Saturday, June 28, 2008
The sixties: George Kennan vs. the hippiesGeorge Kennan, who puzzled over protesting students in 1968
George Kennan is best known as one of the leading advocates of the "realist" school of foreign-policy thought and as the author of the containment strategy adopted by the Truman administration against the Soviet Union. He quickly became disturbed by the over-emphasis on military means in the application of the containment policy. He became a leading advocate for nuclear arms control agreements and was an early critic of the Vietnam War.
So I was surprised when I picked up a book called Democracy and the Student Left (1968), which contains the text of a speech he gave which was printed as an article in the New York Times Magazine of 01/21/1968; responses from students and professors to the article; and a longer essay by Kennan responding to the letters and expanding his comments.
What surprised me was that Kennan's views from the speech on the "student left" and more generally on the New Left and youth movements of that time in the US came off like any crotchety-minded conservative dismayed and perplexed over why he had to take notice of these funny-dressed hippies and rowdy students who were so presumptuous as to think they had a right to be concerned about public affairs. I didn't expect Kennan to be jumping for joy over student protests. But I didn't expect to see such shallow, knee-jerk reactions from him either.
Here's one sample from what I'd like to think he later found an embarrassing piece of writing:
One cannot, therefore, on looking at these young people in all the glory of their defiant rags and hairdos, always just say, with tears in one's eyes: "There goes a tragically wayward youth, striving romantically to document his rebellion against the hypocrisies of the age." One has sometimes to say, and not without indignation: "There goes a perverted and willful and stony-hearted youth by whose destructiveness we are all, in the end, to be damaged and diminished."Amazing that an intellectual of Kennan's stature would have such a clueless reaction to events of that time. "Tragically wayward youth" who are also "perverted and willful and stony-hearted"? Good grief! No wonder there was a student revolt!
I'm not familiar at all with Kennan's family biography. But there are several mentions in the initial essay and in the longer follow-up to his own family. Along with the seemingly uncharacteristic emotionality of his words, I couldn't help but wonder if he had experienced some of these conflicts very close to home. In the second essay, he comments in a footnote about one letter-writer who had rather bizarrely suggested that he stage a nervous breakdown in from of his kids. In one of the only flashes of humor in this book, he comments, "I cannot believe, actually, that my own children are so unaware of my own awareness of my faults that they would be greatly enlightened by such a spectacle, however much they might enjoy it for its unexpected dramatic aspects."
In his speech and Times article, he was already quite alarmed about the state of American civil society, and that was well before most of the events of 1968. He wrote, "Not since the civil conflict of a century ago has this country, as I see it, been in such great danger", making it clear that he was referring mostly to internal conflicts in the US.
Knowing that Kennan was a very religious Christian, I was surprised most of all at the position he took in the speech on civil disobedience:
If you accept a democratic system, this means that you are prepared to put up with those of its workings, legislative or administrative, with which you do not agree as well as with those that meet with your concurrence. This willingness to accept, in principle, the workings of a system based on the will of the majority, even when you yourself are in the minority, is simply the essence of democracy. Without it there could be no system of representative self-government at all. When you attempt to alter the workings of the system by means of violence or civil disobedience, this, it seems to me, can have only one of two implications: either you do not believe in democracy at all and consider that society ought to be governed by enlightened minorities such as the one to which you, of course, belong; or you consider that the present system is so imperfect that it is not truly representative, that it no longer serves adequately as a vehicle for the will of the majority, and that this leaves to the unsatisfied no adequate means of self-expression other than the primitive one of calling attention to themselves and their emotions by mass demonstrations and mass defiance of established authority. It is surely the latter of these two implications which we must read from the overwhelming majority of the demonstrations that have recently taken place. ...This kind of thing is virtually indistinguishable from the early-stage "culture war" narrative that was already developing around "the sixties". Even rock-ribbed reactionaries would usually make some vague pretence that they were concerned about the evils of society but just put off by the rowdy tactics they saw. In the Deep South, such language was routinely applied to even the most orderly and peaceful civil rights activities. If black Southerners had just been more patient, you see, things would have gotten better on their own, sometime around the time that Hell freezes over. But they were making things worse by demonstrating and such.
He went on to make it clear that he was including the kind of Ghandian civil disobedience that was such a crucial part of the American civil rights movement:
These observations reflect a serious doubt whether civil disobedience has any place in a democratic society. But there is one objection I know will be offered to this view. Some people, who accept our political system, believe that they have a right to disregard it and to violate the laws that have flowed from it so long as they are prepared, as a matter of conscience, to accept the penalties established for such behavior.I'm still gobsmacked to see Kennan writing like this. It's impossible to believe that he wasn't aware in some way or another that democratic societies were precisely the environment in which civil disobedience was the most likely to be effective. Because there were voting publics involved who could respond favorably to acts of courage on the part of protesters willing to be arrested and negatively to excesses on the part of the authorities. Those fire hoses turned on peaceful demonstrators in Alabama changed a lot of white voters minds about the benevolence of the segregation system practiced in the Deep South.
Civil disobedience actions of that kind were not so much of an option in National Socialist Germany and Soviet Russia, which Kennan knew well from firsthand experience as a resident diplomat in both places.
Not only would Kennan's position have meant the tactics used by Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement or Ghandi in the Indian independence movement not have been possible. It also means that in situation like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, one of the most notorious pieces of legislation in American history, that citizens would have had no choice but to obediently do everything in their power to help returned escaped human property back to their slavemasters. The Underground Railroad that helped so many to reach freedom and kept the hope of final liberation from slavery alive could never have functioned as it did. Civil disobedience is a serious thing. But so are some of the ills that persisted for far too long.
The letters reproduced in the book don't include all the ones he received. But it's clear that his correspondents took issue with quite a lot about his Times article. A recent UC-Berkeley graduate named David Lee wrote:
Many of Kennan's criticisms of the hippies and New Left have also been made repeatedly by people like myself, offspring of the "Establishment but alienated from the status quo. I agree with his criticisms but I can add only that any man who is not angry and not militant about changing America either does not know or does not care about the brutality perpetrated every day upon the streets of America under the cloak of "freedom" and "democracy."His letter cited the situation in the African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.
Nicholas MacDonald of Harvard challenged Kennan's attitude in the following passage, which he introduces with the fundamentalist-sounding comment, "But it is science that has become man's worst enemy." (!!!) It's clear in the context he is referring to the application of science to weaponry and other less than humane projects:
And why should anyone wait while more evidence (people killed, cities bombed, troops increased, nuclear war threatened - in Vietnam - and black people humiliated, killed, and oppressed here, at home) is collected. There is plenty of evidence NOW. We do not have the luxury of waiting, in our monastic cells, studying the speeches of LBJ; people die, as time passes, and we study - not to mention that the world could come to an end while we study. It is the Victorian cry of a long-lost century: WAIT - detach yourself, take on the nun's garment, forget the world - WAIT, until you are married.He's got a point. More recently, we've been through years of that already with the Iraq War: things are improving, The Terrorists are in their "last throes" (Cheney), a tipping point here, a turning point there, the next six months will be decisive, The Surge is working, the Iraqi troops are being trained, violence is down and that's a good sign, violence is up and that's a good sign, and on and on and on. Patience is not always a virtue. Congress has been far too patient on starting to put an end to US military involvement in Iraq.
Barbara Bernstein and Susan Brown of Barnard gave a good statement of something that I think gets lost a lot today in discussions of antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s. Today, in 2008, a large majority of the public is against the Iraq War, and that's been the case for years. That was not the case with the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968, although when the 1968 Tet Offensive completely blew the credibility of the lying generals and administration officials who had been talking about how great things were going and how we were defeating the Communists all over the place and yadda, yadda. When you're in the minority opinion, a big part of the point of protesting is to shake people up enough to make them think about the problem at hand in a new way. Bernstein and Brown wrote:
The government and the establishment would like us to demonstrate and protest - quietly, that is, so as not to make any threatening vibrations. But we are demonstrating, and intend to demonstrate, in a way that the government can neither applaud nor fail to notice. We want to cause discomfort among the apathetic because we want to cause change. The biggest struggle is to shock people like Mr. Kennan out of their smugness.I had much the same reaction to reading Kennan's Times article here 40 years later! And my reaction comes with the experience of knowing that I've needed to be shaken out of apathy and passivity at times myself.
I was relieved to see that Kennan, in his much longer "Mr. Kennan Replies" essay, at least partially redeemed himself. He takes up the question of civil disobedience again, particularly with reference to Henry David Thoreau's famous essay on the topic, which several writers had commended to him. A big part of his criticism has to do with the individualistic nature of Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience. Kennan at least makes more thoughtful and sensible comments on civil disobedience in the longer essay, though I certainly don't find it convincing on the larger subject. He has a point, though, about Thoreau's individualism in that connection.
Kennan seems to have caught a glimmer of one of the more poignant aspects of his position in his Times piece. He himself was a critic of the Vietnam War. But he somehow couldn't connect his own position, as a scholar and former diplomat used to more orderly ways of asserting his opinions, with young antiwar protesters with their long hair and such. He grumped that many of his correspondents over the article had a "dangerously oversimplified view of a complex situation". Again, the old-as-the-hills argument: you people who want to change what's going own just don't understand the complexity of matters as we, your betters, do. He writes:
For those who may not know it (numbers of people appear not to; several even wrote me that instead of criticizing the students I should get out and oppose the war), I was long an opponent of the policies that brought us to the Vietnam involvement; I made my views public on a number of occasions in ways (including five hours on national TV on one occasion alone) that could scarcely have been more emphatic without defeating their own effectiveness. I continue to regard the war as one devoid of favorable prospects, highly dangerous to world peace, and dreadfully adverse in its effects on our domestic life and world position.Oh, yes, preserving one's "effectiveness". A lot of Democrats, including many who should have known better, preserved their "effectiveness" by voting for the Iraq War resolution of 2002. Look where that got us.
Kennan seemed to be unaware of the emerging environmental movement among young activists (the essays are specifically focused on the student movement), though in early 1968 it wasn't as prominent as it was to quickly become in the following years. But he himself was very much aware of the issue. Noting toward the end of the second essay that he agreed that ending the Vietnam War was "a prerequisite to almost anything constructive that one can think of in our [national] life" and that nuclear weapons were an "apocalyptic" danger, he proceeded to discuss other issues "that cast no less threatening a cloud over the future of our society":
There is first the question of what is happening, physically, to the natural environment necessary not only to sustain life in this country but to give it healthfulness and meaning. This is a question not just of our own once so magnificent continent, which we are treating with the blind destructiveness of the army ant; it is a question of the purity and life-sustaining quality of the seas and the global atmosphere within which this continent, and we with it, has its existence. How long can man go on over-populating this planet, destroying its topsoils, slashing off its forests, exhausting its supplies of fresh water, tearing away at its mineral resources, consuming its oxygen with a wild proliferation of machines, making sewers of its rivers and seas, producing industrial poisons of the most deadly sort and distributing them liberally into its atmosphere, its streams and its ocean beds, disregarding and destroying the ecology of its plant and insect life ? Not much longer, I suspect. I may not witness the beginning of the disaster on a serious scale. But many of the students who have written me will. And let us not forget that much of the damage that has already been done is irreparable in terms of the insight and effort of any single generation. It takes eight hundred years to produce a climax forest. It will take more than that, presumably, to return the poisoned, deadened waters of Lake Michigan, on the shores of which I was born, to the level of plant and fish life and natural healthfulness that they had at the time of my birth. And even to begin to reverse this process will require a human society far more conscious of its obligation to the continuity of life, and not just the possibilities for life's immediate enjoyment, than anything we see before us today, or have seen in the past. To make it this way will require a vast process of education, which has scarcely yet begun.It really puzzles me how a guy that could make this kind of concerned, sweeping criticism, that was far from widespread in 1968, could fail to see sympathetic aspects in the student and youth movements of that time that connected with this very concern.
Among his other long-term concerns, he includes race relations (more on that below), the negative effects of advertising, the excessive use of cars, and the need for some kind of regional governments between the states and the federal government.
But I can't say very much for his views of racial problems in the US. Based on the positions he takes in his longer essay, the most charitable thing to say is that he didn't seem to have a particularly well-informed view on the matter. This, for instance, is just downright embarrassing:
Nor is there any evidence [in his correspondents' letters] of a recognition that the Negro has had any part in the creation of his own problem, or is to have any part in its solution. The idea that he could improve his situation in any degree, either by his own effort or by his electoral action, appears to be strange to this cast of thought. He is seen only as the helpless ward of public authority. One gains from the reading of these letters the impression that in the view of their writers, the American Negro is to be held to no standards — that all qualities on his part, whether laziness, dishonesty, irresponsibility and violence of behavior or their opposites, are to be rewarded alike.Yes, it sounds like Rush Limbaugh. You can't really dress that one up. And, unfortunately, there's more along that line. So even when he gets around to recongizing that something like white racism exists, it's kind of painful to read that what he really appreciates about "the American Negro" is ... good manners:
I say these things with great reluctance, because I know they will be distorted and interpreted as evidence of an outlook I do not really entertain. I yield to none in my admiration for many of the qualities I see in the American Negro. Aside from the distinction of his contributions to music and the drama and humor, he has an exceptionally high sensitivity to people and situations. He has a gift for casual social intercourse that many of us could envy, and one made all the more impressive by the respect and solicitude for the dignity of the other person that underlie it. When not upset by painful racial reactions or demoralized by the various strains and artificialities of urban life, he tends, accordingly, to have better natural manners than a great many American whites. To anyone who believes, as I do, in the overriding importance of good form as an essential of civilized living, these are formidable qualities; and our country, in my opinion, would be distinctly poorer without them. I am perfectly willing, furthermore, to recognize that the responsibility for the present situation of the American Negro is considerably greater on the part of the white community than it is on his. (my emphasis)He even managed to echo - let's assume it was unintentional - Southern "states rights" defenders of segregation when he wondered at the oddity of a "student in Maine" who felt some sense of responsibility "for the customs and conditions that prevail in Amite, Mississippi." And who went on to assume that if those "fail to crrespond to what he, from his vantage point at a distance of two thousand miles, finds proper and acceptable, it is his business to act personally - not, mind you, through his elected representatives, but directly and in person - to set things to rights". Kennan just seems to have not had much understanding or knowledge about the civil rights movement as it actually unfolded in the decade or more preceding his essay. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that he was more than a little limited in his views by the institutional racism that was very much present then and is still with us today.
But to close with one of Kennan's more enlightened observations, he has some interesting things to say in connection with military conscription and the real issues of duties and obligations to the community involved, even when draftees are being required to fight in a misguided and even immoral war. While I don't fully share his view on draft resistance in the context of that time, this observation does shed some real light on a point that generated a lot of genuine concern and misunderstanding, aside from the cynical ways politicians like George Wallace and Richard Nixon exploited and twisted them:
The fact remains that the present student attitude toward obligations of military service stands in stark and almost dangerous contrast to concepts that prevailed up until quite recently among the majority of our people. To many older people it is almost bound to appear as a provocation offered to some of their most deeply held feelings. Many will question whether the emergence in so short a time of so drastically altered a concept of the relation of the individual to the state does not spell a fundamental change in the very nature of American national feeling. (my emphasis)What surprised me was his comment on how much of the attitude of young people of that time against the draft, which appeared to the more traditional-minded to be insufficiently patriotic, cowardly or treasonous, might well be a legitimate and healthy reaction to this:
I wonder whether this attitude is not in part a predictable reaction to the silly cultivation of the externals of an exaggerated hurrah-patriotism that has come over our schools in the past twenty years: the oaths and songs and flaggings and renderings of the National Anthem on any and all occasions. These things are, unless I am much mistaken, relics of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940's and early 1950's, when the pious and frequent performance of such ritualistic manifestations of love of country became a means of self-defense before the aroused bodies of super-patriots who swept through libraries, schools and colleges, their nostrils quivering for the smell of Communist treason. Many of the students would say, of course, that it is not the country itself but the "establishment" they are rebelling against — not the nation but the reactionary and oppressive policies to which the nation has allowed itself to be committed — that what they are doing reflects not lack of any love of country but rather a shame of country which the very love for it has induced. And in this there would be much truth.Go, dude! Kennan may have had an irrationally negative reaction to hippie hair and clothing styles. But I'm pretty sure he wasn't the kind of guy to judge a politician's "character" by whether or not he wears a flag pin in his coat lapel. To take an example at random.
Sadly, the superpatriots we have with us always.
Tags: 1968, george kennan, racism, sixties
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Defend the bad against the worse."
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