I have long sought the perfect distillation of the worldview that I oppose, for without such an expression, I have sometimes worried that I am fighting a straw man. But as is often the way, we find what we most seek where we least look, or do not expect, to find it. Recently, I read a collection of essays by the East German writer Christa Wolf, which she wrote in the immediate aftermath of German reunification. Wolf had been an equivocal figure, part dissident, part court critic of the regime. Her reputation suffered when it came to light that as a young woman she had informed for the Stasi. The relevance of this deed to her stature as a writer is not clear.
Wolf’s collection includes a letter that she received from the prominent left-leaning West German philosopher Jürgen Habermas about the problems of reunification. Habermas displays a certain verbal flatulence, an unwillingness to use one word where ten will do, as well as a fear of clarity (for clarity is what reveals one’s banality). But one passage stood out—the perfect distillation that I had been looking for:
Have we already accepted living with an underclass that includes 20 to 30 percent of the population? Will we too close our eyes to a structural minority of helpless people whose only remaining means of protest is self-destruction and who have no chance of changing their situation by their own efforts?
Habermas’s concern for people at the bottom of the social hierarchy does him credit: it is indeed easy and tempting to disregard such people, and I sense that his concern is genuine. Yet there is something profoundly dehumanizing about his characterization of the problem. What he is saying is that up to 25 million people in Germany exercise no choice at all in their lives, at least over anything other than their means of self-destruction. They are not full human beings, as we are: they are as helpless as inanimate objects.
What Habermas fails to recognize is that self-destruction—which he correctly implies has reached epidemic proportions among a segment of the population—grows out of attitudes to life, beliefs, and mentalities; it is not a mechanical response to a mechanical problem. And one of the beliefs that favors self-destruction is that no alternative to it is possible, because the world is so constituted, at least until the people’s saviors gain power, that one’s choices make no difference to the course of one’s life. This is precisely the belief that Habermas seeks to promote. But it is not true, at least in minimally open societies, as the success of various minorities demonstrates. Habermas and those who think like him are thus purveyors of Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles” that lead to so much misery in the midst of plenty.