By Kimball, Roger
Magazine: The New Criterion; September 1997
Section: Reflections on a cultural revolution: I
VIRTUE GONE MAD
Was the phenomenon in fact so extraordinary as contemporaries supposed? Was it as unprecedented, as profoundly subversive and world-changing as they thought? What was its true significance, its real nature, and what were the permanent effects of this strange and terrifying revolution? What exactly did it destroy, and what did it create?
--Alexis de Tocqueville, L'Ancien Regime
The effect of liberty to individual is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.
--Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
At the beginning of his book on the ancien regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that "when great revolutions are successful their causes cease to exist, and the very fact of their success has made them incomprehensible." For an American writing at the end of the 1990S, it is tempting to repeat Tocqueville's words. For we, too, live in the aftermath of a momentous revolution: the revolution in morals and sensibility that swept with gathering force like a tsunami through North America and Western Europe from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. "We have witnessed," the philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller observed in 1991, "what amounts to a cultural revolution, comparable to the one in China if not worse, and whereas the Chinese have to some extent overcome their cultural revolution, I see many signs that ours is getting worse all the time, and no indication that it will be overcome in the foreseeable future." Indeed, so successful was this revolution (if a calamity can rightly be described as "successful") that we forget, we fail to recognize, what immense changes this revolution brought in its wake: having changed ourselves, we no longer perceive our transformation.
These prosperous times are relatively placid. But make no mistake: the radical, emancipationist demands of the Sixties have not receded. They have--to an extent that is astonishing to contemplate--triumphed throughout society. They have insinuated themselves, disastrously, into the curricula of our schools and colleges; they have dramatically altered the texture of sexual relations and family life; they have played havoc with the authority of churches and other repositories of moral wisdom; they have undermined the claims of civic virtue and our national self-understanding; they have degraded the media and the entertainment industry, and subverted museums and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting high culture. They have even, most poignantly, addled our hearts and innermost assumptions about what counts as the good life. As the political philosopher Harvey Mansfield noted recently in an essay called "The Legacy of the Sixties," "the poison has worked its way into our souls, the effects becoming less visible to us as they become more ordinary."
"Revolution" is, of course, a strong word. And there are obvious differences between a political revolution that seeks to bring down a government by means of violence and a cultural revolution that, whatever its political ambitions, results first of all in a transformation in the conduct of life. There are also important differences between political revolutions that aim at establishing a limited, constitutional government, and those that--notwithstanding their slogans about freedom--aim at totalitarian tyranny. The Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and the American Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century are the chief --perhaps the only--examples of the former; the latter, regrettably, are much commoner: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution provide the archetypes.
It is worth stressing the prominent place that the totalitarian impulse occupies in most revolutionary movements, cultural as well political. America's war of independence from Britain, again, is unique, or near enough, in consistently eschewing the totalitarian option. From the very beginning, the Founding Fathers understood, as John Adams put it, that "neither morals, nor riches, nor discipline of armies, nor all these together will do without a constitution." How different this was from the Marxist-inspired tyranny visited upon Russia in 1917 or the megalomaniacal Rousseuvian variety that tore France apart in 1789. Indeed, the political fantasies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau have a great deal to answer for. For two centuries, his sentimentalizing utopian rhetoric has provided despots of all description with a means of pursuing conformity while praising freedom.
It is a neat trick. Words like "freedom" and "virtue" were ever on Rousseau's lips. But freedom for him was a chilly abstraction; it applied to mankind as an idea, not to individual men. ("I think I know man," Rousseau sadly observed near the end of his life, "but as for men, I know them not.") In the Confessions, he claimed to be "drunk on virtue." And indeed, it turned out that "virtue" for Rousseau had nothing to do with acting or behaving in a certain way toward others. On the contrary, the criterion of virtue was his subjective feeling of goodness. For Rousseau, virtue was a species of moral intoxication. Translated into the political sphere, Rousseau's ideas about freedom and virtue are a recipe for totalitarianism. "Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people," Rousseau wrote in the Social Contract, "must feel themselves capable, as it were, of changing human nature,... of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it." Man is "born free," Rousseau fatuously wrote, but is "everywhere in chains." Alas, most men did not, according to him, truly understand the nature or extent of their servitude. It was his job to enlighten them--to force them, as he put it in one chilling epithet, to be free. Such "freedom" is accomplished, Rousseau thought, by bringing individual wills into conformity with what he called the "general will"-surely one of the most confused and tyrannical political principles ever enunciated. "If you would have the general will accomplished," he wrote, "bring all the particular wills into conformity with it; in other words, as virtue is nothing more than this conformity of the particular wills, establish the reign of virtue."
Establishing the reign of virtue is no easy task, as Rousseau's avid disciple Maximilien Robespierre discovered to his chagrin. All those "particular wills"--i.e., individual men and women with their diverse aims and desires--are so recalcitrant and so ungrateful for one's efforts to make them virtuous. Still, one does what one can. And the guillotine, of course, is a great expedient. Robespierre was no political philosopher. But he understood the nature of Rousseau's idea of virtue with startling clarity, as he showed when he spoke of "virtue and its emanation, terror." It is a remark worthy of Lenin, and a grim foreshadowing of the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric that informed a great deal of Sixties radicalism.
Rousseau is mentioned here because, acknowledged or not, he is the intellectual godfather of so much that happened in the cultural revolution of the 1960s. His narcissism and megalomania, his fantastic political ideas and sense of absolute entitlement, his sentimentalizing nature-worship, even his twisted, hypertrophied eroticism: all reappeared updated in the tumult of the 1960S. And so did the underlying totalitarian impulse that informs Rousseau's notion of freedom.
Writing in 1969, the sociologist Edward Shils summarized the chief components of the revolution he saw unfolding around him in his essay "Dreams of Plenitude, Nightmares of Scarcity." "The moral revolution," Shils wrote,
consists in a demand for a total transformation--a transformation from a totality of un-differentiated evil to a totality of undifferentiated perfection. Evil consists in the deadening of sentiment through institutions and more particularly through the exercise of and subordination to authority. Perfection consists in the freedom of feeling and the fulfillment of desires .... A good community is like Rousseau's; the common will harmonizes individual wills .... The common will is not the resultant of the rationally arrived at assent of its members; it is not actually a shared decision making; ... It is the transformation of sentiment and desire into reality in a community in which all realize their wills simultaneously. Anything less is repressive.
Two decades later, in an essay called "Totalitarians and Antinomians: Remembering the 30s and 60s," Shils elaborated on the theme of absolute fulfillment in his description of the "antinomian temptation." At the center of that temptation was the fantasy of absolute freedom. "The highest ideal of antinomianism," Shils wrote, "is a life of complete self-determination, free of the burden of tradition and conventions, free of the constraints imposed by institutional rules and laws and of the stipulations of authority operating within the setting of institutions." "Free," in other words, from the very things that underwrite freedom, that give it content, that prevent it from collapsing into that merely rhetorical freedom which always turns out to be another name for servitude.
The glorification of such spurious freedom is closely connected with another misuse of language--one of the most destructive: the description of irresponsible political naivete as a form of "idealism." Nor is it only naivete that gets the extenuating absolution of "idealism." So do all manner of crimes, blunders, and instances of brutality: all can be morally sanitized by the simple expedient of being rebaptized as examples of (perhaps misguided) "idealism." The one essential qualification is that the perpetrator be identified with the political Left. In her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt--who was certainly no enemy of the Left herself -- cannily observed that
one has often been struck by the peculiar selflessness of the revolutionists, which should not be confused with "idealism" or heroism. Virtue has indeed been equated with selflessness ever since Robespierre preached a virtue that was borrowed from Rousseau, and it is the equation which has put, as it were, its indelible stamp upon the revolutionary man and his innermost conviction that the value of a policy may be gauged by the extent to which it will contradict all particular interests, and that the value of a man may be judged by the extent to which he acts against his own interest and against his own will.
In fact, the "peculiar selflessness" that Arendt describes often turns out to be little more than an abdication of individual responsibility abetted by utter self-absorption. It is a phenomenon that, among other things, helps to explain the queasy-making spectacle of left-wing Western intellectuals falling over themselves in a vain effort to excuse, mitigate, or sometimes simply deny the crimes of the Soviet Union and other murderous left-wing regimes throughout the Cold War and beyond. Yes, Stalin (or Mao or Pol Pot or Fidel or whoever) was repressive (or maybe that is an ugly rumor propagated by the United States); perhaps he "went too far"; maybe some measures were "extreme"; this or that policy was "misjudged";... but what a glorious idea is equality, community, the brotherhood of man, etc. The odor of piety that attends these rituals of exculpation is one of their most disagreeable features.
One sees the same thing in another key in the left-wing response to America's cultural revolution. Whatever criticisms might be made, they are quickly neutralized by invoking the totem of "idealism": for example, the "passionate belief" (the beliefs of radicals are never less than "passionate") in a "better world," in a "more humane society," in "equality." The assumption that "passion" redeems fatuousness, rendering it noble or at least exempting it from censure, is part of the Romantic background of the counterculture. It is a profoundly mistaken and destructive idea. As T. S. Eliot observed in After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), the belief that there is "something admirable in violent emotion for its own sake, whatever the emotion or whatever the object," is "a cardinal point of faith in a romantic age." It is also, he noted, "a symptom of decadence." For it is "by no means self-evident," Eliot wrote,
that human beings are most real when they are most violently excited; violent physical passions do not in themselves differentiate men from each other, but rather tend to reduce them to the same state; and the passion has significance only in relation to the character and behavior of the man at other moments of his life and in other contexts. Furthermore, strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men, those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason, become merely instruments of feeling and lose their humanity; and unless there is moral resistance and conflict there is no meaning.
"Passion," like "idealism," is a nostrum that the Left prescribes to itself in order to relieve the burdens of responsibility.
G. K. Chesterton once observed that in the modern world "the virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity... is often untruthful." Something similar can be said about the virtues of freedom and idealism. Freedom is an important virtue. But it is not the only virtue. And apart from other virtues -- apart from prudence, say, and duty and responsibility, all of which define and limit freedom--freedom becomes a parody of itself. It becomes, in a word, unfree. And so it is with idealism. Idealism remains a virtue only to the extent that the causes to which it devotes itself are worthy of the devotion they attract. The more abstract the cause, the more vacuous the idealism.
In a subtle essay called "Countercultures," first published in 1994, the political commentator Irving Kristol noted that the counterculture of the 1960s was in part a reaction against a society that had become increasingly secular, routinized, and crassly materialistic. In this respect, too, the counterculture can be understood as part of our Romantic inheritance, a pica for freedom and transcendence in a society increasingly dominated by the secular forces of Enlightenment rationality. Indeed, revolts of this tenor have been a staple of Romanticism since the nineteenth century: Dos-toyevsky's "underground man," who seeks refuge from the imperatives of reason in willful arbitrariness, is only one example (a rather grim one) among countless others.
The danger, Mr. Kristol notes, is that the counterculture, in its attack on secular materialism, "will bring down--will discredit --human things that arc of permanent importance. A spiritual rebellion against the constrictions of secular humanism could end up... in a celebration of irrationalism and a derogation of reason itself."
At a time when the radical tenets of the counterculture have become so thoroughly established and institutionalized in cultural life--when they have, in fact, come more and more to define the dominant culture--unmasking illegitimate claims to "liberation" and bogus feats of idealism emerges as a prime critical task. Accordingly, a large part of these reflections on America's cultural revolution will be given over to the task of critical deconstruction. For over two hundred years, the Left has had an effective but unearned monopoly on the rhetoric of virtue. What is needed is a comprehensive assault on that monopoly. This is obviously not something that can be achieved all at once. Such rhetorical habits reflect a longstanding emotional investment, one not easily assailed by argument. But a start can be made by exposing the baselessness of so many radical claims to liberation and by demystifying the rancid "idealism" of a movement whose primary effect has been to debase the intellectual and moral currency of contemporary culture.
Books and other commentary about the 1960s and the "culture wars" have been appearing almost as fast as one can turn their pages. Many have been critical. Some are celebrations. In December 1994 -- to take just one example--The New York Times, obviously chastened by the recent Republican sweep in the 1994 -- congressional race, published an editorial "In Praise of the Counterculture." Challenging the "pejorative" use of the term "counterculture" -- it was Newt Gingrich's description of Bill and Hillary Clinton as "counterculture McGoverniks" that really set the Times off -- the editorialist castigated the "puritans" who criticized the "summery, hedonistic ethos" of the 1960s. Connoisseurs of cant will find much to savor in this brief document, beginning with the proposition that the 1960s "produced a renewal of the Thoreauvian ideal of the clear, defiant voice of the dissenting citizen." "Only a few periods in American history," the Times informed its readers, "have seen such a rich fulfillment of the in-forming ideals of personal freedom and creativity that lie at the heart of the America intellectual tradition .... The 60's spawned a new morality-based politics that emphasized the individual's responsibility to speak out against injustice and corruption."
In the coming months, we shall have occasion to examine some of the chief works and events that constituted this "rich fulfillment," these triumphs of "individual responsibility" and a "new morality-based politics." At the moment, it is enough to note the tenor of the Time's encomium, its invocation of freedom and creativity, its assumption of a superior virtue that is barely distinguishable from a knowing if "summery" hedonism.
Critics of the counterculture have not been slow to attack the phenomena that the Times praises. Many palpable hits have been scored, and by now there exists a rich literature tabulating the excesses and absurdities of 1960s radicalism. Useful though much of that literature is, however, there has been no attempt to trace the overall course of America's cultural revolution, detailing its roots in the Beat sensibility of the 1950s, analyzing the primary issues and personalities that defined it, assessing the damage it has done to America's intellectual, moral, and artistic life. "What was its true significance, its real nature, and what were the permanent effects of this strange and terrifying revolution? What exactly did it destroy, and what did it create?" The questions with which Tocqueville began his book about the ancien regime and the French Revolution are also the questions that will guide these reflections on America's cultural revolution.
It remains to say something about the course that our discussion will take. We will begin in the 1950s with the emergence of the Beats, focusing particularly on such representative figures as the poet Allen Ginsberg and the novelist William Burroughs. The Beats are crucial to an understanding of America's cultural revolution not least because in their lives, their proclamations, and (for lack of a more accurate term) their "work" they anticipated so many of the pathologies of the Sixties and Seventies. Their programmatic anti-American-ism, their avid celebration of drug abuse, their squalid, promiscuous sex lives, their pseudo-spirituality, their attack on rationality and their degradation of intellectual standards, their aggressive narcissism and juvenile political posturing: in all this and more, the Beats were every bit as "advanced" as any Sixties radical.
If the Beats differed from their successors (and those Beat figures who survived long enough may be said to have succeeded their former selves to become prominent counter cultural idols) it was less in their attitudes and behavior than in the attitudes and behavior of the culture at large. As the Sixties unfolded, attitudes that had characterized a tiny minority on the fringes of culture were more and more accepted into the mainstream. By the early 1970s, they had become the mainstream.
In this process of spiritual colonization, the Beats were aided by a number of intellectual fellow travelers, many of whom, though not Beats themselves, eagerly championed the Beat sensibility and, throughout the 1950S, provided the moral alibis with which the excesses of the Beats were explained and justified. In various ways, establishment writers like Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death), John Kenneth Galbraith (The Affluent Society), Paul Goodman (Growing Up Absurd), Michael Harrington (The Other America), Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man, Eros and Civilization), C. Wright Mills (White Collar, The Power Elite), and William Whyte, Jr. (The Organization Man) "softened up" the culture at large, preparing it to assimilate--in many respects, to emulate--the Beats, their attitudes toward life, art, and above all toward the United States.
Every revolution has its myths. One of the myths dearest to the counterculture is that America in the 1950s was a sterile, soulless society, obsessed with money, stunted emotionally, negligible culturally and intellectually, brutal and hamfisted in its politics and social policy. Never mind that, when it came to cultural and intellectual achievement, America in the 1950s looks like fifth-century Athens in comparison with what came afterward. The image of America as a materialistic wasteland, barren of cultural achievement, was central to the cosmology of the Beats and, in differing ways, it was an image these writers and intellectuals strenuously reinforced. It will be instructive to sample some of these writings: Goodman's lugubrious Growing Up Absurd, for example, whose image of America as an evil, soul-destroying "Organized System" had an immense influence when it was first published in 1960, and Brown's Life Against Death (1959), whose toxic cocktail of Freud and Marx helped pave the way for the legitimization of hedonism that swept through the country in the years ahead.
As the 1950s wore on, anti-Americanism became a necessary badge of authenticity for writers and intellectuals; more and more, the cultural establishment demanded the pose of anti-establishment animus. Among those railing against the evils of America, the novelist Norman Mailer occupies a special place. Today, Norman Mailer is regarded by many as a grotesque figure, alternately repulsive and pathetic. There was a time, however, when he was widely considered to be not only a serious novelist but also a deep thinker. His career is an object lesson in the myopia of contemporary taste.
Prominent in Mailer's writings are a fascination with violence and an adolescent obsession with sex. Both feature centrally in his once-notorious essay "The White Negro" (1957). Fulminating in that essay against "the totalitarian tissues of American society," Mailer praises the "hipster" as someone who, having "absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro" accepts "the meaninglessness of life" and deliberately encourages the "psychopath" in himself. Devoted to jazz, drugs, violence, and sex, the hipster would think nothing of "beat[ing] in the brains of a candy-store keeper." As Mailer explains, "the psychopath murders-- if he has the courage-- out of the necessity to purge his violence," a catharsis that for him is inextricably bound up with "apocalyptic" sex.
At bottom, 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 that preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy--he knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him.
Mailer considered "The White Negro" "one of the best things I have ever done." Certainly it is one of the most characteristic.
The career of Norman Mailer is one that will figure prominently in these reflections; another is that of Susan Sontag. From the moment she burst upon the scene in the early 1960s with her essays "Against Interpretation" and "Notes on 'Camp;" Sontag has been a model of radical chic. Indeed, from her declaration that "the white race is the cancer of human history" in the mid-Sixties to her travels to Bosnia to stage an all-female production of Waiting for Godot in the 1990s, Sontag has been a living compendium of radical cliches and stereotypes. In a report from Castro's Cuba in 1969, for example, she moves from declaring that "America is a cancerous society" to observing that "rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature--really grooving on anything--units, maladapts a person for the American way of life" to assuring her readers that "no Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published." To be sure, like Mailer, Sontag is at bottom a preposterous figure. But, again like Mailer, what prevents her from being simply a source of unintended comedy is the extent to which her aestheticizing political radicalism not only was taken seriously but also came to represent a major current of elite cultural opinion.
No account of America's cultural revolution would be complete without some discussion of the Vietnam War. More than any other event, it legitimated anti-Americanism and helped insinuate radical feeling into the mainstream of cultural life. What we will focus on in these reflections is not the history of the war itself or even the protest against it--those stories have been often told--but some central examples of how reaction to the war helped to "normalize" a spectrum of radical sentiments. The early history of The New York Review of Books (which began publishing in 1963) belongs here, in part for its reporting on the Vietnam War, in part for its increasingly enthusiastic embrace of other items in the menu of cultural radicalism. The disastrous effect of the war--or, more precisely, of the protests against the war--on our institutions of higher education also deserves attention. What we will be interested in here is not so much a history of student activism against the war: that, too, is an oft-told story. Our focus will be on a handful of exemplary case studies that show how the capitulation of certain key university presidents helped to sanction (and therefore recommend to the society at large) a whole set of radical attitudes, not only about the war and America's role in it, but also about art, education, and morality.
One prominent part of that radicalism concerns race. The destructive effects of America's cultural revolution on race relations in this country cannot be overestimated. In the transformation of the civil-rights movement into an agitation for black power, we see not only a new segregationism but also a blueprint for the "victim politics" and demands for political correctness that have so disfigured American culture in the 1980s and 1990s. The unhappy metamorphosis of James Baldwin--from a novelist who insisted that he was "not a black writer but an American one" to one who embraced the racialist politics of the black power movement--epitomized this trend. We will focus here not only on Baldwin but also on the celebration of violent black radicals like Eldridge Cleaver, whose assertion in his book Soul on Ice that rape is "an insurrectionary act . . . . trampling upon the white man's law" won abject praise from any number of bien pensant white radicals.
It has been in the life of art and the life of the mind, however, that the counterculture has had its most devastating effects. To an extent that would have been difficult to imagine thirty years ago, art and education have become handmaidens of political radicalism. Standards in both have plummeted. The art world has more and more jettisoned any concern with beauty and has become a playground for bogus "transgressive" gestures, while colleges and universities, aping this exhausted radicalism, have given themselves up to an uneasy mixture of politically correct causes and the rebarbative rhetoric of deconstruction, poststructuralism, and "cultural studies." The story of what has happened to our institutions of high culture since the Sixties is a story of almost uninterrupted degradation and capitulation to forces inimical to culture. We will outline this chronicle of decline, focusing particularly on the destruction of the humanities in higher education and the surrender of art to the perverting imperatives of politics.
The politicization of art and education represents one large part of the counterculture's legacy. The coarsening of feeling and sensibility is another. No phenomenon has done more to advance this coarsening than rock music. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of rock music to the agenda of the cultural revolution. It is also impossible to overstate its soul-deadening destructiveness. The most reviled part of Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind was his chapter criticizing the effects of rock music. But Bloom was right in insisting that rock music is a potent weapon in the arsenal of emotional anarchy. In truth, the triumph of rock music was not only an aesthetic disaster of gigantic proportions, it was also a moral disaster whose effects are nearly impossible to calculate precisely because they are so pervasive. We will take a critical look at the spiritual legacy of rock music, reconsidering Bloom's indictment and the heated arguments mounted against his analysis.
Inseparable from the culture of rock music is the celebration of drugs and the demand for sexual liberation. The three go together. They arc the counterculture's primary instruments of ecstasy, its chief weapons against the obligations of traditional culture. It is still not clear which has done the most damage. Although drugs cut short thousands of lives and permanently maimed countless more, we suspect that the real competition is between rock music and the sexual revolution. Both promised boundless freedom; both involved the entire culture in moral chaos. At the end of Life Against Death, Norman O. Brown assured his readers that "the path of sublimation, which mankind has religiously followed since the foundation of the first cities, is no way out of the human neurosis, but, on the contrary, leads to its aggravation." According to Brown, what was needed was "a union with others and with the world around us based not on anxiety and aggression but on narcissism and erotic exuberance." Brown was writing in the late 1950s; the subsequent decades were not short on either narcissism or erotic exuberance. Whether the consequences of such narcissism and exuberance lessened or aggravated "the human neurosis" is a question we will consider in the coming months.
Near the beginning of her book On Revolution, Hannah Arendt quotes the conservative thinker Joseph dc Maistre who, looking back on the French Revolution in 1796, observed that "La contrerevolution ne sera point une revolution contraire, mais le contraire de la revolution": "The counterrevolution will not be a revolution in reverse, but the reverse of revolution." She dismisses this as "an empty witticism: But is it? Given the disastrous spiritual malaise brought on by America's cultural revolution, we may conclude that the way forward lies not in any sort of new revolution but, on the contrary, in the patient recovery of lost virtues: the antidote to revolution is not counterrevolution but recuperation.
By Roger Kimball