Entry from October 13, 2011

Back in 2005, Kevin Mattson wrote in The American Prospect of the big re-think which, as he then saw it, the liberal tendency was undergoing in the dark days just after the last President Bush’s re-election and the defeat of John Kerry in the election of 2004:

Who now reads left-wing books from 1968? Just try [Abbie] Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It or Woodstock Nation. Or try Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture, a puff piece about the “non-intellective” exploration of “visionary splendor” and “human communion.” Or read the prognostication of “revolution” of “consciousness” in Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. Read even the otherwise smart Susan Sontag, who praises the worst elements of Third World revolutions in Styles of Radical Will (she later stood down from many of those positions). All of these books reflect a utopian hallucination not dissimilar from the style of protests on the streets of Chicago in 1968. Younger thinkers today are going further back than the ’60s to rediscover good ideas. It’s been the Cold War liberalism of the ’40s and ’50s that has garnered the most interest. Books like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center or Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History or John Kenneth Galbraith’s American Capitalism seem much more interesting than The Making of a Counter Culture. . . .They wanted influence on the inside, not protest from the outside. In The Vital Center, Schlesinger wrote, “Our democratic tradition has been at its best an activist tradition. It has found its fulfillment, not in complaint or in escapism, but in responsibility and decision.”

How naive this all now seems! At some level, I think, even Mr Mattson must have known at the time he wrote that the American left remained too much enamored of that “utopian hallucination” that it had fallen for in the 1960s. As Eugene Robinson wrote in The Washington Post the other day, “Occupy Wall Street and its kindred protests around the country are inept, incoherent and hopelessly quixotic. God, I love ’em.” Just so. He and other aging lefties remember the protests of the ‘60s not for the political agenda they invoked, if any, but for the feelings of self-satisfaction and emotional authenticity they gave rise to. Mr Mattson saw this same impulse towards what George Cotkin called “catharsis” behind the anti-war protests of 2005 and deplored it.

When members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) gathered in Michigan in 1962 to write the famous “Port Huron Statement,” they outlined the demands of participatory democracy and invoked Dewey’s ideals. But they also invoked a jargon of authenticity taken from existentialist philosophy. While embracing “a democracy of individual participation,” they hoped to find “a meaning in life that is personally authentic.” But there’s a problem with proclaiming both of those as goals: Authenticity of the self and actually living in a democratic community with other citizens who hold varying opinions are two very different — if not, in fact, irreconcilable — demands. . . .As Christopher Lasch wrote soon after the Chicago convention, “The search for personal integrity could lead only to a politics in which ‘authenticity’ was equated with the degree of one’s alienation, the degree of one’s willingness to undertake existential acts of defiance.” Bayard Rustin agreed, arguing that the participatory ethic of protest threatened the importance of doing actual politics, which required coalition-building and compromise, and wound up pitting leftists against liberals in a dangerous internecine warfare and mutual alienation. But clear as this might have been to some back then, the idea’s appeal lives on in the activist left’s disposition to political action combined with a lack of realism — a disposition apparent today when expression trumps effectiveness. . .

Except that there was something else that Mr Mattson couldn’t quite get to grips with or didn’t acknowledge, which was that most people by then had recognized that the protesters themselves belonged to what he called “the ruling class.” So do they now. Like the privileged youth protesting against the Vietnam War because they didn’t want to have to fight in it, today’s Occupy Wall Street protestors are against corporate America because they think they are entitled to help themselves to its profits.

They have grown up so coddled and pampered in the bosom of economic success that they have come to take it for granted as their right and not something as hard won as economic success always is in the real world. They have been encouraged by their left-wing professors to look on national wealth as a sort of treasure hoard disproportionately divided up in favor of “the rich” — who can be arbitrarily dispossessed of their supposedly ill-gotten gains in favor of those who have done nothing to earn them without any ill effects in an economy founded, as ours is, on the equation of effort and reward. This is a fundamentally unserious point of view, but one that many on the left, wearied with the effort to be serious in the face of the repeated failures of the magic of President Obama’s Keynesian stimuli — now also revealed to most people as unserious — are willing to adopt as their own. Mr Mattson wrote that “expressive anti-politics is the last refuge of the powerless. Impulsive, it bursts like a flame and then burns out, to be felt only in the heart of the participant while the ruling class, unperturbed, goes on its merry way.” What he missed was that expressive anti-politics by the disaffected, as we’re seeing today, is part of that merry way.

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