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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.” 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.” 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. 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?
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).
 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.\
 Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 165.
 Hayden, 60.
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.”