Commentary Magazine

Civic Culture

To the Editor:

Grateful though I am for Christopher Caldwell’s generally insightful review of my book, Liberal Racism [October 1997], I am nonplussed by his characterization of my discussion of civic culture as a “nostalgic” hedge against the conservative wisdom “that economic progress—of the kind promised by capitalism—is the most trustworthy route to the color-blind citizenship for which he longs.”

I write that conservatives “have important lessons to teach the Left about markets, which sometimes stimulate civic virtue by throwing people together across old lines of racial enmity, confounding ancient superstitions and feuds,” but that because market forces also “disrupt and erode traditional American networks of sharing and trust,” conservatives who champion them indiscriminately are not “our best guides to rejuvenating civic culture now, even when they’re right about the absurdities of liberal racism.” Mr. Caldwell demonstrates this in admonishing me, “There is no going back to the smalltown new England of [W.E.B.] Du Bois. . . . Civic cultures mature over generations; once you wipe one out, there is nothing to do but wait for another to grow.”

Is it really that simple? Tell it to William J. Bennett or Bill McCartney of the Promise Keepers. The point of my chapter on Du Bois and New England was not to deny economic and political challenges but to ask “what we can do culturally to vindicate individuals . . . who want to affirm an American belonging that is not colored by others’ racial prescriptions.” That is not turning back the clock; I cite new examples of civic rejuvenation but write that

our purpose here isn’t to examine such models but to challenge the racial mindset that inhibits them. . . . The loss of a common narrative and consensual rites of passage is driving young people to cults, white militias, and ghetto gangs, and yearnings like theirs are running deep and gathering force.

Conservatives now acknowledge tensions between market freedom and civic health. Liberals may hasten cultural dissolution, but it is private investments in free markets that put Calvin Klein-cum-kiddie-porn ads on the sides of public buses—and nonmarket, civic forces that take them off. Moreover, the racial districting that the conservative Supreme Court majority has quite rightly invalidated was actively abetted by other conservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations, while corporate capitalists support inane “diversity training”—so much so that Newt Gingrich & Co. abandoned the Dole-Canaday bill against racial preferences. This is not “the most trustworthy route to the color-blind citizenship” for which I long.

Conservatives who gloss over these problems limit their prospects, enabling me to write in Liberal Racism that “I speak for many other Americans who are uncomfortable around the ideologically . . . encamped.” Why do you stubbornly resist being dragged along the path to acknowledging that most of us loathe ideologically driven movements? Shouldn’t we? Shouldn’t writers whose work is as insightful and nuanced as Christopher Caldwell’s?

Jim Sleeper
New York City



Christopher Caldwell writes:

If I do not hold out much hope for the current civil-society enthusiasm, it is because I agree with Jim Sleeper that “most of us loathe ideologically driven movements.” What disappoints me is how little of the civil-society movement arises from civil society itself. At present, its impetus is being provided by politicians, from President Clinton to William J. Bennett, who recognize the mess government has made of local folkways but cannot think of an agency other than government to fix it. Local associations launched by big-government initiatives wind up being not civic associations but governmental ones.

Mr. Sleeper implies that I turn a blind eye to Reagan/Bush racial gerrymandering and “corporate capitalist” excesses like diversity training. I don’t I oppose both. As for the Promise Keepers, while I am impressed by the message of racial inclusion espoused by Bill McCartney, solving our race problem will be largely a matter of appealing to individual consciences, a task at which modern mass movements have a poor track record.

I do not claim the market has a great record of solving problems of conscience, either—except that in creating prosperity for a larger number of people it leaves us with less to fight about. And that is not nothing. So in this matter, at least, I advocate laissez-faire, even at the risk of sounding “ideologically encamped.”


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