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Politics, the Arts, and ‘The Fiery Angel’

In my new bookThe Fiery Angelout this week from Encounter Books, I make the following contention: that the arts have more to teach us about foreign and public policy than all the schools of government put together.

“Homer,” I write, “has more to teach us about governance than Harvard, and always will.”

To Homer, I go on to add Aristotle, Aquinas, Ravel, Bram Stoker, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Dante, Virgil, Mozart, and Beauty and the Beast. Indeed, the entire thesis of The Fiery Angel (a companion volume to 2015’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace) can be summed up accordingly: “We proceed, then, from the premise that the past not only still has something to tell us, but it also has something that it must tell us, if only we will listen. That while we stare intently toward the future (the will-o-the-wisp of the Left), it is to the past to which we should be listening—for it alone holds the sum total of the human experience in its dusty, bony hands.”

That is to say, the solutions to our present-day ills can be found in our history; our ancestors, from the Greeks and the Romans to the 19th and 20th centuries, had exactly the same problems, and the solutions they found (whether they worked or failed) have been conveniently recorded for us in not only the pages of the histories that have come down to us, beginning with Thucydides and Herodotus, Livy and Tacitus, but also in the works of art (sculpture, painting, poetry, fiction, plays, operas, movies) that accompany them.

We understand, for example, that the events detailed in Livy’s History of Rome are largely mythic, but that does not invalidate them. Similarly, the speeches that Tacitus puts into the mouths of Tiberius and Germanicus he basically invented. So what? None of this lessens the lessons to be imparted and learned not only by the readers of that time, but today’s as well.

As an example of the arts’ predictive powers, I present an excerpt from Chapter Three, “The Raft of the Medusa,” which opens with an account of the geopolitical situation in the spring of 1986, with the Cold War at its height—yet also in its last days.

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Quick: would you rather read a think-tank white paper from around the time of the Reagan–Gorbachev Reykjavik summit in 1986, assuring the Boston–Washington corridor that the Soviet Union would remain the only other superpower indefinitely, and that its stability was vital to the balance of power, or watch “Rocky IV,” released in 1985? Which better predicted the events of November 1989?

Consider, for example, this review of Strobe Talbott’s 1984 book on arms control, Deadly Gambits. Talbott, then a writer for TimeMagazine—he later left to join the Clinton administration as deputy secretary of state, and parlayed that into becoming president of the Brookings Institution—undertook in a widely unread book to contrast the arms-control policies of the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations, to the latter’s detriment, of course. This concluding passage from the contemporaneous New York Times review provides a flavor [emphasis mine]:

Mr. Talbott, who is diplomatic correspondent at Time, had previously written “Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II.” What is striking about the two books is that “Endgame” was about how President Carter and his top aides—Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, and Defense Secretary Harold Brown—were directly in charge of the arms control process. “Deadly Gambits” shows how President Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Mr. Weinberger, and the three different national security advisers, had little to do with making arms control policy because they lacked the intellectual tools or interest in the subject.

He is particularly mocking of Mr. Reagan, who, Mr. Talbott writes, liked to give speeches on arms control, “but behind the scenes, where decisions were made and policy was set, he was to remain a detached, sometimes befuddled character.” Mr. Talbott says that even though Mr. Reagan presided at 16 meetings of the National Security Council on strategic arms talks, “there was ample evidence, during those meetings and on other occasions as well, that he frequently did not understand basic aspects of the nuclear weapons issue and of policies being promulgated in his name.”

The Soviet Union’s collapse began five years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War ended two years after that. There was no nuclear exchange between the Russians and the Americans. Containment, technological superiority, and firmness of purpose at the highest levels of American and Western foreign policy for 45 years had worked—and the end came just after Reagan left office.

Talbott’s career checked all the boxes of the American foreign-policy establishment, including education (Hotchkiss, Yale, Oxford, where he was Bill Clinton’s roommate); youthful attention as translator of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs; top-tier American journalistic experience (Time); service in government and at a prestigious Beltway think tank. And yet his record on all the major foreign-policy events of the past several decades was dismal, mirroring that of most of his conventionally thinking colleagues in both journalism and academe. If this is what specialization achieves, then let us have less of it.

A far more significant international event in the history of the Cold War endgame took place over two weeks in April 1986, when the great Russian-born virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz made his first and only return to the land of his birth. The pianist’s visit was skillfully negotiated by Peter Gelb, a grand-nephew of the violinist Jascha Heifetz, who was then with Columbia Artists Management Inc., the leading music-management agency in the country; Gelb later became the general director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The opening was provided by a cultural-exchange agreement that had been concluded between Reagan and the Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, at their Geneva summit on November 21, 1985. Gelb contacted Bernard Kalb, a former journalist who was assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Reagan Administration, and suggested that a Horowitz visit be the first of the exchanges. The trip was jeopardized several times, particularly in the wake of an incident at Spaso House in which the piano in the residence had its strings slashed by someone on the household staff after the ambassador, Arthur Hartman, had hosted an informal concert by a leading refusenik pianist, Vladimir Feltsman. (Feltsman emigrated to the United States in 1987.)

It took a personal letter from President Reagan, hand-delivered to Horowitz’s residence on East 94thStreet in Manhattan, and guaranteeing both the pianist’s safety in Russia and that of his custom-shipped personal Steinway piano—without which he never performed—for the exchange to be solidified.

As it happened, the visit was bookended by two major news events. The first was the American air assault on Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya on April 15, 1986, in retaliation for the terrorist bombing 10 days earlier of the La Belle discothèque in West Berlin, in which two American servicemen were killed. The second was the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl on April 26. Their noses out of joint over Reagan’s actions against a then-Soviet ally, the Russians gave the pianist and his entourage a chilly reception at the airport and boycotted a dinner in his honor at the Italian embassy in Moscow. The Chernobyl accident, meanwhile, took place on the Saturday before Horowitz’s final U.S.S.R. concert, but word of the disaster did not leak out until the visitors had decamped.

I was privileged to witness the entire Russian trip. This is what I wrote in Time Magazine of the concert’s significance at the time (issue of May 5, 1986):

The first recital provoked an unprecedented near riot. As the security gates in front of the Moscow Conservatory swung open to admit the pianist’s chauffeured Chaika, hundreds of young people burst through the police lines and stormed the Conservatory’s Great Hall. Plainclothes and uniformed guards managed to grab a few of them, sending several sprawling, But many, perhaps most, raced past astonished ticket takers and ran upstairs to the balcony, where they crouched in the aisles and stood should to should against the walls. In a country that takes special pride in preserving public order, romantic exuberance rarely overwhelms regimentation so publicly. It was fitting for the occasion.

In an unconscious echo of Rocky’s “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change” speech at the end of his winning bout against the Russian champion, Ivan Drago, Horowitz had this to say about the Soviet Union and the Russians:

Before leaving New York City, the pianist had been sanguine about his chances of success, both as a musician and as a cultural ambassador. “I am not a Communist, but I can understand their way of thinking better than most Americans,” he declared. “We all know there is good and evil everywhere. I was brought up to seek the good. In the Soviet Union today, the good is the music they produce. I hope that by playing in the Soviet Union, I will make the good better. Music inspires. It does not destroy and kill.”

The sentiment may have seemed naïve at the time, but in retrospect, how right Horowitz was. Despite being completely apolitical – Horowitz was sometimes childlike in his appetites and pleasures, a man whose often puckish exterior masked the barely controlled, and sometimes uncontrolled, fury of his playing – he was correct in several of his assessments. For one thing, he did understand the Russians better than most Americans; he certainly understood them better than Talbott, and better than most members of the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, who consistently viewed the Soviet Union through prisms of their own self-advancement and continued employment.

***

Three and a half years later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union itself disappeared shortly thereafter.

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Did Horowitz effect all this himself? Of course not. Each event was a piece in the mosaic. But his was more catalytic than most: what the Horowitz concerts demonstrated to the Communists was that they could not succeed even in something as simple as controlling the entrances to the Tchaikovsky Hall in the heart of Moscow. Yes, the security men counter-attacked during the battle on the stairway, pushing and shoving a few students down the stairs and into the surging crowd. But the students were not to be denied, and in the end, neither were the East Germans, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, and finally even the Russians.

Therefore, the argument must be made, and taken seriously, that the study of the arts belongs every bit as much in the realm of public policy as, say, the study of political “science” (a term that reeks of Marxism, since there is no more that is “scientific” about politics than there is about history) and arguably more so. For one thing, storytelling has been around a lot longer than the Kennedy School of Government; for another, its track record in predicting and ameliorating various catastrophes throughout history has been much better. Certainly better than all the wise men whose gaze floated from their navels to the Kremlin and back again, and yet never saw the end of the Soviet Union coming.

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