Thursday, September 19, 2013

"The Unraveling of America," a book for the Reagan era

Sometimes a history book can tell the reader almost as much about the time it was written as the time it was written about. Such is the case with Allen J. Matusow's The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

“It is currently the fashion to pronounce the liberal effort to improve America a failure. Reared in the liberal tradition myself, I take no pleasure in having written a book that, in the main, documents the conventional wisdom.,” writes Matusow in the introduction. (p. xiv—page numbers refer to the Harper Torchbooks edition.) “Currently” means 1983, during the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” when conservatism was triumphant in America, and liberalism was seemingly discredited. One suspects that after the Great Recession discredited the laissez-faire economics of the Ronald Reagan era, even Matusow might reconsider his conclusions.

“The liberal mood of 1960 was largely defined by elite intellectuals residing on the East Coast, principally in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts,” writes Matusow (p. 3). One hears echoes of Spiro Agnew's “effete corps of impudent snobs.”

Whether or not “elite intellectuals residing on the East Coast” defined the liberal mood of 1960 is debatable. But William O'Neill, writing in Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s (New York, Times Books, 1971), points out that while liberal intellectuals John Kenneth Galbraith, Edwin Reischauer, and Adlai Stevenson were made ambassadors in the Kennedy Administration, “ambassadors do not make policy. In Kennedy's administration the men who did were people like Theodore Sorenson, Dean Rusk, McGeorge and William Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, and Walt Whitman Rostow. They were not so much liberals as technocrats, men of power rather than passion.” (I'd make an exception for Sorenson, but I don't see him as a major policymaker, either.)

Matusow  “proves” liberalism's failure with carefully selected examples, primarily mismanaged programs in the War on Poverty. But he goes beyond analysis and into ad hominem attacks. For some reason, one figure in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations comes in for special opprobrium: “Sargent Shriver, director of the the Office of Economic Opportunity, waged fierce warfare with the Labor Department to win control of the Job Corps, hoping that it would yield instant results and cover him with quick glory. He never made a greater mistake.” (p. 237) On p. 248 Matusow refers to “Shriver's long-standing ambition to run for governor of Illinois,” yet all evidence I've found points to a brief consideration of the run in 1960—hardly long-standing.

Even in praise, Matusow manages to get a dig in at Shriver: “A devout Catholic and husband of Eunice Kennedy, Shriver had a patrician's sense of obligation so profound that he was known within the Kennedy family as the 'house Communist.” (p. 243) Yet over and over Matusow portrays Shriver as the crass opportunist.

Matusow's chapter on the economy is entitled “War, Inflation, and Farewell to Keynes,” and asserts that Keynesian economics was thoroughly discredited during the Kennedy-Johnson years. Milton Friedman, darling of the Reagan conservatives, emerges as a prophet in Matusow's analysis. But if Keynesian economics was dead in 1968, what are we to do with Richard Nixon's 1971 proclamation that “I am now a Keynesian in economics” after taking the United States off the gold standard. (The quote is often confused with Milton Friedman's 1965 “We are all Keynesians now” statement, which Friedman later qualified.)

To me his most interesting, and for the most part, the best-written chapters are in the last half of the book. Unlike Ronald Reagan and most of his disciples, Matusow makes a distinction between the 1960s counterculture, the New Left, and the antiwar liberals. He also understands the nuanced differences within the student civil rights movement.
In “Rise and Fall of a Counterculture,” Matusow gives us the evolution of the 1960s Hippie, from the black hipsters of the 1930s, through the Beats of the post-World War II era, and into the psychedelic era pioneered by the likes of Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. Matusow uses Allen Ginsberg, author of the classic 1955 Beat poem “Howl,” as the focus of the transition from Beat to Hippie: “Ginsberg was a new kind of American hero-saint. He had penetrated far enough into the dark recesses of self to risk sanity, and he had returned purified, with reverence for all living things.” (p. 284) Yet his analysis, written from a Reaganite perspective, seems stereotypically Victorian.

“Few hippies read much, but those who did found their purpose strikingly described and anticipated in the strange books of Norman O. Brown,” writes Masutow. (p.277) His analysis of the philosophy behind the counterculture is is very well stated, but today his conclusions ring true only for the cultural conservative. Brown, a Freudian, promoted the releasing the energy of the id—the creative, sexual impulse of Eros. “Like the hippies, Brown was in revolt against civilized sex—exclusively genital, exclusively heterosexual, exclusively monogamous—affirming instead pan-sexualism...” (p. 279)

But Brown had warned of the opposing principle of Eros—Thanatos, or the death wish. (Ethologist Konrad Lorenz, in his brilliant study On Aggression, takes issue with the Freudian concept of the death wish, but in the context of the Matusow's analysis of the counterculture, Brown's warning advances his argument.) Brown proposed a “Dionysian ego” to counter Thanatos, “overflowing with love, knowing no limits, affirming life... The creation of the Dionysian ego, the ego in service of liberated Eros—this was a project project millions of mothers would soon understand and implicitly and fear with good reason.” (p. 279)

Matusow follows the 1967 “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, from the Human Be-In on January 14 to the “Death of Hippie” in October. (A more thoughtful and more sympathetic view of the counterculture in that year can be found in Derek Taylor's It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. [Fireside, 1987].) And he chronicles the slide from Eros into Thanatos, from the Dionysian revels of Monterey Pop and Woodstock to the nightmarish Altamont Festival.

“For a variety of reasons, after 1970 the counterculture faded,” Matusow writes. (p. 305) Yet he admits that it has a legacy, though he sees nothing good in it: “By the 1970s social discipline was eroding so rapidly that fashion condemned the whole of middle-class culture as 'the culture of narcissism.' Parental discipline declined, sexual promiscuity rose along with the divorce rate, worker productivity fell, ghetto obscenity insinuated itself into standard speech, marijuana became almost commonplace, sexual perversions are no longer deemed so, and traditional institutions like the army, the churches, and the government lost authority... Dionysus has been absorbed into the dominant culture and in the process routed the Protestant ethic.” Matusow's alarmist statement ignores that government lost authority as much as a result of the Reagan revolution as the Sixties. And in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, so if Matusow considers it to be a sexual perversion that is “no longer deemed so, his complaint is with a traditional institution.

Matusow has less dire conclusions about the New Left. In his chapter, “The Rise and Fall of the New Left,” he documents its rise from the beginnings of the Students for a Democratic Society to its descent into the violent Weatherman faction. By the 1981 the radical New Left had virtually disappeared—it posed no threat to the Reaganite worldview Matusow embraces. In a similar fashion he covers the Black Power movement, which had virtually disintegrated by the 1970s. Yet the end of black nationalism did not bring African American voters into the Reagan coalition; they continued to vote for liberal Democrats.

The last two chapters of his book, “War, Liberals, and Overthrow of LBJ, and “Rout of the Liberals,” focus on the election of 1968. And again, it's well-written, but seriously flawed. Of the three major (largely) white youth movements of the 1960s, the “Dump Johnson” movement led by Allard Lowenstein was liberal rather than radical, and inspired thousands of idealistic young men and women to trudge through the snows of New Hampshire and Wisconsin for the quixotic antiwar presidential candidate Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota. They were crusaders not for some neo-Marxian radicalism, but for the kind of liberalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson.

What Matusow does not discuss is the break within liberalism which led to both the narrow Humphrey defeat of 1968 and the Nixon landslide of 1972. In 1968, many antiwar liberals sat on their hands or voted for a third-party candidate such as Dick Gregory rather than support Hubert Humphrey. And in 1972, George Meany of the AFL-CIO made the decision not to endorse any candidate in the McGovern-Nixon race, effectively endorsing Nixon, and driving a wedge between labor and the antiwar liberals. Meany did not live to see the fruits of his decision when rank-and-file union members deserted the Democrats in 1980 to elect Ronald Reagan, who spent two terms eviscerating the labor movement.

Because Matusow finished the book in 1981, at the very beginning of the Reagan-Bush era, he could not foresee the disastrous consequences of the laissez-faire economics that dominated those decades. “Whether Reagan's victory made permanent the trend away from the liberalism of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, whether his conservative policies could weave together the unraveled fabric of the old America, even whether the old America was something that ought to be recovered—these questions were bound to engage historians far into the nation's future.” Matusow concludes. (p. 439)

Today, as we are still recovering from the Reagan Revolution, the nation is more divided than it was in 1968. While some on the far right will agree with Matusow’s conclusions, from this writer’s perspective, he was too quick to endorse the conclusions of the Reagan Right, even though he must have understood that the neoconservative critique of 1960s was based on oversimplification. The book is worth reading, if only to view a more sophisticated critique of the decade than the one given us by most 1980s neoconservatives.

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1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

In politics and fashion, nothing is ever dead, just down for a time.