Much has been written in these pages about the political upheavals of the 1960s and the radical changes they have brought to every aspect of our cultural and intellectual life. What has now come to be called the “culture war” has indeed been a central concern of The New Criterion since its founding in 1982. It wasn’t yet called a “war” in those days, for its effects were believed by enlightened mainstream opinion to be confined to the universities, the arts institutions, and certain branches of the media, where changes in intellectual fashion were thought to be both inevitable and desirable, and of no great consequence—certainly of no malign consequence—as far as the life of the larger society was concerned. Anyone who suggested, as we often did, that what amounted to a sweeping cultural and moral revolution was upon us in these developments was likely to be dismissed as benighted or extremist. Elite opinion smiled upon these changes as a welcome liberalization of our society and turned a deaf ear to the few critics who were sounding an alarm about the catastrophe that was rapidly overtaking every aspect of life and thought.
Whatever else might be said about this wholesale denial of history—our history— the time has clearly passed when that denial can be effectively sustained. The culture war has now openly been acknowledged on all sides. And while the critics of the cultural revolution remain an embattled minority, they are no longer alone in recognizing its destructive consequences. Every parent with a child in school, every reader of the newspapers, and every viewer of television is witness to the lethal implications of this revolution. If the battle is not yet fully joined, there is now at least a much wider recognition in our society that fundamental issues are at stake in the cultural revolution that began in the Sixties and has lately been codified as policy and pedagogy.
It is in this context that we call our readers’ attention to a new book that addresses these issues with a cogency and passion unequaled by anything else yet written on the subject. It is rare for a single short book to cast such a penetrating light on the world in which we live that it instantly becomes an indispensable guide to the outstanding questions of the day. Yet the slender volume called The Dream and the Nightmare (Morrow; $20) is a work of this extraordinary kind. Written by Myron Magnet, a member of the board of editors at Fortune magazine and a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the book is at once an analysis of the cultural revolution that has transformed American life in recent decades and a comprehensive account of the devastating consequences that have followed in its wake. The Dream and the Nightmare is also a concise history of the good intentions and bad ideas that have reshaped our society in this period. About everything from the moral degradation of the underclass to the intellectual disgrace of our school and college classrooms to the spiritual disarray of our middle class, Mr. Magnet has something important to say. He is indeed a master at tracing the intellectual provenance of the troubles that now beset our society and our culture from top to bottom.
It is in fact upon the relation that obtains between the top—or what are here called “the Haves”—and the bottom—“the Have-Nots”—that Mr. Magnet has constructed his account of what he calls in the subtitle of his book “The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass.” “This book’s central argument,” he writes, “is that the Haves are implicated [in the catastrophic fate of the underclass] because over the last thirty years they radically remade American culture, turning it inside out and upside down to accomplish a cultural revolution whose most mangled victims turned out to be the Have-Nots.”
As Mr. Magnet duly acknowledges, “this was the precise opposite of what was supposed to happen,” and everyone who was witness to the beginning of the cultural revolution in the 1960s will recognize the accuracy of his description. He speaks of the “two related liberations” that the Haves initiated for the benefit of the poor—the Have-Nots—and for themselves. The first of these was “the political and economic liberation of the Have-Nots—the poor and the black” that had been “impelled by the fervor of the civil rights movement.” The ideal that guided the Haves, he writes,
was a vision of democracy; their honorable aim was to complete democracy’s work, to realize democratic values fully by making American society more open and inclusive. Out of this democratic impulse sprang the War on Poverty, welfare benefit increases, court-ordered school busing, more public housing projects, affirmative action, job-training programs, drug treatment programs, special education, The Other America, Archie Bunker, Roots, countless editorials and magazine articles and TV specials, black studies programs, multicultural curricula, new textbooks, all-black college dorms, sensitivity courses, minority set-asides, Martin Luther King Day, and the political correctness movement at colleges, to name only some of the almost endless manifestations.
This effort to “liberate the poor and excluded from their marginality,” Mr. Magnet writes, was accompanied by “a second, even more spectacular liberation” that the Haves sought for themselves—and this liberation, too, had a devastating effect in reshaping the life of the Have-Nots. In the most general and far-reaching terms, this movement was governed by the desire of the Haves to free themselves from the claims of conformity and convention in their personal behavior, and the result was a historical change in the moral life of the American people.
“That longing found two epochal expressions,” Mr. Magnet writes.
The first was the sexual revolution, whose attitudes, diffused throughout the culture by advertising, movies, popular music, and television, so transformed values and behavior that they ultimately reshaped family life, increasing divorce, illegitimacy, and female-headed families on all levels of society.
The second manifestation of this longing by the Haves for personal liberation was, of course, the Sixties counterculture.
As its name announced, the counterculture rejected traditional bourgeois culture as sick, repressive, and destructive. Bourgeois culture’s sexual mores, based on guilt, marriage, and the perverse belief that present gratification should be deferred to achieve future goals, were symptoms of its pathology. Its sobriety and decorum were mere slavish, hypocritical conformism; its industriousness betokened an upside-down, materialistic value system; its family life was yet another arena of coercion and guilt.
It was from all these horrors, as well as from the oppressive character of capitalism itself, that the counterculture was supposed to liberate us all.
The immediate effect of this moral revolution was made manifest in every area of American life. “The new adversary stance toward conventional beliefs and ideals, breathlessly reported in the press and diffused almost instantly among the young,” Mr. Magnet writes, “quickly put traditional values on the defensive, making them newly problematic even for those who continued to hold them.” What he describes as the “yoking together of personal and political liberations” became, in effect, an established convention, producing a cultural revolution that, as he writes, “failed in devastating ways in both of its two large intentions.”
Instead of ending poverty for the Have-Nots … the new cultural order fostered, in the underclass and the homeless, a new, intractable poverty that shocked and dismayed … that went beyond the economic realm into the realm of pathology.
Behind this pathology, as Mr. Magnet points out, was a fundamental moral shift: behavior that had hitherto been widely disparaged was now countenced and even celebrated. “[D]uring the sixties and seventies,” he writes, “the new culture of the Haves, in its quest for personal liberation, withdrew respect from the behavior and attitudes that have traditionally boosted people up the economic ladder—deferral of gratification, sobriety, thrift, dogged industry, and so on through the whole catalogue of antique-sounding bourgeois virtues.”
It was not only the Have-Nots who were the casualties of this cultural revolution. Mr. Magnet also demonstrates the many ways in which the Haves themselves were victims of the cultural revolution they had brought about—a revolution that, paradoxically, inflicted great damage upon the very democractic values it was meant to serve. “In order to gain laudable ethical ends,” Mr. Magnet observes,
the Haves acquiesced in dubious and ultimately destructive measures such as the parceling out of rewards on the basis of race … or the excusing of criminals as themselves victims … [or] the lifetime public support of able-bodied women whose only career was the production of illegitimate and mostly ill-parented children.
Central to Mr. Magnet’s analysis of this catastrophic period of our history is his reminder of where this revolution originated: among the liberal elite. The cultural revolution, he writes,
was made by an elite of opinion makers, policymakers, and mythmakers—lawyers, judges, professors, political staffers, journalists, writers, TV and movie honchos, clergymen—and it was overwhelmingly a liberal, left-of-center elite. Thus for the last thirty years, the dominant American culture has been liberal culture; notwithstanding Republican presidents in the White House, the ideas and values that have come to Americans from their newspapers and network news programs, their university (and increasingly their grammar and high school) classrooms, their pulpits, their novels and movies and television sitcoms, their magazines and advertisements and popular music, their courtrooms and their Congress, have added up to a liberal, left-of-center worldview.
The Dream and the Nightmare comes to us at a crucial moment in our history. For we live today amid the wreckage of the Sixties, and the ideas and policies that have bequeathed us this wreckage are still very much with us—are still, indeed, in control of our liberal culture and our liberal institutions. Now that the dream is in ruins and the nightmare can no longer be denied, perhaps the real work of reversing the cultural revolution can at last begin in earnest. The Dream and the Nightmare marks an important step in that direction.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 8, on page 1
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