“Virtue gone mad”

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https://www.newcriterion.com/issues/1997/9/virtue-gone-mad

Extract

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 undifferentiated 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 naïveté as a form of “idealism.” Nor is it only naïveté 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 plea 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: Dostoyevsky’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 are 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 long-standing 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 informing ideals of personal freedom and creativity that lie at the heart of the American 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 Times’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 régime and the French Revolution are also the questions that will guide these reflections on America’s cultural revolution.

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 Icethat 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.

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