U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Much of what follows is speculation.

I am currently working on turning my dissertation into a book. This of course involves revisiting some sources, and exploring others that didn’t make the cut last time. To that effect I’ve been plodding through several tomes of mid-century pluralist scholarship, in particular the work of David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Seymour Martin Lipset and Daniel Bell.


As might have been deduced from my post last week, and another one from last year, and things I’ve written elsewhere, this isn’t exactly my favorite scholarship in the world. Combining an analysis of post-war politics that denied major imbalances of power with a theory of social “character” and “status politics” that both participated in and paved the way for “culture of poverty” arguments, the work of these famous public intellectuals capture why some, including myself, argue that it’s impossible to separate liberalism from racism and liberalism and conservatism lay much closer together on the political family tree than is generally acknowledged.

But something I’ve been struggling to communicate or capture is how much of the deep political currents of pluralist scholarship come across in their tone as well as their content. Specifically, the confidence with which they offer statistical evidence, anecdotal evidence, and pure speculation in nearly the same breath. Pronouncements about the “character” of various groups – some of which they had little to no experience with, such as low-income African Americans and Puerto Ricans – are made without any sense of self-awareness or humility.

This confidence itself has a “character,” however – the voice of the White Male of Higher Learning comes through loud and clear, measuring the virtues and vices of others with an easy authority. The pluralist text of this week, Beyond the Melting Pot, provides plenty of examples. Want to imagine what the university must have sounded like before the protests of women and minorities forced the syllabi and (more subtly though not insignificantly) philosophy to change? It likely sounded a lot like this:

“The Negro family was not strong enough to create those extended clans that elsewhere were most helpful for businessmen and professionals. Negroes often say, ‘Everyone else sticks together, but we knock each other down.’ This is a stereotype and probably has the same degree of truth that most stereotypes have, that is, a good deal. Without a special language and culture, and without the historical experiences that create an elan and a morale, what is there to lead them to build their own life, to patronize their own?”[1]

Or this:

“One can always find functions for an organization if one is organizationally minded, but Puerto Rico, just as the rest of Latin America, has always been weak in spontaneous grass-roots organization.”[2]

Or this:

“The net of culture keeps up pride and encourages effort; the strong family serves to organize and channel resources in new situations. / In both these aspects Puerto Rico was sadly defective.” And then, after much qualification about Puerto Rican families in the United States: “But in competition with the more tightly knit and better integrated family systems of, say, Chinese and Japanese peasants, the Puerto Ricans did badly.”[3]

These kind of statements extend even to their own “clan.” Here is Nathan Glazer, whose Jewish heritage was well known, talking about “the” Jewish family:

“Although the powerful maternal overprotection that was one of the chief characteristics of the first immigrant generation is perhaps somewhat abated, Jewish parents still seem to hover more over their children and give them shorter rein for exploration and independence than other middle-class American parents. The results seem to be that there is more neurosis among Jews, but less psychosis.”[4]

Who knew!, turns out Woody Allen films are remarkably accurate portrayals of “the” Jewish male.

Let’s be clear that the problem isn’t 100 percent falsity in every one of these statements. The problem is the blasé way in which they are made – “just-so” stories and assessments of the “character” of ethnicities are maybe appropriate for a conversation between friends, but even here one ought to be careful, and come from the ethnicities being discussed! They certainly should not find their way into a serious book intended for an educated and broad audience, and they definitely should not come coupled with unconcerned pronouncements that much of the analysis is based on very little. And yet, repeatedly pluralists acknowledge the shakiness of their evidence, but only as a nod to proper practice before proceeding onward with the utmost assurance. Here’s just a sample of the number of such qualifiers to be found in the Beyond the Melting Pot, from the chapter on Puerto Ricans alone:

 “….one of the widely accepted reasons for the low participation of negroes in small business – discrimination in loans – probably is not of primary importance, for it is not likely that the Puerto Rican, with his characteristically accented and poor English, impresses the banker or supplier any more than a Negro does. …. One would think that there are enough Puerto Ricans going into professional and white-collar work, and they are sufficiently sensitive to slights and discrimination, to have produced more complaints than this if discrimination were a serious problem. … But all this is sheer speculation, as is the prediction of some expansive leaders of the Puerto Rican community that New York will become a bilingual city.”[5]

Moreover, many of these statements come “backed” by nameless sources. On the chapter on Jews, Glazer merely notes that “[q]ualified observers feel” or “[a]n observer reports,” without any indication as to who these trustworthy observers are.[6] When we get to Moynihan’s chapters, this language becomes even more common: “At the risk of exaggerating….”…“It is perilous to speculate in such matters, but a case can be made…”…“Everything we say in this field is highly speculative.”[7] And yet the analysis that follows such disclaimers is presented as confidentially as those backed by statistical tables.

So even when what the pluralists are saying is not directly about race or gender, indirectly race and gender cannot be considered as irrelevant to their arguments – because who else other than (mid-century) white males could possibly get away with such fast and loose generalizations without being held accountable? And not only did they escape the scrutiny of most of their peers, but were applauded for their work, and their books went on to be considered brilliant meditations on modern America and examples of what true public intellectuals should aspire to! It makes a great amount of sense that their tone was so confident – pluralists knew their reviewers would consist mostly of men just like themselves. Academia was a tightly knit boy’s club, and the boys weren’t often that hard on each another.

And yet a good portion of my frustration with this stems from ambivalence – I am not entirely opposed to the airing of speculation, of throwing ideas out there to see if anyone picks them up or if they fall fantastically flat. Intellectual life cannot be driven forward – and quite frankly is not a lot of fun – if there is no risk involved. Yet revisiting pluralist scholarship reminds me how careful one has to be with this carefree attitude when power imbalances are involved. The biggest problem was not that Glazer, Moynihan, Riesman, Bell, and Lipset often had no idea what they were talking about. It was that other people assumed they did, and the authority of the white male academic became essential in further stereotyping and stigmatizing the already oppressed and powerless.

It is deeply ironic that some contemporary critics argue that the reorientation of the humanities towards those on the lower ends of the social hierarchy resulted in a move away from objectivity and empiricism when, previous to the demands of non-whites and women to be included in the student body and the faculty, work like this was considered of high quality. Even more ironic still that, as Derrick Bell points out, the lack of minority faculty members continues to be blamed on a lack of “quality” candidates with “top notch,” scholarship.[8] To hazard a speculation, I find it unsurprising that the bar started to be raised at the same time that those outside the boy’s club began banging on the doors.

[1] Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (Cambridge and London: The M.I.T. Press, 1970), 33.

[2] Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, 107.

[3] Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, 88, 90.

[4] Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, 165.

[5] Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, 112, 115, emphasis added.

[6] Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, 148, 149.

[7] Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, 227, 259, 302.

[8] Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992).

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Glazer’s discussion would meet, to some extent at least, the requirement that generalizing judgements about ethnicities should, at least, come “from the ethnicities themselves,” assuming his working-class immigrant Jewish upbringing counts as belonging. But it seems to me that one point worth mentioning here is not the ‘liberal’ so much as the Marxist roots of breezy opining with a just-so story to round it off. The tendency to assert that everything must submit itself to theoretical analysis and, indeed, can’t escape such analysis on the grounds of particularities that the theory is not aware of or even concerned with, is identified with the communist intellectual of the 1930s, quick to dismiss anomalies or inconvenient details with an impatient grimace and a reminder that the party has the correct line. “I don’t have to be a scientist to grasp the class ideology of bourgeois research” is in many ways the ghostly twin of uptown academic sketching of the dynamics of communities the sketcher has little genuine contact with. Indeed, the significant projects of some of these figures were in their own way diffuse and often ambivalent responses to the challenge of Marxism

  2. It is true that most of these pluralists were former socialists before the war, and in that training carried over some Marxist tendencies into their later scholarship in funky ways. But note here that they are not so much dismissing inconvenient evidence as simply not bothering to investigate if their particulars — African Americans don’t have strong kinship networks is not exactly a grand theory of anything, but a detail — really exist or not. You have to at least be aware of evidence before you can wave it off!

    But to your broader point, I would argue that being “quick to dismiss anomalies or inconvenient details with an impatient grimace and a reminder that the party has the correct line” characterizes pretty much any rigidly held ideology, Marxism or otherwise.

  3. “but Puerto Rico, just as the rest of Latin America, has always been weak in spontaneous grass-roots organization.”

    Don’t know how this sounded in 1964, but in 2016 it sounds ridiculous. I’m pretty sure that the bookshelves of any university library are filled to the breaking point today with study upon study of “spontaneous grass-roots organization” in Latin America.

  4. p.s. one other thought: speculation is probably more defensible in some kinds of works than others. It’s arguably more objectionable in a book whose subject is quite specific, say, “the Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Irish of New York City,” and less objectionable in a book whose title announces that it is ‘grand’ or sweeping social theory, say Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (just a sort of guess by way of example — I actually don’t know exactly what the speculation quotient is there). I am reminded though of what D. Bell reportedly said when someone asked what he specialized in. He said: “I specialize in generalizations.” I’ve always liked that remark.

    • p.s. And of course huge swaths of Freud’s social-theoretical (as opposed to his more strictly psychological) writings are nothing but speculation, but that didn’t stop generations of college students from being required to read Civilization and Its Discontents.

Comments are closed.