The simplest yet most universal formulation surely remains the widely shared feeling that in the 60s, for a time, everything was possible; that this period, in other words, was a moment of universal liberation, a global unbinding of energies.
—Fredric Jameson, 1984
We ought to develop new needs. One of the new needs we must develop in the course of the revolution is the need for universal self-fulfillment.
—Michael Lerner, 1973
Through reading I was amazed to discover how confused people were.
—Eldridge Cleaver, 1968
Samuel Taylor Coleridge once famously remarked that a “willing suspension of disbelief” was essential to maintaining “poetic faith.” Anyone who has looked back dispassionately at the founding documents and personalities of America’s cultural revolution knows what Coleridge was talking about. The “faith” in question may have been more spurious than “poetic.” But there can be no doubt that America’s counterculture—like all utopian movements—has exacted prodigies of credulousness from its myriad adherents, fellow travelers, and promoters.
The list of agents for apocalypse is long and varied.
How could it have been otherwise? Utopian movements succeed because they tell people something they wish desperately to hear. Whether or not the message is true seems beside the point. It is agreeable, or seems at first to be agreeable, and that is enough. “Utopia” literally means “nowhere.” If that fact seldom depresses the price of its real estate, it is because although the mortgage is steep—no one ever actually moves in. For the adepts of the Free Spirit in the fourteenth century, the good news was that they, the elect, were godlike creatures incapable of sin. For Karl Marx, a Communist paradise was waiting for that society brave enough to abolish private property and centralize the means of production. For Norman O. Brown, “the real world, which is not the world of the reality-principle, is the world where thoughts are omnipotent, where no distinction is drawn between wish and deed.”
Variations on such themes are as plentiful as they are preposterous. Wilhelm Reich, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Paul Goodman, Charles Reich, The Beatles: the list of agents for apocalypse is long and varied. It includes artists and intellectuals, entertainers, political activists, blatant poseurs, and professional gurus. In their different ways, these people pandered to a generation’s vanity, aspirations, cowardice, and lust for sensation; increasingly, it seemed, they pandered to a generation whose vanity was its lust for sensation. They served as a defense against the alarming assaults of ennui. Many promulgated—like Rousseau before them—that insatiable greed for the emotion of virtue which makes the actual practice of virtue seem superfluous and elevates self-infatuation into a prime spiritual imperative.
The cultural and moral results of these developments were alternately sad and comic; politically and socially, they were destructive if sometimes risible. When Fredric Jameson, the celebrated Marxist professor of literature at Duke University, waxed nostalgic about the 1960s and the “widely shared feeling” that “everything was possible” and “universal liberation” was nigh, he explained the situation in terms that require not simply the willing suspension but the outright obliteration of disbelief. “Mao Zedong’s figure for this process,” Jameson writes,
is . . . most revealing: “Our nation,” he cried, “is like an atom. . . . When this atom’s nucleus is smashed, the thermal energy released will have really tremendous power!” The image evokes the emergence of a genuine mass democracy from the breakup of older feudal and village structures. . . . Yet . . . we now know that Mao Zedong himself drew back from the ultimate consequences of the process he had set in motion, when, at the supreme moment of the Cultural Revolution, . . . he called a halt to the dissolution of the party apparatus and effectively reversed the direction of this collective experiment as a whole . . . In the West, also, the great explosions of the 60s have led, in the worldwide economic crisis, to powerful restorations of the social order and a renewal of the repressive power of the various state apparatuses.
Let us agree that Mao’s image of an atomic explosion was “most revealing.” What did it reveal? The prospective “emergence of genuine mass democracy”? Or the obsession with power cultivated by the man who was probably the greatest mass-murderer of the twentieth century? Jameson faults Mao for drawing back from the “ultimate consequences” of the “cultural revolution” he had set in motion in 1966. And what was the nature of that revolution whose “supreme moment” he had betrayed? At Mao’s instigation, Leszek Kolakowski explains in Main Currents of Marxism, “the universities and schools began to form Red Guard detachments, storm troops of the revolution which were to restore power to the ‘masses’ and sweep aside the degenerate party and state bureaucracy.”
Mass meetings, processions, and street fighting became a feature of life in all the bigger cities . . . For several years the schools and universities ceased functioning altogether, as the Maoist groups assured pupils and students that by virtue of their social origin and fidelity to the Leader they were the possessors of a great truth unknown to “bourgeois” scholars. Thus encouraged, bands of young people bullied professors whose only crime was their learning, ransacked homes in search of proofs of bourgeois ideology, and destroyed historical monuments as “relics of the past.” Books were burnt wholesale.
Et cetera. And note, finally, how Jameson compares Mao’s betrayal of his “collective experiment” with the reassertion of order in the West following the assaults of Sixties radicalism and the Vietnam War. Jameson has been declaring a “worldwide economic crisis” and a “renewal” of repressive state power for as long as anyone can remember. It is safe to assume, however, that neither has intruded much on his prerogatives or remuneration as the Willam A. Lane Professor of comparative literature and director of the graduate program in literature at Duke University.
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Of course, Fredric Jameson was quite right to discern a “widely shared feeling” in the Sixties that “everything was possible.” The conviction of unlimited possibility--credulousness reborn as policy—is another characteristic of utopian movements. It is what gives them their momentum and allows them to present naïveté as idealism, narcissism as enlightenment. It is also what makes utopian movements so susceptible to ideological manipulation. To the extent that one endorses the apotheosis of possibility, one will tend to treat the real world and its occupants with cavalier disregard. Hence the utopian element in all totalitarian political movements. “What binds these men together,” Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “is a firm and sincere belief in human omnipotence. Their moral cynicism, their belief that everything is permitted, rests on the solid conviction that everything is possible.”
The story of America’s cultural revolution is partly the story of the social and moral malaise brought about by a pathology of credulousness. Euphoric hedonism exists on the smiling side of that pathology; on the dour side are clustered many other countercultural phenomena, not least the juvenile political activism and noisy readiness for violence that were such conspicuous features of the age. In America, no group better epitomized this militant radicalism than the infamous Black Panthers, founded in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton to achieve black liberation in America by means of revolutionary violence. Seale and Newton certainly deserved the notoriety they elicited from their various clashes with the law, which included charges of murder for both. But it was Eldridge Cleaver—the histrionic author of Soul on Ice, one-time presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party, and Minister of Information for the Panthers from 1967 until 1971—who embodied the Panther ideology most vividly.
Eldridge Cleaver was only sixty-two when he died on May 1 of this year. Nearly all the obituaries—and they were plentiful and long—noted that Cleaver’s family refused to disclose the cause of death; his periodic addiction to crack cocaine leads one to suspect the worst. (In 1994, the Berkeley police found him staggering about with a severe head wound and crack in his pocket.) By the time he died, Cleaver had been almost totally forgotten. Like many other Sixties radicals (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin), Cleaver descended into a kind of buffoonery in the later years of his life. An obituary in The New York Times sardonically noted that, in the last decades of his life, Cleaver “metamorphosed into variously a born-again Christian, a follower of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Mormon, a crack cocaine addict, a designer of men’s trousers featuring a codpiece, and even, finally, a Republican.”
“Even, finally, a Republican”: well, Cleaver clearly came to a bad end, at least from the Times’s point of view. In fact, Cleaver’s career is a good illustration of the important but easily forgotten truth that buffoonery is no enemy of violence or savagery. Mussolini was a buffoon; so was Idi Amin. Cleaver was not quite in their league, but our Paper of Record honored the former Black Panther with a long obituary because he had once been a nationally recognized hero of the counterculture, a figure who was as feared by the establishment as he was lionized by the radical Left. When Cleaver began teaching an experimental course at the University of California at Berkeley in fall 1968, then-Governor Ronald Reagan was outraged: “If Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.” The Times quotes Mr. Reagan’s warning almost in jest, as if to say, “You see how silly Reagan was, worrying about Eldridge Cleaver! Why, in 1982, he was booed by Yale’s Afro-American student society for supporting Reagan.”
Yes, but that was in 1982. Born in Arkansas in 1935, Cleaver grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. His father was a dining car waiter, his mother worked as a janitor. His childhood was marked by a string of petty crimes and convictions. He was first sent to prison in 1954, when he was eighteen, for possession of marijuana. Released in 1957, he was soon arrested again, this time for rape and attempted murder. It was while serving a two-to-fourteen-year sentence for these crimes that Cleaver immersed himself in the writings of various revolutionary authors (Marx, Tom Paine, Lenin, Bakunin, et al.), black American writing (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois), and the gritty beginnings of countercultural bombast (Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs). Starting to write himself, Cleaver, through his lawyer, came to the notice of various literary figures, including Norman Mailer, who petitioned the authorities to have Cleaver paroled. (Helping to get scribbling violent criminals—especially ones who professed admiration for his work—out of jail became something of a habit with Norman Mailer. In the early 1980s, he helped get the murderer Jack Abbot released from prison. Abbot promptly stabbed and killed a waiter in New York and was placed beyond even Mailer’s intercession.)
Cleaver was catapulted to fame in 1968 with the publication of his book Soul on Ice. Written almost entirely while he was in Folsom Prison, the book is a loosely knit series of letters and essays about race relations in America, prison life, one or two black literary figures, and, above all, Cleaver’s sexual obsessions, especially his obsession with white women. (“Desire for the white woman,” he wrote, “is like a cancer eating my heart out.”) Most of the book had first appeared in Ramparts magazine, the incendiary, radical-Left monthly on whose masthead Cleaver later appeared as an editor. The book is remarkable partly for its rage, partly for its embarrassing sentimentality. On the one hand, Cleaver concludes an essay on Malcolm X with the warning that “We shall have our manhood. We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it.” On the other, his concluding piece, “To All Black Women, From All Black Men,” is full of hortatory appeals such as this: “let me drink from the river of your love at its source, let the lines of force of your love seize my soul by its core and heal the wound of my Castration, let my convex exile end its haunted Odyssey in your concave essence, . . .” etc.
Soul on Ice is not a good book. Indeed, it is barely a book at all: more a collection of manifestoes and imprecations. But in its day it had an enormous influence and reputation. It was widely assigned in schools and colleges (I first came across it in high school), and it is still in print, thirty years later, in a mass-market edition. The introduction, by the critic Maxwell Geismar, established the tenor of the book’s reception: “Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing . . . He rakes our favorite prejudices with the savage claws of his prose until our wounds are bare, our psyche is exposed, and we must either fight back or laugh with him for the service he has done us.”
Here, from the book’s title essay, is a sample of what “one of the best cultural critics” then writing sounds like:
I’d like to leap the whole last mile and grow a beard and don whatever threads the local nationalism might require and comrade with Che Guevara, and share his fate, blazing a new pathfinder’s trail through the stymied upbeat brain of the New Left, or how I’d just love to be in Berkeley right now, to roll in that mud, frolic in that sty of funky revolution, to breathe in its heady fumes, and look with roving eyes for a new John Brown, Eugene Debs, a blacker-meaner-keener Malcolm X, a Robert Franklin Williams with less rabbit in his hot blood, an American Lenin, Fidel, a Mao-Mao, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO. . . . All of which is true [ellipses in original].
Actually, that’s only part of what Cleaver sounds like. As another critic noted, the book is also full of that “grand, old-fashioned Lawrentian and Maileresque mythmaking” (this was meant as praise):
Each half of the human equation, the male and female hemispheres of the Primeval Sphere, must prepare themselves for the fusion by achieving a Unitary Sexual Image . . . The quest for the Apocalyptic Fusion will find optimal conditions only in a Classless Society, the absence of classes being the sine qua non for the existence of a Unitary Society in which the Unitary Sexual Image can be achieved.
If it seems difficult to understand why such babbling should earn widespread respect, remember that Norman Mailer had wowed critical opinion a decade earlier with equally profound observations, viz: “the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.”
By itself, Cleaver’s Mailerian rhetoric would have earned him kudos, but not adoration. For that, he needed the added spice of racially infused criminality. Here is the passage that, perhaps more than any other, won Cleaver his converts:
I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto—in the black ghetto where dark and vicious deeds appear not as aberrations or deviations from the norm, but as part of the sufficiency of the Evil of the day—and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. I did this consciously, deliberately, willfully, methodically—though looking back I see that I was in a frantic, wild, and completely abandoned frame of mind.
Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women—and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge.
Had he been left at liberty, he notes, he undoubtedly would have “slit some white throats.”
Of course, Cleaver includes a few words of contrition; he was, he admits, “wrong”; in the end, he “could not approve of rape.” But what made his reputation—as much among whites as among blacks—was the militancy: his infamous image of “rape as an insurrectionary act,” not his qualifying remarks; his slogan “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” not his later concessions. (Since he was “an extremist by nature,” Cleaver reasoned, “it is only right that I should be extremely sick.”) There were a few dissenting notices. David Evanier writing in The New Leader was perhaps most accurate when he noted that “the style throughout . . . is pop Leftism, a mixture of sex and revolution characteristic of the New Left.” But such demurrals were vastly overshadowed by the praise. “Original and disturbing” (The Saturday Review); full of “revolutionary zeal” (The New York Times Book Review); “a new stirring of experience” (The New York Review of Books); “beautifully written. . . . [a] brilliant book” (The Nation), etc. The Times even declared Soul on Ice one of the ten best books of the year.
Perhaps the most egregious act of critical adulation came from the Yale professor Richard Gilman. In a long review called “White Standards and Negro Writing” in The New Republic, Gilman trotted out all the usual adjectives: Soul on Ice was “unsparing,” “tough,” “lyrical,” admittedly “foolish at times” but “extraordinarily convincing in the energy and hard morale of its thinking.” What made Gilman’s essay notable, however, was not its praise but its effort to place Cleaver outside not only “white standards” of literary achievement but also “white standards” of legality. According to Gilman, writing by blacks like Cleaver “remains in some sense unassimilable for those of us who aren’t black” because “the Negro doesn’t feel the way whites do, nor does he think like whites.” In contemporary America, he writes, “moral and intellectual ‘truths’ have not the same reality for Negroes and whites.” (Note the scare quotes: does Gilman doubt there are such things are intellectual and moral truths?) Because “Negro suffering is not of the same kind as ours,” he does not, as a white critic, have the “right” to compare Cleaver’s thinking with “other ‘classic’ ways of grappling with sexual experience” or “to subject his findings to the scrutiny of the tradition.” In short, “white criteria” are out of place in judging works like Soul On Ice.
Had Gilman been a conservative, or had he ventured to offer any substantial criticism of Cleaver’s paean justifying black rage, his essay would have quickly been attacked for what it is: a piece of racist claptrap, justifying inferior work—and criminality—on the spurious grounds of racial difference. In the event, however, “White Standards and Negro Writing” was part of the radical propaganda of the day. When a respected critic and professor at Yale University tells his readers that “the Negro doesn’t feel the way whites do, nor does he think like whites,” is it any wonder that the Black Panthers should include in their “ten-point program” the demand that all black men be exempt from military service? Or the demand that all black prisoners be released from jail “because,” as Cleaver explained in an interview, “they haven’t had fair trials; they’ve been tried by all white juries, and that’s like being a Jew tried in Nazi Germany”? (Asked whether the Panthers were serious about having all black prisoners released, Cleaver replied: “We don’t feel that there’s any black man or any white man in any prison in this country who could be compared in terms of criminality with Lyndon Johnson.”)
Eldridge Cleaver was a serial extremist. The content of his beliefs was negotiable; only his fanaticism was constant.
Gilman was among those establishment critics who helped articulate a rationale for the blatant criminality of the Panthers. When Cleaver was involved in a gun battle with the Oakland police in 1968—an encounter that left a young Panther dead and Cleaver and a police officer wounded—his parole was revoked and he was returned to prison. Two months later, he was released when a judge ruled that he was being held as a political prisoner. A higher court overturned that ruling, however, and Cleaver was facing a long prison term on charges of assault and attempted murder. In New York, dependable radicals like Susan Sontag and the actor Gary Merrill demonstrated on his behalf; the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard urged his audiences to donate to the Cleaver defense fund. Cleaver himself managed to flee the country, stopping first in Cuba before setting up a “government in exile” in Algiers (where he was, briefly, a grudging host to Timothy Leary when Leary broke out of prison and fled the country). In his frequent travels, he was given a warm welcome in the Soviet Union (as it then was), Vietnam, and Kim Il Sung’s Korea.
Gradually, Cleaver grew disenchanted with his radical political beliefs; he broke with the Panthers in 1971 and moved to Paris; in the early 1970s he claims to have had a mystical vision in which the faces of Marx, Engels, Mao, Castro, and others appeared in the moon, followed by the face of Christ (“I fell to my knees”). Cutting a deal with the authorities, Cleaver returned to the United States in 1975; the attempted murder charge was dropped and he was sentenced to twelve-hundred hours of community service.
Eldridge Cleaver was a serial extremist. The content of his beliefs was negotiable; only his fanaticism was constant. This made him something of a preposterous, indeed a pathetic, figure. But, again, preposterousness is by no means incompatible with malignity. And if Eldridge Cleaver became in his later years a kind of joke, this should not mislead us into thinking that his influence was not, after all, so bad. Like so much about the ethos of the counterculture, the influence of figures like Eldridge Cleaver has been as much in their afterlife as their life. That is to say, the destructiveness of their ideas and example may be most severe not when they first appear and—whether they be championed or castigated—are regarded by one and all as outrageous; on the contrary, the really toxic effects of a cultural revolution begin to be felt only latterly, when the revolution is “over” but its characteristic attitudes have been so widely incorporated into the mainstream of life that they are taken for granted. Only then do the precepts of the counterculture find their way into the realm of habit, taste, and feeling, becoming along the way not only ideas that are espoused but also a widely embraced way of life. The critic Myron Magnet touched on this point in The Dream and the Nightmare (1993), his astute study of how the misguided “idealism” of the counterculture contributed to the plight of America’s underclass:
Just as you didn’t have to frequent singles bars to be affected by the sexual revolution, you didn’t have to live in a commune and eat mushrooms to be affected by the counterculture’s quest for personal liberation. The new adversary stance toward conventional beliefs and ideals, breathlessly reported by the press and diffused almost instantly among the young, quickly put traditional values on the defensive, making them newly problematic even for those who continued to hold them.
Indeed, a good index of the success of a cultural revolution is the extent to which it has managed to render the ideas and values it set out to subvert not merely “problematic” but inert. A counterculture has really triumphed when it ceases to encounter significant resistance, when its values and unspoken assumptions seem not merely victorious but inevitable.
Professor Lilla’s position is a sophisticated variation on the “but everyone does it” defense.
I was reminded of this recently when reading “A Tale of Two Reactions,” a reflection on the dynamics of cultural revolution by Mark Lilla, a political philosopher at New York University. The fact that the essay appeared in The New York Review of Books (May 14, 1998) had a certain poignancy, of course, since The Review contributed so conspicuously to the counterculture in the 1960s. Professor Lilla’s general point is that when a cultural revolution is finally successful, continued opposition is merely “reactionary,” that is, pointless and intellectually undignified. He gives two examples. The first is the countercultural revolution of the Sixties. Unlike many people on the Left, Professor Lilla has no interest in denying that this revolution actually took place. Indeed, he argues that the cultural revolution not only happened but also was wildly successful in its effect on public authority, the family, and individual morality (and, he might have added, on cultural and intellectual life). In fact, the cultural revolution has been so successful that conservative resistance—and here he cites this series in The New Criterion as Exhibit A—long ago became, in his view, completely otiose and reactionary. Professor Lilla’s second example is the so-called “Reagan revolution” of the 1980s. This, too, he says, has been so successful in altering our view of certain economic and political matters that left-wing attacks on “Reaganism”—he cites a series in The Nation as an example—are now beside the point or, worse, merely reactionary. (Such attacks, he says, are examples of “progressive reaction.”)
In the end, Professor Lilla’s basic message is not far from the old advice: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” But connoisseurs of cultural polemic will see that its effectiveness depends less on its message than on its method. Professor Lilla offers his readers two patently unacceptable extremes and then endeavors to place himself not so much between them as above them: a tertium quid of sweet reasonableness--Professor Lilla invokes “a small stream of liberal thought”—uncontaminated by any “reactionary” sentiments. William Hazlitt long ago described the essence of this strategy in his essay on “the common-place critic” who, Hazlitt observed, “believes that truth lies in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong.” What makes Professor Lilla’s essay of particular interest is the subtle way he goes about occupying that middle—or, more accurately, “middle”—ground.
One device is a generous deployment of . . . well, let us call it “smoke.” Professor Lilla says that conservatives “romanticize the affluent Fifties” and so “are reticent to seek the causes of the cultural revolution there.” In fact, many conservative discussions of the counterculture locate its origins in the Beat sensibility of the middle Fifties. That is one reason that this series, for example, has devoted so much space to figures like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Herbert Marcuse, and Wilhelm Reich, all of whom made their names in the Fifties or earlier.
Then there is the question of causes. Professor Lilla says that “to judge by the essays of Roger Kimball and other conservatives, the cause of the Sixties was quite simply . . . the Sixties. They just happened, as a kind of miracle, or anti-miracle.” (Ellipses in the original.) “Why,” he asks, “did such a profound revolution take place in America when it did? Let us call this the Tocqueville question.” Well, part of what we can call “the Tocqueville answer” was quoted in the first installment of these Reflections: “When great revolutions are successful,” Tocqueville wrote in his book on the ancien régime and the French Revolution, “their causes cease to exist, and the very fact of their success has made them incomprehensible.” All manner of sociological, technological, and demographic phenomena have been adduced to “explain” the rise of the counterculture: a newfound affluence together with the postwar population explosion together with an unprecedented number of people in college; the birth-control pill; increased mobility brought about by widespread private ownership of cars; the Vietnam War . . . The list is a long one, always pertinent, never conclusive. For the truth is, as Irving Kristol observed in his essay “Countercultures” (1994), “the counterculture was not ‘caused,’ it was born. What happened was internal to our culture and society, not external to it.” Accordingly, the real task for a cultural critic is not etiological—there are a never-ending series of answers to the question “Why?”—but diagnostic and, ultimately, therapeutic. The pathology is real; the problem is to assay its nature and severity and then decide what to do about it.
The strategy of splitting the difference always depends on a bit of conceptual legerdemain. In Professor Lilla’s scheme, the key evasion comes in his contention that America’s cultural revolution and the policies of the Reagan administration count as “complementary” phenomena. Professor Lilla speaks—as many before him have spoken—of a Reagan “revolution.” But that is a PR man’s misuse of language. Reagan’s policies were important; they were far-reaching; in my judgment, most of them were beneficent. But they did not constitute a revolution. If anything, they were an attempt to undo or palliate a set of social and fiscal policies that have much greater claim to being described as revolutionary: I mean the “welfare state” ideology that began under Franklin Roosevelt and reached its final, malodorous flowering in the “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson and sclerotic “nanny state” ideology of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Leftists may indeed wail unendingly about the evils of Reaganism; and doubtless they would be better advised to grow up and stop crying about the prosperity Reagan helped to saddle them with.
But it is quite wrong to see in Reagan’s policies a revolutionary departure from the past. On the contrary, they count as a small step in the direction of recuperating a main current of American political and economic tradition. Professor Lilla tells his readers that, “thanks to Reagan, most Americans now believe (rightly or wrongly) that economic growth will do more for them than economic redistribution, and that to grow rich is good.” Note in passing Professor Lilla’s parenthetical remark, which allows him to play both side of the ideological fence he has erected. The main point, however, is that most Americans are clever enough to have figured out this message all on their own: they didn’t need Ronald Reagan to tell them that economic growth is a good thing or that, given the choice, they would just as soon be well off, thanks very much. Nor is this a recent development. Professor Lilla wheels on Tocqueville early and often in his essay. But already in 1835, in the first volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that he knew “of no country . . . where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.” I do not think we can blame Reagan for Alexis de Tocqueville.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the reader of Professor Lilla’s essay is trying to determine where exactly he stands. His arguments tend to point in one direction, his rhetoric in another. The tone, the atmosphere, the weather of “A Tale of Two Reactions” is orthodox left-liberal. But many of the substantial points he raises would seem to support the conservative indictment of the cultural revolution. Professor Lilla even provides detailed summaries of how the cultural revolution has had a devastating effect on everything from private morality to social policy. For example:
When drug pushers and vagrants are permitted to set the tone in public parks, it is not the police who lose. It is poor urban families who lose their backyards. When children are coddled and undisciplined in the schools, they are the first to suffer, their families next. When universities cater to the whimsical tastes of their students and the aggressive demands of political interests, they cease to be retreats for serious cultivation of the self. When pornography is readily available on cable TV or the World Wide Web, the sleaze merchants profit and we are all demeaned.
Professor Lilla offers these and similar observations as “commonplaces in conservative cultural literature today,” and so they are. He says that he thinks that they are “largely correct.” He also says that the cultural revolution represents a “plausible metamorphosis” rather than an “alien distortion” of the American tradition. What can this mean? What can it mean when he says that, because “the revolution is over,” it is useless to criticize its effects? Professor Lilla correctly notes that “the moral views of ‘ordinary Americans’ are approaching those” of the “new class” shaped by the cultural revolution. He cites this development as a reason to abandon criticism. But isn’t it rather grounds for even deeper alarm? Professor Lilla observes that many Americans today “see no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace . . . and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” He is quite right. But is this really a reason for complacency?
Professor Lilla’s position is a sophisticated variation on the “but everyone does it” defense. Properly brought up children know that that argument doesn’t hold much water, and one must assume that deep down Professor Lilla knows it as well. In the early years of this century, John Fletcher Moulton, a British judge, observed that “there is a widespread tendency to regard the fact that [one] can do a thing as meaning [one] may do it. There can be no more fatal error that this. Between ‘can do’ and ‘may do’ ought to exist the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible.” One of the the most destructive effects of America’s cultural revolution has been to exacerbate this tendency to the point where the “sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste,” and all the rest—everything that Lord Moulton congregated under the memorable category of “obedience to the unenforceable”—has been rendered nugatory. This has plunged our culture into a moral crisis whose dimensions we are only now beginning to reckon. Professor Lilla complains that reactionary sentiment on the Left and the Right has “brought serious political reflection down to absolute zero” and left “the field of common political deliberation” vacant. But as long as he sides with those who “see no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace . . . and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties,” Professor Lilla will find that there is nothing to deliberate about. When a country is occupied by a despotic power, the choices are two: capitulation or resistance. Capitulation is always an easy option; that does nothing to justify the moral evasions it involves.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 10, on page 5
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