[Paleopsych] Inside Higher Ed: Falling Into the Generation Gap
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Wed Nov 30 23:24:28 UTC 2005
Falling Into the Generation Gap
By Scott McLemee
A few weeks ago, sitting over a cup of coffee, a writer in his
twenties told me what it had been like to attend a fairly sedate
university (I think he used the word "dull") that had a few old-time
New Left activists on its faculty.
"If they thought you were interested in anything besides just your
career," he said, "if you cared about ideas or issues, they got really
excited. They sort of jumped on you."
Now, I expected this to be the prelude to a little tribute to his
professors - how they had taken him seriously, opened his mind to an
earlier generation's experience, etc. But no.
"It was like they wanted to finish their youth through you, somehow,"
he said. "They needed your energy. They needed you to admire them.
They were hungry for it. It felt like I had wandered into a crypt full
of vampires. After a while, I just wanted to flee."
It was disconcerting to hear. My friend is not a conservative. And in
any case, this was not the usual boilerplate about tenured radicals
seeking to brainwash their students. He was not complaining about
their ideas and outlook. This vivid appraisal of his teachers was not
so much ideological as visceral. It tapped into an undercurrent of
generational conflict that the endless "culture wars" seldom
You could sum it up neatly by saying that his professors, mostly in
their fifties and sixties by now, had been part of the "Baby Boom,"
while he belonged to "Generation X."
Of course, there was a whole segment of the population that fell
between those two big cultural bins -- people born at the end of the
1950s and the start of the 1960s. Our cohort never had a name, which
is probably just as well. (For one thing, we've never really believed
that we are a "we." And beside, the whole idea of a prepackaged
identity based on what year you were born seems kind of tacky.)
One effect of living in this no-man's-land between Boomers and Xers is
a tendency to feel both fascinated and repulsed by moments when people
really did have a strong sense of belonging to a generation. The
ambivalence is confusing. But after a while it seems preferable to
nostalgia -- because nostalgia is always rather simple-minded, if not
The recent documentary The Weather Underground (a big hit with the
young-activist/antiglobalization crowd) expressed doe-eyed sadness
that the terrible Amerikan War Machine had forced young idealists to
plant bombs. But it somehow never mentioned that group's enthusiasm
for the Charles Manson "family." (Instead of the two-fingered hippie
peace sign, Weather members flashed a three-finger salute, in honor of
the fork used to carve the word "war" into one of the victims'
stomach.) Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger have a lot of things to
answer for - but that particular bit of insanity is not one of them.
Paul Berman, who was a member of Students for a Democratic Society at
Columbia University during the strike of 1968, has been writing about
the legacy of the 1960s for a long time. Sometimes he does so in
interesting ways, as in parts of his book A Tale of Two Utopias;
and sometimes he draws lessons from history that make an otherwise
placid soul pull out his hair with irritation. He has tried to sort
the positive aspects of the 1960s out from the negative -- claiming
all the good for a revitalized liberalism, while treating the rest as
symptoms of a lingering totalitarian mindset and/or psychological
Whatever the merits of that analysis, it runs into trouble the minute
Berman writes about world history -- which he always paints in broad
strokes, using bright and simple colors. In his latest book, Terror
and Liberalism, he summed up the last 300 years in terms that
suggested Europe and the United States had grabbed their colonies in a
fit of progress-minded enthusiasm. (Economic exploitation, by Berman's
account, had nothing to do with it, or not much.) Liberalism and
Terror is a small book, and easy to throw.
His essay in the new issue of Bookforum is, to my mind, part of
the thoughtful, reflective, valuable side of Berman's work. In other
words, I did not lose much hair reading it.
The essay has none of that quality my friend mentioned over coffee -
the morbid hunger to feast off the fresh blood of a younger
generation's idealism. Berman has fond recollections of the Columbia
strike. But that is not the same as being fond of the mentality that
it fostered. "Nothing is more bovine than a student movement," he
writes, "with the uneducated leading the anti-educated and mooing all
The foil for Berman's reflections is the sociologist Daniel Bell, who
left Columbia in the wake of the strike. At the time, Bell's book
The End of Ideology was the bete noir of young radicals. (It was
the kind of book that made people so furious that they refused to read
it - always the sign of the true-believer mentality in full effect.)
But it was Bell's writing on the history of the left in the United
States that had the deepest effect on Berman's own thinking.
Bell noticed, as Berman puts it, "a strange and repeated tendency on
the part of the American Left to lose the thread of continuity from
one generation to the next, such that each new generation feels
impelled to reinvent the entire political tradition."
There is certainly something to this. It applies to Berman himself.
After all, Terror and Liberalism is pretty much a jerry-rigged version
of the Whig interpretation of history, updated for duty in the War
on Terror. And the memoiristic passages in his Bookforum essay are, in
part, a record of his own effort to find "the thread of continuity
from one generation to the next."
But something else may be implicit in Bell's insight about the
"strange and repeated tendency" to lose that thread. It is a puzzle
for which I have no solution readily at hand. Namely: Why is this
tendency limited to the left?
Why is it that young conservatives tend to know who Russell Kirk was,
and what Hayek thought, and how Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964
prepared the way for Reagan's victory in 1980? Karl Marx once wrote
that "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a
nightmare on the brain of the living." So how come the conservatives
are so well-rested and energetic, while the left has all the bad
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At every time and place where the left speaks in clear, uncompromised
voice, the state leaves a giant bloody footprint. It is a perfectly
natural impulse to run as fast as you can away from that footprint.
After generations of lynchings, Palmer raids, inquisitions,
vigilantes, Pinkertons, feds, police riots, red squads, goon squads,
undercover agents provocateurs, Cointelprograms, blacklists, Alien and
Sedition Acts, Smith Acts, Taft-Hartley Acts, PATRIOT Acts and
uncountable suspicious violent deaths of important leaders, it's a
miracle that there's a left left to scratch your head about.
On the other hand, no one ever risked more than a paper cut writing
justifications for imperial aggression. Just ask Berman.
Ethan Young, at 2:25 pm EST on March 24, 2005
Response to Ethan Young
There has certainly been repression of the left in the course of
American history. Yet the level of it has never been so severe as in
some other countries -- where, despite incredible levels of violence
directed against it, leftist movements survived and thrived. So, as
causal explanations go, that dog won't hunt.
As for people offering left-tinged support for American military
intervention...sure, such do exist. But they are fewer in number than,
say, people disposed to fits of enthusiasm for any given despotism
waving a "progressive" or "anti-imperialist" flag. This is what makes
studying the history of American radicalism such a melancholy thing.
Scott McLemee, columnist at Inside Higher Ed, at 4:48 pm EST on
March 24, 2005
Another Berman book on the Left
You may be interested to know there's another Berman book in the
offing, which I am publishing. It's called "Power and the Idealists"
(formerly entitled The Passion of Josckhka Fischer") and it's about
Fischer, Regis Dubray, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and, above all Bernard
Regards,Richard Nashrichard at softskull.com
Richard Nash, Soft Skull Press, at 5:29 pm EST on March 24, 2005
hunt or run
We're barking up different trees. My point is comparing the
disposition of left and right as if the playing field is level will
always leave you with confusion and distorted perspectives.
Repression has special weight in the US, because the closer you are to
creature comfort, the less prepared you are to face real danger, no
matter how heartfelt the cause.
There's a lot wrong with the US left -- vestiges of Stalin-cultism
mark just one aspect of a deeper crisis. And I don't argue that
Berman, Radosh, Hitchens et al. are the left's problem, not any more
Can an anti-democratic system as powerful as US imperialism be fought
with principled democratic politics? If so, how? If not, should we
My generation, and the one before mine, have made no progress with
this dilemma in 50 years. I worry a lot that X, Y and Z won't either.
ethan young, at 4:36 am EST on March 25, 2005
down the memory hooooole
Berman's 'strange tendancy' is also known as the `memory hole'. The
history of the left in America is marked by an almost reflexive
embrace of totalitarianism and genocide -- from National Socialism to
Stalinism, Maoism and Kampuchean communism, to the various identity
cults active on campus today. And yet, rather than confronting their
mistakes, leftists deny them, ignore them, forget them, or simply
re-define the terms. I suspect that this `loss of continuity' derives
from an inability to confront the past.
max, at 6:36 pm EDT on April 3, 2005
19. mailto:scott.mclemee at insidehighered.com
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