The Long March

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The Long March
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Few things matter more than our “culture.”  Few current writers better appreciate its power and explain its texture than Roger Kimball, the managing editor of the New Criterion and an art critic for the Spectator of London and National Review.  And, to speak personally, few writers have better enabled me to get a grasp on developments within education and art, ethics and philosophy.  (His Tenured Radicals:  How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, is as relevant today as when it was published in 1990.)  During the past decade he has published four volumes—all essay collections—that I recommend for anyone wondering about the formative currents of our culture.

First consider The Long March:  How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America(San Francisco:  Encounter Books c. 2000), wherein Kimball observes that “our culture seems to have suffered some ghastly accident that has left it afloat but rudderless:  physically intact, its ‘moral center’ a shambles” (p. 4).  The “ghastly accident” was the revolutionary ‘60s, whose “paroxysms” still create the cultural chaos best evident “in our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog” (p. 5).  The result has been revolutionary, “not in toppled governments but in shattered values” (p. 7).  Symbolic of the era were the rock musicians of the era, including such dissimilar groups as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who effectively promoted a Dionysian philosophy of antinomian, hedonistic excess.

Their values—the ethos of the “counterculture”—quickly infiltrated our schools and colleges, our families and churches, our media and politics.  When they failed to orchestrate a political revolution, the radicals of the ‘60s moved from marching in the streets to launching a “long march through the institutions.”  In so doing, they embraced the strategy of Antonio Gramsci (an Italian Marxist) and celebrated Mao Tse-tung’s “long march” and “cultural revolution.”  (Remember the voguish Mao jackets of those days!)  Urged on by Herbert Marcuse (perhaps “the philosopher” of the counterculture in the United States), young radicals like Tom Hayden and Bill Ayers determined to work within established institutions (universities, churches, media) while plotting their destruction.

Ever attuned to historical developments, Kimball locates Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1754) as “an important intellectual and moral grandfather of so much that happened in the cultural revolution of the 1960s” (p. 18).  Rousseau, of course, provided a Romantic strain to the revolutionary turmoil that has blemished the world since the French Revolution.  He talked expansively about “freedom” and “virtue”—as have his devotees, beginning with Robespierre—but his version of virtue “had nothing to do with acting or behaving in a certain way toward others.  On the contrary, the criterion of virtue was his subjective feeling of goodness.  For Rousseau, as for the countercultural radicals who followed him, ‘feeling good about yourself’ was synonymous with moral rectitude.  Actually behaving well was irrelevant if not, indeed, a sign of ‘inauthenticity’ because it suggested a concern for conventional approval” (p. 17).

To understand the frenzy that overwhelmed the churches and schools in the ‘80s—sanctifying self-esteem as the noblest of human traits—one need only turn to Rousseau!

The turn to Rousseau was evident in the “beatniks” of the 1950s who provided a preview of the coming counterculture.  Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac et al. launched “one of the most toxic cultural movements in American history” (p. 38).  They personified  “The adolescent longing for liberation from conventional manners and intellectual standards; the polymorphous sexuality; the narcissism; the destructive absorption in drugs; the undercurrent of criminality; the irrationalism; the naïve political radicalism and reflexive anti-Americanism; the adulation of pop music as a kind of spiritual weapon; the Romantic elevation of art as an alternative to rather than as an illumination of normal reality; the pseudo-spirituality, especially the spurious infatuation with Eastern religions:  in all this and more the Beats provided a vivid glimpse of what was to come” (p. 46).

Having established his premises, Kendall carefully analyzes a number of important representatives of the counterculture, including the novelist Norman Mailer, who “is an important figure in the story of America’s cultural revolution not because people found him ridiculous but, on the contrary, because many influential people took the ideas of this ridiculous man seriously” (p. 73).  Then there was Susan Sontag, an “archetypical New-Left writer” who celebrated the both exploits of Fidel Castro and “the pornographic imagination.”  She and other acolytes of Sigmund Freud espoused “sexual liberation,” using the spurious “research” of Alfred Kinsey to justify their liberation from traditional norms.  Giving a Marxist philosophical rationale to the movement, Herbert Marcuse published Eros and Civilization(“a book that became a bible of the counterculture”), and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America celebrated the counterculture as the wave of the future destined to radically improve the nation.

Concluding his treatise, in a chapter titled “What the Sixties Wrought,” Kimball asserts that the ideology of the ‘60s has “triumphed so thoroughly that its imperatives became indistinguishable from everyday life:  they became everyday life” (pp. 247-248).  If we look clearly, comparing where we are with where we were, we recognize that much in our schools and churches, our music and TV, bears the imprint of an enormous cultural revolution which succeeded through infiltration and subversion, not by challenging and openly defeating traditional ways.  What few of us could have imagined in 1960 has transpired and we now live in a cultural world shaped by the ‘60s.  And to Kimball, at least, this is unmitigated bad news!

Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.





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