Commentary Magazine


Radicals

To the Editor:

Michael J. Lewis writes that “Williams has no great tradition of radical politics” [“War Comes to Williams,” November 2001]. It is difficult to know exactly what would constitute “radical politics” for Mr. Lewis, but according to ordinary usage, he is wrong.

In the late 1930′s and 40′s, Williams had a number of teachers who situated themselves in the most militant segment of the New Deal—some of them scholars who had been denied tenure elsewhere on account of their views. The college’s more prominent teachers included leftists like Max Lerner and Frederick Schuman. As a member of the class of 1946, I can attest that there were similar currents of opinion in the student body. Williams was not, of course, City College, but neither was it as ideologically isolated from the nation as Mr. Lewis supposes. As for Williams having once been “a provincial factory for the grooming of ministers,” was not social Protestantism of the sort often found there an indispensable component of American radicalism?

Mr. Lewis’s account of events at Williams after September 11 might have been improved had he actually attended the meeting he wrote about. That would not have been a concession to radicalism—just to intellectual scrupulousness.

Norman Birnbaum
Georgetown University Law
Center
Washington, D.C.

_____________

 

Michael J. Lewis writes:

Although I argued that Williams does not have a strong radical tradition, I never said that it was lacking for leftist faculty. Their agenda-setting presence was, in fact, the subject of my essay.

Norman Birnbaum mentions Max Lerner. He might have noted that in the late 1950′s Lerner became a belated but fervent cold warrior, who believed in the end that America was worth defending. I wonder how many of Lerner’s latter-day counterparts believe the same thing. Certainly not all of them, to judge from their response to the events of last September.

As I stated in my article, I did attend the open public forum at Williams on September 25. There a professor stated that it would be a good thing when President Bush’s inordinately high approval ratings began to go down, and “the sooner the better.” Fortunately they did not, and three months later we can see just how essential this overwhelming public support was to the success of the Afghanistan campaign. A consequence of that success has been to take the wind out of the sails of anti-war activity on the Williams campus, at least for now.

Finally, Mr. Birnbaum is right to observe that social Protestantism is one of the wellsprings of American radicalism. It would have helped the cause of intellectual scrupulousness if he had also distinguished between the skeptical Unitarian strand that prevailed at Harvard and the stalwartly Congregationalist version at Williams.

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