Monday, May 19, 2008

Liberal "elitists", race and the "culture war"

"Elitist intellectual" Pennsylvania coal miners on strike, 1910s

(This is the second of 2 posts discussing Christopher Lasch's 1991 book The True and Only Heaven; link to Part 1)

Lasch in a brief autobiographical section described how he grew up as and long remained someone who was distinctly to the left of even most Democratic liberals. Which can mean lots of things, including a thought-out position, a type of active engagement or a sense of political purity that allows one to stand happily outside the dirty business of actual political decisions in the real world. In any case, by the 1980s, he was feeling like a burnt-out leftie and didn't want to associate himself with those Yippies and Hippies and stuff from the 1960s.

Fortunately for the quality of his analysis, he doesn't seem to have quite gone over to the dark side of neoconservatism. Although in part of the book, he seems to treat academic sociology in general, and both liberal and conservative social analyses, as more-or-less equivalent to political liberalism. So he winds up citing conservatives like Seymour Martin Lipset and (neocon) Daniel Bell as examples of how liberal thinking got on a wrong track from his viewpoint. A strange approach, to say the least.

But he gets around to making some decent points. After repeating some stock "culture war" tropes, which I discussed in the previous post on this book, Lasch gets around to acknowledging that plain old raw racism played a role among some of the "culture warriors". Discussing the busing controversy of the 1970s with particular reference to the Boston area where it was especially bitter, ...

he does his best to be sympathetic to the antibusing activists in the following passage, but can't overlook the obvious, either:

The wrongs suffered by black people in America were so glaring and their demand for reparation seemingly so compelling that advocates of busing found it impossible to admit that white workers had important grievances of their own, especially when those grievances were couched in the idiom of racial abuse and championed by leaders who exercised no control over their own followers. Liberals were predisposed to see nothing but racial prejudice in the antibusing movement, but the movement itself did very little to correct this misunderstanding. Antibusing agitators sometimes appealed to the example of the civil rights movement, but they had no understanding of its moral self-discipline. They deplored violence but subtly encouraged it by dwelling on the duty to repel the outside "invasion" of their communities. They protested that "although we're opposed to forced busing, we're not racists," in the words of Dennis Kearney, a South Boston politician; but antibusing mobs undermined such claims with their favorite slogan, "Bus the niggers back to Africa!" "We are racists," said a white senior at South Boston High School. "Let's face it. That's how we feel about it." Ione Malloy, the English teacher who recorded this defiance in her diary of the busing conflict, tried to persuade her students that South Boston's position was more complicated than that. When students complained that "blacks get everything," she challenged them to change places. When they threatened to "start trouble so the plan won't work," she predicted, quite accurately, that the authorities would close the school. She urged them to avoid violence and provocation, to no avail. As the situation deteriorated, she confessed to a feeling of "futility." "We seem to be going to a dead end."

The best argument against busing was that an "ethnically or racially homogeneous neighborhood respected another community's integrity more easily than a weak, threatened neighborhood did." According to this way of thinking, "strong neighborhoods were the solid building blocks of a healthily diverse city." The "preservation of community," accordingly, should have been recognized as a "value competitive with - yet ironically essential to - equality." But these were the words of a sympathetic observer from outside, Anthony Lukas, not an indigenous analysis of the issue. Leaders of the antibusing movement never resorted to this argument. They seldom rose above the level of resentment, self-righteousness, and self-pity. "We are poor people locked into an economically miserable situation," said Pixie Palladino of ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights). "All we want is to be mothers to the children God gave us. We are not opposed to anyone's skin. We are opposed to forced busing." (my emphasis)
But is it true that "advocates of busing [i.e., liberals] found it impossible to admit that white workers had important grievances of their own"? Cue up Fred Harris again, the former Oklahoma Senator who played a prominent role on the "Kerner Commission" studying urban violence, from his 1973 book The New Populism. Harris argued for the virtues of local and neighborhood government and democratic city governments, and said:

But how does this square with busing? If neighborhoods are to be given real control over essential services, why should they not have control over neighborhood schools? Neighborhoods should control their own schools - unless neighborhood control really amounts to racial discrimination and inequality of educational opportunity. In this instance, the more fundamental promise of the American inheritance for equality before the law must take precedence.

Court-ordered busing of schoolchildren can be made more understandable if people know that it is a stop-gap measure and that there is an alternative that permits neighborhood control. That alternative, advocated by the New Populism, calls for knocking down the racial and class barriers to housing, so that people can live where they want to live. And it calls for evening up the imbalances in wealth and income, so that people can afford quality education wherever they live.
Supporters of "busing" for desegregation also worked to develop alternatives such as "magnet schools" with a particular emphasis like arts or sciences to attract diverse student bodies on a voluntary basis.

The notion that liberals "found it impossible to admit that white workers had important grievances of their own" (my emphasis) is just silly. But the false accusation - which Lasch should have known better to repeat in this form - fits well with the "culture war" narrative about liberals elitism.

He repeats essentially the same claim in another form, "Liberals were predisposed to see nothing but racial prejudice in the antibusing movement". Nonsense again, for the same reasons. And as Lasch goes on to describe it, since the antibusing movement on which he was focused there presented a blatantly racist and even violent front, why does he think that liberals were "predisposed" to see "nothing" but racism in that movement? Actually, liberal politicians looked hard to find other interests of the protesters which they could address as a way of diffusing racial tensions.

Lasch may have been feeling burnt-out when he wrote this book. But he does give some good insight into the political-ideological-marketing approach conservatives used to redefine the pro-labor, pro-civil-rights Democratic Party as "elitist". They created a framework of a "new class". The "new class" concept had various antecedents, as Lasch explains. It built on economic theories that stressed the significance of scientists and engineers in the production process. And also on the notion of the "managerial revolution" that meant that managers of corporations rather than owners of the company's stock made most of the actual decisions about business behavior, a notion associated with the economists Adolph Berle and Gardiner Means in the 1930s.

Those descriptions were realistic and empirically based. But the brand of intellectuals we now know so fondly as "neoconservatives" contributed their own twist to the notion of a New Class, eventually applying concepts they used to describe Soviet and Eastern European Communist societies to domestic US politics. Lasch writes:

Those who had been raised on the Marxian theory of history ... - and this category included a number of intellectuals who later became neoconservatives - ... needed [to define] a ruling class [to oppose], if only to sustain their own self-image as a lonely band of truth tellers who dared to question the reigning orthodoxy, and they found it in the makers of the "managerial revolution."
Lasch even traces the New Class notion back to critics of the French Revolution liek Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville which made much of the irresponsibility of revolutionary intellectuals.

The neocons gave a highbrow version of the New Class which provides a framework so that the Kathleen Parkers and Rush Limbaughs of the world can sneer at the "elitism" of Democrats while they themselves defend the narrow interests of billionaires and plutocrats:

Neoconservative intellectuals' restatement of these well-established traditions of speculation - in which the new class was described variously as practical and efficient, domineering and repressive, alienated and adversarial —represented these intellectuals' most important contribution to the rise of the new right. New-class theory enabled the right to attack "elites" without attacking big business. Businessmen, it appeared, were responsible and public-spirited: they were accountable to the consumers to whom they sold their products, just as practical politicians were accountable to the voters; and the market thus limited any power they could hope to exercise. The new class, on the other hand, was accountable to no one, and its control of higher education and the mass media gave it almost unlimited power over the public mind. Yet the members of this class still felt marginal and isolated: the more power they achieved, the more they resented their lack of power. (my emphasis)
Rightwingers, apparently since the beginning of time, have been convinced that colleges are full of dangerously subversive professors, however little reality on the campuses conformed to that delusion:

[Lewis] Feuer spoke of the "intellectuals' acute authoritarianism, arising from frustrated desire for power." Commentary [the leading neocon journal] caricatured the "radicalized professor" as a "man who has wandered through life, never testing himself outside the university," "envious, resentful," unable to bear his exclusion from the "magic circle where power, glory, and virtue reside."
Since this concept of the New Class was an imaginative ideological construct to begin with, tweaking the definition according to the marketing needs of the moment wasn't difficult:

Although the "new class" often seemed to refer only to literary intellectuals an4 their "adversary culture," it could easily expand, when the need arose, to embrace bureaucrats, professional reformers, social workers, and social engineers as well as literary types. In this version, which derived from the theory of the managerial revolution, the "new class" seemed to refer to anyone working in the public sector. According to Irving Kristol [father of William and godfather of neoconservatism], it consisted of "scientists, teachers, and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communications industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of government bureaucracy, and so on." Charles Murray's description was even more expansive: "the upper echelons of ... academia, journalism, publishing, and the vast network of foundations, institutes, and research centers that has been woven into partnership with government during the last thirty years." Murray included even politicians, judges, bankers, businessmen, lawyers, and doctors - at least those who were liberals. From this point of view, the new class could be recognized not so much by its culture of hedonism as by its relentless pressure for an "activist federal government committed to 'change,' " as Michael Novak put it. Professionals in the public sector wanted massive federal programs, according to Novak, because such programs created "hundreds of thousands of jobs and opportunities" for "those whose hearts itch to do good and who long for a 'meaningful' use of their talents, skills, and years." As Novak, Murray, and Kristol saw it, the culture of the new class was not just antibourgeois [i.e., permissive on culture values] but antibusiness. It aimed to replace private enterprise with a vast bureaucracy that would undermine initiative, destroy the free market, and subject everything to central control.

These wildly divergent descriptions of the new class made it clear that the term referred to a set of politically objectionable attitudes, not to an identifiable social grouping, much less a class.
This is the larger framework that allows Republicans championing massive tax subsidies to the wealthiest citizens to become down-home good ole boys who are the kind of people you'd like to have a beer with, while Democrats determined to expand opportunity for the majority and defend the poor are transmuted into stuffy elitists who look down their noses at the regular folks.

In closing, it's always worth remembering that such constructions which prove useful over a long period of time, however fantastic they may be empirically, have to hitch onto some kernel of truth to be effective. The seemingly ever-increasing role of experts and specialists in society is one of those realities in this case. I'm not going to develop the idea in this post. But the near-ubiquitous experts which we encounter daily who we supposedly need to consult to lives our lives in the correct way do provide a real-world experience of a kind of elitism that gives emotional force to the scam Republican partisan accusation.

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