Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Louisa Thomas: Conscience

Louisa Thomas has written a masterpiece, against some substantial odds. First, "Conscience" tackles a very well-covered subject in World War 1. Second, the hook Thomas uses to get into WWI, while a lesser-known subject, Norman Thomas, is a family member- Thomases' grandfather. It would be easy to slip into sycophantic flattery of the great man, but Thomas avoids this, for the most part. Norman Thomas (Louisa Thomas refers to him generally as Norman, to avoid confusion with his three brothers- Arthur, Ralph, and Evan) stands out as a historical figure: he served the poor, had progressive beliefs about pretty much everything, and eventually one of the founders of the ACLU. The book doesn't read as an ode to Norman, though I imagine much has been white-washed. Thomas writes of the disappointment Norman caused his father as his beliefs strayed farther and farther from his Presbyterian upbringing, his tendency to flip-flop on his political beliefs, and the reliance on his wealthy wife's money. None of these can really be pointed to as strengths on Norman's part.

So what's the big deal about the Thomases? As the tag line for the book tells the reader, Norman was one of four brothers involved in the war: two became pacifists, and two became soldiers. Norman was the oldest. All four went to Princeton, and the pacifists both followed in their father's footsteps and became ministers (though both faced challenges in actually passing the minister test when they wouldn't be nailed down on literal interpretations of the bible). The Princeton thing is a big deal, because the four Thomas boys became very well-connected, to the point that they were on speaking terms with Woodrow Wilson up to and through his presidency. Norman, especially, was in with movers and shakers, especially in New York. He married well, and started his career path high, as the minister to the church to the mucky mucks on 5th Avenue, before realizing that he was destined for smaller worldly things and bigger spiritual paths. By the end of the book, he's left the spiritual world all together for a more moral and ethical truth, though whether or not he attains a clear idea of truth is debatable.

His brother Evan also struggles with truth, though in a more self-focused way. While Norman seems to have a picture of what he is fighting for: class and racial equality, a sense of justice in the world; Evan thrashes about looking for purpose. Thomas either can't figure out what Evan was doing with his life or nails it that Evan couldn't figure out what Evan was doing with his life. Eventually he decides that he is a pacifist, and an "absolutist" at that. Although he is abroad when President Wilson decides to enter into the war, Evan returns to the states in order to get drafted and then object to the war. While Norman struggles with how to take an appropriate anti-war stance, Evan takes his marching orders in order to defy them, and is insulted when the army cannot let him go as far as he would like to take them. For me, this is the most thought provoking part of the book. Thomas writes, quoting a reporter of the time,
Conscientious objectors represented "a residue" with "peculiar beliefs"- and yet there is a note of respect here, the refusal to subordinate oneself and submit to the "opinions of others or to force." That ambivalence is part of the American ethos, in which community is forever balanced against the individual, the state against the rights of men. Conscientious objectors demanded to be released from the heaviest burden placed upon citizens, the willingness to kill and die for one's country. The health of a democracy requires minimal coercion. But the health of a state sometimes requires that men do things they object to. Conscientious objectors brought that tension to the fore. That is why they could not be ignored.
It is exactly this ambivalence that makes America America, that makes peace patriotic, that makes me un-American. Without the ability to object to serving the state in the most serious way, there is no freedom of speech, and there is no democracy- there is only The State, and perhaps fascism, or totalitarianism. The will of the state is all there is. On the other hand, at least the way it is now, without the state having the ability to force service onto its subjects, there is no state, and only a few on the extreme left (right?) would argue against the state altogether. Further, it is an enormous privilege to say "I don't believe in fighting," and then leave the fighting to some one else. Evan had the option of doing alternative service, like working on a farm, but being an "absolutist" was jailed instead. Where does privilege end and conscience begin? Thomas does a fascinating job at bringing up these issues through individual characters and leaving the questions open. The foils of Norman and Evan, who take two separate paths to objecting the war, are good ones: Thomas presents the reader with two of the possible paths, and leaves her alone to find her own.