Culture Rover

#89 - You Don't Need a Strawman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

"But note: The belief that political style is central to political substance -- a fetishism of style, to those dismayed by the idea -- was not something plucked by the New Left out of thin air. We shared it, in fact, with Kennedy's managerial liberalism. Managers claim reason and sneer at the opposition's 'irrational' tactics, but obscure their own prideful attachments to the symbols of power. They have their own quite emotional needs to hold on to the social territories where their writs run." - Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, p. 135

In a series of recent articles in the American Prospect, historian Kevin Mattson lays the ills of contemporary neoconservatism at the crooked commune door of 1960s radicalism. Last April, in "Goodbye to All That," Mattson argued that the contemporary left needs to abandon the expressive anti-politics of the 1960s (noisy, passionate protests in the streets, in film, and on the airwaves) for a long march through the institutions of strategy, ideology, policy, and governance. This February, Mattson followed with "The Book of Liberal Virtues," in which he argued that liberalism has always fought a two-front war against fanaticisms on either ideological extreme and, now, can fend off the strange union of 1960s radicalism and recent reactionary relativism that he labels postmodern conservatism.

Mattson always has intriguing things to say, and he fights the good fight. But his turn from radical democracy to liberalism is worthy of critical scrutiny as well (precisely the kind of scrutiny that liberalism enables).

Most of all, there is a reactionary phantom lurking within Mattson's call to the liberal ramparts. That ghost is the 1960s and a kind of post-baby-boomer rage about the specter of that decade. This rage -- slacker-thenia -- lingers among a particular generation who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s (I know, I'm one of them). Reeling from the numbness of the Reagan years, this generation scratches at the scabs of the parental generation's failures. We are always burning up fumes from the sensation that we are running on empty.

"Goodbye to All That," Mattson's bromide about expressive anti-politics, pushes toward a classic mind-body split: 1960s radicalism went for the body, for expressivity, for the sensorial thrill of chanting and marching, while the right, during and after the 1960s, went for the mind, slowly formulating a language that allowed them to dominate the framing of political discourse and gradually take over (with serious financial backing and an expanding lobbyist industry) the wings of policy-making and power.

What this binary between expressive anti-politics and "rational" politics ignores is the ways in which conservatives draw upon the emotions (especially paroxysms of fear followed by shots of power and mastery) in deeply disturbing ways, while in the 1960s, many progressives engaged in thorough, meaningful debate and discussion.

Yes, parts of the left such as the Weatherpeople went crazy with anti-war and anti-imperialism fever, but a far greater population drawn to the left kept their wits about them even as they took to the streets. They put their minds and their bodies on the line.

Their history should not be drowned out in an eagerness to recover an older, pre-1960s liberalism that itself was deeply emotional, full of petty sectarian battles and, as Mattson admits but quickly brushes aside, caught up in a troubling descent into the quagmire of Vietnam that came from an anti-communism as driven by expressive posturing as it was by ideological certainty. Expressivity and ideology should not be opposites, even for an oppositional movement. They are two parts of the same puzzle.

I would like to see Mattson think through this mind-body, expressivity-ideology, authenticity-realpolitik dichotomy a bit more in terms of liberalism. I think there is space for both. Just ask John Stuart Mill.

The phantom of the 1960s turns up again in Mattson's second article, "The Book of Liberal Virtues." In a strange way, Mattson almost contradicts "Goodbye to All That" in this follow-up piece. Now, instead of the right taking a different, more ideological and rationalistic tack away from the expressive anti-politics of the 1960s left, the right, we learn, in fact adopted the hyper-expressive relativism of the 1960s left.

Mattson argues that neoconservatives took the Foucauldian critique of the liberal Enlightenment popular among many a radical literature professor and ran with it further than even the looniest of the supposed loony left. A conservative postmodernism, Mattson sharply points out, in which there is no universal truth -- only power -- now dominates everything from David Horowitz's paranoid attacks on university faculties to Bill O'Reilly's red-faced blustering.

But that 1960s ghost gets in the way again. The 1960s radicals had every reason to critique the path to power that American liberalism took in that decade. The logic that led the nation into Vietnam knocked rationality on its ass. How could one not seek out an expressive anti-politics -- and a serious critique of the Enlightenment thinking in which liberal politics was rooted -- in the face of a war fought in such a mechanical and technological manner, with such absurd and monstrous results?

When people were added up and subtracted in kill counts, Robert McNamara valued the data of Pentagon machines over the bodies being quantified, and liberal anti-communism saddled leaders with ideological blinders, those who cared had to seek out other theories and other practices.

It is too easy to dismiss the marchers and demonstrators of the 1960s now that we know neoconservatism triumphed so thoroughly over the progressive movement of that decade. But this neither means we should banish the expressive heritage of 60s radicalism, nor that we should let go of useful analyses of how power operates through discipline as well as punishment -- only that, as Mattson has begun to do, we need to continue to imagine a positive and full liberalism in which both critique and celebration provide twin engines for progress.

17 February 2006

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