The Politics of Dissent
In Culture and Anarchy, written more than a century ago, Matthew Arnold described a phenomenon that we tend to think is unique to our times rather than his. He expressed it in religious terms: it was the particular pride of Dissenters in dissenting, of Nonconformists in nonconforming, of Protestants in protesting. He quoted the motto of one Nonconformist journal: “The Dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant Religion.”
American radical intellectuals of a later generation might not recognize themselves in that religious guise. Nor would they welcome Arnold’s characterization of their mode of thought as parochial, provincial, and philistine. But some of them, like the writer and critic Dwight Macdonald (1906-82), have been, in fact, secular correlatives of Arnold’s Dissenters—every bit as sectarian in their dissent, and as proud of their status as dissenters. Michael Wreszin’s new biography of Macdonald1 is not only a detailed account of the life of this preeminent dissenter but also a typology of the politics of dissent in this country.
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