Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why This 1967 Interview of Prof. A.J. Toynbee is Still Thought-Provoking

by Nomad

Toynbee
The observations of an esteemed historian from 1967 still hold true in our time.


More than a Historian

To call Professor Arnold J. Toynbee a historian is to fall short of the mark. He was called a " philosopher of history." 

His most famous work "The Study of History" is a staggering 12 volumes and took three decades to write. On a human scale, that's a lot of history right there.
Today, Toynbee is known mostly in academic circles but in his time, he was a widely read and discussed scholar in the 1940s and 1950s.
Sadly, for the anybody without a masters' degree, the work is not what most people would consider and "easy" read.

But that's not to say it is inaccessible. A later condensed version allows us mere mortals an opportunity to understand Toynbee's brilliance. Even then, there are moments when you look up from the book and wonder, what the heck did I just read?
(The Wikipedia version is perhaps the ultimate abridgment.)

To put it simply, Professor Toynbee studied what caused primitive societies to transform themselves into civilizations and the reasons why civilizations collapsed.
Toynbee's goal was to trace the development and decay of 19 world civilizations in the historical record, applying his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.
In a way, Toynbee turned a very wide angle lens on humanity. Toynbee, as dry as his works could often be, provided remarkable insight into where we are in the bigger picture. He also hinted at where we might be going.

An Interview with LIFE

Life magazineIn 1967, LIFE magazine published an interview with Professor Arnold Toynbee. Many of his observations about America of that turbulent time still seem relevant for us today.   
When interviewed in his native England, Toynbee had just returned from a three-month tour of the US.
I had not been in American since 1965. Two years ago, the people in power, who are roughly middle aged, felt they were invulnerable and impregnable. America could take the Vietnam War in her stride. She could take anything. The American way of life was the way of life, the way of the future. The world was to become as much like America as it could manage and this was the ideal.
All that had changed. Large-scale protests and riots had shaken not just the middle-class but America's allies too. America, said Toynbee, had a false sense of security, a false euphoria and now this is now being shattered. It was inevitable.
As a historian, I realize that all periods of well-being for a society are limited. It's part of human nature to fall into trouble. Americans thought the US was paradise.. Disillusionment was bound to come, soon or later.
And that wasn't necessarily such a bad thing. On the contrary, said the professor, it is a bad thing not live in reality. American had become very self-satisfied and self-criticism of the hardest kind was the only cure.

And the sort of introspection Toynbee was talking about wasn't just "hippies" or extremists. Society was in turmoil because it was in the process of searching for its soul. It had begun to ask the truly important questions.

The Vietnam war was not entirely to blame, he said. It had only focused the vague dissatisfaction with the American way of life that would have been there even if there had not been the question of the war and the draft. The war had only brought it to a head.

Community and Anti-Community

He was asked his opinions of America's race problem and its connection to economics. It was, he said, not only a question of race.
To be poor in the US is worse than anywhere else in the world. It's worse than in a place like India because, in India, the majority are below the [poverty] line. But to be in an underprivileged minority- which can only make itself felt by violence- that's the most desperate way to be poor.
The idea of integration, as espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr., was being rejected for an idea of violence and an "anti-community within the community. This, he said, could lead to
a kind of permanent civil war within the principle cities of the US, with the Negro anti-communities, having their own civilization, their own way of life. That's what America seems to be heading for.
If the African American citizen has the same economic opportunities as the white citizen, his way of life is going to be much like that of the corresponding white person, and this, said the professor, immediately decreases racial tensions.  

Toynbee's solution was intermarriage of the races and a fusion of the cultures.  If we don't accept fusion in its complete sense, Toynbee argued, then what was the alternative? Separation? But how do you practically separate the races? Logistically, it made no sense. But then a permanent war between the races made just as little sense.

One cannot help wondering what Toynbee would have made of Barack Obama, who claims the fame as being the first African-American president. In fact, he is actually a child of both African and white races.

War and Wealth

He also shared his ideas about war and wealth. How could it be that such a well-off nation like the US would put a higher or equal priority on making war than on dealing with its social problems, like economic inequality?  
The rich of any country have always been more willing to spend on arms than on a welfare state. They begrudged less being taxed for war purposes than for social purposes. They are more willing to drop free gifts of bombs on foreigners than they are of free gifts in term of housing and wages to their own countrymen. That has been true in Britain too. It is something in human psychology. I don't know why.
In his book, Toynbee talked a great deal about the symptoms of a civilization in decline. One of those markers was what he called "the suicidalness of militarism."

Basically, a civilization becomes hooked on devoting all of its gold (or credit) on building up large armies,  while neglecting things like infrastructure, programs which will improve the lives of its citizens.
This idea was also expressed by President Eisenhower in his farewell address in which he warned of the rise of the "military-industrial complex."
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. 
That 1961 warning came only six years before Toynbee's interview and four years before he toured the country in 1965.
As we know, at that time America was engaged in both the Cold War and the Vietnam war and yet military spending was less than it is now.

Graph Military spending
In the fiscal year 2015, military spending is accounted for 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending, a total of $598.5 billion.
The pie chart compares federal spending and demonstrates pretty conclusively how askew our national priorities actually are.
America is rich enough to raise its submerged poor to the full level of American national life easily. If it diverted its money from arms, it could lift a large part of the world too.  
As the US turns its focus inward, that opportunity to change the world seem more and more remote. We are much more likely to bomb a bridge, school or hospital in a Third World country than to build one.

Pride of a Superpower

In America's case, Toynbee argued, the problem was excessive pride. He said that when he asked Americans about the morality of the Vietnam War. many  had told him:
"Yes, we entirely agree. It's a mistake. It's immoral. It's disastrous for us. But America has never lost a war and we are determined not to lose this one."
This "refusal to reverse" attitude was based on pride and, as the ancient wisdom tells us,  that "pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall." 
We heard the same things after the Iraqi invasion. We could accept that many wars are not winnable, no matter how much time, effort and money were expended. They could only be avoided at all cost. 

It's hard to be humble when you have everybody using the phrase "the last superpower." In the year that Toynbee gave his interview, the US had a good excuse for making such a blunder. 
Unique to most world powers, the US was, up until that time, unacquainted with military disasters. It was too easy for the public to buy into the idea of invincibility.
Most countries, except the US, are conscious of having had enormous failures, of having made enormous mistakes, of having committed enormous crimes, if you like, and having survived. This is rather healthy.
In our day, we have the gift of hindsight. We are able to discern patterns which Toynbee could not. Vietnam inspired a generation to pause and re-evaluate the nation's path. Or, at least, the war contributed to a deeper questioning of what we as a nation stood for but also what we stood against.

And that lasted until 1980 when Reagan vowed to make America Great again. The invasion and occupation of Iraq did not inspire a similar questioning of our values. Despite the collapse of the economy, despite the less than spectacular outcomes of an ill-advised pair of wars, a large percentage of Americans were demanding answers. And those that did seemed deeply confused about who exactly was to blame for the mess. 

A.J. Toynbee


Battle for the Soul of a Nation

Other observations by Toynbee about the state of American life in 1967 were equally prescient. Even though America prided itself on its constitutional right of free speech, he pointed out, there was always a danger of a return to McCarthyism. He said:
Even in normal times, you have to be more courageous in the US to express an unpopular, minority opinion than in Western European countries.
That limited tolerance had much to do with the nation's formative years. It is more or less ingrained in our national DNA. Toynbee pointed out a historical fact that a lot of people forget.
From the beginning, the Pilgrim Fathers were pretty intolerant. I sometimes say Britain was being rather sly. She exported all her intolerant people to the American colonies in the 17th century just as she exported her criminals. The Puritans crossed the Atlantic in order to have the religion they wanted and to have things their own way, but when the Quakers turned up, they persecuted them as badly as they themselves had been persecuted by the Episcopalians in England. The strain of Puritanism runs through America's history.
That's an important point too.
Like modern day conservatives, Puritans believed that the civil government should strictly enforce public morality by prohibiting what they saw as vices. There was limited tolerance of "decadent" lifestyles and laws should always reflect a higher kind of morality. Puritans also saw the female as the inferior to the males by nature A woman's primary role was being a mother and anything that stood in the way of that was evil.

In Puritan society, the rights of women were restricted and mandated by nature and faith to be subservient to husband or father.

The constitutional prohibition against mixing church matters and government matters was a repudiation against Puritan intolerance and theocratic ambitions. The idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, which has gone mainstream, is certainly not an idea the founding fathers believed. It can, however, be traced back to Puritans.
Over a century later, when the Puritans were gone but their intolerance was not forgotten, the Constitution was penned.In that light, the current ideological battle between the conservatives and the liberals can be seen as just part of the ongoing global battle between neo-puritanism and liberal democracy.
*   *   *
Ten years after giving this LIFE interview, on 22 October 1975, at the age of 86, the professor died and in his turn, became a part of the history he studied. I will conclude with this Toynbee quote:
Civilizations, I believe, come to birth and proceed to grow by successfully responding to successive challenges. They break down and go to pieces if and when a challenge confronts them that they fail to meet.
In our time, America is probably facing one of its greatest challenges. Whether things will break down and go to pieces is a part of our history that has yet to be written.


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