If you’re wondering “what’s happening now,” David Frum’s How We Got Here: The ’70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse) (New York: Basic Books, c. 2000) provides valuable clues. “This book,” he says, attempts “to describe the most total social transformation that the United States has lived through since the coming of industrialism, a transformation (a revolution!) that has not ended yet” (p. xxiv). Certainly times have changed. As a cultural windsock look at crime. In 1960 the United States was a reasonably safe society. Even in New York few apartments had chain locks on their doors. But suddenly “the safety and civility of mid-century America crumbled. One’s chance of being robbed, raped, assaulted, or murdered nearly tripled between 1960 and 1980” (p. 12). Public and private corruption (remember Watergate and Spiro Agnew!) savaged society. Ironically, we also “made a quiet, collective decision in the 1950s and early 1960s to view crime more indulgently” (p. 15).
Duty too has lost its lustre. The nation’s traditional work ethic no longer works. Earlier generations had worked and saved, doing without things to secure a better future for their children. In the 70s, however, “something astonishing happened. Sometime after 1969, millions of ordinary Americans decided that they would no longer live this way” (p. 57). Instead, they placed themselves at the center of their special cosmos. Looking Out for Number One defined the decade. Absorbed in themselves, millions of folks dissolved their marriages. During the first two-thirds of the 20th century only “one American marriage in twenty ended in divorce. Since 1980, more than two marriages out of every five–nearly half–have ended in divorce” (p. 73). The hit movie, Kramer vs, Kramer subtly endorsed the decision of Mrs. Kramer, who abandoned her husband and young son, prompting one of her friends to explain: “You may not want to hear this, but it took a lot of courage for her to walk out of here.” Ignoring children, communities, or the moral standards which knit the social fabric, men and women created a divorce culture both sentimental about and dangerous for children.
Still more: reason, for many, slipped into an emotional swamp. “Trust your feelings, Luke,” said Obi-Wan Kenobi in the fabulously successful Star Wars. So Skywalker closed his eyes and trusted “the Force.” Emotion surged to the foreground, even in traditionally male circles. Men, prior to 1970, emulated Gary Cooper and John Wayne–strong, silent types. They accepted Sir Walter Scott’s view that “Woe awaits a country when / She sees the tears of bearded men” (p. xviii). They expected their women to be chaste and defended, even to death, their honor. Today’s leading men, however, weep and hug, like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, while disdaining traditional sexual mores–and, all the while, emotionally appealing to “save the children” in every possible venue.
Churches prospered to the degree they embraced Emotivism, Frum says. “The United States in 1980 was, as it had been in 1960, the most religious industrial country on earth. But the form of its religiosity had been dramatically altered. The post-1980 American faith was more emotional, more forgiving, more individualistic, more variegated, and often more bizarre. It was less obedient, less ritualistic, less intellectual. It concerned itself more with self-fulfillment and less with social reform. Americans yearned as fervently as ever for a direct encounter with the transcendent, but they chafed against the authority that had once guided them toward that encounter. They hungered for religion’s sweets, but rejected religion’s discipline; wanted its help in trouble, but not the strictures that might have kept them out of trouble; expected its ecstasy, but rejected its ethics; demanded salvation, but rejected the harsh, antique dichotomy of right and wrong” (p. 158).
Desires, in the 1970s, became imperatives. “Are we having fun yet?” was more than rhetorical! It was a mandate–we must have fun! In the main, fun meant sex. Traditional inhibitions and prohibitions lost their power, especially among the women liberated by their newfound faith in feminism. “Feminists like Germaine Greer championed promiscuity as a means to break women’s “doglike” devotion to men, and the young women of the 1970s listened and obeyed” (p. 191). “In 1967, 85 percent of the parents of college-age young people condemned premarital sex as morally wrong; by 1979, only 37 percent of parents still held out against the trend of the times” (p. 191).
Frum also examines America’s decision to abandon South Vietnam to the Communists, the fiscal decisions of JFK and LBJ to breed inflation in order to secure political goals, and the problems schools have suffered as a result of social engineering strategies. There’s lots in How We Got Here, presented in an altogether engaging manner. And it certainly helps us understand why we’re here!
Roger Kimball is one of America’s most astute social analysts. He shares Frum’s concerns and agrees with many of his conclusions, but he focuses on a different decade to explain how this nation changed. In The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (San Francisco: Encounter Books, c. 2000), he argues that America, primarily in the ’60s, suffered an upheaval of dramatic proportions, leaving us amidst the debris of a tattered civilization. A “momentous social and moral assault” has especially triumphed in “our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog” (p. 5).
America’s historic ethos has collapsed. And we’ve also lost our ability to engage in rational discourse. Following logical arguments, weighing evidence, ascertaining truth, rarely matter in a culture ruled by powerful feelings. The young rebels of the ’60s, having failed to overthrow the American political and economic system, followed the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s admonition to make a “long march through the institutions.” So too Herbert Marcuse’s advice, “working against the established institutions while working in them,” became the modus operandi of leftists intent on remaking their world.
The revolution began in the 1950’s, when “a gospel of emancipation” was first preached by the “Beats” in San Francisco. The icons of the emergent counterculture– Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs–spouted nihilistic paeans to drugs, sex, and unfettered personal freedom. In Kimball’s judgment, the Beats’ philosophy permeated the 1960s with its “ultimate institutionalization of immoralist radicalism: the institutionalization of drugs, pseudo-spirituality, promiscuous sex, virulent anti-Americanism, naive anti-capitalism, and the precipitous decline of artistic and intellectual standards” (p. 41). By any reasonable standard, the “literary works” of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs lack merit. But they glorified drugs, promiscuous sex, pornography, madness and criminality, themes which found a ready reception in the Dionysian culture emergent in the ’60s. Norman Mailer graphically illustrated such, regaling his readers with celebrations of violence and mayhem, of “hipsters” who indulged in “absolute sexual freedom.” Indeed, “The only Hip morality,” Mailer asserted, “is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible” (p. 79).
The influential literary critic, Susan Sontag, shared Mailer’s stance, cultivating what Tom Wolfe rightly labeled “radical chic.” Her contempt for America, joined with her adoration of Cuba, North Vietnam, and China, granted her special status in New York’s counter-cultural circles. Her adroit rhetorical abilities enabled her to find no flaws in communist regimes, while she declared, in 1966, that America “deserves” to have its wealth expropriated by Third World peoples. “The white race,” she said, “is the cancer of human history” (p. 97).
Following the lead of literary leaders, elite universities largely capitulated to the counter-culture. In truth, nothing “more vividly epitomizes the long march of America’s cultural revolution than the student uprisings that swept across college and university campuses from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s” (p. 102). Overtly, students protested the war, racism, university policies. More profoundly, however, they sustained a cultural “revolution that brought together radical politics, drug abuse, sexual libertinage, an obsession with rock music, exotic forms of spiritual titillation, a generalized antibourgeois animus, and an attack on the intellectual and moral foundations of the entire humanistic enterprise” (p. 102). Cornell University President James A. Perkins, a “liberal president of a liberal institution,” perfectly symbolizes the capitulation of the professorate. He collapsed when facing gun-toting students (some of whom now preside over major American institutions such as TIAA-CREF!). His cowardice, Walter Berns says, “made it easier for those who came after him to surrender to students armed only with epithets (‘racists,’ ‘sexists,’ ‘elitists,’ ‘homophobes’),” (p. 119) leading to the egregious examples of “political correctness” on America’s campuses.
The intellectuals shaping students’ minds in the ’60s were Marx, Freud, and William Reich, mediated through the likes of Paul Goodman, Norman O. Brown, and Herbert Marcuse. “It would be difficult,” Kimball insists, to overestimate their influence” (p. 157). Brown and Marcuse “were fantasists. Their world proceeds from the assumption that human nature can be repealed” (p. 168). As avid utopians, they built air castles and inspired their devotees to imagine they could incarnate their dreams. Importantly, as philosopher Leszek Kolakowski says, “Utopians, once they attempt to convert their visions into practical proposals, come up with the most malignant project ever devised: they want to institutionalize fraternity, which is the surest way to totalitarian despotism” (p. 128). So we see, from all sides, proposals made, laws enacted, which impose an egalitarian halter on all of us.
Kimball shows how Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, Timothy Leary’s enthusiasm for LSD and drugs in general, Eldridge Cleaver’s career with the Black Panthers and popularity as the author of Soul on Ice, and the New York Review of Books (perceptively labeled by Tom Wolfe as “the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic”) firmly established radical views in elite intellectual circles. Consequently, we now live in a radically different nation than existed in 1960. The “long march” has triumphed. Its foes have largely fallen. “It is both ironical and dispiriting,” writes Kimball in his final paragraph, “to realize that the counterculture may have won its most insidious victories not among its natural sympathizers on the Left but, on the contrary, among those putatively conservative opponents who can no longer distinguish between material affluence and the moral good. In other words, it may be that what the Sixties have wrought above all is widespread spiritual anesthesia. To a degree frightening to contemplate, we have lost that sixth sense that allows us to discriminate firmly between civilization and its discontents” (p. 282).
Kimball’s The Long March builds upon his earlier work, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, c. 1990, 1998), “an unhappy tale of intellectual chicanery, pedagogical dereliction, and moral irresponsibility” (p. xix). Many of today’s academics, following the lead of Jacques Derrida and others, deny there are “truths” to be found through the “liberal arts.” Everything is “socially constructed” and thus subject to everyone’s will-to-power. Sadly enough, Kimball reminds us, “behind any cavalier dismissal of truth lies a disdain for empirical reality that can easily be enlisted by tyranny” (p. 58).
Occupying prestigious positions in major universities, tenured radicals such as Duke University’s Fredric Jameson declare that everything “is, ‘in the last analysis’ political” (p. 2). To change the nation, to change the world, to design the “new man” that Marcuse desired, today’s academic leftists have secured academic posts which enable them to sally forth in the war against Western Civilization. With Jesse Jackson at Stanford, they chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.” All this may be judged a “new sophistry” akin to that espoused by Plato’s Thrasymachus, who declared: “What I say is that ‘just’ or ‘right’ means nothing but what is to be interest of the stronger party.” So we find Professor Stanley Fish professing, in the title of one of his books, that There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech . . . and It’s a Good Thing Too. There are no such things, says Fish with penultimate Sophist skill, as truth, justice, intrinsic merit, or facts. Everything’s rhetorical–whatever we want it to be or can manipulate others to believe. “It is first and last,” Fish writes, “a question of power in relation to the putting of constraints.” In their general contempt for “foundationalism,” Fish and his followers propose Doing What Comes Naturally without concern for truthfulness, reason, or other constraints on one’s dreams and desires.
Louis Dupre, a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Yale University, brilliantly exegetes intellectual history in Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 1973). Modernity stems from a fateful turning away from universals, in the late Middle Ages, toward the nominalism now raging triumphant in Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. So doing, it lost some of the ancient world’s most priceless insights.
Plato, above all, bequeathed to Western culture a rootage in the logos, which structures an intelligible kosmos. We can know it by mentally participating in its universal truths. It’s a good world–a eucosmia. And it “entails eunomia,” a good ordering of cosmic laws which “run parallel with the laws of the mind and of the city” (p. 24). While taking a different approach from his teacher, Aristotle sustained Plato’s deepest insight, “an ontotheological vision of the real. No less than Plato, he supports his metaphysics by the assumption that beings owe their intrinsic meaningfulness to the divine quality of the kosmos” (p. 27).
Magisterial thinkers in the High Middle Ages, St Bernard and St Bonaventure and preeminently St Thomas Aquinas, sustained and deepened the wisdom of the ancients. A truly high culture blossomed in the 13th century. But then the Franciscan John Duns Scotus took a new turn and “developed the primacy of the individual into a wholly new philosophy” (p. 38). Thenceforth, thinkers in the West abandoned the “universal concept of form” (p. 39). William of Ockham speeded up the disintegrative process, driving a wedge between man’s mind and the real world surrounding us. The world itself, Ockham thought, lacks any real essence. All that is is what it is simply because God, at the moment, wills it to be so. Voluntarism, adumbrated by the nominalists, shifted attention from man’s mind to his will. Modernity was born.
Consequently, during the Renaissance, influential thinkers increasingly turned to “man as the measure of all things,” a central tenet of humanism which expanded during the Age of Reason. One knows himself and through that knowledge knows the world around him. Then Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy,” determined to doubt everything not inwardly clear and self-evident to him. So he abandoned “the ancient concept of truth as participation in being and instead concentrated on the nature of representation and its internal criteria. Philosophy has mostly remained on this epistemological track ever since” (p. 86). Descartes’ most penetrating critic, Pascal, noted clearly that Descartes’ rejection of Aristotle’s common sense wisdom portended disaster. “One must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason” (p. 85).
Descartes, of course, eclipsed Pascal and presided over subsequent philosophical developments. Modernity sees the world through the mind of man, and nature stands malleable before his desires and thoughts. There’s no logos in the world, so we impose our own ideas upon it. There’s no given reality, no limit, to man’s freedom of choice. Without a natural law to discern and embrace, issuing laws becomes a matter of humanly posited edicts. We’re free to shape ourselves in accord with our inner aspirations. “Life itself increasingly came to be viewed as a project through which the person shapes his or her own selfhood” (p. 126). Consequently, Dupre concludes, “Around 1660, the last comprehensive integration of our culture began to break down into the fragmentary syntheses of a mechanist world picture, a classicist aesthetics, and a theological scholasticism. Soon a flat utilitarianism would be ready to serve as midwife to the birth of what Nietzsche called modern man’s small soul” (p. 248).
Passage to Modernity is one of the finest intellectual histories I’ve ever read. Dupre knows the material, addresses the major issues, and enables the reader too fathom the powerful currents which have shaped the modern mind. Worth reading and re-reading!
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In his postscript, Kimball urges academics to recover a commitment to classic sources. Popular culture should not provide curricular materials. “One should look to the past, not to the streets, for the substance of the liberal arts curriculum” (p. 232). The choice is momentous: barbarism or civilization! Education, as Hannah Arendt knew, is primarily a conserving endeavor. We face a “crisis of authority” in many areas, including that of education. “The crisis of authority in education,” Arendt said, “is most closely connected with the crisis of tradition, that is with the crisis in our attitude toward the realm of the past . . . . The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forego either authority or tradition, and yet it must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition” (p. 93).