The question that really interests Mann is how an intellectual can justify not being a progressive—something that could not be more relevant in our age of wokeness.
Reflections has sentences that could be applied to current cultural debates without changing a word. Mann complains about the self-righteousness of the liberal, which is “directed morally toward the outside, it is aggressive, for he himself is right, he himself is unassailable, the man of progress and of moral security; only the others need criticism.” He attacks the cultural elitist who “completely perceives the life of his own people, the human reality as it surrounds him, as basically hateful and common.” He deplores the politicization of literature, the idea that a good writer “incessantly pursues humanitarian-democratic progress, insinuates the concept of democracy into every work” and that “art . . . must be the tool of progress.”
Such statements could be cosigned by many of the conservatives and onetime liberals who find themselves on the wrong side of today’s political orthodoxies. The issues at stake are, of course, very different—the progressives of 1914 wanted peace and universal suffrage, while the watchwords of 2021 are “equity and inclusion,” defined in terms of race and gender. And American conservatives who oppose woke orthodoxies have little in common with Mann’s brand of European nationalism. Still, one can recognize in Reflections the familiar frustration of a conservative who finds his core beliefs ruled out-of-bounds by the intellectual powers that be.
…For the Mann of Reflections, the problem isn’t which political side you support; it’s the necessity of choosing a side in the first place. He passionately defends the right to be nonpolitical, arguing that this is the proper stance for the artist and, more broadly, for the German people, whose genius lies in the realm of culture and spirit, not politics. “The German will never mean society when he says ‘life,’ never elevate social problems above moral ones, above inner experience,” he insists.
I’ve never read any of Thomas Mann, but Kirsch has long been one of my favorite critics, so I’m pretty much interested in anything he writes about.