A Cult of Callousness
With so much left to be done, it is sad to see the re-emergence of a cult of callousness--a sort of blase cynicism, of premature exhaustion--around Harvard. The cynicism represents, it seems to me, a case of posturing, of a stance, of an attitude that suddenly becomes "in," rather than of a "new conservatism" in any political sense that students have begun to take different positions on issues than they took in the heights--or depths--of the sixties. As always, The Crimson reflects the mood well. The ideology of the sixties Left is still there, including all its most unpleasant features--support of the Vietcong, willy-nilly anti-Americanism. But the tone has become ritualistic and tired, bereft of exuberance.
Why the new mood? Why is it now in to be "Left," but inactive and cynical? Certainly the atrocities of Watergate are part of the reason people have become cynical about achieving social change through politics. But Watergate cannot be the major explanation, because the new mood appeared before Watergate.
I think the reason for the new mood is that the student movement in the sixties failed, and failed in two ways, one political and one personal. Politically, it failed to win its major demands, or even very many of its minor demands. (Students certainly did play a role in the process which eventually ended the war in Vietnam, but this success was so long in coming that many counted it as a failure.) In the media, the latter part of the sixties was a radical, even a revolutionary time. But the majority of Americans moved Right, not Left, as the sixties progressed. One part of the balance sheet of student militance is that when it was over, the Right was stronger in America than at any time since the 1920s.
There was also a personal failure. The student movement claimed to be providing the seeds of a new society, a new way of living for young people. But as the movement degenerated into a begetter of confrontation and turmoil, students reacted increasingly against the prospect of permanent disorder in their immediate environment. And so, naturally, the desire for security and for a decent ordering of life re-asserted itself among most students, the need to return to "normal."
Politically, students are cynical because the student movement failed to bring about the changes it sought, and therefore think that it is useless to try to bring about political change altogether. But this conclusion doesn't follow. Throughout the sixties, the Harvard-Radcliffe Democratic Socialist Club) was saying that the student movement was doomed to fail as long as it persisted in cutting itself off from the majority of the American people.
Bringing about progressive social change in capitalist America is certainly a difficult task, with institutional and political blocks, but certainly a prerequisite is this: the creation of a democratic majority seeking such changes. The sixties New Left (SDS and allies) saw this, and rejected democracy; campus liberalism despaired of gaining popular support among the masses of "reactionary" Americans. But in fact, the student movement never in any serious way directed itself towards the problems faced by the majority of the American people. Students talked, as we should have, about Vietnam--but we should have realized that it is impossible to build a majority progressive movement on the basis of a little-understood foreign policy movement. Students talked about legalization of grass and toleration for the youth culture--but these were self-interest demands of students.
What we should have been talking about, and what we should talk about now, are those liberal--and even radical--demands for greater economic equality which correspond to the interests and desires of most Americans. When and if the student movement begins, in a truly idealistic way, addressing itself to Americans' demands for tax reform, national health insurance, full employment, then we have a fighting chance for success. And success is the best antidote to cynicism.
We democratic socialists ardently hope that more students will begin to draw the lessons of the sixties. Instead, the current period of ritualistic "Leftism" (including the sixties' sickness of elitism, pro-Communism, contempt for working people, etc.) combined with cynicism is an indication that many people have remembered a lot from the heyday of the student movement, but learned nothing.
Steven Kelman '70 is the author of Push Comes to Shove and a graduate student in Government.