Milton Mayer, Quaker Hedgehog

A Review and Profile, by H. Larry Ingle

State Authority Over the Individual

Oxford-educated political scientist Isaiah Berlin, in his minor classic “The Hedgehog and the Fox” (1953), divided people into two groups, those who understood one big thing like the hedgehog and those, like the fox, who knew many things. The subject of this essay was a hedgehog who throughout his life concerned himself with one common theme, the threat of state authority over the individual; this threat emerged, he insisted, because individuals permitted it by not resisting the state’s encroachments.

During the current period, a time of mounting concern about civil liberties and individual rights, especially in the face of mounting governmental authority, it is wise to consider one of the best known Friends of the twentieth century. I write of Milton Mayer (1908-86), now mostly forgotten but well worth recalling because he illustrated a significant, continuing, and newly-timely strain in Quaker thinking.

A newspaperman and magazine columnist, Mayer wrote and edited numerous books and turned out reams of personal essays for the Progressive, a journal that carried his byline for nearly forty years. His best known and most important book was his study of ten average Germans from 1933 to 1945, They Thought They Were Free, a work he published a decade after the war when he lived in Germany and interviewed residents of that defeated nation. No one has done a biographical study of Mayer, although he left numerous references to his personal experiences in his essays and books, so it is only a matter of digging out the factual details to put his life into context.

Born in Chicago of a German Jewish father and an English-born mother, Mayer was educated in the public schools of the city where he reminded readers constantly, he received a classical education with a heavy emphasis on Latin and languages; he graduated from Englewood High School. His Reform Jewish family was well enough off that young Milton visited Germany probably after World War I.

His self-composed entry in Who’s Who in America for 1984 refers only to his being a student at the University of Chicago from 1925 to 1928, without mentioning that he did not earn a degree. Mayer apparently left the University the year before the thirty-year-old Robert Maynard Hutchins became president in 1929. He told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942 that he was “placed on permanent probation in 1928 for throwing beer bottles out a dormitory window, ‘failing, however, to hit the dean.’” (“Keeping Posted, March 28, 1942) Their lives would be intertwined until Hutchins’s death in 1977, and Mayer’s widow would oversee the publication of a biography her husband had penned of his friend. This unorthodox study, Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir, published in 1993 by the University of California Press, offers insights into the genesis of Mayer’s development that are absent from his other writings.

After leaving the University, Mayer worked as a reporter for the Chicago Evening Post for nine years and married his first wife Bertha Tepper; the couple had two daughters. They were divorced in 1945, and two years later he married Jane Scully, who would become well-known as “Baby” or, after protests from feminists, “Ms. Baby,” to readers of his magazine columns. These details come from the Who’s Who entry, but the Hutchins biography reveals that Mayer had gone to work for William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago American sometime during the early 1930s, covering the University of Chicago from which position he met Hutchins.

Preparing an article for that paper, he read Hutchins’s 1935 commencement address to the graduates at the University, and his life was changed. In words that Mayer would echo and re-echo, again and again, Hutchins told his auditors that they faced a life that would corrupt them, tempting them to become safe, sound, agreeable, and inoffensive, giving them habits of timidity. “Believe me,” Hutchins pointedly warned, “you are closer to the truth now than you will ever be again.” (Mayer: 1993, 3-5)

Mayer for one believed, and he went to Hutchins in April 1937 and asked how he could be “saved” from having to work for William Randolph Hearst. Hutchins offered him an undefined job at $45 a week, half of what Hearst was paying. When Mayer countered that he couldn’t live on such a paucity, the president reminded him that he had asked only to be saved, not to live. So, confessing privately to himself that he would have gone with Hutchins for $22.50, Mayer accepted his offer and emerged a tutor in the Great Books class that the president and professor Felix Adler conducted. Later, minus any advanced degree — indeed, any degree at all! — he was “promoted” from tutor to assistant professor on the committee of social thought, a post he held for eleven years. He also served as assistant to the University’s president. Of such were academic careers built in those long-ago days.

Now also a freelance journalist– although he always referred to himself simply as a “newspaperman” – Mayer followed his mentor and honed his skills as a young curmudgeon, a gadfly looking for human foibles among his fellow citizens. The personal essay became his favorite genre. He sold pieces to various journals, including even the Rotarian, the most notorious being his October 7,1939 article in the family-oriented Saturday Evening Post, entitled “I Think I’ll Sit This One Out,” in which he explained why the approaching world war would produce more harm than good; the common enemy was, he insisted, “the animality in man.” (p. 100) He added to his notoriety with a March 1942 contribution to the Post, “The Case against the Jew.” (reprinted in Mayer: 1964, 136-145)

Stressing that Jews had become so assimilated that they had lost their chance to be prophetic, Mayer quoted the prophet Isaiah when he attacked those who whored after false gods, “In righteousness shall thou be established.”

To make his point, Mayer related the story of an assimilated Jewish correspondent who had had his children baptized in a Christian church and who had been in Warsaw during the Nazi invasion. Riding a train while Jews were being mobbed in the streets, he told of seeing an old Jew wearing a robe and a skull cap sitting across the aisle reading his prayerbook. A half dozen Nazis got on and passed the Jew, who never looked up; one spat on him. Still, he didn’t look up, didn’t even wince, and the reporter explained that the incident haunted him; “that old Jew makes me feel like a heel” — and this from a man who had just said that he didn’t ‘feel like a Jew.’” Mayer understood and commented that the old man “was prepared for suffering because he had something worth suffering for.” (Ibid.)

Most people who saw the article apparently never got beyond its title. It was so controversial in the wartime atmosphere, in the flush of patriotism four months after the United States entered the war, that the Post carried an unusual editorial two months later explaining why they had published it and commissioned a response from former Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Even as late as 1986, more than forty years later and after Mayer was in his grave, it provoked a heated exchange of letters in the New York Review of Books regarding his alleged “anti-semitism.” (Draper, 1986)

Mayer was definitely a left-winger in politics, even a revolutionary. But his would be a revolution different from the one urged by the typical anti-capitalist agitator, socialist, or communist. His, an anti-materialist one, would indeed put an end to capitalism, but, he told the editors of the Christian Century in 1944, it would be a moral one. (Conscience and Commonwealth, p.24) His writings almost always put a moral and religious twist to his analyses, pretty much ending his association with journals like Life and Harpers.

He lived at Hull House, the social work settlement house made famous by Chicagoan Jane Addams, and he wrote more articles for the Nation. Too old for the draft, he denied to the annual dinner of the War Resisters League in 1944 that he was a pacifist, even though he claimed conscientious objector status to the current conflict, a position for which the Christian Century took him to task in July of that year. (Ibid.) About this time too he began a steady career as a columnist for the Progressive, a magazine founded in 1909 by senator Robert M. Lafollette of Wisconsin. From these pages emerged most of his more trenchant insights.

It remains unclear when Mayer began attending a Friends Meeting, although he composed an article called “Sit Down and Shut Up” for Common Sense in April 1945 about what he said was his first experience at one in a Pittsburgh hotel’s sub-ballroom. There he reflected on his misspent life and successfully resisted the temptation to get up and hold forth, as was his won’t; instead, he listened within the “living silence” to three messages. He lauded Quakers for their appeal to African Americans, their denial of a special priesthood, their indifference to sacraments, their opposition to war, even as he professed to be troubled by their tendency to make money and become rich. (Reprinted in Mayer: 1990, 171-175) He formally joined Friends in Germany in the early 1950s, according to what his wife told this writer, although he had already served as a visiting professor at the rather evangelical William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, from 1948 to 1951, when it had an anomalously progressive president.

Germany was the research site for Mayer’s first and most important book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, which came out in 1955 courtesy of the University of Chicago Press; still in print, the book continues to grace the reading lists for college courses in German history. To do the research, he secured a position as research professor at the University of Frankfurt and lived in a nearby small Hessian town he called “Kronenberg.” Spending a year interviewing and getting to know ten “average” Germans, all members of the National Socialist German Workers Party, he wanted to discover what had made them Nazis. What gave all Mayer’s writings their appeal was that, as he reported in the book’s Foreword, he found that his German Friends were just like all other people, no better, no worse, the same. Which was to say that they had not resisted the warning of Robert Hutchins’s 1935 commencement address: it was not that they had not heard the address; it was that they acted as other people always act — they had become corrupted by the desire to get along, so they went along.

The most constant theme of Mayer’s essays, one that allowed him to cut through to the very heart of issues, was that human beings had an obligation to resist the beginnings, principiis obsta – he loved to quote this to demonstrate that his high school Latin teacher had taught him something. Let them consider the beginnings of their actions, he pled, peer into the future, and fathom the likeliest outcome, making sure to avoid those that would lead where they did not want to go. That principle led him to oppose World War II, made him refuse to pay the proportion of his federal taxes that went to war-making purposes, pushed him in the 1950s to refuse to sign a loyalty oath in order to get a passport, made him, in short, the kind of Jew – he referred to himself that way when it was rhetorically or politically convenient– who could excoriate his fellow Jews for their penchant for assimilation. His ten German friends had violated that principle.

The problem with his German friends was that they, self-consciously and clearly “little people,” did not buck public opinion in their conservative town. The backbone of German society, they had never had any special advantages– only one of them had an advanced formal education; he taught high school literature– they had no desire to read the foreign press or listen to foreign radio broadcasts. For them the years of Nazism, until the war anyway, were the best years of their lives. If unpleasant things happened like, say, a number of Jews were taken into protective custody in Kronenberg, no one of these ten was directly affected, and none could remember the occasion or its announcement in the local press, even when Mayer prodded them with the article.

These ten Germans had not lost their moral sense of rectitude. No, it was only that the first compromises were so small and imperceptible that life went on pretty much as it always had. Only one event nearly crossed the line that might have offended the Kronenberg community’s sense of what was right That was the torching of the town’s synagogue on November 9, 1938. But however sacrilegious and a lawless destruction of private property, it was planned and orchestrated by outsiders, allowing locals to continue to mind their own business, as they had always done and knew to do.

Mayer drove this point home time and time again, in a multitude of illustrations. He quoted a colleague, a philologist of Middle High German, one who admitted he should have done better because he at least sensed what was happening. Not by way of exculpation but merely to explain, he instanced anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous quote about how the Nazis went after one group and then another, and he did not protest until he was targeted, when it was too late.

To which the philologist added his own lament:

“What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. . . . (Mayer: 1955, 166) To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it–please try to believe me–unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted’ . . . .(168) Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow. . . .(169)

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.” (171)

And once the war began, anything became possible because it was “necessary” to win–those who even looked as though they might have questions risked condemnation as defeatists. Only after the beginning of hostilities did the Nazi leadership dare unveil its “final solution” to the Jewish question, for now they knew they could get away with it. All Mayer’s little German friends agreed that they wan-ted to oppose “excesses,” the only problem being that when they learned of these excesses it was too late to do anything. And the ques-tion remained whether they could even then recognize an “excess.”

Mayer’s friends fed into his analysis. The high school literature teacher taught, among other things, the English author William Shakespeare. When Mayer inquired if he taught Julius Caesar, the reply was “No,” so Mayer wondered if it was prohibited. Again came “No,” with a wry smile; it was just that the Nazi teacher, who had earlier explained how he had tried to subtly work into his classroom presentation comments that might cause students to question a regime that he wouldn’t, understood that it would have been “indiscreet,” a violation of the “German spirit,” to study Julius Caesar. When Mayer interviewed the sensitive teacher Heinrich Hildebrandt, after the war, he blushed with embarrassment at the felt necessity of being so compliant with the Nazis, hoisted now– when it was too late and he could do nothing about it– by his realization that he had violated the principiis obsta. (200)

Mayer refused to judge his German friends, because as he made clear– and this was what makes They Thought They Were Free so compelling – he, and Americans, and Russians, and Ugandans, all shared the same human problem: we found it easier to go along than to resist; oh, yes, we’ll resist the excesses– when they finally appear obvious and stark to us– but let us wait until then. In this sense, his book was a tract for the times, the McCarthyite times in the United States, as well as a nuanced analysis of the Germans from 1933 to 1945.

It is again a tract for our times, the Bush-Ashcroft times, when the “war on terror” gives Americans a Patriot Act, passed overwhelmingly in both House of Representatives and Senate, when citizens– not to mention non-citizens– are arrested and locked away without the usual safeguards of the Constitution, a practice almost universally acquiesced in by the courts, when federal officials may inquire into what books we have checked out of libraries or purchased from book stores, when agents of the FBI can infiltrate meetings, churches, synagogues, and mosques–open to the public, after all–to monitor what is going on, what is said, even what is hinted at. We would recognize “excesses,” too, wouldn’t we?

Mayer dealt with the excesses of his time. Refused a new passport by the American consul in Berne, Switzerland, in 1963, because he refused to sign an oath required by the Internal Security Act, took the case to court, and won a victory for us all in Mayer vs. Rusk in 1964. Even in the face of annual audits, unusual in the case of ordinary citizens like himself, an auditor told him, he continued to withhold the percentage of federal income taxes that went for war. While teaching at the Comenius Theological Seminary in Prague in 1961-62, he visited Hungary, a violation of State Department regulations, and, as a warning, had his “right” to a passport reviewed. (Biodegradable Man, p. 68-79)

Mayer’s relationship with the American Friends Service Committee also firmed up in this period. He had long been a lecturer for the AFSC, participating in its World Affairs Seminars, and writing laudatory articles about it for various publications. (One of the best of this genre, which the Progressive carried in January 1955, “Into the Harvest,” celebrated devout Methodist E. A. “Red” Schaal, who served as a peace secretary in the AFSC. It contained what might be called a sly dig at AFSC by pointing out that when its peace secretaries were asked how many new people they wanted to hire with funds from a large anticipated grant, while his colleagues ventured five or ten, Shaal wanted none: “I can’t find enough committed people to fill the jobs we’ve got now. Why create more jobs?”(Mayer: 1990, 185) But it was his appointment to the AFSC committee that prepared the pamphlet widely heralded Speak Truth to Power in 1954 that marked the acme of his influence with the group.

Since 1947, AFSC had been moving to a more politically-oriented position, and its pamphlet series was a part of that approach. Fourteen well-known Quakers, including the black civil rights worker and homosexual Bayard Rustin (whose name was quietly not listed with other committee members in the published pamphlet), former AFSC executive Clarence Pickett, and professional peace agitator A. J. Muste, joined Mayer to produce the only one of the series that is remembered, and what was the most important pacifist statement ever composed in the United States.

One problem that dogged the committee was that it could not come up with a title its members liked when it met on the coast of New England during the summer of 1954 to hash out the statement. The morning they were to leave, Mayer had a revelation. “Speak truth to power,” he proposed, and the committee embraced the four words with alacrity. The phrase has since come over into the language, many Quakers thinking it originated in the seventeenth century, but it was quintessentially Mayerish, capturing what Friends, as well as other prophets, had tried to do over the centuries. (Ingle, 1985, pp. 383-385)

Three years after, Mayer contributed “The Commencement Address” to Christian Century, a piece that seems to me to be one of the best short articles he ever turned out. The piece displays striking parallels to Hutchins’s 1935 address; in it, Mayer imagined that he had come back to speak to graduating seniors of the college where he had graduated twenty-five years before. His commencement address rang with soaring words, even as it forecast that the class was doomed to compromise and outright corruption, Mayer’s own word.

“As you are now,” he began, “so I once was; as I am now, so you will be. You will be tempted to smile when I tell you that I am middle-aged and corrupt. You should resist the temptation. Twenty-five years from now you will be ineluctably middle-aged and, unless you hear and heed what I say today, just as ineluctably corrupt . . . .. (Mayer: 1964, 146)

“You have lived sheltered lives,” he explained, “but you have had no one to shelter you from your parents or teachers. Your parents have done what they could to adjust you to the deplorable society to which they, as their advanced age testifies, have successfully adjusted themselves. (147)

In time, he warned, “You won’t even know that you are corrupt. You will be no worse than your neighbors, and you will be sure to have some that you won’t be as bad as.” (Ibid., 149) He remembered that his own “education prepared me to say no to my enemies. It did not prepare me to say no to my friends, still less to myself, to my own limitless need for a little more status, a little more security, and a little more of the immediate pleasure that status and security provide.” (151-2)

And Milton Mayer, the man who on his Who’s Who questionnaire, under religion, wrote “Jewish; member of the Soc. of Friends,” advised his imagined audience to seek what Socrates had sought so long and hard but the thing that always eluded him: the gift of God. “In despair of your parents and your society, of your teachers and your studies, of your neighbors and your friends, and above all of your fallen nature and the Old Adam in you,” he ended, “I bespeak for you the gift of God.” (153)

As can readily be seen, Mayer combined his lack of faith in institutions with a concomitant, even instinctive, commitment to individualism. Indeed, these two themes fed each other. As a consultant for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, run by Hutchins, financed by the Ford Foundation, and centered in Santa Barbara, California, he wrote for its publications and published Man v. the State in 1966. For a reader who is familiar with the gist of Mayer, Man v. the State seems a sometimes tendentious exploration of what classical and more modern thinkers had to say about the powers of the state and individual rights and added little but illustrations to his thought. His dominant insight remained: in America’s highly advanced society, the conflicting claims between the state and the individual push citizens into an “unrelieved twilight as a prelude to ineluctable darkness . . . . In this twilight one tendency is clear: the state’s power waxes and the individual’s wanes.” (Mayer: 1972, 91)

Like many near-anarchists, there was an irony about Mayer and his stance. He possessed a respect and very strong commitment to certain rules, not the one requiring payment of one’s income tax, surely, but ones that touched him, almost inexplicably, close to home. There were rules that one ought to abide by. A telling example was the conflict he had in the 1970s with the editor of Friends Journal about that Quaker periodical’s insistence that in articles for it he cease using gender-specific pronouns. He explained the long tradition of using pronouns like “he” or “him” to refer to both men and women, and he bluntly told the editor that he would write nothing for a publication that did not allow him to adhere to this hallowed tradition of journalism.

It was not that he was a “sexist”; it was only that, as an individualist, he demanded that the right be granted him to adhere to time-honored rules. One could sense here echoes of responses to his controversial 1942 article about Jews: he insisted on being a literalist about what a Jew was, citing the prophet Isaiah–those who obeyed God’s call to be righteous, a call that would, in Mayer’s eyes, assure them roles as dissenters–and if some wanted to label him an anti-semite for that, let them. Milton Sanford Mayer knew who he was.

Mayer’s moral and religious approach was highlighted in a debate he had with economist Kenneth Boulding, held at the Quaker study center at Pendle Hill, outside Philadelphia, in April 1966, during the height of the Vietnam War. (This was while he spent nine years as professor of English at the University of Massachusetts.) Published as a Pendle Hill pamphlet (#153) entitled, The Mayer/Boulding Dialogue on Peace Research, the discussion focused on how to avoid war and conflict.

Boulding, renowned as a social scientist and a Friend, wanted to seek out the causes of war and, once they were identified, attempt to avoid them so as to prevent further conflicts. Mayer would have none of this approach. Peace researchers, he said, were like architects and builders of houses who were employed to get a specific job done; the goal was set by the person desiring a house. We human beings must set the goal for peace and move toward it. Mayer exclaimed at the start, “Of my own knowledge I know only this: that man is corrupt unto death, that he is born corrupt and that life corrupts him and that the older and more rickety, envious, frustrate[d], and fearful he becomes the more furiously has he to mobilize his waning powers, not to overcome corruption but only to reduce the rate at which it is overcoming him.” And he ended on the same note, “. . . I say that I know what to do, and what I need is to do it.” (Mayer/Boulding: 5,30)

Boulding’s rejoinder was equally fluent and forceful: “Only a fool would want to argue with Milton; though Milton has a way of being wrong very beautifully.” Ibid., p. 7)

“It’s all very well to indulge in Aristotelian gloom . . . . There is a certain amount of truth in this talk about corruption and original sin, but the plain fact is, we do learn things. There is an evolutionary process which goes on in the world and there is an evolutionary process which goes on in social systems. . . .”

Boulding argued that science had accelerated social evolution, to the point where, “There’s no use quoting Aristotle; he didn’t know anything about this . . . . We have to come to terms with another state of man altogether. Anybody who thinks that science is a tool for carrying out the values of ancient authorities is in a dream world.”

Boulding expressed the scientist’s optimism: “I don’t really think the problem of war and peace is any more intrinsically difficult than the problem of unemployment. It is a question of how to introduce certain tricks, almost, into the system, and you solve the problem. This is highly characteristic of the history of invention. You struggle with a problem for generations and centuries and all of a sudden somebody thinks of a perfectly simple thing which solves it. . . .” (Ibid., 7,8,12)

Mayer was not convinced. “As I examine my own misspent life,” he said, “I don’t see any point at which more knowledge would have enabled me better to confront its crises. It seems to me as I consider these crises, that in their confrontation I knew about as much at the age of two (perhaps we ought to say three, but I was precocious) as I did at any point thereafter, that would have been of any decisive use to me; and that my problem at the age of two was not to know something that I didn’t know, but to do something that I didn’t do, or to stop doing something that I was doing.” (Ibid., 13)

And so it went, brilliantly, for two days.

One of the things he did do was to publicize the question of whether president Richard Nixon, also a Quaker, should be disciplined by the Evangelical Quaker congregation to which he had belonged most of his life, the East Whittier (California) Friends Church. In an article in late 1973 in Christian Century, Mayer surveyed the history of how Friends had dealt with what in the seventeenth century was quaintly called “disorderly walking” and presented a number of possibilities for dealing with the president, ranging from a formal admonition to outright disownment. (Reprinted in Mayer: 1975,.309-315)

Already widely discussed in Quaker circles, particularly eastern ones, this matter of a president being disciplined by his church provoked a response from Eugene Coffin, the pastor of East Whittier Church, in the first issue of the next year; he revealed that the group’s Ministry and Counsel Committee had already discussed the matter and decided that Nixon’s conscience was the final authority in the matter. (Coffin) No record exists that Mayer commented publicly, but he must have ruefully mused that Coffin’s stance only confirmed how assimilated Quakers had become within the broader Christian community.

Mayer was an odd bird and an odd Quaker, more than a little out of touch with the main drift of his times; for him, this disconnect would have hardly been a shortcoming. For example, when he died after a long illness in April 1986, in Carmel, California, where he and Jane had moved not long after the war, not a single obituary appeared in the papers of the United States, including even the newspaper of record, the New York Times, and in June the Progressive republished an old column that he himself had chosen for the occasion. Self-effacing, he kept his name out of Who’s Who in America until 1984. Determined to discharge his obligations, when he visited friends and had to make a long distance telephone call, he addressed a postal card to himself and insisted his host mail it when the bill arrived to show how much he owed.

But Mayer was an odder Quaker. He clearly accepted the notion that one could hear the voice of God if one listened long and carefully enough, and he also believed that God’s grace could touch a human being to bring salvation and empowerment. He also found the silence of Quaker worship exactly what he needed. The differences were not just those that flowed from his Jewish background, for other Jews have found and do find a spiritual home among Friends.

What made him different from most modern Hicksite and other liberal Friends was his central conviction that human beings are fatally and innately flawed, to use one of his–one he borrowed from Robert Hutchins–favorite words, “corrupt.” He chose not to adopt the term “original sin,” but that was what he was talking about nonetheless. It is not a concept that one often finds among cosmopolitan Quakers these days. In fact, most adhere to a kind of fashionable “liberalism” that tends to elevate human beings to a status a little lower than the angels. Mayer exempted no one, not even himself, from the fatal flaw he saw lurking at the center of the human animal. Because he saw people failing to live up to their highest ideals, everyone being the same, his writings possessed the ability to speak to all kinds and sorts and draw people into his net.

The same quality gave him his hedgehog characteristic. If people were corrupt, then their institutions were inevitably corrupt as well. Given their power and ability to define what was good and acceptable, they were to be feared and resisted by those who had been given, through the grace and virtue of God, the insight to see what was wrong. At that point, they were called to act, by which Mayer meant to resist. In what its editors said was the greatest demand for reprints of any item they ever published, the Progressive reprinted in December 1953 the article he had done in February 1950, and then they issued it as a leaflet. Called “The Merry Christ,” it dealt with the commercialization of Christmas. In a typically Mayerish twist, however, he specifically rejected calls of Christians to make Christmas less commercial. No: “Like all other sins,” he wrote, “it can not be reformed; it has got to be abolished. . . . The blasphemy will creep back as long as men are pagans, just as sin will, but that is no reason why the Christians should not denounce it and disengage themselves from its practice.”

So Mayer’s answer to the age of Bush-Ashcroft amounts only to a reiteration of his central insight: principiis obsta, resist the beginnings, lest institutions like the state overwhelm you. George Fox, the founder of Quakers in the seventeenth century, did not use these exact terms, but he certainly knew how to denounce and disengage from the apostasy he saw all around him, the one he believed stretched back sixteen centuries. He and Jewish Quaker Milton Mayer were two hedgehogs of the same water.


My account and analysis of Milton Mayer comes almost entirely from my reading of his books and shorter pieces, which are included below, listed in chronological order.

For the exchange of letters on Mayer’s alleged “anti-semitism,” See Roger Draper, “Unfriendly Persuasion,” response to Dexter Masters, New York Review of Books, November 6, 1986; on the web at:; and


What Can a Man Do? Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1964.
If Men Were Angels. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
The Nature of the Beast. Amherst, MA: U. of Massachusetts Press, 1975.
Biodegradable Man: Selected Essays of Milton Mayer. Athens GA: U. of Georgia Press, 1990.


They Thought They Were Free. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1955; paperback 1966.
Man v. the State. Santa Barbara CA: The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1969.
Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir. Berkeley CA: U. of California Press, 1993.

Pamphlets and articles:

“I Think I’ll Sit this One Out,” Saturday Evening Post, (7 Oct 1939)
“Keeping Posted,” Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1942. On the web at:
Conscience and the Commonwealth (1944)
The Merry Christ (1953)
Mayer/Boulding Dialogue on Peace Research (1967)
“Disownment: The Quakers and their President,” Christian Century, (10 Oct 1973)

I did not read the following books of Mayer’s and various co-authors:

Young Man in a Hurry: William Rainey Harper (1957)
The Revolution in Education (1958)
Humanistic Education and Western Civilization (1964)
Anatomy of Anti-Communism (1969)
The Art of the Impossible: A Study of the Czech Resistance (1969)

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