a good and useful citizen. The last never is generally the parent of all the other little nevers that follow.

During the late contest for the Union, the air was full of nevers, every one of which was contradicted and put to shame by the result, and I doubt not that most of those we now hear in our troubled air, will meet the same fate.

It is probably well for us that some of our gloomy prophets are limited in their powers, to prediction. Could they command the destructive bolt, as readily as they command the destructive world, it is hard to say what might happen to the country. They might fulfill their own gloomy prophesies. Of course it is easy to see why certain other classes on men speak hopelessly concerning us.

A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming higher authority for existence, or sanction for its laws, that nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.

To those who doubt and deny the preponderance of good over evil in human nature; who think the few are made to rule, and many to serve; who put rank above brotherhood, and race above humanity; who attach more importance to ancient forms than to the living realities of the present; who worship power in whatever hands it may be lodged and by whatever means it may have been obtained; our Government is a mountain of sin, and, what is worse, its sin seems confirmed in its transgressions.

One of the latest and most potent European prophets, one who has felt himself called upon for a special deliverance concerning us and our destiny as a nation, was the late Thomas Carlyle. He described us as rushing to ruin, not only with determined purpose, but with desperate velocity.

How long we have been on this high road to ruin, and when we may expect to reach the terrible end our gloomy prophet, enveloped in the fogs of London, has not been pleased to tell us.

Warnings and advice are not to be despised, from any quarter, and especially not from one so eminent as Mr. Carlyle; and yet Americans will find it hard to heed even men like him, if there be any in the world like him, while the animus is so apparent, bitter and perverse.

A man to whom despotism is Savior and Liberty the destroyer of society,—who, during the last twenty years of his life, in every contest between liberty and oppression, uniformly and promptly took sides with the oppressor; who regarded every extension of the right of suffrage, even to white men in his own country, as shooting Niagara; who gloats over deeds of cruelty, and talked of applying to the backs of men the beneficent whip, to the great delight of many, the slave drivers of America in particular, could have little sympathy with our Emancipated and progressive Republic, or with the triumphs of liberty anywhere.

But the American people can easily stand the utterances of such a man. They however have a right to be impatient and indignant at those among ourselves who turn the most hopeful portents into omens of disaster, and make themselves the ministers of despair when they should be those of hope, and help cheer on the country in the new and grand career of justice upon which it has now so nobly and bravely entered. Of errors and defects we certainly have not less than our full share, enough to keep the reformer awake, the statesman busy, and the country in a pretty lively state of agitation for some time to come. Perfection is an object to be aimed at by all, but it is not an attribute of any form of Government. Neutrality is the law for all. Something different, something better, or something worse may come, but so far as respects our present system and form of Government, and the altitude we occupy, we need not shrink from comparison with any nation of our times. We are today the best fed, the best clothed, the best sheltered and the best instructed people in t he world.

There was a time when even brave men might look fearfully at the destiny of the Republic. When our country was involved in a tangled network of contradictions; when vast and irreconcilable social forces fiercely disputed for ascendancy and control; when a heavy curse rested upon our very soil, defying alike the wisdom and the virtue of the people to remove it; when our professions were loudly mocked by our practice and our name was a reproach and a by word to a mocking earth; when our good ship of state, freighted with the best hopes of the oppressed of all nations, was furiously hurled against the hard and flinty rocks of derision, and every cord, bolt, beam and bend in her body quivered beneath the shock, there was some apology for doubt and despair. But that day has happily passed away. The storm has been weathered, and portents are nearly all in our favor.

There are clouds, wind, smoke and dust and noise, over head and around, and there always will be; but no genuine thunder, with destructive bolt, menaces from any quarter of the sky.

The real trouble with us was never our system or form of Government, or the principles underlying it; but the peculiar composition of our people, the relations existing between them and the compromising spirit which controlled the ruling power of the country.

We have for along time hesitated to adopt and may yet refuse to adopt, and carry out, the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the Republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality.

We are a country of all extremes—, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world. Our people defy all the ethnological and logical classifications. In races we range all the way from black to white, with intermediate shades which, as in the apocalyptic vision, no man can name a number.

In regard to creeds and faiths, the condition is no better, and no worse. Differences both as to race and to religion are evidently more likely to increase than to diminish.

We stand between the populous shores of two great oceans. Our land is capable of supporting one fifth of all the globe. Here, labor is abundant and here labor is better remunerated than any where else. All moral, social and geographical causes, conspire to bring to us the peoples of all other over populated countries.

Europe and Africa are already here, and the Indian was here before either. He stands today between the two extremes of black and white, too proud to claim fraternity with either, and yet too weak to withstand the power of either. Heretofore the policy of our government has been governed by race pride, rather than by wisdom. Until recently, neither the Indian nor the negro has been treated as a part of the body politic. No attempt has been made to inspire either with a sentiment of patriotism, but the hearts of both races have been diligently sown with the dangerous seeds of discontent and hatred.

The policy of keeping the Indians to themselves, has kept the tomahawk and scalping knife busy upon our borders, and has cost us largely in blood and treasure. Our treatment of the negro has slacked humanity, and filled the country with agitation and ill-feeling and brought the nation to the verge of ruin.

Before the relations of these two races are satisfactorily settled, and in spite of all opposition, a new race is making its appearance within our borders, and claiming attention. It is estimated that not less than one hundred thousand Chinamen, are now within the limits of the United States. Several years ago every vessel, large or small, of steam or sail, bound to our Pacific coast and hailing from the Flowery kingdom, added to the number and strength of this new element of our population.

Men differ widely as to the magnitude of this potential Chinese immigration. The fact that by the late treaty with China, we bind ourselves to receive immigrants from that country only as the subjects of the Emperor, and by the construction, at least, are bound not to [naturalize] them, and the further fact that Chinamen themselves have a superstitious devotion to their country and an aversion to permanent location in any other, contracting even to have their bones carried back, should they die abroad, and from the fact that many have returned to China, and the still more stubborn [fact] that resistance to their coming has increased rather than diminished, it is inferred that we shall never have a large Chinese population in America. This however is not my opinion.

It may be admitted that these reasons, and others, may check and moderate the tide of immigration; but it is absurd to think that they will do more than this. Counting their number now, by the thousands, the time is not remote when they will count them by the millions. The Emperor’s hold upon the Chinamen may be strong, but the Chinaman’s hold upon himself is stronger.

Treaties against naturalization, like all other treaties, are limited by circumstances. As to the superstitious attachment of the Chinese to China, that, like all other superstitions, will dissolve in the light and heat of truth and experience. The Chinaman may be a bigot, but it does not follow that he will continue to be one, tomorrow. He is a man, and will be very likely to act like a man. He will not be long in finding out that a country which is good enough to live in, is good enough to die in; and that a soil that was good enough to hold his body while alive, will be good enough to hold his bones when he is dead.

Those who doubt a large immigration, should remember that the past furnishes no criterion as a basis of calculation. We live under new and improved conditions of migration, and these conditions are constantly improving. America is no longer an obscure and inaccessible country. Our ships are in every sea, our commerce in every port, our language is heard all around the globe, steam and lightning have revolutionized the whole domain of human thought. Changed all geographical relations, make a day of the present seem equal to a thousand years of the past, and the continent that Columbus only conjectured four centuries ago is now the centre of the world.

I believe that Chinese immigration on a large scale will yet be our irrepressible fact. The spirit of race pride will not always prevail. The reasons for this opinion are obvious; China is a vastly overcrowded country. Her people press against each other like cattle in a rail car. Many live upon the water, and have laid out streets upon the waves. Men, like bees, want elbow room. When the hive is overcrowded, the bees will swarm, and will be likely to take up their abode where they find the best prospect for honey. In matters of this sort, men are very much like bees. Hunger will not be quietly endured, even in the celestial empire, when it is once generally known that there is bread enough and to spare in America. What Satan said of Job is true of the Chinaman, as well as of other men, “All that a man hath will he give for his life.” They will come here to live where they know the means of living are in abundance.

The same mighty forces which have swept our shores the overflowing populations of Europe; which have reduced the people of Ireland three millions below its normal standard; will operate in a similar manner upon the hungry population of China and other parts of Asia. Home has its charms, and native land has its charms, but hunger, oppression, and destitution, will dissolve these charms and send men in search of new countries and new homes.

Not only is there a Chinese motive behind this probable immigration, but there is also an American motive which will play its part, one which will be all the more active and energetic because there is in it an element of pride, of bitterness, and revenge.

Southern gentlemen who led in the late rebellion, have not parted with their convictions at this point, any more than at others. They want to be independent of the negro. They believed in slavery and they believe in it still. They believed in an aristocratic class and they believe in it still, and though they have lost slavery, one element essential to such a class, they still have two important conditions to the reconstruction of that class. They have intelligence and they have land. Of these, the land is the more important. They cling to it with all the tenacity of a cherished superstition. They will neither sell to the negro, nor let the carpet baggers have it in peace, but are determined to hold it for themselves and their children forever. They have not yet learned that when a principle is gone, the incident must go also; that what was wise and proper under slavery, is foolish and mischievous in a state of general liberty; that the old bottles are worthless when the new wine has come; but they have found that land is a doubtful benefit where there are no hands to it.

Hence these gentlemen have turned their attention to the Celestial Empire. They would rather have laborers who will work for nothing; but as they cannot get the negroes on these terms, they want Chinamen who, they hope, will work for next to nothing.

Companies and associations may be formed to promote this Mongolian invasion. The loss of the negro is to gain them, the Chinese; and if the thing works well, abolition, in their opinion, will have proved itself to be another blessing in disguise. To the statesman it will mean Southern independence. To the pulpit it will be the hand of Providence, and bring about the time of the universal dominion of the Christian religion. To all but the Chinaman and the negro, it will mean wealth, ease and luxury.

But alas, for all the selfish inventions and dreams of men! The Chinaman will not long be willing to wear the cast off shoes of the negro, and if he refuses, there will be trouble again. The negro worked and took his pay in religion and the lash. The Chinaman is a different article and will want the cash. He may, like the negro, accept Christianity, but unlike the negro he will not care to pay for it in labor under the lash. He had the golden rule in substance, five hundred years before the coming of Christ, and has notions of justice that are not to be confused or bewildered by any of our “Cursed be Canaan” religion.

Nevertheless, the experiment will be tried. So far as getting the Chinese into our country is concerned, it will yet be a success. This elephant will be drawn by our Southern brethren, though they will hardly know in the end what to do with him.

Appreciation of the value of Chinamen as laborers will, I apprehend, become general in this country. The North was never indifferent to Southern influence and example, and it will not be so in this instance.

The Chinese in themselves have first rate recommendations. They are industrious, docile, cleanly, frugal; they are dexterous of hand, patient of toil, marvelously gifted in the power of imitation, and have but few wants. Those who have carefully observed their habits in California, say they can subsist upon what would be almost starvation to others.

The conclusion of the whole will be that they will want to come to us, and as we become more liberal, we shall want them to come, and what we want will normally be done.

They will no longer halt upon the shores of California. They will borrow no longer in her exhausted and deserted gold mines where they have gathered wealth from bareness, taking what others left. They will turn their backs not only upon the Celestial Empire, but upon the golden shores of the Pacific, and the wide waste of waters whose majestic waves spoke to them of home and country. They will withdraw their eyes from the glowing west and fix them upon the rising sun. They will cross the mountains, cross the plains, descend our rivers, penetrate to the heart of the country and fix their homes with us forever.

Assuming then that this immigration already has a foothold and will continue for many years to come, we have a new element in our national composition which is likely to exercise a large influence upon the thought and the action of the whole nation.

The old question as to what shall be done with [the] negro will have to give place to the greater question, “what shall be done with the Mongolian” and perhaps we shall see raised one even still greater question, namely, what will the Mongolian do with both the negro and the whites?

Already has the matter taken this shape in California and on the Pacific Coast generally. Already has California assumed a bitterly unfriendly attitude toward the Chinamen. Already has she driven them from her altars of justice. Already has she stamped them as outcasts and handed them over to popular contempt and vulgar jest. Already are they the constant victims of cruel harshness and brutal violence. Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenseless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shilalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.

In all this there is, of course, nothing strange. Repugnance to the presence and influence of foreigners is an ancient feeling among men. It is peculiar to no particularly race or nation. It is met with not only in the conduct of one nation toward another, but in the conduct of the inhabitants of different parts of the same country, some times of the same city, and even of the same village. “Lands intersected by a narrow faith, abhor each other. Mountains interposed, make enemies of nations.” To the Hindoo, every man not twice born, is Mleeka. To the Greek, every man not speaking Greek, is a barbarian. To the Jew, every one not circumcised, is a gentile. To the Mahometan, every man not believing in the prophet, is a kaffer. I need not repeat here the multitude of reproachful epithets expressive of the same sentiment among ourselves. All who are not to the manor born, have been made to feel the lash and sting of these reproachful names.

For this feeling there are many apologies, for there was never yet an error, however flagrant and hurtful, for which some plausible defense could not be framed. Chattel slavery, king craft, priest craft, pious frauds, intolerance, persecution, suicide, assassination, repudiation, and a thousand other errors and crimes, have all had their defenses and apologies.

Prejudice of race and color has been equally upheld. The two best arguments in its defense are, first, the worthlessness of the class against which it was directed; and, second; that he feeling itself is entirely natural.

The way to overcome the first argument is, to work for the elevation of those deemed worthless, and thus make them worthy of regard and they will soon become worthy and not worthless. As to the natural argument it may be said, that nature has many sides. Many things are in a certain sense natural, which are neither wise nor best. It is natural to walk, but shall men therefore refuse to ride? It is natural to ride on horseback, shall men therefore refuse steam and rail? Civilization is itself a constant war upon some forces in nature; shall we therefore abandon civilization and go back to savage life?

Nature has two voices, the one is high, the other low; one is in sweet accord with reason and justice, and the other apparently at war with both. The more men really know of the essential nature of things, and on of the true relation of mankind, the freer they are from prejudices of every kind. The child is afraid of the giant form of his own shadow. This is natural, but he will part with his fears when he is older and wiser. So ignorance is full of prejudice, but it will disappear with enlightenment. But I pass on.

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.

But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?

To all of this and more I have one among many answers, together satisfactory to me, though I cannot promise that it will be so to you.

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole, would become the property only of a part. So much for what is right, now let us see what is wise.

And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.

It has been thoughtfully observed, that every nation, owing to its peculiar character and composition, has a definite mission in the world. What that mission is, and what policy is best adapted to assist in its fulfillment, is the business of its people and its statesmen to know, and knowing, to make a noble use of said knowledge.

I need to stop here to name or describe the missions of other and more ancient nationalities. Ours seems plain and unmistakable. Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government, world embracing in their scope and character, our vast resources, requiring all manner of labor to develop them, and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make us the make perfect national illustration of the unit and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen.

In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds. We are not only bound to this position by our organic structure and by our revolutionary antecedents, but by the genius of our people. Gathered here, from all quarters of the globe by a common aspiration for rational liberty as against caste, divine right Governments and privileged classes, it would be unwise to be found fighting against ourselves and among ourselves; it would be madness to set up any one race above another, or one religion above another, or proscribe any on account of race color or creed.

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons. Contact with these yellow children of The Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice.

It is said that it is not good for man to be alone. This is true not only in the sense in which our woman’s rights friends so zealously and wisely teach, but it is true as to nations.

The voice of civilization speaks an unmistakable language against the isolation of families, nations and races, and pleads for composite nationality as essential to her triumphs.

Those races of men which have maintained the most separate and distinct existence for the longest periods of time; which have had the least intercourse with other races of men, are a standing confirmation of the folly of isolation. The very soil of the national mind becomes, in such cases, barren, and can only be resuscitated by assistance from without.

Look at England, whose mighty power is now felt, and for centuries has been felt, all around the world. It is worthy of special remark, that precisely those parts of that proud Island which have received the largest and most diverse populations, are today, the parts most distinguished for industry, enterprise, invention and general enlightenment. In Wales, and in the Highlands of Scotland, the boast is made of their pure blood and that they were never conquered, but no man can contemplate them without wishing they had been conquered.

They are far in the rear of every other part of the English realm in all the comforts and conveniences of life, as well as in mental and physical development. Neither law nor learning descends to us from the mountains of Wales or from the Highlands of Scotland. The ancient Briton whom Julius Caesar would not have a slave, is not to be compared with the round, burly, amplitudinous Englishman in many of the qualities of desirable manhood.

The theory that each race of men has come special faculty, some peculiar gift or quality of mind or heart, needed to the perfection and happiness of the whole is a broad and beneficent theory, and besides its beneficence, has in its support, the voice of experience. Nobody doubts this theory when applied to animals and plants, and no one can show that it is not equally true when applied to races.

All great qualities are never found in any one man or in any one race. The whole of humanity, like the whole of everything else, is ever greater than a part. Men only know themselves by knowing others, and contact is essential to this knowledge. In one race we perceive the predominance of imagination; in another, like Chinese, we remark its total absence. In one people, we have the reasoning faculty, in another, for music; in another, exists courage; in another, great physical vigor; and so on through the whole list of human qualities. All are needed to temper, modify, round and complete.

Not the least among the arguments whose consideration should dispose to welcome among us the peoples of all countries, nationalities and color, is the fact that all races and varieties of men are improvable. This is the grand distinguishing attribute of humanity and separates man from all other animals. If it could be shown that any particular race of men are literally incapable of improvement, we might hesitate to welcome them here. But no such men are anywhere to be found, and if there were, it is not likely that they would ever trouble us with their presence.

The fact that the Chinese and other nations desire to come and do come, is a proof of their capacity for improvement and of their fitness to come.

We should take council of both nature and art in the consideration of this question. When the architect intends a grand structure, he makes the foundation broad and strong. We should imitate this prudence in laying the foundation of the future Republic. There is a law of harmony in departments of nature. The oak is in the acorn. The career and destiny of individual men are enfolded in the elements of which they are composed. The same is true of a nation. It will be something or it will be nothing. It will be great, or it will be small, according to its own essential qualities. As these are rich and varied, or poor and simple, slender and feeble, broad and strong, so will be the life and destiny of the nation itself.

The stream cannot rise higher than its source. The ship cannot sail faster than the wind. The flight of the arrow depends upon the strength and elasticity of the bow; and as with these, so with a nation.

If we would reach a degree of civilization higher and grander than any yet attained, we should welcome to our ample continent all nations, kindred tongues and peoples; and as fast as they learn our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should incorporate them into the American body politic. The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come.

As a matter of selfish policy, leaving right and humanity out of the question, we cannot wisely pursue any other course. Other Governments mainly depend for security upon the sword; our depends mainly upon the friendship of its people. In all matters,—in time of peace, in time of war, and at all times,—it makes its appeal to all the people, and to all classes of the people. Its strength lies in their friendship and cheerful support in every time of need, and that policy is a mad one which would reduce the number of its friends by excluding those who would come, or by alienating those who are already here.

Our Republic is itself a strong argument in favor of composite nationality. It is no disparagement to Americans of English descent, to affirm that much of the wealth, leisure, culture, refinement and civilization of the country are due to the arm of the negro and the muscle of the Irishman. Without these and the wealth created by their sturdy toil, English civilization had still lingered this side of the Alleghanies, and the wolf still be howling on their summits.

To no class of our population are we more indebted to valuable qualities of head, heart and hand than the German. Say what we will of their lager, their smoke and their metaphysics they have brought to us a fresh, vigorous and child-like nature; a boundless facility in the acquisition of knowledge; a subtle and far reaching intellect, and a fearless love of truth. Though remarkable for patient and laborious thought the true German is a joyous child of freedom, fond of manly sports, a lover of music, and a happy man generally. Though he never forgets that he is a German, he never fails to remember that he is an American.

A Frenchman comes here to make money, and that is about all that need be said of him. He is only a Frenchman. He neither learns our language nor loves our country. His hand is on our pocket and his eye on Paris. He gets what he wants and like a sensible Frenchman, returns to France to spend it.

Now let me answer briefly some objections to the general scope of my arguments. I am told that science is against me; that races are not all of one origin, and that the unity theory of human origin has been exploded. I admit that this is a question that has two sides. It is impossible to trace the threads of human history sufficiently near their starting point to know much about the origin of races.

In disposing of this question whether we shall welcome or repel immigration from China, Japan, or elsewhere, we may leave the differences among the theological doctors to be settled by themselves.

Whether man originated at one time and one or another place; whether there was one Adam or five, or five hundred, does not affect the question.

The grand right of migration and the great wisdom of incorporating foreign elements into our body politic, are founded not upon any genealogical or archaeological theory, however learned, but upon the broad fact of a common human nature.

Man is man, the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.

A smile or a tear has not nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.

It is objected to the Chinaman that he is secretive and treacherous, and will not tell the truth when he thinks it for his interest to tell a lie.

There may be truth in all this; it sounds very much like the account of man’s heart given in the creeds. If he will not tell the truth except when it is for his interest to do so, let us make it for this interest to tell the truth We can do it by applying to him the same principle of justice that we apply ourselves.

But I doubt if the Chinese are more untruthful than other people. At this point I have one certain test,—mankind are not held together by lies. Trust is the foundation of society. Where there is no truth, there can be no trust, and where there is no trust there can be no society. Where there is society, there is trust, and where there is trust, there is something upon which it is supported. Now a people who have confided in each other for five thousand years; who have extended their empire in all direction till it embraces on e fifth of the population of the glove; who hold important commercial relations with all nations; who are now entering into treaty stipulations with ourselves, and with all the great European powers, cannot be a nation of cheats and liars, but must have some respect for veracity. The very existence of China for so long a period, and her progress in civilization, are proofs of her truthfulness. But it is said that the Chinese is a heathen, and that he will introduce his heathen rights and superstitions here. This is the last objection which should come from those who profess the all conquering power of the Christian religion. If that religion cannot stand contact with the Chinese, religion or no religion, so much the worse for those who have adopted it. It is the Chinaman, not the Christian, who should be alarmed for his faith. He exposes that faith to great dangers by exposing it to the freer air of America. But shall we send missionaries to the heathen and yet deny the heathen the right to come to us? I think that a few honest believers in the teachings of Confucius would be well employed in expounding his doctrines among us.

The next objection to the Chinese is that he cannot be induced to swear by the Bible. This is to me one of his best recommendations. The American people will swear by anything in the heavens above or in the earth beneath. We are a nation of swearers. We swear by a book whose most authoritative command is to swear not at all.

It is not of so much importance what a man swears by, as what he swears to, and if the Chinaman is so true to his convictions that he cannot be tempted or even coerced into so popular a custom as swearing by the Bible, he gives good evidence of his integrity and his veracity.

Let the Chinaman come; he will help to augment the national wealth. He will help to develop our boundless resources; he will help to pay off our national debt. He will help to lighten the burden of national taxation. He will give us the benefit of his skill as a manufacturer and tiller of the soil, in which he is unsurpassed.

Even the matter of religious liberty, which has cost the world more tears, more blood and more agony, than any other interest, will be helped by his presence. I know of no church, however tolerant; of no priesthood, however enlightened, which could be safely trusted with the tremendous power which universal conformity would confer. We should welcome all men of every shade of religious opinion, as among the best means of checking the arrogance and intolerance which are the almost inevitable concomitants of general conformity. Religious liberty always flourishes best amid the clash and competition of rival religious creeds.

To the minds of superficial men, the fusion of different races has already brought disaster and ruin upon the country. The poor negro has been charged with all our woes. In the haste of these men they forgot that our trouble was not ethnographical, but moral; that it was not a difference of complexion, but a difference of conviction. It was not the Ethiopian as a man, but the Ethiopian as a slave and a coveted article of merchandise, that gave us trouble.

I close these remarks as I began. If our action shall be in accordance with the principles of justice, liberty, and perfect human equality, no eloquence can adequately portray the greatness and grandeur of the future of the Republic.

We shall spread the network of our science and civilization over all who seek their shelter whether from Asia, Africa, or the Isles of the sea. We shall mold them all, each after his kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt; negro and Saxon; Latin and Teuton; Mongolian and Caucasian; Jew and Gentile; all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same Government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.


This Nihilistic Debauch


In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut’s second masterpiece, after Slaughterhouse Five, the protagonist, Jonah, leaves on a business trip of two weeks and loans his New York City apartment to Krebbs, a poet. Jonah’s act of generosity turns out to be a mistake.

When he returns, his apartment has been defiled, transformed into an object of scatological, Weimaresque performance art. Specifically,

. . . Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.

He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:

“I have a kitchen.
But it is not a complete kitchen.
I will not be truly gay
Until I have a

There was another message, written in lipstick in a feminine hand on the wallpaper over my bed. It said: “No, no, no, said Chicken-licken.”

There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, “Meow.”

Jonah summarizes: his home has been “wrecked by a nihilistic debauch.” This is surely one of Vonnegut’s immortal phrases.

Despite his reputation as an anti-establishment figure, Vonnegut was a man of deeply conventional morals, and he puts the dark hilarity of this episode to work for them. Jonah was a writer, an observer of life in full. He teetered, as writers do, on the edge of surrendering to nihilism. All writers in one way or another take seriously Dostoevsky’s idea that without God, all is permitted, and that any one human choice, therefore, is “as good as” another.

But the highly inventive wreckage wrought by Jonah’s fellow artist shocks him out of his lassitude. He draws a moral:

[A]fter I saw what Krebbs had done, in particular what he had done to my sweet cat, nihilism was not for me.

Somebody or something did not wish me to be a nihilist. It was Krebbs’s mission, whether he knew it or not, to disenchant me with that philosophy. Well, done, Mr. Krebbs, well done.

I’ll come straight to the point. If the United States is able to recover the main elements of its democracy and reform a workable mode of governance, I believe we will look back some day on the nihilistic debauch that festered in the White House from 2017 and say of it, “Well done, Mr. Trump, well done.” Trump’s demented, malevolent yokelism could prove to be the spur that turns us back toward liberal, informed democracy.

Trump is, by his own design, the star of the uncouth reality show that today stands in for the executive branch of our government. He made himself the wretch he is. This is important to bear in mind as we account for why we like him.

In seeking cheap fame, gaudy wealth and bought-off sex, Trump has visited on himself every affliction that can deform the human person from something wondrous into something slipshod and contemptible. This feels like a crime to me. We have worked so hard to become human. Although we are all born with the normal biological apportionments of greed and lust, Trump has artfully malformed his instincts into a nihilist parody of humanity. His self-aggrandizing, shallowness, ignorance, petulance and blind braggadocio render him a monument to how not to be human.

That Trump’s mind is every bit as deranged as the pageant of onanistic destruction Jonah encounters in his ruined apartment brings me back to a point I try to make regularly–that literature is useful. Vonnegut acquaints us, in the episode of Jonah’s defiled home, with the idea of the nadir, the point from which we can sink no lower. Addicts call it rock bottom. The nadir invites chastened, serious thinking. I hope that’s where we are. If we are to torture children in for-profit prison camps as a matter of national policy, let us learn from our artful cruelty.

U.S. Border Patrol Houses Unaccompanied Minors In Detention Center
In Trump’s for-profit concentration camps, interned children are not allowed to touch one another even if they are family members. This measure is taken “for their own safety.” All mammals need the touch of their fellows, and the Nazis demonstrated in their own concentration camps that human children would suffer and die (more quickly) without human contact. Any sane person brave enough to dwell on this outrage for a moment can reason out the consequences of torturing children in this way, but in case your imagination fails you, here is the testimony of a Holocaust survivor on this point

To be sure, though, our low point does not consist in the horrific void of Trump himself. There will always be unmotivated assholery and even sociopathic malice abroad in the land, and someone will occasionally achieve a Trump-like mastery of it. So it goes. Our real nadir lies in the electrified connection Trump has made with so many of us Americans. He has tapped into a source of power which deserves our analysis.

Had you told Americans of my parents’ generation that an Archie Bunker could rise to become president, they would have scoffed. The whole point of Archie Bunker’s character was to illustrate the cultural and political weakness of the yokel by thoroughly airing its ignorance. Uninformed bigots, the audience was assured, could talk at the television, but the forces of polite society would always ensure their voices never broke out into the real world.

How appropriate that the man who would puncture this illusion would do so as a TV star. Did we not pay attention when Neil Postman warned in 1985, with the publication of Amusing Ourselves to Death, that cheap entertainment was gathering horrible political force? Sadly, it hardly matters now. The internet and especially social media did what TV only threatened to do–they enabled the mass replacement of reality with a collective fantasy.¹ That the triumphant vision happens to be a yokel nationalist fantasy, as opposed to an elitist cosmopolitan one, makes it especially rebarbative to anyone who liked the rules of polite society, but it is too late to go wringing our hands over details now. It was going to be a fantasy of some kind, and that is the point.

Fast forward to 2016, and indeed to 2019. We are now living out the Archie Bunker fantasy, and more. Good citizens with far coarser sentiments and less educating experience than Bunker’s (he at least had been to war) suddenly find themselves within spitting distance of the president’s temperament and intelligence level. This is remarkable, and empowering. The election of a self-made reactionary oaf is a powerful revival of the myth than any American can be president, even those left far outside the halls of power.

Just to get our bearings, consider this: Had the denizens of Ruby Ridge lived to fight another day, they would have found themselves not out in the Idaho cold beholden to some prepper messiah or other obscure high priest of the Second Amendment , but, miraculously, in warm sympathy with our law-and-order, hairspray addict-in-chief, the owner, we are told, of a  golden toilet. Our country truly does contain multitudes, and Trump has succeeded in enlisting and unifying some unlikely bedfellows. This year he has sorely tested the loyalty of allies who could hardly be less like him, farmers, whom he is bankrupting through a trade war. Many stick it out because they like Trump for his toughness–a quality they know well but which he surely fakes.

I have opined at length on the scale of the lies that sustain our unlikely oligarchy and the tawdriness of the mass credulity that protects it. I won’t drone on here on those points. Marx said it better than it has been said since: If you want poor people to drop their illusions, you’ll have to abandon the whole ingeniously exploitative system that requires them to have illusions.

But try to appreciate this: America has achieved something so remarkable that Orwell said in a 1947 essay it had only been imagined in dystopian literature up till then. Namely, we have solidified a system “in which the special political problems of capitalism [have] been solved without bringing liberty, equality or true happiness any nearer.”

Although Orwell is making a vital point in this sentence, he is uncharacteristically abstract. Let me bring him down to earth. If you make less than one million dollars a year, as you file your higher taxes this spring, bear this mind: you are in fact paying off  the oligarchy and helping the rich solve one of the “special political problems” to which Orwell alludes above. To be precise, you are paying your share of taxes plus the taxes that the rich do not wish to pay. They leave you to scrounge for your own schools, sidewalks and healthcare even as you pay for their next financial bailout.

If you pay these bribes with resignation, or perhaps in loving support of our Dear Leader, you are betraying the principle on which we rebelled against Britain. We said then, and some of us still believe, that the ruling class should not force us to pay both our taxes and theirs (and to feel heroic about it). To mix revolutions, we will not just eat cake.

I am pessimistic about the power of policy arguments like this one to dent Trump. As I noted, many farmers still like the president even as he manipulates them into sacrificing income and taking desperate loans to enrich big bankers. Trump’s powers of fabulism and his base’s deep fund of credulity will short circuit any attempt to counter their views with logic. Trump brays, in the face of multitudinous contrary facts, that he is the most accomplished president in modern U.S. history, and we must take seriously the prospect that a non-negligible group of Americans, somewhere out there, believes him. They won’t fire him for being P.T. Barnum; they will hold him closer because he stokes their desire to defy “the system.”

And so I offer as a mere token of my criticism an openly ad hominem attack on Trump. Consider, not Trump’s foolish policy “ideas,” but his uniquely slanderous treatment of the late Senator John McCain, conduct which I believe serves to exile him beyond the pale of polite society. Trump is a president whose mere presence is indigestible to a great swathe of the public. Trump’s self-inflicted parody on the human persona is unwelcome almost everywhere outside his Nürnberg-style rallies.

I am not the only one who believes this. In fact, it was McCain’s daughter Meghan who broke openly with the idea that Trump was to be tolerated among decent folk. After Trump’s daughter and son-in-law appeared uninvited at John McCain’s funeral, Meghan reflected, “I thought that my family had made it clear, or at least I had, that the Trumps are unwelcome around me, and that my father had been sort of very clear about the line between the McCains and the Trumps.”

The line dividing the Trumps from the McCains is the same one that more generally divides the decent from the indecent. It is the line that Vonnegut illustrates with such inventiveness and verve in the apartment passage I quoted above.

I recently watched the Ken Burns film on the Vietnam war, and I saw footage of McCain in Hanoi in 1967. He was freshly wounded from being shot down, and he was being rolled before TV cameras on a gurney into the prison where he would be kept for five years and tortured many times. Caught up in the present moment, I was flooded with revulsion at Trump’s cheap, ongoing contempt for McCain. Can anyone imagine Trump making one-one thousandth the sacrifice McCain made in war, or evincing one iota of McCain’s courage? Trump has built a personal brand that deliberately mocks those values and evades the kind of duty McCain stoically performed.

Consider further the magnanimity and diplomatic wisdom McCain showed in reconciling with his wartime captors and writing legislation to help improve relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. He did so in cooperation with John Kerry, a political opponent, in the service of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. I need hardly remind you that Clinton, a Vietnam war protester, was and remains regarded by some as a draft dodger. McCain’s level of statesmanship in pursuing rapprochement with Vietnam, as pragmatic as it was idealistic, is far beyond the ken of someone like Trump. As recently as February 2019 Trump was still vocalizing scorn for the late McCain.

The dispute between Meghan McCain and Trump is as old as Sophocles’s Antigone, with only slight adjustments. A sister is outraged by an overweening king’s desecration of her (soldier) brother’s body. Although the king has the political power to do as he likes, the aggrieved sister cannot accept his defilement of the honors due a fallen soldier. In a sense, Trump is too pathetic a figure to be entertained as a stand-in for the king in this allegory. But his inability to stop defiling McCain’s memory invites just the kind of Antigone-like protest Meghan McCain has raised. She is making a stand for certain conventional morals, the validity of which our country had accepted for some 240 years before Trump came along.

Trump has made his own bed. His treatment of McCain is just one conspicuous symptom of a comprehensive failure of character so basic it is indistinguishable from his personal brand–what for most people would be called a self. He belongs in those low places of huckster celebrity where he worked out his pact with the yokel mob–in the WWF ring, on the Howard Stern Show, on the Apprentice set, in the Access Hollywood bus. He does not belong with adults in polite society.

My own convictions on this point are, like Vonnegut’s, deeply conventional; Trump is an outlandish creep who thoroughly deserves the exile he has fashioned for himself. I believe we will look back someday on the wasteland of his outrages on truth, honor and decency–a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare landscape to which Trump leeringly invited us–and, like Vonnegut’s Jonah, thank him for jolting us awake.

  1. If you think we are not temperamentally primed for accepting wholesale fantasy as a replacement reality, consider the two most prominent uses of the internet. The first is pornography, which encourages the fantasy of unrestricted sexual access. The second is gambling, which lures the everyman to believe he can join the nouveau riche. Both scams deprive the seeker of what he seeks. This self-defeating fantasy land is what made Trump president.



In Postwar: A history of Europe After 1945, Tony Judt reports on the nice trick that Austria pulled off at the end of World War Two. It went like this:

When the killing stopped and the smoke cleared, Austria sidled up to Europe’s devastated liberal democracies and assumed the pose of a fellow victim. Austrians too had been ravaged by Nazism, the Austrians said. All Europe’s countries should now join together to seek a future of peace, reconstruction and healing. Austria would mill about with the other convalescents, hoping–it must be believed–that its wartime record would go unremarked.

It worked. The world bought it. Austria was let off the hook with a pro forma denazification process. In 1972 the Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim, hiding his past as a Nazi intelligence officer, ascended to the office of the world’s leading proponent of peace, the UN Secretary General. Not bad for a man who almost certainly helped send Jews to the camps and possibly ordered the torture and execution of Yugoslavian partisans.

If Austria’s trick were a sports play on YouTube, you would watch it endlessly in playback, squinting to try to see how they pulled it off. The home of Hitler and Mauthausen–one of the first concentration camps, established in 1938–was, as if by magic, rehabilitated into an ordinary European country with nothing special to confess.

In point of fact, the Austrians had been virulent Nazis during the war. In a book review, the New York Times summarizes some of Judt’s key observations in this vein:

In a country of under seven million inhabitants, there were still more than 500,000 registered Nazis in Austria at the end of the war. Austrians were greatly overrepresented in the SS and among concentration-camp staff. Tellingly, over 38 percent of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra were Nazis, compared with just 7 percent of the Berlin Philharmonic.

To be fair, the whitewashing of Austria’s wartime history was a mutual fantasy–there were two parties doing that tango. The victorious Allies needed the people of (occupied) former Axis countries to feel they were being sincerely welcomed back into the community of nations, and so a certain amount of amnesia was indulged in, blatant as it was. Acts of forgetting, as the novelist Milan Kundera reminds us, are an essential part of making ourselves into who we are, and–unlike their German cousins–Austrians were simply handed an unlimited prescription of lotus flowers to help do the job.¹ They had a lot to forget; the Allies just let them get on with it.

In a wonderful side note to this history, Judt remarks on the the striking success between the 1950s and 70s of German-language Heimatfilme (“homeland films”). These were saccharine movies of innocent family dramas set in bucolic German or Austrian landscapes, stories utterly bereft of politics or war. In a grandiose, deliberate act of forgetting, the Heimatfilme reached back to memories unpoisoned by recent history. Germans (and Austrians) loved them, and critics from Allied countries for the most part felt no need to prick Germanophile audiences’ consciences over them.

But I digress. Today’s topic is only tangentially related to these painful ironies of history. Today’s talk focuses on how Austria, a small, landlocked country made mostly impassable by mountains, managed to punch miraculously above its cultural weight throughout the whole course of the 20th century. It put a stamp as big as all of Europe on the world’s main events. In 2016, the staid Economist assessed Austria’s historical impact in these fulsome terms:

Imperial Viennese society could not survive. But the ideas and art brought forth during the fecund period of Viennese history from the late 1880s to the 1920s endured—from Loos’s modernist architecture to Gustav Klimt’s symbolist canvasses, from Schoenberg’s atonal music and Mahler’s Sturm und Drang to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Those Viennese who escaped Nazism went on to sustain the West during the cold war, and to restore the traditions of empiricism and liberal democracy.

Austria has always had a knack for outdoing itself. It’s hard not to admire certain of its outsized accomplishments, many of which you might think of erroneously as German. Mozart, for example, was justly celebrated as a hero of Germanic genius, but he was a son of Salzburg. It turns out there are many other, lesser noticed such vagaries.

I first took note of them in the early 2000s when The Economist profiled Red Bull and Swarovski. At the time, these firms had recently emerged from their humble status as “small or medium enterprises,” or SMEs, to conquer world markets and become giants. Probably not many people even know they’re Austrian companies, but they have come to define the products they make and sell. Red Bull didn’t just win the global battle of energy drinks; it created the whole contest. Swarovski is stylish, affordable crystal, to the tune of $3.3 billion annually.

When I first saw a can of Red Bull in Germany in 1991, it was a specialty drink stocked only in gas stations. You would grab a can to fight fatigue and improve your concentration on the Autobahn. Given the Germans’ passion for driving, I thought of Red Bull as an essentially German product.

Back then you couldn’t buy Red Bull in a bar or even a grocery store. Today, I witness, just in my cubicle and the one next to mine, the consumption of at least a dozen energy drinks a day–all produced or inspired by Red Bull. This scenario is played out daily in several million other work sites around the world. I don’t know how many cans are consumed on average by desk workers like me (which seem to make up its steadiest market), but Red Bull reports it sold just over 6 billion units in 2017, earning revenues of $7.4 billion. The energy drink industry as a whole, which I reiterate was pioneered by Red Bull, earned $21 billion in 2017. It is like Red Bull created an industry that figured out how to sell air. Another nice trick.

Speaking of things invisibly familiar, Germans might be aware of a local variation on the Red Bull “effect.” Austrian grocery stores quietly dominate the market in Germany, and to such an extent that Germans themselves may not even know it. Indeed when you want to say “supermarket” in German, you can practically substitute any of a handful of brand names–Aldi, Lidl, Rewe, Penny or Spar–Austrian all. I’ve lived in Germany for 15 years, and I probably sent half my grocery money to Austria.

There is obviously nothing improper about this, but I think, to put the shoe on another foot, it would give Americans a certain unease to discover that all our major supermarkets were, say, Canadian. Like it or not, brands are a part of national identity. McDonalds, Starbucks and (God help us) Walmart help make us who we are. Germans must feel that the Austrian companies that bring them their daily provender and thus nourish millions of Germany’s 75 million bodies, have confiscated a small part of their identity.

Such accomplishments as these, though, are merely the most pedestrian indicators of the towering cultural contributions that Austrians have made to the present course of history. It turns out that the same country that produced such clever business managers also turned out much larger geniuses who shaped the way we perceive reality and the human place in it. A country with half the population of Guatemala gave the world intellectual giants on whose shoulders our thinkers (and doers) stand today.

This cultural refulgence began to break out and twinkle through the darkness even before the 20th century.

  • In 1846 the Vienna physician Ignaz Semmelweiss discovered the germ theory of disease. Before Semmelweiss, doctors held the same ignorant, superstitious beliefs as the benighted masses about what causes people to get sick. It is nearly impossible to grasp the full impact of Semmelweiss’s discovery; it still informs everything we know (and learn) about communicable diseases. Semmelweiss’s work is why everyone, especially doctors, are encouraged to wash their hands as an act of preventive medicine. Like having Purell dispensers everywhere? Thank Semmelweiss. Even more to the point, the public vaccination campaigns that have eradicated several childhood diseases would not have been possible without Semmelweiss’s foundational insight into microbes and disease.
  • Just two decades after Semmelweiss, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel worked out the first accurate theories of genetic heritability, using his famous pea plants. His work is the basis for everything we know about genes today. Although I am skeptical of the much-hyped prospects for genetics to make humans immortal, it may succeed in extending our lifespan by decades or freeing yet-born children from horrible, debilitating diseases. Whatever it does for humanity, we owe it to Mendel, busying himself in his Austrian monastery.
  • And then there’s Sigmund Freud, the turn-of-the-century Vienna intellectual. Say what you will of his more scurrilous ideas about our dreams or our mothers, the foundations of Freud’s psychoanlytic theory of personality remain intact. Anyone working today in any kind of functional psychology assumes the truth of what Freud proposed in his earliest writings–that formative mental processes happen unconsciously. We are not just who we say or believe we are; we are the outcome of opaque mental computations over which we have limited control or even insight.
  • A handful of Austrians worked in the spooky intellectual penumbra of science, a place where you might say angels fear to tread. One was Kurt Gödel, a mathematician who proved what is known as the Incompleteness Theorem, the deeply counterintuitive idea that there exist more (true) mathematical facts than can be proven true. Although I suppose only theoretical mathematicians can fully appreciate Gödel’s thinking, even a layman may be quietly awed by the scope of Gödel’s idea–that the human mind cannot lay full claim to supervening mathematical dimension of reality, the domain of unchanging logic and basic physical laws. Gödel put us all in the humble position of Hamlet’s Horatio, proving, not just rhapsodizing, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. (On his way to be naturalized as U.S. citizens in 1948, Gödel intimated to his friend and witness Albert Einstein, that he [Gödel] had detected a logical loophole in the U.S. Constitution that would enable the country to become a dictatorship. Einstein advised Gödel to sit on his discovery long enough to swear his oath of allegiance, which he did.)
  • The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein also drew a kind of boundary around humankind’s ability to conceive of reality. The world, he said–meaning all of reality–is the sum total of coherent sentences expressing facts. Poetry and other voodoo be damned, list all the well-formed facts there are and you have defined the limits of what we can know and therefore of what exists. Wittgenstein’s radical idea may not be provable as a theorem, but it gave birth to several predominant schools of thought in philosophy and the social sciences in the 20th century. His revolution is known as the “linguistic turn,” and it conjectures that the particulars of human language shape and constrain humans’ ability to know anything at all. If you want to know who started all the postmodern kerfuffle about nothing being real if it can’t be “represented” in some kind of system of symbols, you may look, ruefully perhaps, to Wittgenstein.
  • Three deeply influential Austrian thinkers must be mentioned in the same breath. The economist Friedrich Hayek was a Nobel Prize winner who enunciated the clearest, most comprehensive defense of classic economic liberalism in the history of his field. His compatriot Ludwig von Mises solidified the foundation of microeconomics as a form of rational choice theory. If, as an American, you think we owe the free-market ideology on which our economy is based to Milton Friedman, Allen Greenspan, or some other Chicago ideologue (still less to the vulgar claptrap of Ayn Rand), we do not. Those economists owe the sum of their ideas to Hayek and von Mises. The Austrians were the first economists to say, if you want the state out of the individual’s way, you must start by allowing the markets to function in the freest way possible. For good or for ill, these are the fathers of the Reagan-Thatcher deregulation wave that conquered the world in the 1980s and remains with us today.
  • Hayek’s and von Mises’s counterpart in political philosophy was Karl Popper, author of the justly famous The Open Society and Its Enemies. Perched as he was in central Europe, and having witnessed Nazi fascism and Warsaw Pact communism, the well-informed Popper became an implacable foe of the corporate state. He argued with passion and principle that citizens must be left alone to speak their minds and form their own interest-based associations if they are to enjoy real freedom. If you get the heebie jeebies at the idea that governments should have ministries of religion or ministries of “sports and youth,” for example, but cannot quite articulate your revulsion, you will find a champion in Popper. He is the main expositor of the ideas that passed through the crucible of World War Two and the Cold War to be christened as liberal democratic values.

I make no attempt to explain Austria’s high cultural batting average here, only admire it. Still, they say location is everything, and there must be something to the notion that Austria took in all of Eurasia’s intersecting cultural influences because of where it sits. It then wove them all together. I have only touched on the surface of them here.

On the three or four occasions I’ve found myself in the Innsbruck Main Train Station, I’ve felt I was somehow at the gritty and unprepossessing heart of Europe. It’s a place where you can still feel the old confluence of Germanic, Latin, Jewish and Slavic cultures. In 1993, I heard Bosnian spoken there by people carrying bundles and suitcases. In 2016 I heard Arabic and I guess Swahili by people carrying just bundles. People are always on the move. Lots of them pass through Austria; some stay and think.

The Innsbrook Main Train Station (image: signalbox.org)

Looking back, I feel like those moments at the Innsbruck station found me at the heart of the world as I know it. Somehow Austria, despite asking for no such fame, opened up onto the rest of the world. If I should ever go crazy and run off to die at a train station like Tolstoy did, I hope I make my way back to Innsbruck, where you can still sense genius being formed by accident.

  1. This is of course an oversimplification. Many young postwar Germans believed their parents’ generation had been shamefully exempted from having to face up to their past. They thought the Allies’ hasty rehabilitation of Germany allowed too many fascist undercurrents of German society to survive, allowing the “new” German bourgeoisie avoid the moral self examination that was required of them. The Red Army Faction was just one, extreme, example of this larger protest movement. It is worth noting, however, that Austria was not wracked by such collective soul searching after the war, likely because the Allies imposed a less stringent denazification process there.