Commentary Magazine


Inventing the Young

I was recently told the following story: A nationally known authority on the young was asked to speak to an adult audience in his community. He arrived bearing a tape recorder and announced to his listeners that to understand today’s youth one has to listen to its music, whereupon he turned on the recorder to a selection of rock music, and while the audience watched in numb amazement, danced before the lectern. After about twenty minutes of music and dancing he undertook the lecture proper which berated adults for victimizing the young, who were described as tribunes of a new era of peace and love. In the midst of this harangue he was interrupted by a messenger and left the stage, to return shortly and declare: “I must leave. My students need me.” And left, taking the tape recorder, but leaving behind a dazed and enraged audience.

I treasure this anecdote, not only for its grotesque charm, and for its demonstration of how much an apostle of Love will allow himself, but also because it illustrates so vividly the temptations besetting an expert on the young.

It shows how we move to closeness, and beyond that to identity, with those we study; I will return to this later. It also shows the degree to which we invent the young. I choose the word “invent” precisely for its ambiguity. We invent, in the first sense, in that we construct or hypothesize our social categories. We do so because we must, since social theory, even when “empirical” in character, rests ultimately upon some invention or model of society and its categories. But I use the word “invent” in another sense as well, to connote fancy and the making of myths. Here too we invent because we must, since the young are in fact so diverse, complex, and obscure that they force us to imagine not so much what is out there, in reality, as what is inside our minds. Hence we invent what we wish to perceive. We invent the young so that they may, like figures in a morality play, take their places in that larger tableau of social action that our minds have devised.

The incident I have recounted also informs us of the two dominant imaginings of the young—as victims and as visionaries. When our expert makes his sudden departure, crying out that his students are in need of him, we are offered a dramatization, in miniature, of the theme of the oppressed young; we take it that they are suffering some brutality and require the nurturance and protection of their leader. When he tells his audience that the young herald an era of love and understanding he is casting them as visionaries, prophets of a new age. Between them, the images of victim and visionary control our current perception of youth. The view of the young as victimized receives its most intense expression in the writings of Edgar Z. Friedenberg, who represents American society roughly along the lines of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, with its educational system an equivalent of “The Harrow.” The view of the young as seers, as millenarian prophets, has found its most extreme spokesman in Charles Reich, who sees every twitch of the elite youth culture—its postures, its argot, the very flare of its trousers—as silently prefiguring a new age of amity and equality.

More often than not the two images coalesce. Either the young are oppressed because of their visionary capacity, because they see so fully what the established powers fear to see at all; or because their victimization, the very posture of humiliation they are forced to endure, allows them a prescience beyond the common understanding. The figure of the prophetic victim, though it draws upon traditional religious imagery, and though it resonates with earlier American archetypes (Billy Budd, for example), becomes the dominant image of the young in the postwar era. It flowers initially in the writing of J. D, Salinger—in Holden Caulfield and the Glass family, the first of these stressing victimization, the second a fatal visionary talent. In the 1960’s it sweeps all before it: can we recall a novel or film on youth during this decade which does not in one way or another evoke these images?

And in the 1960’s we note an important change. The young victim now transcends his victimization; he overcomes his passivity and in doing so achieves strength and heroism. He is the prophet armed, his rebellion justified by his prior oppression, his vision of a better world setting the goals of his movement. Indeed in this decade the themes of oppression, prophecy, and rebellious heroism become the dominant motifs of collective fantasy, as the metaphor of victimization is politicized, and as other groups—blacks, women, homosexuals, freaks, prisoners, the psychotic—are defined, by themselves, or more often through self-appointed spokesmen, as victims, visionaries, and revolutionary heroes.

All of which makes for spirited sermons, stirring political rhetoric, best-selling fiction, and popular motion pictures. It also makes for bad art, bad history, and bad social science. To the degree that these images possess us, they constrict and coarsen our experience. When we can see ourselves and others only as victims, villains, and heroes, we reduce brutally the range of our grasp of the human. Thus what we find (or should find) offensive in Women’s Liberation literature is a representation of both men and women so gross as to remind us of sado-masochistic pornography—the men ravening beasts, the women terrorized and fawning slaves. Through this last sorry decade, as the obsessions of militancy have seized us, we witness a painful retrogression in intellectual and artistic life: think of the distance we have traveled, ever backward, from Ralph Ellison to LeRoi Jones, or in feminine psychology from Helene Deutsch to Kate Millett. As Richard Hofstadter said shortly before his death, we have been living in “an age of rubbish.”

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II

It may be said that we cannot demand of polemical literature that degree of complexity we look for in more measured and reflective writing. But the point is that these days the polemical spirit will not voluntarily contain itself. It spreads into art and scholarship, concealing itself by simulating the devices and mannerisms of the media it invades.

As a case in point, that large and ever-growing body of writing on the young radical. Given the general susceptibility to illusion when we consider the young; given the ease with which the polemical impulse, wittingly or not, can express itself on the topic of radicalism; given the widespread erosion of self-discipline in the social sciences (as the need to be “relevant” escalates); given all these, it is not at all surprising to discover how much of the work on student activism is at the least suspect and at the worst near to worthless, in that the necessary boundaries between illusion and reality, and between polemics and scholarship seem irretrievably blurred. The problem is not so much in those writings, and they are many, which are more or less openly tendentious. When we read someone like Richard Flacks (a founding member of SDS), or a Friedenberg, we can, if we so choose, exercise our own forms of skepticism as we judge the work. The more subtle complications are to be found in that scholarship which presents itself to us (and often believes itself to be) dry, objective, unillusioned. One of the best examples is Kenneth Keniston’s Young Radicals, which is also the most influential and widely known treatise on activist youth.

Keniston’s view of the radical young is difficult to present in brief compass: let me stress its emphases. The radical young are drawn from families in the managerial and professional classes. Far from being rebellious toward or alienated from parental values, they in fact share and wish to implement them. They are intelligent, cosmopolitan in outlook, academically successful. Their histories are in fact marked by success, but at some point along the way they begin to question conventional definitions of success, and become preoccupied with the discrepancy between the ideals that they have learned and internalized, and the various moral failures of American society. Thus, they find themselves committed, and their commitment brings further commitment and ultimately radicalization. This summary is, let me confess, skeletonized, perhaps to the point of caricature; but I believe that it captures the essence of the argument. It may not, however, capture the susurrus of commendation which lies behind it.

What is wrong with this account is as much or more in what it omits, in what it chooses not to perceive, as in what it says. Let us say that it bears the same relationship to the realities of the radical scene as a picture of a smiling, ruddy Stakhanovite worker bears to Soviet industrial reality. To put it another way, it is a kind of court portraiture: the warts have been removed, the blemishes hidden, the chin strengthened. We are asked to attend only to beauty, grace, and strength. It is, in short, a Panglossian exercise. Not unexpectedly, students on the Left appreciate Keniston’s assessment of them and are fond of citing it—an ominous sign, I should think, for an objective study. Nevertheless, there has been, even on the Left, some rising conviction that Keniston’s muted panegyrics do not quite tell the whole story. For example, I recently saw an unpublished study of radical activists, carried out by scholars whom I believe to be of Left sympathies, which makes much of the impulsivity, the provocativeness, and the compulsive oppositionalism of the radical young who had been interviewed. Not long ago a radical student of mine confessed, albeit with some chagrin, that he found Keniston’s book to be effusive and one-sided. Although he himself remained a radical, he said his own experience in radical politics had been bitterly discouraging. He pointed to the intellectual dogmatism which so often made it difficult to share common action; to an endemic depressiveness among radical students, and their tendency to overcome it in spasms of action; and above all to a hypersensitivity to opposition which made personal relationships rancorous when not in fact explosive. In recent months I have more than once heard radical faculty members lament the frenzy and irrationalism of their radical students.

To such observations, however occasional, from those on the Left, we must add equally mordant assessments from less friendly sources: the pervasive anti-intellectualism of so many members of the Movement, and with it, the preference for jargon, slogans, and cant as against hard thought, especially in the realm of politics; the quality my colleague Frederick Wyatt has called “target hunger”—the restless, relentless search for enemies and conspiracies; the curious mixture of public piety and private cynicism among leaders of the Movement; the even more curious mixture of self-pity, self-indulgence, and self-admiration we find in many radical personalities; the shallow, shifting quality of personal ties in the Movement. To be sure, these tendencies, singly or together, by no means characterize all of those on the Left. But they are to be found with more than the ordinary frequency, as both sympathetic and disenchanted witnesses of the Movement have noted.

Yet in a book—an entire book, after all—which purports to offer a portrait in depth of the radical personality, there is a persistent obtuseness to these and other negative qualities. It is illuminating to interpose, as I have recently done, readings of Young Radicals between readings of the current underground press. The one is all sweetness and light and high moral purpose, the other slogans and self-righteousness, and above all else, a murderous hatred. The one Woodstock, the other Altamont.

Which brings us, as it must, to the topic of violence, that bone in all our throats. If there is anything which has characterized the Movement, which has distinguished it from other expressions of American radicalism in this century, it has been the infatuation with violence. The incidents of actual violence—the bombings, the arson, the vandalism, the personal assaults—are far from being the entire story; they rest upon those incitements to destruction which dominate so much of the radical press, and the quality of indifference and indeed insouciance with which leaders of the Movement accept and indulge the more than occasional eruptions into real violence. (On this too, more later.) To say that Keniston has been insensitive to the presence of violence is, if anything, to understate the case. In his view, young radicals are not only free from the disposition to violence, they are in fact entirely opposed to it; they are victims rather than instigators. He tells us that:

Although in behavior most of these young radicals were rather less violent than their contemporaries, this was not because they were indifferent to the issue, but because their early experience and family values had taught them how to control, modulate, oppose, and avoid violence. Verbal aggression took the place of physical attack. They learned to argue, compromise, and to make peace when confronted with conflict. Still, too, although their adolescent experience was full of inner conflict, they acted on their violent feelings only during a brief period of indignant rebellion against the inconsistencies of their parents. These young radicals are unusual in their sensitivity to violence, as in their need and ability to oppose it.

Such a grievous misreading of reality can and I suppose will be excused on the grounds that when Young Radicals was written, in 1967-68, the turn to violence was not yet evident, that it grew out of the frustrations of Vietnam, that if moves toward peace had been made at that time, the temptation to violence would have subsided. Perhaps so; we will never know. But it needed neither an in-depth study nor the wisdom of Solomon to sense, well before 1968, that the student Left was moving toward an experiment in violence. In my own case, for example, the shock of recognition came as early as 1965 when I began to discern among radical students at Michigan a violence of spirit and language, an eagerness for confrontation, which was new and strange and infinitely worrisome. One of my students, an undergraduate at an Eastern liberal-arts college during that same period, can recall a dispute about parietal hours, of all things, where there was much agitated talk among his peers about breaking windows if demands were not met. In 1966, a graduate student at Michigan carried out a study of members of SDS, at that time still officially devoted to nonviolence; one of her respondents even then was willing to write that he looked forward to “a radical movement . . . which would work for a full radical platform violently if not allowed to act nonviolently.”

So it is not merely hindsight which allows one to say that by 1967 one could perceive, if one so chose, that turn to violence which has since become normative in the Movement. In any case, the question is not whether it was inevitable, and thus predictable, but whether it was visible enough as a potential to warrant some serious attention in a book devoted to young radicals. What we ask of our experts is not that they divine the future, but simply that they provide an adequate sense of the contours of the present, so that we gain some apprehension of the possible.

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III

It is not difficult to see what has gone wrong. In Young Radicals, as in so much current work on the young, there is a fatal failure of distance. There is a good analogy to be found in the studies of a colleague of mine, who has been investigating the problems encountered by novice psychotherapists. The most common difficulty, it appears, is in their tendency to substitute identification for empathy. In their wish to get into the patient’s skin, to see the world as he sees it, they succeed all too well, in that the impulse to empathy is insidiously transformed into identification, into a being-at-one-with, so that the therapeutic perspective is lost. In striving to see as his patient does, the young therapist takes over and begins to share those very distortions of perception which have contributed to and sustained his client’s neurotic problems. Thus the patient acquires a friend and a partisan, and beyond that a double. All may go well in the short run; the patient is buoyed by his therapist’s friendliness; and he may shed momentarily his habits of self-doubt and self-blame. The therapist’s identification encourages the patient to externalize, to blame others, to see his problems as lying entirely outside of himself, to view himself as the victim of an unjust destiny. But in the not-so-long run, therapy begins to falter. The patient has gained a friend, but has lost the help of a disinterested presence. The therapist’s compassion is not enough, nor is the self-pity or rage induced by externalization. Sooner or later, if this patient is to be helped, the therapist must urge him to look inward to deeper recesses of self and motive.

Keniston’s mission was not, of course, therapeutic, but diagnostic; nevertheless the analogy stands. Like the novice therapist he seems unable to distance himself. He is all too eager to believe anything he is told. His respondents tell him they are nonviolent; he believes it. They tell him they act only out of the highest moral principles; he believes it. No doubt if they told him they could walk on water he would believe that too. In an age so bereft of belief, it is touching to find belief reborn. The ingenuousness with which Keniston has approached his topic has produced, as one would expect, a remarkably non-dynamic account of radical character. Though the language of Young Radicals is, much of the time, psychoanalytic, the fundamental perspective is not. It seems afraid to peer beneath the surface, to explore disinterestedly those complications of motive and experience which might give us a plausible account of the activist personality. What we have instead is a determination both to share and validate the radical world view.

In Keniston’s account of radical motivation, the emphasis is constantly external; radical rage is, for example, largely reactive to the moral disarray out there, in the world. We hear much of the fear of technological death, of the sterility of organizational life, of the disappointments of affluence—all the touchstones of contemporary intellectual chic. In accepting this grammar of motives, Keniston has accepted the strategy of externalization by which the Movement and the counter-culture explains, justifies, and forgives its most dubious beliefs and deeds. What we have, then, is not analysis but journalism, and journalism of the worst sort, of the fan-magazine variety, which gushes over its subjects and makes no effort to stand aside, disengaged.

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The failure of psychodynamic sensitivity can be seen in Keniston’s superficial treatment of the moral dimension in radical politics. He takes the position that the radical young are actuated by universalistic moral principles: offended by the injustices of the world, unable to achieve the moral obtuseness and hypocrisy which shield the rest of us, enraged by the gaps between the ideals we profess and the callousness of our practices, they are led by morality into politics. Theirs, then, is a politics of intense moral concern.

Let me say first that I am more than a little skeptical about the universalism imputed to this political morality; for a universalistic morality it is in practice strangely selective, not to say programmed, in that it burns with outrage about certain injustices and yet is serenely indifferent about others. It rages about the death of Fred Hampton, for example, and is entirely silent about Alex Rackley; it is furious about the indictment of Angela Davis, but finds not a word to say about the innocents killed and endangered for the action for which she was indicted; and so on.

But all this is, in a way, beside the point. Even if we agree that radical politics is more morally concerned than most, should we greet this news with hosannas, or should we not, instead, respond with some fear and trembling? If there is anything this grim century has taught us, it is about what Lionel Trilling has called the “dangers of the moral life itself,” that “the moral passions are even more willful and imperious and impatient than the self-serving passions” and that “their tendency is to be not only liberating but restrictive.” The dangers of the moral life itself: if anyone should know them, it is the psychoanalytic psychologist. Each day reminds us of the deceits and complexities of conscience. Each day reminds us of the deeply entangled connections between the superego on the one hand and will and aggression on the other. The superego arises, in large part, out of the struggle against aggression and the unbridled will, and it is a struggle never fully won. If the superego, much of the time, constrains cruelty and license, it remains at the same time susceptible to the very corruptions it opposes. If the superego, in certain of its phases, forgives us nothing, then it can, in other moments, forgive us everything.

All of this seems to elude Keniston. Thus, when he confronts, as he now must, the joining of high moral purpose and violence in the radical movement, he resorts to the mechanism of splitting. There are, he argues, good (i.e., ethical, peaceful) radicals and bad (i.e., amoral, violent) ones. The violent ones are attracted to the Movement for the worst reasons and their behavior gives it a bad name. There is, I should think, some truth to this, radicals being as various as the rest of us; and yet this argument avoids all manner of hard questions. Are we to believe that peaceful and violent radicals really have so little to do with one another? Are they not sometimes in unconscious collusion, living off each other symbiotically, the peaceful ones providing the highminded rhetoric which legitimizes the rage of the violent, while the violent act out the disavowed yearnings of the peaceful? It would not be the first time in human history that the respectable elements of a movement used an underclass to do their dirty work for them. The Left would have no trouble recognizing and pointing to such collusion on the Right, as it did, and correctly, in detecting a connection of aim, though not of consciousness, between White Citizens Councils and the Klan, or between good Germans and the SS. The collusion usually consists of the familiar rationalizations—“I don’t condone violence, but . . . ,” and the typical mote-and-beam accusations—“The violence we may do is as nothing compared with the greater violence done by those we oppose.” One might even ask whether the collusion is all that unconscious. Is it unconscious when the “respectable” leader of a campus demonstration announces to his audience before it takes to the streets that each person should feel free to express his outrage as he wishes? Is it unconscious when a scholar—most respectable, most distinguished—announces to one and all, following some gratuitous vandalism on campus, that the university “deserved a thrashing”?

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But the strategy of collusion, of the right hand not quite owning up to what the left hand is doing, is only one of the many possible outcomes of the life of moral purpose. The more interesting, more hazardous, more tragic consequences are to be found within the personality itself, and it is these complications that Keniston’s view of the moral life does not capture. Can there be anything more difficult, more ridden with tension than the effort to achieve a secular sainthood? And is it anywhere more difficult than in America, where there are neither the traditions nor the institutions to lend support to the effort? In the life of sainthood, that which within the self has been put aside, disavowed—rage, spite, pride, self-indulgence, duplicity—all these threaten to emerge, to overcome the self’s constraints. What we know of our recent saints—of a Gandhi, a Schweitzer, a Tolstoy, now apparently a Martin Luther King—tells us of the costs to be paid, costs paid by friends, followers, family, and, above all, costs to the self’s wholeness.

It is a psychoanalytic commonplace that the distended superego can be as destructive to the total personality as the unchecked id. The superego swollen in triumph will blunt or choke off the ego, and with it both reason and the full sense of reality. (Thus, the contempt for thought, and the fantastic overestimation of one’s power, both so commonly noted in the radical movement.) It damages the human affections: the other comes to be seen as a mere instrument of one’s moral purpose; he is a friend when and only when he is a moral ally, and even one’s ally may be sacrificed to the larger good—think of the cynicism with which leaders of the Movement deploy their “masses,” as at the Chicago convention. And if the other is an enemy, his rights and his very humanity count for nothing. Ultimately the superego may ally itself with the previously disavowed, darker sides of the self; and with that we have the triumph of the totalitarian spirit. We have Bernadine Dohrn, in her latest broadside, speaking, as callously as any Pentagon general, of “anti-personnel bombing.” We have her telling us that though many in her collective did not want to take part in random bombing, nevertheless “they struggled day and night, and eventually, everyone agreed to do their part.”

I suppose I will be understood to be saying that radicals like Bernadine Dohrn are moral monsters. To the contrary, they are not; that is the problem before us. In this connection I can only think of Diana Oughton and Bill Ayers, both of whom were students at Michigan and were known by some of my students and colleagues. Without exception, they comment on their intelligence, their charm, their personal sweetness, their moral authenticity. Then they were, for reasons unknown, transformed. They became Weathermen—tough, reckless, a little crazy. Ayers took to wearing a leather jacket, provoking fights with high-school toughs, hoping thereby to recruit them into the revolution. Then the “Days of Rage” of Chicago, and finally, the Eleventh Street townhouse explosion, where Diana Oughton was killed, and Bill Ayers escaped to go underground. What moved them from a peaceful to a violent radicalism, I do not know. Why they were so moved and not so many others just like them, I do not know. But I do know that Keniston’s theory of the moral life will not contain them. His young radicals have all the moral weight and complexity of a troop of Eagle Scouts. When all is said and done, they are no more than sincere and principled and idealistic. A century after The Possessed, eighty-five years after The Princess Casamassima, a generation after Koestler, Silone, and Orwell, we have every reason to expect a harder, less sentimental, more subtle grasp of the interplay between morality and politics. Kenneth Keniston’s failure to perceive the real moral tensions of the radical life, strangely enough, diminishes those he means to idealize.

It is the moralism of the young radicals, and not their morality, which attracts Keniston, and it is that very moralism in his own writing which has made his invention of the young radical so palatable to American Establishment thought, We do like to think of our young as possessing exemplary moral vision; it speaks so well of them and equally well of ourselves. What has not been sufficiently understood is that the moralism of the Movement draws upon and continues the cursed American habit of pursuing moral uplift in the realm of politics. From Woodrow Wilson to John Foster Dulles to the present day, our hortatory mania has led us to the brink of disaster and beyond. At the same time the moralizing style is quintessentially middle class; Lionel Trilling, in the essay cited earlier, reminds us that indignation is a characteristic middle-class sentiment. And is it not indignation which figures as the dominant political sentiment of the day in this most middle-class of nations? Thus we have the scions of the haute bourgeoisie indulging the most delicious emotion at the expense of the petit bourgeoisie, and being repaid in kind. In periods of crisis, all these tendencies exacerbate, and between American piety and middle-class indignation, the stink of holiness has so infected our political discourse as to make that discourse unbearable.

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The ultimate problem in Keniston’s book is that he is the captive of that very sensibility which we must distance and transcend if we are to try to understand the recent debacles of radicalism. Student activism, at least in its present form, seems to be dying. What will not vanish, however, and may in fact grow, is the moralizing upper-middle-class sensibility, which is the seedbed of the “radical” mentality. It is that class’s political and cultural style which I believe to be the heart of the matter; to my mind, the radical youth ambience is no more than the reflection, though sometimes distorted, of the cognitive, moral, and affective qualities of that class. That class—let us face it, our class—has extraordinary strengths: intelligence, energy, effectiveness, sensitivity, and sometimes hypersensitivity, to the new and emergent. But we must learn to look as coolly as possible at its more problematic qualities: its political style, joining indignation with sentimentality; its middlebrow aesthetics, with all the limitations of vision and depth which that imposes; its oscillations between asceticism and self-indulgence; its love of highminded clichés; its propensity to guilt balanced against its inclination to moral self-satisfaction; its narcissistic investment in its children, along with its tendency to neglect them emotionally. We have had, here and there, some successful efforts to shed some light on the political and cultural dispositions of this stratum: David Bazelon’s brilliant (and shamefully neglected) observations on the New Class; Edward Banfield’s perceptive (but cranky and needlessly bitter) comments on the moralizing style; David Riesman’s characteristically sharp insights scattered through his writings; penetrating but all too occasional remarks by Robert Nisbet. And we have also had, hidden away in the psychiatric and social-science literature, data and observation which, more often than not unknowingly, give us moments of astonishing illumination. But it is all, so far, scattered, incomplete, and embryonic. Unfortunately it will be a task of self-examination, that most difficult of the arts, for the intellectuals and social scientists who must accomplish it are themselves imprisoned by the assumptions of their class. If we judge by the obtuseness and self-satisfaction that has characterized much of the scholarship on the young radical, it may well be a task beyond us.

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