U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Common Ground for the Culture Wars

Lately I have been keeping company with the post-war intellectuals — Trilling, Macdonald, Rosenberg, Riesman, Baldwin, Buckley.  Of that last, most formidable fulminator, I had this to say yesterday on Twitter:

Today: reading Buckley, _God and Man at Yale_, wondering exactly how often he rolls over in his grave. Ideas have consequences, dude. #USIH
— LD Burnett (@LDBurnett) August 16, 2012

I spent the rest of the day alternately laughing, rolling my eyes, and — dare I admit it? — occasionally nodding in agreement with the old chap.  At the end of the day, I wrote a long-ish two-page precis to map out some future avenues of inquiry for this particular text, which will be making an appearance in my (new and improved!) dissertation. 

So I was very intrigued and gratified to see Kevin Schultz’s comment go up earlier today on Andrew’s recent blog post on the culture wars and sectarian conflict.  Kevin wrote:

It’s funny how a post about the decline of Protestant essentialism (the transformation of David Sehat’s Moral Establishment?) has rolled into a debate about the New Left and its role in creating the New Right. But as someone who is writing a book about Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr., one thing I have been struck by is by how much their critiques of Eisenhower’s America overlapped. They both hated the mainstream liberalism of the 1950s, and if you look at the early editions of Buckley’s National Review and of Mailer and friend’s Village Voice (begun within weeks of each other in 1955), their starting sentiments are identical: mid-century liberalism was sapping people of their individualism and their freedoms, it was a sanitary culture where “every child had his own social worker” (that, by the way, is the Village Voice, not the National Review), it was a muted America that had no voice, no expression, nothing interesting to say or do.

Where the two guys went from there is of course the rest of the story (here perhaps Hunter’s distinctions help, and also one’s Catholicism versus the others Judaism), but it’s shocking at how much the starting critiques were the same.

This is an astute observation, and I’m sure that Kevin is on to something. 

For my part, what I find surprising is Kevin’s very surprise at the notion that thinkers as seemingly divergent as Mailer and Buckley would share a common sensibility.  That I find Kevin’s surprise surprising is, in its turn, evidence of the contrarian nature of (some of) my training by (and, therefore, to a limited extent, as) a historian of sensibilities. (But don’t you know that its very contrariety is part of its appeal! If practically everybody is going to zig, then I’m perfectly happy to zag…most of the time.)

But in all seriousness (and what are intellectual historians, anyway, if not Suitably Serious People):  it seems perfectly natural to me that Mailer and Buckley would share a common sensibility.  In fact, having just finished reading Buckley’s God and Man at Yale yesterday — that Ur text of disaffected idealistic undergrads scolding their professors for failing in their moral duty — I would even up the ante and say that Buckley shared a common sensibility with Tom Hayden and the other authors of the Port Huron Statement.[1]

Buckley’s indignation before the inaction and/or alleged conspiratorial silence of the profs sympathetic to his views, along with his insistence that, because the older generation were entrenched in their establishment niceties, it was up to him to sound the alarm — all this is a sensibility he shares with the authors of the Port Huron Statement.  Indeed, it would not be unreasonable, I think, to argue that Buckley in some sense paved the way for the student activism of the New Left, specifically in identifying the university as the worthy site and center of cultural conflict.  Buckley called higher education “the nerve center of civilization,” and he argued that “the guardians…of this sustaining core of civilization…have, in so many cases, abdicated their responsibility to mankind.”[2]

With these assertions, at least, Tom Hayden and friends seemed to be in agreement.  In the closing salvo of their manifesto, the SDS affirmed that “the university is located in a permanent position of social influence.”[3]  Further, though the authors of the Port Huron Statement no doubt disagreed quite strongly with Buckley that the role of the university is to inculcate and preserve Christian values, they certainly agreed that the university was to be a center and site of moral influence, and that it was badly failing at its task.  “Tragically,” they wrote, “the university could serve as a significant source of social criticism and an initiator of new modes and molders of attitudes.  But the actual intellectual effect of the college experience is hardly distinguishable from that of any other communications channel — say, a television set — passing on the stock truths of the day.”[4]  Though Buckley wanted those old stock truths protected and preserved, and the SDS wanted those truths challenged, both alike viewed the moral influence of the professoriate as vital to their divergent visions of the good society.

That these young visionaries with practically antithetical visions should alike look to the university as a place in need of and in command of ideological transformation suggests that they are both drawing upon the same underlying sense of the role and reach of (higher) education in public life.  Of course, the call of the SDS to focus on the university might be characterized as a move to counter the New Conservatives’ bid for influence there.  However, even for the New Left — indeed, especially for the New Left — the university remained the single institution that might still provide a safe haven for ideals and idealists.  To be sure, even in this tenuous, provisional faith in the ivory tower, they differed markedly from Buckley, who looked to the Church as the repository of changeless truth in a changing world and who sought to (re)align the university with its ecclesiastical origins.  But as secular a document as the Port Huron Statement is — and it is, it seems to me, quite secular by design — there yet remains the sense that the university, the professoriate, has a sacred trust to keep.

I would venture to say that this sensibility, shared by Buckley and Tom Hayden alike, has not been without its adherents in the decades since.  Further, I would surmise — though I will defer (for now!) to the judgment of others here — that it is this shared ideal that, more than anything else, made American university campuses ground zero for many a conflict in the culture wars. I wonder, though, if Buckley’s ideas have not finally overcome his ideals.  He wanted the university to champion religion over secularism, and individualism over collectivism, but he based his defense of these ideals on the notion that alumni and parents are “customers” or “consumers” of education, and that it is the job of the university to meet market demand.[5]  That seemingly hyper-individualist idea, such as it is, seems to have carried the day, dislodging humanistic inquiry, along with the search for both meaningful individual existence and enduring or effective social value, from the center of a university education. This result, it seems to me, is something that both Buckley and the signatories of the Port Huron Statement might alike deplore. 

Or am I cutting that cantankerous old Eli too much slack?

[1]It’s quite possible that someone else has already made this argument far more convincingly than I have in this post — but, for the time being, if it ain’t on my reading list, it ain’t on my radar screen.  If you know of a scholar who has drawn this particular connection, please pardon my (temporary) ignorance, and please give me a link in the comments.  This would be helpful for my dissertation research.  Added 9:15 PM:  On the more general idea of the university as a guardian and purveyor of moral values, see Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).  

[2] William F. Buckley, Jr., God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” 50th anniversary edition (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1986), 172-173.\

[3] Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 165.

[4] Hayden, 60.

[5]This idea, a major theme of Buckley’s work, is highlighted in John Chamberlain’s 1951 foreword.  See especially p. lx, where Chamberlain puts the matter in the plainest terms:  “The autonomy of the customer should hold whether he is buying toothpaste, tennis rackets — or education for his children.” 

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kevin Mattson suggests/hints at a similar argument about the common sensibilities of the New Left and New Right in “Rebels All,” but I think your post does a better job at fully developing what is the commonality at the heart. It’s not just a rebel spirit that chafes at a lazy, comfortable Cold War liberalism. Instead, both sides really are chafing at what they see as a soulless, aimless (particularly on moral terms) institution.

    Also, I would love to see further exploration of the ways in which Buckley’s market mentality undermined the soul of the university that he ostensibly sought to redeem. I think you really hit on something there.

  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, LD. I tend to see the PHS as closer to traditionalist conservatives like Viereck, Kirk, Weaver, and especially Nisbet (who Hayden was reading at the time of writing the PHS). I explore this connection in Chapters 8-9 of my book, THE RIGHT OF THE PROESTANT LEFT. See also Jennifer Burns’s excllent essay on Cold War liberal interest in the new conservativism in Mattson and Jumonville, ed., LIBERALISM FOR A NEW CENTURY.

  3. Two points, pedantic likely, but probably important to make: the PHS was secular but not without a religious influence–Hayden was much influenced by his Catholicism and the African American protest tradition (deeply imbued with religious hues); the Jewish leftists of early SDS were non-practicing but influenced by Jewish existentialism and a certain sense of ethical duty that derived from Jewish sources (including European Jewish trade union radicalism).

    Re: SDS and Buckley–I’m not sure what we learn from this particular parallel or homology. (There is also the crucial question of the difference between Buckley’s concern for the fate of Yale and more broadly the ideological reproduction of the ruling class, and the New Left’s orientation to the critique of the Cold War-era public university, which we might recall, was also the university that Jews and working-class kids could attend without undue worry about quotas and tuition). It seems to me that what is most interesting about the fact that both New Right and New Left were critics of the university is that, in our current moment, the Left now vigorously defends Clark Kerr’s vision, where it once despised it; and that, increasingly, even among the postmodernists and radicals, we who seek to stand astride the neoliberalization of the university and yell stop are couching our defense of the value of higher education in old-fashioned humanist terms.

    A final note: discussion of movement politics, right and left, and the 1960s always needs to engage questions of race. To wit: At the recent conference on SDS and the Port Huron Statement at UCSB, Alice O’Connor asked SNCC co-founder Charles McDew about SNCC’s view of the YAF in the early 1960s. McDew replied that SNCC knew immediately who the YAF were: young Klansmen-to-be, but currently not wearing hoods. He said something to the effect of: “we knew we’d be dealing with them some day, when they put their hoods on.” Food for thought.

  4. These are great comments — and, SadBillionaire, not at all pedantic. Very astute.

    You have all three more or less homed in on the aspect of the PHS that I found the most intriguing — its determined secularity. Knowing what I did about the SDS in terms of origins/involvement in CR issues, I guess I was expecting the rhetoric of the document to sound in a different register — maybe something along the lines of the good old American jeremiad, or at least rhetoric in the “prophetic” mode. I’m not saying the doc wasn’t prophetic in stance and intent — but I was struck by what seemed to me to be an intentional secularism, and I find it very interesting for what it suggests about the authors’ conception of their audience — either as it was or as they wished it to be? — and the strategy behind *not* pitching their appeal in a way that might resonate with other, earlier calls for moral regeneration.

    On the way that the humanities have come under attack, and from what quarters, and the strange strategic realignments that this shifting situation has called forth — yes, “interesting” is putting it mildly. I haven’t written much about my dissertation here on the blog, except to say that my topic has changed. And I don’t plan to write anything about it until after I get through this semester. But all your comments here are right in my wheelhouse — or I hope they will be, once I step up to the plate and take my cuts.

    What “the university” *meant* to different groups of people — and to “the” culture at large — in this particular moment was in many ways up for grabs, and that meaning changed…on some levels. But the valiant stand against “the neoliberalization of the university” is of a piece with an underlying idealism. The perplexing question for me — or one of them, at any rate — is whether there was an underlying idealism to Buckley’s old-fashioned humanism, or whether it was (as many suggest) just about the elites defending the privilege of the elites. I am leaning toward real ideals beyond the morality of the market, ideals that have to do with the idea of the university. But that just might be my own idealism coming through. We ironists are the biggest idealists of all.

  5. As the person who started this mess, which got nicely illuminated by LD (fyi: I’m stealing all your ideas), I think the question of the university is an interesting one, but I also think it shortchanges the broader point, about the common critique of 1950s American culture, which both right and left defined in a surprisingly similar way.

    It’s important to note that after Buckley attacked universities (well, Yale) in 1951, he didn’t go into educational theory or university politics, because Yale was always just a proxy for his larger goal, which was reshaping American culture, society, and politics. WFB may have begun/continued the since-sustained critique of the “tenured radicals” tearing America from “its roots” but it wasn’t his primary concern and he hardly touched on it after GAMAY. He had bigger fish to fry. He still collected speaking fees from many a university, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was a frequent target, and he provocatively said the movement needed more assistant professors before it could succeed, but I don’t think he had an idealized vision of the power of universities to transform society, despite the youthful vigor of GAMAY. Reading through his letter, it was actually always high school students who captured his imagination (and to whom he always wrote great letters).

    On race, sadbillionaire is exactly right. In the early and even middle 1950s, race was only a small part of the political discourse, but as the late 1950s came along, and then the early 1960s, anti-civil rights was a big part of conservatism. I have my doubts about whether it was the key to differentiating left from right in the 1950s, but it certainly became more important later on.

  6. “(fyi: I’m stealing all your ideas)”

    And THAT’S why I don’t blog about what I’m working on or even thinking about for my dissertation. Lesson learned.

    And like HELL you’re stealing my ideas — if you borrow them, I’ll thank you to footnote accordingly.

    I know — you’re joking. I’m not joking about the footnotes though.

    Seriously, I have enough anxieties as a grad student, still very much in the process of becoming a professional scholar, who happens for the moment to have such a visible platform for my writing (such as my writing is in a blog post) within my field. It’s absolutely unnerving. If I think too much about it, I’m sunk.

    I’ve been stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea on my writing across all platforms. If you only knew! Now I finally found my courage, or at least my will (and maybe they’re the same), chose the sea, took the plunge, put something out there that matters to me, and managed not to sink. And then, lo and behold, here comes the devil! Man, I can’t win for losing.

    • Hey LD,

      I’ll cite you, I’ll cite you. And alas, at least your ideas are being chronicled in a findable format. There’s an evidentiary trail! On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that when all your ideas get packaged up in a book it’s bound to look completely different than anything else, even from those who think you are brilliant enough to steal from. A few years ago, a fellow grad student announced that she was working on a project that was identical to what turned out to be TRI-FAITH AMERICA. The advice I was given: meet with her, bring my introduction and TOC and share in the true spirit of the Enlightenment. Not sure that was the best tactic, but it worked. It turned out that what I was writing may have started from the same hub, but then went down a different spoke. Plus, I had announced not only my presence, but shown a bit of my hand too.

      Not sure how helpful that is, but that’s what I thought of when I discerned your anxieties.

      Good luck,

    • Okay, I guess you’re not the devil. What a relief! Your comment is very kind, and also very helpful.

      It’s a tricky business (for me, anyhow) to figure out a good balance between working through an idea “on my own” or in dialogue with others, face-to-face or via email or more publicly via the blogosphere. And when you show your hand, it’s also tricky to know just how many cards to lay on the table, and which ones.

      For me, it’s usually not even so much that someone else will pick up the idea I lay down as it is that once I’ve laid enough out on the table I might decide my cards aren’t that great after all. And that’s when the anxiety of the blank page comes conquering and to conquer.

    • The only thing I can add is that we’ve all been there before, anxiety-ridden authors staring at a blank page, thinking we’re unworthy. What a career path we’ve chosen!

  7. Kevin: Didn’t new conservatives like Buckley and Goldwater oppose, the 1964 CRA for instance, because they believed it would expand the federal government, not because they were racial bigots? Of course, their stance lent support for Massive Resistance all the same. And what of the points made by Schoenwald (? the A TIME FOR CHOOSING book) and Dochuk that new conservatives moderated their stance toward race after Goldwater’s loss? There’s an excellent discussion of race and the New Right in Dochuk’s HISTORY COMPASS review essay, “Revival on the Right.”

  8. Mark,

    Tricky question: my key distinction is between firm racism (WFB for instance says decolonization won’t work because Africans aren’t ready for democracy yet but civil rights in Alabama won’t work because it contradicts majority rule in Birmingham) and “anti-civil rights.” Because modern conservatism absorbed most of the folks on board with Massive Resistance, I’m really loathe to decide whether it was states rights or racism that brought them to the right (there were some of both, though I have my thoughts as to which argument was more prevalent). Either way, they all were anti-civil rights. And regarding Dochuk’s argument, that guy is brilliant, so whatever he says is gospel. I haven’t read the piece yet though, but I will say that Goldwater’s defeat occurred the same year as the first of the Civil Rights Acts, which as LBJ noted created some considerable political realignment; after that, conservatives didn’t need to be so staunchly anti-civil rights–they already had their constituency. Just a thought…

    • Kevin: Definitely agreed that modern conservativism has benefitted greatly from white fear. Is it helpful to distinguish “high-brow” conservativism from the populist-libertarian New Right on this point? Did persons like Buckley and Kirk play on white fears to the extent of a Bush I or Gingrich (see Kevin Kruse’s discussion of Gingrich in WHITE FLIGHT).

      Of course, this is all moving well off of LD’s thoughtful main points about the convergences of the post-WWII left and right, so I’ll shut up.

    • Hey, go where the idea takes you — off-topic observations can be very illuminating, and are probably not that much off-topic anyhow. And if I disagree with your ideas — well, I’ll let ya know. 🙂

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