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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
July 15, 2011

The Other Einstein
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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Time magazine has named Albert Einstein its “Person of the Century.” The great physicist beat out such competition as Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler, Gandhi, Stalin, and Gloria Steinem.

The choice is hard to argue with, but not necessarily for the reasons Time offers. True, Einstein was more than a genius: he was an Einstein. He had the transcendent gift to see that the unquestioned presuppositions of an entire culture were questionable. His pencil vanquished a way of seeing the world that had seemed self-evident from Euclid to Newton.

The reverberations were indeed tremendous. Thanks to Einstein’s inspiration, the old common sense not only of science, but of politics, psychology, economics, art, literature, music, and morality, became subject to iconoclasm and revolutionary innovation. All this had no logical connection with the general theory of relativity, but it certainly had an imaginative debt to Einstein.

Without his example in science it’s unlikely that the intellectual, political, and artistic novelties of Freud, Lenin, Eliot, Picasso, Joyce, Keynes, Schoenberg, and many other geniuses and frauds (even now it’s not always easy to tell which are which) would have had the impact they did. More than any other man, he gave us the modern cult of the genius, the leader, the expert, with all their blind followings. The total state claimed the authority of “racial science” and “scientific socialism.”

In every field, old traditions and basic assumptions — linear thought, coherence, melody, narrative, harmony, representation, the rule of law itself — crumbled. Einstein is the godfather of the counterintuitive, the modernist avant-garde, the new emperor whose new clothes (if any) we are still arguing about. Yet Einstein himself, puzzled by his celebrity in the mass culture of his time, remained out of touch with nearly every movement he spawned outside the world of science.

Time’s cover story paints him in the familiar way — as a naive, lovable champion of freedom, driven by “humane and democratic instincts,” hated by Hitler and Stalin alike. It neglects to add that Stalin’s hatred was unrequited: Einstein became a resolute fellow-traveler who defended the 1938 Moscow show trials and refused every opportunity to condemn Soviet tyranny. He spoke of the “great merits” and “important achievements” of Soviet Communism, whose “only aim is really the improvement of the lot of the Russian people.” When a correspondent pointed out that Stalin had deliberately starved millions of peasants, Einstein made no reply, though on another occasion he doubted that the Soviets could have done so much good “by following softer methods.”

Einstein was also the godfather of the nuclear age. A pacifist during World War I, he came to hate not only Hitler but his native Germany, and he urged Franklin Roosevelt to develop an atomic bomb — the most practical application of his discovery of the energy latent in all matter. He was later distressed when this weapon of mass murder was dropped on Japan and brandished against Stalin; after all, it had been meant for Berlin.

Yet somehow his cherished image as the original absent-minded professor, “humane and democratic,” has survived, despite revelations that he was a cruel and habitually adulterous husband — “an egregious flirt,” as Time indulgently puts it. He preached against the dreadful weaponry that owed its existence to him without incurring charges of hypocrisy: his sad, droopy face, his wild white mane, and his baggy clothes immunized him against criticism, reinforcing the impression that he was a sort of eccentric saint, the wise child of Spinoza’s God.

“Besides campaigning for a ban on nuclear weaponry,” gushes Time, “he denounced McCarthyism and pleaded for an end to bigotry and racism.” What a seminal thinker!

In helping bring science out of the ivory tower and into the hands of tyranny, Einstein was very much a typical man of the twentieth century. In one respect, at least, he didn’t criticize the presuppositions of his time: he shared the basic assumption of Stalin, Roosevelt, Mussolini, and, yes, Hitler — that political power should be centralized.

There are some old principles that remain sound in spite of all revolutionary ideas, one of them being the principle that freedom depends on the division of power. The towering mind of Albert Einstein never managed to grasp this.

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Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 28, 1999.

Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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