A Clean Break With The Past

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Along with the change in white attitudes toward blacks is a profound and unsettling change in the attitude of liberals toward our national history. Blacks and others, but mainly blacks, have persuaded liberals that ours is in crucial ways a racist society, and that it always has been. Formerly we thought of the American past, broadly, in terms of rural individualism, fanatical independence, and anti-intellectualism combined with visceral folk wisdom and an inherent sense of fairness—thought of it, that is, in a way that was both affectionate and patronizing. We minimized or dismissed particular instances of racism (lynchings, the Scottsboro case, or the wartime detention camps for Nisei) as being confined to a particular geographical area or attributable to the bad judgment of particular leaders. Now, for many Americans, almost any tintype glimpse of the American past—the village band concert with its handful of tentatively smiling black faces in the back row, the political rally with no black faces anywhere—suggests racism. To a degree our history has been poisoned for us. And I believe that the consequences of this, in the light of our current national demoralization, can hardly be overemphasized at this time in America’s life.

“… the defense of irrationality is often put on rational grounds”

Our leaders themselves have become demoralized to an extent surely without precedent since the Civil War. “We know our lakes are dying, our rivers growing filthier daily, our atmosphere increasingly polluted,” John Gardner, former Cabinet member and more recently head of the Urban Coalition, said not long ago. “We are aware of racial tensions that could tear the nation apart. We understand that oppressive poverty in the midst of affluence is intolerable. We see that our cities are sliding toward disaster. … But we are seized by a kind of paralysis of the will.” Does not such language, in the nation of Fourth of July oratory, and coming from not just an Establishment figure but to some the Establishment figure of the present moment, represent a clear break with the past, even the very recent past?

Naturally, the demoralization of the leaders is felt among the people. “Most people no longer seem to care—if, indeed, they know—what is happening to their country,” Richard Harris wrote late last year in The New Yorker magazine. “Exhausted by the demands of modern life and muddled by the fearful discord tearing at society, they seem to have turned their common fate over to their leaders in a way that would have been inconceivable five years ago.” But when the leaders talk of paralysis of the will, who will lead?

I come now to recent changes in attitudes and values among the young, where we may find a key to what is happening to the country. To review briefly, then, the most obvious manifestations of these changes: Youth on the campus has discovered its previously unsuspected and therefore untested power to change its environment and the conditions of its life. From the Berkeley revolt (1964) to the one at Columbia ( 1968) to the one at Harvard (1969) we have seen the content of such campus uprisings gradually broaden from demands for the right to use dirty words to demands for changes in the course of study, insistence on sexual and other forms of personal freedom, demands for revision of admissions policies, and ultimatums about the reorganization of entire curricula. The rebels have developed their own jargon—largely mindless and question-begging like all political jargon: in pursuit of “restructuring” (getting their own way) the dissidents resort to “confrontation” (violence or the threat of it), make “nonnegotiable demands” (refuse to engage in reasonable discussion), and, if they get what they want, sometimes complain with what seems to be a certain disappointment that they have been “co-opted” (yielded to). A comical aspect of their behavior is that they frequently ask those in authority to help them revolt against that very authority; they want, for example, to be offered formal courses in the techniques of campus disruption as well as guerrilla warfare. (A university president told me recently of a student delegation that had come to ask him, not without an attractive diffidence, that he help them by giving them the benefit of his political experience. “What they wanted me to help them rebel against was me ,” he commented.) But campus revolts are not a joke. They are evidence of an idea completely new in the United States, poles apart from the passive orthodoxy of the silent generation of a decade earlier, that teaching authority is not absolute but fluid and malleable, that the young can move the sun and the moon in their heavens if they try, that their universe in spite of its ordered surface is basically anarchic. And the authorities, by yielding to them again and again, have confirmed their most disturbing suspicions.

Recent statistics compiled by the Urban Research Corporation of Chicago give a striking picture of how widespread campus revolts have been. Covering 232 campuses over the first half of 1969, the study showed that during that period 215,000 students, or about one tenth of all those enrolled at the institutions studied, actively participated in a total of nearly three hundred major protests—all in just six months. Before the fact that only one student in ten was active in the uprisings is taken to indicate that the youth revolt is just the phenomenon of a small but visible minority, we would do well to consider that historically the passive sympathizers with new movements have usually far outnumbered the activists.