Who Conforms and Who Dissents?
To the Editor:
In his review of the first issue of Dissent (“Philistine Leftism,” February 1954), Mr. Nathan Glazer is very generous to me: he implies that I escape “the blight” he invents for the magazine as a whole, and even suggests that it may be properly assumed that some thinking went into my essay. I am afraid that I cannot thank him, for he misunderstands: I, too, share many of the moods and ideas against which he directs his spleen.
The editors of Dissent , I assume, will take the time to explain to your readers something of the true nature of their magazine. I know of no set of men better able to defend themselves on such points as Mr. Glazer raises; and I have no connection, other than as a friend and contributor, with Dissent . Yet someone, I feel, should indicate the unfairness of your publication of Mr. Glazer’s curiously disappointed expectations. . . .
One of Mr. Gazer’s techniques, perhaps the major one, is to contrast the brief statement of intent with the contents of the first issue. He treats this beginning issue as if it were a finished book. That it is a periodical, just now underway, is of course its essence. Perhaps Mr. Gazer’s training as an editor of COMMENTARY—which is no true dialogue—has led him to misunderstand what a magazine whose editors have just that in mind is all about. How else can we explain that he apparently expects the first issue to present an alternative to the foreign policy of the United States, a full-scale and, of course, brand-new orientation to the problems of atomic war and imperialism, a reformulation of the meaning of socialism in our time—and all this studded with numerous and “positive ideas.”
To take the view that because this is not accomplished in issue Number One the magazine is an “unmitigated disaster”; to try to kill off the venture by a symbolic act of vituperation : that is to strike at the very possibility of our ever—as an intellectual community—getting at such problems. . . .
There is a point that is more important than such premature judgment on this new magazine. I suspect, although I cannot know, that what Mr. Glazer really objects to is the mood of Dissent , and that we are really dealing with two contrasting moods, rather than directly with ideas. In reading Dissent’s first issue, one feels, above all, a rejection of the prevailing mood of American liberalism, and the intention to establish an opposition mood.
Now moods are no test of the value of ideas. But it ought to be made clear that it is often necessary to break through a prevailing mood and to try to articulate an alternative one before one can think freely again. And this is especially true of political ideas. Routineers, of course, happily produce commentaries within the prevailing mood, which they thus elaborate and justify. There comes a time, and I think perhaps we now again come to it, when to think freshly, to define reality again, to try to find a way out of a trap, the prevailing mood has got to be debunked and transcended. This is what The Dissenters are trying to do. . . .
I happen to think that the vocabulary sometimes used in their first issue is not the best means of expressing the mood behind it. But surely it is the first requirement of criticism to be able quickly to translate diverse vocabularies into one another, and so get to the root of the moods and the ideas expressed. Surely it ought to be the place of any politically alert intellectual to support or to fight against such an effort as Dissent with an understanding of the meaning of that effort, successful or not, for the joining of intelligence and politics, now so obviously alien in America. “If a thing is worth doing at all,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “it is worth doing badly.”
The philistine always uses the power of conventional opinion and prevailing mood to beat down new beginnings. The mood that Dissent rejects does now prevail widely; it is heavily subsidized and, for many, easy to live with. Yet, with all these advantages, the philistine cannot always react with mind, for he is filled with anxiety. That is why his strategy is particularly damaging to the free-swinging production of a full range of political ideas. For he is trying to kill off the mood of basic dissent, with which he cannot live, but without which the politics of culture cannot go on.
It is as if out of their own fear and emptiness liberal minds today have formed a little stifling society in which they gently harass one another into a condition of genteel sterility. They have no sense of domestic crisis, if only because they feel no values of theirs to be imperiled—except of course by Communists. This one official fear they have substituted for all those anxieties that they must feel, given their biographies, but dare not confront, much less convert into explicit intellectual concerns. Go back and read such assertions as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and you will see something of what is absent from the mood that now determines the intellectual liberalism that prevails. You will also understand something of what, I at least believe, The Dissenters are groping for.
- Perhaps something of the mood that one finds in the pages of Dissent’s first issue can be grasped by remembering the words of Henry Adams who before the first war wrote:
Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on a world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished, and they saw no reason to suppose that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition; the duty was unchanged. That duty implied not only resistance to evil, but hatred of it. Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds. . . .
If you dislike “hatred,” the point I wish to make is as well made by fury or love or wrath, or passion of any sort: something that smashes the hollow mask that has today replaced American liberalism.
In their lack of insurgent imagination, American liberals today have vested their “hatreds” in the external and safely faraway enemy and against anyone who would irritate them in their need to love everything that, “after all,” is American. Rather than think politically, they feel sentimentally about what they celebrate as the mere variousness of America; they fragment and de-humanize all problems in the name of powerful practicality; they are shrill in resistance to any criticism of the vulgarities of American life.
Something of the anxieties and rigidities that underpin such features of American liberalism today must be the explanation for the unbuttoned tone of Mr. Glazer’s outburst, and for the fact that a man as intelligent as he must be could not see, upon re-reading his draft, how morally curious and uncontrolled his little exercise in being the anxious finger-man for the liberal mood really is.
C. Wright Mills
New York City
To the Editor:
Nat Glazer has got pretty hot under the collar about Dissent. It improves his style but not his judgment.
I agree with him on one point: personal motives should be left out of political argument. The editors of Dissent are no more virtuous than the editors of COMMENTARY, whatever the latter may say. And I regret the “vituperative intemperance” to which we all, at times, succumb. It is, however, a human and not a specifically socialist failing, as his review demonstrates. What else does he say?
- He wants proof that conformism and civil liberty violations are spreading in the U.S. and rejects the Nation’s “information” to that effect. Does he also reject that of the New York Times, the Reporter, and the American Civil Liberties Union? The Ford Foundation finds the evidence sufficient to invest $15,000,000 in the Fund for the Republic, but Nat Glazer remains unconvinced. There was a time when one case of injustice could arouse the nation’s conscience; now a mistaken case of injustice is enough to quiet his.
He asserts that “the editors” of Dissent are “against” war and the U.S. defense of Korea; that, if we had our way, “the NKVD would be comfortably established today in Rome, Paris, and London”; and there follows a general excoriation of “the editors”—there are twelve of us—largely on the basis of some remarks by Lewis Coser and Irving Howe.
Now, COMMENTARY carries the statement that “the opinions and views expressed by COMMENTARY’s contributors and editors are their own. . . .” The editors of Dissent say plainly on the first page that “Dissent will not have any editorial position or statements. Each writer will speak for himself.” Why does Nat Glazer not credit us with the same tolerance he assumes for himself?
Of course, the socialist editors of Dissent, like Quakers, Democrats, and Republicans, have no single position on war. Among them are pacifists opposing all war; supporters of a “Third Force” in Europe and Asia; and those, like Howe and myself, who support Western armed forces in Korea and Europe. As for the nonsense about the NKVD—really! Socialist Norway is NATO’s outpost in Scandinavia against Swedish neutralism; Socialist Britain was America’s staunchest ally in Europe and Korea; Bevan’s call for some arms reduction anticipated that of Churchill and Eisenhower. The consistency of foreign policy due to national interest, surely, exceeds the inconstancy stemming from internal politics. Does Nat Glazer want to discuss specific policies or merely wave a flag?
The editors of Dissent do oppose world atomic suicide, and are less confident than Glazer that this is favored only by “inmates of insane asylums.” Judging from his complaint that too many Americans are “rattling the atom bomb,” Defense Secretary Wilson seems to agree with us.
- He cannot discern the difference between our political position and that of Senator Taft, President Eisenhower, and Fulton Sheen. He should read us—and them—more assiduously.
Glazer observes that “pushing against opposition forces you to moderate your claims, strengthen your arguments, and be as concrete as possible.” Now that he has had his untrammelled say in COMMENTARY, I invite his serious contribution to Dissent.